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Military Folly in Ferguson: Bringing the War to Suburbia

With the death of Michael Brown and the nation’s attention on Ferguson, much of the focus has been on the militarized police.

If 2012 was the year of Trayvon Martin (February 5, 1995–February 26, 1012), this year has been dominated by the police shooting of another unarmed black kid, Michael Brown, 18, on August 9. As reporting by Mother Jones demonstrated, which shocking death of a minority takes over the news may be luck of the draw, since the Brown homicide competed with:

Eric Garner, 43, was suffocated on a New York City sidewalk for selling untaxed cigarettes while black on July 17.

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John Crawford, 22, was shot dead in Beavercreek, Ohio for walking through a Wal-Mart with a BB gun that he’d picked up from a store shelf on August 5.

Ezell Ford, 25, was shot dead while unarmed and outnumbered during an “investigative stop,” apparently for being black in a no-black zone of Los Angeles on August 11.

Dante Parker, 36, was stopped because he was riding a bicycle while black in Victorville, California soon after a robbery suspect was reported to be riding a bicycle. In the scuffle that ensued, Parker was tased repeatedly and taken to a hospital, where he died on August 12.

Indians have experienced this kind of law enforcement in border towns for many years, and know you can get stopped for walking or driving or eating or conversing loudly while Indian, and any objection to being singled out is answered by a use of force without proportion or consequences.

Michael Brown gets to be the poster boy this year because there were several witnesses to the shooting in broad daylight, and the Ferguson police have been hiding information that is normally public, starting with the identity of the officer involved in the shooting, now known to be Darren Wilson, 28, a six-year police veteran with no apparent disciplinary history. According to police, the offense that brought Brown to the attention of Officer Wilson was jaywalking.

In spite of demands from Brown’s family and the media and in spite of Missouri sunshine laws, Officer Wilson’s report remains in police hands, as does the official autopsy of Michael Brown. The autopsy commissioned by the family was released on August 18; it shows that he was shot six times, including two bullets to the head. All the shots were from the front and apparently at some distance because there was no gunpowder residue or stippling. The family’s pathologist had no access to Brown’s clothing, so it was not tested for gunpowder residue, which ought to be present if the first shot was fired from within the patrol car while Brown was leaning into it, as the town’s police chief asserted in a press conference.

As the official silence got louder, and more disturbing details—true and rumored—spread through the community, tensions escalated. It’s true that the police left Brown’s body where it fell for several hours, and rumors flew that no attempt was made to render medical aid, and much of the aftermath of the killing was tweeted live by nearby residents.

The first two nights after the shooting, there were vigils and the scattering of rose petals at the scene. At 9 p.m. on August 10, the first vandalism and looting was reported. Vandalism continued in the evening hours of the 11th and 12th. In daylight hours, numerous demands for information were met with silence, and protesters were ordered away from the Ferguson police station.

On August 13, the police turned out with overwhelming military force. A police sniper aimed his rifle from atop an armored vehicle at peaceful and unarmed – but loud – protestors. After the sun went down, the police attacked the crowd with flash-bang and tear gas grenades, rubber bullets and baton charges.

A nearby McDonald’s had become an informal headquarters for the news media, where reporters could recharge cell phones and cameras, send stories with the free wi-fi, and get coffee and food. The police ordered the manager to close the restaurant, and two reporters, Ryan Reilly of The Huffington Post and Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post, were manhandled and arrested for failing to leave quickly enough. Both were later released without charges and without learning the identities of the officers who had attacked them.


Church and Army APCs at 1973 Wounded Knee Incident, South Dakota.

Police were also videotaped firing a tear gas grenade at an Al Jazeera America camera crew and, when the reporters retreated, turning off lights and pointing cameras at the ground. Other reporters told of being ordered to leave the area or to quit filming, and the St. Louis County police requested that the Federal Aviation Administration establish a no-fly zone below 3,000 feet over Ferguson. The FAA complied, effectively grounding media helicopters because police helicopters claimed to have taken gunfire from the ground.

The media, from Al Jazeera America to Fox News, appeared to agree that the violence in Ferguson on the night of August 13 was a police riot. That coverage might or might not have been influenced by the number of reporters ordered to turn off cameras and to leave, let alone roughed up and detained, but it was echoed among elected officials, leading Republican MSNBC commentator Joe Scarborough to note that when Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) are against you, you are in trouble. There was a rising chorus of criticism of the “militarization” of the police with automatic weapons and Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs).

The Army has, since beginning to withdraw from Afghanistan, given some MRAPs to local law enforcement agencies, including the Cherokee Nation Marshal Service. The Cherokee Nation is far from alone in acquiring military hardware for domestic law enforcement.

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NBC News reported that the Department of Homeland Security has spent $286,000 to get Keene, New Hampshire an armored Bearcat anti-terrorism vehicle to protect the annual Pumpkin Festival. Homeland Security also funded a Ballistic Armored Tactical Transport (BATT) for the Bossier Parish, Louisiana Sheriff, in case of an invasion by terrorists.

The trademark of the demonstrations in Ferguson, the chant in the streets, is taken from the last moments of Michael Brown. According to witnesses, Brown was shot while he had his hands up, and those demanding an accounting do the same by throwing their arms in the air and chanting, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” The juxtaposition of citizens with their hands up high confronted by police in combat gear, helmets and flak jackets did not play well on television, and the demonstrations have spread to several other cities.

After the local police ran wild in the streets on August 13, giving even some of the most innocent citizens a good snort of tear gas, the task of keeping order was turned over to Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, who lives in the neighborhood. Johnson immediately dialed back the official response from military confrontation to the dominant paradigm during my career as a criminal justice professor, “community-oriented policing.”

The new tactics involved deploying officers in their normal police uniforms with normal side arms to walk through the neighborhoods and listen to complaints and protecting the right to demonstrate as well as suppressing violence. The short-term result was a love-in between citizens and state police during the day and a night that saw only one teargas canister used.

The relative quiet lasted only one night. Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, without notifying other agencies, blew up the calm by releasing an offense report. It was not the offense report of the Brown shooting, but rather an offense report from earlier that same day, involving the shoplifting of some cigars from a nearby convenience store. The shoplifter shoved the store manager who blocked his escape, and that turned the crime into a strong-arm robbery. A video released at the same time showed the shoplifter/robber to be Michael Brown.

Chief Jackson acknowledged at the press conference that the officer who shot Brown had not known about the robbery. Asked why the report and video were released, he cited the sunshine laws, the same laws his department was ignoring with regard to releasing information on the shooting of Brown. The community took this as an attempt to smear the dead young man, and violence roared back that night.

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a curfew, which the protesters ignored. August 18, Gov. Nixon deployed the Missouri National Guard, apparently passing security from militarized police to real soldiers. In practice, the arrival of the weekend warriors did not appear as dire a sign as it might have been. The Guard formed a perimeter around the law enforcement command center, which had been attacked the night before. The soldiers also remained under the command of Captain Johnson, who appears to retain the respect and affection of most protesters.

Local law enforcement continued the campaign to smear Michael Brown when “a source familiar with the official autopsy” leaked that Brown “had marijuana in his system.” The leak was not confirmed. An anonymous caller to KFTK, who identified herself only as “Josie,” said that Brown was running toward Officer Wilson “full speed” when Wilson shot him. CNN reported that “Josie’s” account was corroborated by “a source with detailed knowledge of the investigation” as presenting Wilson’s version of the events.

The most important fact in “Josie’s” account, if it turns out to be a fact, is her claim that Officer Wilson knew about the shoplifting/robbery and was investigating it at the time he stopped Michael Brown. If that turns out to be the case, it completely reframes an encounter over jaywalking and bespeaks a breathtaking degree of incompetence in the Ferguson Police Department, since it has claimed repeatedly that jaywalking was the reason for the stop.

The upshot of that change in the narrative would be that the Ferguson Police Department set off outrage largely fueled by secrecy, when that secrecy was hiding a narrative more favorable to the police than the one the police have been claiming. While we wait to find out if “Josie” is correct about what is in Officer Wilson’s report (and is corroborated by radio traffic), arrests of people protesting the secrecy and lack of action continue apace.

Arrests during the daylight hours of August 18 included Hedy Epstein, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor, for “failing to disperse” and Getty Images photographer Scott Olson, for practicing journalism outside of the authorized area. The Nation quoted Epstein, “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was ninety. We need to stand up today so people won’t have to do this when they’re ninety.”

Whether because of a rainy evening or because of the new techniques adopted by the police, the streets of Ferguson remained peaceful but crowded late into the evening.

At about 10 p.m., the people quit circulating and the police ordered them to disperse. A tense standoff ensued for about an hour. Some demonstrators who were backing away from the police lines paused to heave rocks at Chris Hayes and his MSNBC camera crew, who were on the air live at the time.

A few minutes after 11, the police moved in with tear gas, flash-bang grenades, and long-range acoustic devices (LRADs), also known as sonic cannons. Once more, on the streets of Ferguson, the public conversation had degenerated into shrieks and the “hands up” gesture had morphed into flipping the bird with both hands. Chaos, once more, ruled the night.

The shooting of Trayvon Martin opened a national conversation on “stand your ground” laws and racial bias. The shooting of Michael Brown seems to have stimulated a conversation about the militarization of police and the wisdom of equipping them with castoff military hardware.

Reservation Indians have been subjected to militarized law enforcement since the ’70s, when the American Indian Movement took up armed protest. Deployment of armored vehicles and automatic weapons to suppress AIM caused no general public policy debate. If it had, the trend to deploy military weapons might have been curtailed long ago, to everyone’s benefit.

If the mission of the police is to protect and to serve, and the mission of the military is to kill the enemy and break his stuff, which outfit would you want answering your 911 call?

Another crucial question: Should the answer differ depending on whether you live in Grosse Pointe or Detroit, St. Louis or Ferguson? Pinehurst or Pine Ridge?