Like a lot of people, I spent most of last night glued to Twitter as it was flooded by images and first hand accounts of peaceful protesters and journalists gassed with tear gas and targeted by assault rifles. Like a lot of people, I sat with horrified indignation, wondering aloud, “what about all those constitutional amendments? What about the bill of rights?”
For all intents and purposes, the first amendment has been suspended in Ferguson, Missouri. There’s pretty good evidence the otherwise beloved second amendment doesn’t have much of a chance either, but I would advise against anyone testing that hypothesis. Especially if you’re a resident of Ferguson.
What’s going on in Ferguson might seem difficult to comprehend. Unfortunately, it’s not the first instance of urban militarization gone awry recently. It’s part of an ongoing trend of aggressive policing, inequality, and escalation that has grown out of our nation’s bloated military industrial complex combined with a failing drug war and a major drop in violent crime.
During his farewell address, Dwight Eisenhower warned about the growing military industrial complex and it’s potential threat to American democracy and global peace. Anti-war activists have long cited Ike’s speech as prophecy fulfilled, but conventional wisdom in Washington perpetuates the idea that cutting defense spending is political suicide. Now we have a situation in Ferguson where a local police department is equipped with the arsenal of an invading army, and the citizens of Ferguson are the conquered.
There is a direct link, too. The New York Times reported this morning on how the Pentagon dumps excess weapons and tanks onto local police departments, basically because they need to get rid of it.
From the Times:
Congress created the military-transfer program in the early 1990s, when violent crime plagued America’s cities and the police felt outgunned by drug gangs. Today, crime has fallen to its lowest levels in a generation, the wars have wound down, and despite current fears, the number of domestic terrorist attacks has declined sharply from the 1960s and 1970s.
Police departments, though, are adding more firepower and military gear than ever. Some, especially in larger cities, have used federal grant money to buy armored cars and other tactical gear. And the free surplus program remains a favorite of many police chiefs who say they could otherwise not afford such equipment.
It gets more complicated when you consider the effects of the so-called War on Drugs, the mass incarceration of low-level offenders, and glaring disparity between whites and blacks in the justice system. Which brings us back to the original sin of the chaos in Ferguson — a police officer murdered a young man for the crime of walking down the street while being black.
We’ve become so accustomed to inequality that we automatically try to justify the action, even subconsciously. If, maybe, Michael Brown had simply obeyed the officer. If he had been more cautious in a rough neighborhood. If he hadn’t tried to flee, or fight, or whatever it is that police claim he did. Any sort of criticism like this essentially blames Michael Brown for his own murder, completely missing the fact that he was committing no crime in the first place, and the whole incident was born out of unnecessary police aggression. In cities all over America, police stop and arrest black men at a disproportionate frequency compared to, well, anyone else. Not only that, but we currently live in a time of a severe statistical anomaly — poverty has risen, violent crime has fallen, and the number of people in prisons has skyrocketed. These facts have been well-documented and discussed, but it’s a peculiar series of policies that developed into the circumstances where the three don’t exactly add up.
The way this plays out on the streets is that poverty-stricken areas — which typically follow a racial divide in addition to an economic one — are heavily policed by over-equipped officers trained to treat nearly everyone like a threat. Last night the world watched as clueless police officers teargassed and arrested reporters, pointed assault rifles at peaceful protesters, and basically embarrassed themselves and the entire country.
The Ferguson police department have completely disregarded basic civil rights, including the right to protest, the right to the free press, and in Michael Brown’s case, the right to due process and life itself. After the chaos, when they’re finished with their futile grandstanding, there needs to be serious accountability. The so-called keepers of the peace have escalated a grieving community into a warzone, and justice demands an end to their despotic reign.
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Post-Script: I barely even touched on the comical hypocrisy from conservative media outlets, and the general lack of outrage from tea-partiers in general. For a normally cantankerous crowd obsessed with The Constitution, not very many on the right seem too concerned with what’s going on in Ferguson. Of course, Fox News invited the Ferguson police chief on to tell their side of the story. Meanwhile, second amendment advocates still demand their rights to carry assault rifles into Chipotle, and the Bundy Ranch folks still demand their right to rip-off the government with an armed protest. I think it goes without saying that if one single protester in Ferguson dared to brandish a weapon they’d be shot dead on the spot.
Post-post-script: While JJ was editing this post, both Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have issued statements on Ferguson. Paul admits that “given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them,” which is very astute of him to actually recognize the reality of racial divisions, and surprising coming from a guy who once questioned, out loud, the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act. Maybe this is part of the GOP’s move back to innovation, which I gladly welcome, even though his solution might still be more of the same state’s right nonsense.
I still don’t really care what Ted Cruz has to say about anything.