As the unrest in Ferguson, MO, grinds on, with everyone from the Revolutionary Communist Party to the Klan, to common racist fools like Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher weighing in (permanent has-been/never-was Mr. “Plumber” wants to hold a jobs fair in Ferguson to make the protester “cockroaches” scatter; dog-whistles can be found in a bowl by the door), now is an opportune moment to step back and take stock.
Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot six times by local police officer Darren Wilson. Eyewitness reports say Brown was running away and attempting to surrender after an altercation with Wilson, who ordered Brown and his friend to stop walking in the street. The police say Wilson was attacked by Brown and shot to defend himself. No one has heard from Darren Wilson himself, because he packed up his family and fled Ferguson immediately after the shooting. He is currently nowhere to be found.
The Ferguson police said Brown was the suspect in the robbery of some cigars at a store, and released a grainy security video to prove it. Then they said Officer Wilson did not know Brown was a suspect. Then they said he did know. Then they said, for reasons passing understanding, that Brown had marijuana in his system. Then it came to light that Brown, in fact, paid for his cigars. Meanwhile, with every story switch by the police, the protesters in the street got hotter and angrier and louder. The arrests began, sweeping up journalists along with protesters, along with local citizens just trying to go about their business…
…and that’s when this country, and the world, finally got a long, hard look at what a hyper-weaponized military-style United States police force looks like in action. The process of selling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of surplus military hardware from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to local police forces has been ongoing for some time now, and with it has come a dramatic spike in police violence against citizens. Ferguson, however, was the first time this country has really seen it in all its armored and intimidating glory since the Occupy protests…but that was in New York City, and those protesters were dangerous radicals, or something.
Ferguson, on the other hand, is Everytown USA, maybe your town, maybe mine. People started wondering if their cops had MRAPs parked somewhere out of sight, sniper rifles and tear gas cannons and sonic rifles stacked and waiting for use. The Ferguson police became national poster children for police excess, and questions finally began to be asked about the wisdom of turning police officers into solders. If you have this stuff, went the thinking, you’re going to want to use it. And they did. And they do.
Military veterans of every stripe stood aghast at what they were seeing, as this Washington Post report describes: “For veterans of the wars that the Ferguson protests so closely resemble, the police response has appeared to be not only heavy-handed but out of step with the most effective ways for both law enforcement and military personnel to respond to demonstrations. ‘You see the police are standing online with bulletproof vests and rifles pointed at peoples chests,’ said Jason Fritz, a former Army officer and an international policing operations analyst. ‘That’s not controlling the crowd, that’s intimidating them.'”
The exposure of police intimidation tactics in Ferguson reached its peak when video was released of Lt. Ray Albers, a 20-year veteran of the St. Ann’s Police Department, leveling his tactical weapon at protesters and screaming, “I will fucking kill you!” When someone in the crowd he was threatening asked his name, he replied, “Go fuck yourself.” After a complaint was filed by the ACLU, Albers was placed on indefinite suspension…but not before his police chief claimed that Albers acted as he did because people were throwing bottles of urine, and that he saw a gun in the crowd. None of this has been subsequently confirmed.
The Ferguson police, along with other local police forces in that area, have a long and ugly history of interacting poorly with the citizenry, and especially with the black community. Case in point: A woman in Ferguson was shot in the head while walking home from a rally. She miraculously survived, but the police only conducted a cursory interview with her. No report of the incident was filed, and the bullet doctors pulled from her head has disappeared into the possession of the Ferguson police. Post-incident spin tried to fob the incident off as a mere drive-by (?!), but journalist Charles P. Pierce makes the point: If it was a drive-by, wouldn’t the police be all over it as proof that they need such fearsome weaponry to defend themselves and the community? Someone shot her, and the police don’t care, and the bullet is gone. Such brazen negligence leads to questions about where that bullet actually came from, and if the local police are, perhaps, protecting one of their own.
Ferguson may have become the avatar for over-armed police behaving badly, but they are far from alone. Local police departments all over the country, swathed in the armor and weaponry of soldiers, are battering down doors and using SWAT tactics to deliver warrants to non-violent offenders, with predictably lethal results. Now that Ferguson has finally brought national attention, along with national reconsideration, of this phenomenon, it is time to ask why we arrived here in the first place.
National and institutional paranoia after 9/11? Certainly. Arms dealers looking to profit from the sale of leftover weapons from Iraq and Afghanistan? Sadly. Racism in the hearts of some officers? Undoubtedly. Poor training? Clearly. The preponderance of a terrifying authoritarian attitude toward citizens? You tell me.
There are, however, two more pieces to the puzzle. If you take an ordinary police officer, slap him in armor and camouflage gear, place highly lethal weapons in his hands, and then tell him his life is in mortal peril from the citizenry he is sworn to protect, even as he is practically invincible in his gear, his adrenaline will explode, and you wind up with guys like Ray Albers. Should police officers be protected? Undeniably. Does turning them into super-soldiers go too far? The evidence speaks for itself. As BuzzFlash columnist Akira Watts sagely noted in a recent commentary, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
Finally, the elephant in the room: there are some 330 million guns loose in the United States, more guns than citizens, and every police officer knows this. They are trained to know this, trained to worry about it, and fear it. The hyper-militarization of police forces in the United States is directly proportional to the vast number of guns in the hands of citizens.
In a significant way – thanks to those who advocate for it, those who tolerate it, and those who have given up trying to fix it – the creation and expansion of our gun culture has made this happen. If I were a cop in a squad room, and was told that every person I see might have at least one gun on them, and the math bore that out, which it does, I’d want to go out on patrol dressed like an Abrams tank, as well.
So much to fix, and meanwhile, Michael Brown is dead. There must be answers, there must be justice, and there must be change.