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The False Narrative of Calm in Ferguson

No matter what Chief Johnson says, Tuesday night was not a turning point.

If you believe mainstream media, Ferguson turned a corner Tuesday night. The riots are settling down, and justice in the form of US Attorney General Eric Holder arrived on Wednesday.

“As Tension Eases on Ferguson’s Streets, Focus Turns to Investigation,” reads the New York Times headline.

“No teargas used in relatively calm nighttime protests,” says the Guardian.

“No bullets, no teargas mark ‘turning point’ in Ferguson,” proclaims MSNBC.

These major media outlets, among others, parroted Missouri police captain Ron Johnson’s talking point from his late-night press conference, that an alleged de-escalation of conflict marks a “turning point.”

Peaceful, rationale people—with the aid of law enforcement—are winning out over “the agitators, the criminals,” who are “embedded” in their midst.

Following another shooting of an African-American man on Tuesday by police not far from Ferguson, this assertion is nothing short of Orwellian. It is intended to pacify the citizens of Ferguson and justify the violence inflicted on them.

Relative Calm

There is a new standard for peace on the streets: the absence of teargas, bullets, or flash grenades. But demonstrators have been calm throughout; it’s the police and National Guard who have been violent. By some twisted logic, law enforcement has acted virtuously by not deploying all its weapons of war, just some of them. Thus Ron Johnson congratulates himself, and the press gives a gracious nod of approval.

Never mind that arresting 47 protestors when supposedly only a few of them were criminals and agitators makes no sense.

Never mind that nearly every mainstream media outlet got it wrong when reporting the facts on the ground.

If you have become immune to the sight of armored vehicles and assault weapons, you could call it calm. But many reporters must have packed up and gone home early Tuesday night. Because a little after midnight, the shit hit the fan.

A Single Water Bottle

“In all my life I have never been so terrified,” writes Rosa Clemente.

She relates a harrowing story about how she and several others “were chased like animals by the cops.”

I saw them raising their batons and getting in formation. As I was finishing talking to Trymaine, we saw a water bottle, plastic water bottle being thrown, people kind of looked up, turned back to what they were doing talking etc.…and the next thing police came at us like charging bulls, weapons drawn, screaming, causing mass confusion “leave the area now!” “Don’t move!”

They were pursued, surrounded and ordered to lie down. “We were told if we did not stop moving we would be shot. We complied.”

For most of the evening, hundreds of heavily armed police and National Guard warned demonstrators to stay on the sidewalk, even though the street was blocked off and there was no traffic. “They need to keep moving. If they don’t move, take them to jail,” Missouri State Troopers said.

Chief Johnson alleges that when glass bottles and urine were thrown at law enforcement, they were forced to “take action.”

But many reports from independent journalists contradict Johnson. Some report more than one projectile thrown at police, but it was only a single plastic bottle that set them off. Kevin Gosztola of Firedoglake maintains that about 12:15am, “As far as press could tell, a single water bottle was thrown by a protester.” On his Facebook page, Gosztola says, “A water bottle was tossed or thrown. That’s it.”

He further reports:

Armored personnel carriers and police vehicles with police in riot gear swiftly moved out of the storefront parking lots and onto the street. They parked and then unloaded and formed lines with their rifles drawn. In the lots, police in vests had their rifles out too. That was all it took to send the situation spiraling out of control.

False Arrests

Police arrested Max Suchan, who was wearing the green hat which identified him as a legal observer. The National Lawyer’s Guild says that he was documenting police indiscriminately apprehending and arresting people of color in the “snatch and grab” style characteristically used during civil disobedience protests. When he identified himself as a legal observer to officers, they threw him to the ground.

Police continue to arrest journalists. An officer shoved photographer Coulter Loeb with his baton, asking him, “Do you want to go to jail?” He was thrown to the ground, arrested and held overnight.

Loeb believes that the large number of press negatively influenced the situation. Police were just as unprepared for an influx of media as they were for major protests, he thinks. “A camera can be just as scary as a gun to a cop in my experience. They weren’t prepared for 200 lenses pointed at them.”

Police Are Losing It

The nervousness of police is a bad combination with the armament.

One officer completely lost it, pointing his assault weapon at several people in the crowd and threatening, “I’ll fucking kill you, get back, get back.”

Ryan Devereaux of The Intercept tweeted, “This police unit keeps charging into the nonviolent crowd, terrifying citizens, pointing guns, dragging people away.”

“I had a National Guardsmen put an automatic rifle in my face and ask to see my credentials,” says live streamer James Woods. “I have been to many protests and actions in many places, but the shit I saw last night was insanity of the highest order. Military vehicles in the middle of the road with LRADs and large caliber turrets, choppers flying at 200 feet, beatings, police turning dogs on priests and women.”

A Peaceful Night by Ferguson Standards

Yet even after hundreds of people were terrorized at gunpoint and several falsely arrested, including a legal observer and at least one journalist, Guardian editors saw fit to write the headline, “Night of relative calm in Ferguson ahead of Holder visit.” Reporter Rory Carroll offhandedly wrote a description of events which is disturbingly at odds with reality.

Some trouble broke out: plastic and glass bottles were thrown, including some with urine, according to police. Officers faced off against dozens of chanting youths and occasionally lunged into the crowd to seize individuals, spraying some with pepper gas. They herded the rest of the crowd down Florissant avenue, which has been the protest epicentre. There was jostling, pushing and several more arrests until 1am when the crowd gradually dispersed. There were no gunshots, Molotov cocktails or tear-gas – a peaceful night by Ferguson standards.

You’re Calm Because We Say You’re Calm

Authorities have adopted “Ferguson standards” of law and order, which is on a sliding scale. They’ve rolled out military equipment and weapons so deadly and frightening that not using some of them one night seems comparatively peaceful.

The media have normalized the militarized police by adopting the “Ferguson standard”: no teargas and no bullets is not bad! They seem as eager as authorities to restore “calm” by repeating the message that things are calm.

But no matter what Chief Johnson says, Tuesday night was not a turning point. Ferguson continues on the same trajectory, as does the rest of the country. To maintain the peace, those in charge point their high-powered weapons at their enemy, and their enemy is us. There is no reason to remain calm about that.

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