A young man was killed in Ferguson, Mo. this Saturday. That much is clear. The following events in Ferguson can only be described as chaos.
Clashes between mostly peaceful protesters and police continued into their fourth night as SWAT teams and St. Louis County police shoot tear gas, rubber bullets, and wooden pellets at organized crowds.
It’s hard to determine (and, frankly, not my place to say) how dangerous these demonstrations are. Some have taken to calling them riots, whereas other reports state unequivocally that all protests are peaceful. There are at least some reports of men trying to light Molotov cocktails at the scene. There are also plenty of other reports of innocent bystanders being injured.
Even so, some actions are inexcusable.
1) Officers, by absolutely no means, should be allowed to obscure their faces. The police officer pictured below should have no incentive to hide his identity. That activity is more reminiscent of armed gangs than an American police force. Officers followed incorrect protocol.
2) Earlier that evening, two journalists, Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of The Huffington Post were arrested for not gathering their bags fast enough after being forced to leave a McDonald’s. After that, Reilly said the officer unnecessarily “slammed his head into the glass.” Officers would not tell either reporter their names. After being illegally detained for some minutes, they were released, without any paperwork. Such actions can very easily be classified as an abuse of power.
Apparently, in America, in 2014, police can manhandle you, take you into custody, put you in cell & then open the door like it didn’t happen
— Wesley Lowery (@WesleyLowery) August 14, 2014
3) Furthermore, after enacting a voluntary curfew after dark and saying protesters would not be apprehended “as long as they’re peaceful and not blocking the roads,” police continued making arrests and dispersing crowds without any explanation. Methods such as noise cannons, tear gas, explosives, and some sort of nonlethal projectiles were employed. (See accompanying video above.) Tear gas in a weapon that’s banned in war. This use of excessive force has yet to be explained.
4) As this happened, reporters were routinely told to turn off their cameras, which is an unjustifiable breach of the first amendment.
While the facts are still not completely established, these four reports of abuse of power and police brutality are sufficient to unnerve even the most conservative law-and-order type. And even so, reporters can only document so much.
Is this how police should be responding to legitimate protests against the killing of an unarmed man?
With the flashy displays of armed force, the police response in Ferguson, Mo. begins to look more like a military intervention than a local order to protect the peace. The presence of sniper rifles are excessive, to the point of being unnecessarily intimidating.
CityLab reports that military equipment began to be parceled out to states and municipalities in the 1990’s to fight the drug war. At least 432 mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles along with 435 other armored vehicles, 533 planes and helicopters, and almost 100,000 machine guns have been distributed to local law enforcement agencies since 2006, according to The New York Times. Federal programs gave states easy access to these tools.
Equipment like this was designed to fight insurgents in foreign countries. When police forces bring in weapons like these the message is clear: You are the enemy, and we have the power.
There’s credible evidence that police abuse couples militaristic intimidation in Ferguson. Unfortunately, these causal dynamics are present in almost every community in America. Racial tensions run high everywhere in a country where 75 percent of the police are white.
Silencing protesters and turning off cameras encroaches on our value of free expression. Free speech and press are central to safeguarding a community from injustice. When this expression is squashed without explanation using excessive force, it’s harder for communities to orient themselves and hold the right people accountable.
With all this disarray, it’s easy to lose sight of why these demonstrations began. I certainly don’t know what happened in the killing of Michael Brown: there are conflicting reports. Numerous bystanders said that the officer shot Brown as he fled with his hands in the air. The policeman claims that Brown tried to reach for his gun. It’s conspicuous how that was the same story George Zimmerman gave in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, even though they were both unarmed young men without any violent history.
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