After Ferguson, It’s Clear Cops Need Policing

Dan Staggs August 20, 2014

SWAT officers in Ferguson on August 17, 2014. (Loavesofbread / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons)

On Sat­ur­day, August 9, a Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri police offi­cer named Dar­ren Wil­son killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenag­er, two days before he was set to begin col­lege. The police claim that Brown reached for the offi­cer’s gun after a ver­bal alter­ca­tion, and then fled, at which point the offi­cer engaged in lethal force against the unarmed boy. The police autop­sy is not yet avail­able to the gen­er­al pub­lic, but an inde­pen­dent autop­sy released on August 18 showed a pat­tern of bul­let wounds that some activists view as sup­port for Brown’s hands being up in a sur­ren­der posi­tion. U.S. Attor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er then ordered a third autop­sy as a part of a fed­er­al inves­ti­ga­tion.After Fer­gu­son res­i­dents assem­bled for a can­dle­light vig­il on Sun­day, a heavy police pres­ence pro­voked riot­ing and destruc­tion of prop­er­ty among some of the large­ly non-vio­lent pro­test­ers. The protests con­tin­ued night­ly, as did police antag­o­nism, reach­ing anoth­er apex on Wednes­day the 13, when riot police ille­gal­ly ordered peace­ful pro­test­ers and media alike to turn off their cam­eras and dis­perse, before descend­ing on them with tear gas and rub­ber bul­lets.After sev­er­al days with­out com­ment beyond a mil­que­toast let­ter offer­ing deep­est con­do­lences to [Brown’s] fam­i­ly and his com­mu­ni­ty” and promis­es of an inves­ti­ga­tion, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma final­ly spoke on Thurs­day. 
Oba­ma began the speech with an expla­na­tion of the sit­u­a­tion in Iraq, say­ing, “Last week I autho­rized two lim­it­ed mis­sions: pro­tect­ing our peo­ple and facil­i­ties inside of Iraq, and a human­i­tar­i­an oper­a­tion to help save thou­sands of Iraqi civil­ians strand­ed on a moun­tain.”After the Iraq update, the dis­cus­sion about the events in Fer­gu­son felt tacked on hap­haz­ard­ly, as audi­ences were remind­ed that now’s the time for all of us to reflect on what’s hap­pened and to find a way to come togeth­er going for­ward.”While Oba­ma did man­age to declare that “it’s impor­tant to remem­ber how this start­ed. We lost a young man, Michael Brown, in heart­break­ing and trag­ic cir­cum­stances”, he nev­er hint­ed at what those cir­cum­stances were—that an unarmed teenag­er was shot six times by a police offi­cer. He also reit­er­at­ed that here in the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca, police should not be bul­ly­ing or arrest­ing jour­nal­ists who are just try­ing to do their jobs and report to the Amer­i­can peo­ple on what they see on the ground”, for­get­ting about his admin­is­tra­tion’s his­to­ry with James Risen or any num­ber of whis­tle-blow­ers, includ­ing Edward Snow­den. He went on to admon­ish loot­ers who would use a protest as cov­er for crime.It’s good that Oba­ma made men­tion of police dis­rup­tion of press free­doms. In addi­tion to the back­lash against order­ing media out­lets away from the scene, St. Louis Coun­ty Police are under scruti­ny after riot police used tear gas on an Al Jazeera Amer­i­ca cam­era crew and dis­as­sem­bled their equip­ment, arrest­ed two jour­nal­ists at a McDon­ald’s for pho­tograph­ing uni­formed police offi­cers and detained a local alder­man who had been pro­vid­ing cit­i­zen jour­nal­ism on social media.But beyond say­ing there’s also no excuse for police to use exces­sive force against peace­ful protests”, Oba­ma made no men­tion of the spe­cif­ic police attacks: rub­ber bul­lets, gas and LRAD sound devices, as depict­ed in count­less cov­er­age over social media. Con­trast that, if you will, to Oba­ma’s explic­it con­dem­na­tions of the cir­cum­stances around Trayvon Mar­t­in’s death in Stan­ford, Flori­da in 2012, where­in a pri­vate cit­i­zen who fan­cied him­self a com­mu­ni­ty watch mem­ber killed a black teenag­er with­out provo­ca­tion. There is a Blue Wall of Silence sep­a­rat­ing the tone of the respons­es.And as the swell of unrest around Fer­gu­son con­tin­ues, both in vir­tu­al and phys­i­cal spaces, much of the pub­lic is demand­ing more real action from our elect­ed lead­ers. A recent peti­tion on White​House​.gov, for exam­ple, demands that all police offi­cers be legal­ly required to wear cameras—and because the site guar­an­tees the administration’s response to any action with more than 100,000 sig­na­tures, Oba­ma must offer at least some response to the pro­posed “Mike Brown Law.”Such a pol­i­cy has prece­dent. It’s been float­ed in a few stray depart­ments through­out the coun­try, often with pos­i­tive effect. For exam­ple, in a lim­it­ed 2012 study in Rial­to, Cal­i­for­nia, the depart­ment over­all had an 88 per­cent decline in the num­ber of com­plaints filed against offi­cers, com­pared with the 12 months before the study.” Pub­li­ca­tions as dis­parate as Busi­ness­week and The Atlantic have weighed in favor of such rules. A 2013 study by the ACLU con­clud­ed, Although fit­ting police forces with cam­eras will gen­er­ate an enor­mous amount of video footage and rais­es many tricky issues … those cam­eras will pro­vide an impor­tant pro­tec­tion against police abuse.”While it remains to be seen if Oba­ma or oth­er offi­cials are inter­est­ed in doing any­thing sub­stan­tial to alter the dif­fer­ent ways we police whites and blacks, per­haps we can build a move­ment to turn the cam­era into a spot­light on police behavior—at least as a start­ing point toward enact­ing real, struc­tur­al change.
Dan Stag­gs is an intern at In These Times.
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