Four days ago, Michael Brown was shot dead by police in the suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Accounts of what happened differ dramatically. The police officer claims that he told Brown and his friend to get off the street and onto the sidewalk. They confronted him, attacked him in his vehicle and tried to take his gun. Brown was shot in the ensuing fracas. Other witnesses, including Brown’s companion (who has yet to be interview by police), claim that the officer initiated the physical confrontation, then shot Brown as he fled. The most explosive allegation, corroborated by several witness, is that the fatal shots were delivered while Brown was standing still with his hands over his head, having already been wounded. Ferguson police do not have dash cams installed so it is unlikely we will get video (which has frequently contradicted officer reports).
Protests began to erupt almost immediately. On Sunday night, some thugs took advantage of the situation to engage in a bit of recreational looting and criminality. Since the beginning, however, Ferguson police have responded to both looting and non-violent protests in full military gear and there are allegations that they’ve blocked the press from entering the scene (including a ban on aircraft flying over the area) and fired tear gas at peaceful protesters in their own backyards. You can view images from the events here. Note that many of these confrontations between protesters and fully armored cops are taking place in broad daylight with no rioting going on.
— Paul Szoldra (@PaulSzoldra) August 12, 2014
The militarized response to the looting and protests is not surprising, as libertarians have been noting for years:
Why armored vehicles in a Midwestern inner suburb? Why would cops wear camouflage gear against a terrain patterned by convenience stores and beauty parlors? Why are the authorities in Ferguson, Mo. so given to quasi-martial crowd control methods (such as bans on walking on the street) and, per the reporting of Riverfront Times, the firing of tear gas at people in their own yards? (“‘This my property!’ he shouted, prompting police to fire a tear gas canister directly at his face.”) Why would someone identifying himself as an 82nd Airborne Army veteran, observing the Ferguson police scene, comment that “We rolled lighter than that in an actual warzone“?
In fact, little of this situation is surprising if you’ve been paying attention. Every week or so, we hear a story of law enforcement violence, from firing flash grenades into cribs in Georgia to using illegal choke holds in New York. Every week seems to bring yet another incident of this violence being excused or ignored by those in authority. Every protest brings out the full riot gear and MRAPs. And every week, we hear about new military hardware given to smaller and smaller towns to deal with … whatever.
Part of this is because we live in the era of social media. Everyone has a camera on them so incidents of police violence are almost immediately documented and disseminated all over the world. But part of it also the increasing militarization of law enforcement. Radley Balko gets into this in detail in his book Rise of the Warrior Cop. Interviews with police chiefs and officers indicate that the use of militarized gear gives cops a warrior mentality that can lead to violence. If we dress our cops up like soldiers, tell them our cities our war zones and the the public is the enemy, we can’t pretend to be surprised when bad things happen. Balko even notes that the use of military gear can provoke violence from protesters. One former chief talks about how he avoided violent protests by keeping his riot police around a corner — out of sight, but ready to be used if it became necessary.
I don’t know what happened in this case. The fact that Brown was killed a ways down to the street makes the officer’s story seem unlikely. Any local investigation would be pointless not only given the “thin blue line” tendency of such investigations to exonerate cops, but the heavy racial tensions that already exist in the area. The FBI has said they will investigate and I think that is entirely appropriate given what has happened.
I do think the people using this as an excuse for criminality and looting are despicable. Not only are they confounding an already difficult case, they are only further antagonizing the cops and their supporters. No matter what has happened — and this could be pretty bad — burning your own house down is never the answer.
I don’t see that this ends well for Ferguson, though. The situation remains tense and the mutual distrust between citizens and police is only going to get worse. Even if this particular situation eventually calms down, the long-term impact is going to be very bad.