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A week ago, most likely you'd never heard of Ferguson, Missouri. Now, you're probably sick of hearing about the aftermath of policeman Darren Wilson's killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown -- events that made Ferguson the center of the media world.
You may believe that Brown was an innocent, unarmed kid headed for college or that he was the formidably vicious strong-arm robber shown in surveillance videos. You may believe Brown was on his knees, arms raised in surrender and supplication when Wilson executed him. You may believe that Wilson fired in self defense as Brown lunged for the officer's gun. You may believe the shooting was an act of fatal racism or the justified elimination of a garden-variety criminal whose race was irrelevant.
Only one thing is certain and now obvious to nearly everybody now: Policing in the U.S. has gone completely wrong.
Small-town occupying armies
Ferguson and St. Louis County police teamed up to turn a tense aftermath into a disaster. They tear-gassed and shot rubber bullets at non-violent protestors. They arrested reporters for the non-crime of taking video. They strong-armed innocent people more thuggishly than the robber of that Ferguson convenience store ever did. They acted in ways George Orwell warned about, informing protestors that "Your right to assembly is not being denied" -- even as they denied it. They incited rage by witholding the shooter's name for nearly a week -- something they would never have done had he not been a cop.
About the latter business, Kevin D. Williamson wrote:
But the far bigger (and related) problem was the one nearly everybody else in the media finally noticed after two decades of trying to ignore it: the extreme militarization of even small-town police departments and the attitude that the general public is the enemy.
Small Missouri police forces -- who reportedly "couldn't afford" cameras on their uniforms and couldn't get around to installing dashcams on their patrol cars so we could see what actually happened on that fatal Saturday night -- confronted peaceful protestors from atop military vehicles, outfitted in gear familiar from Iraq and Afghanistan. They threatened harmless people with the type of weapons that would give Dianne Feinstein knots in her knickers if you or I owned them. They acted not like officers trying to protect and serve their community, but like an occupying army facing its enemy.
Well, cops in many places have behaved like this. Some big cities have long been notorious for it. But that all this was happening in a minor suburb made people sit up and take notice. Williamson called them, "ridiculously militarized suburban police dressed up like characters from Starship Troopers and pointing rifles at people from atop armored vehicles, i.e. the worst sort of mall ninjas."
As that agonizing week of stonewalling and defiance passed, tensions only rose. Finally, the Missouri governor did the smart thing and called more competent law enforcers in to end the standoff. That the new enforcers were led by a black man from the area certainly helped (Ferguson is largely a black community, though hardly the "ghetto" the media portrays). But that this man and his officers skipped the military gear and the tactics of alien occupiers and actually went into the protesting crowds to talk and work with people made all the difference. (Well, until officials released new information on the shooting. At that point tempers flared again. A handful of looters attacked a store, and when police failed to "protect and serve," peaceful protestors stepped in to halt the aggressors. Meanwhile, armed business people continued to protect lives and livelihoods.)
Such a belated eye opening!
But the real shock here is -- why is everyone so shocked?
The conversion of U.S. police departments into military forces has been going on at least since the early Clinton years. "Militarization of Mayberry" articles, based on the work of researcher Peter Kraska and associates were published by many major media outlets in 1997.
The Cato Institute published a map of botched SWAT raids in 2006, and Radley Balko has been covering police militarization, first on his blog, then in the Huffington Post, and eventually in the Washington Post for many years. His two books on the subject have warned us again and again and again about what's happening.
The stories of SWAT victims like Anthony Diotaiuto (2005), Kathryn Johnston (2006), Sal Culosi (2006), Tarika Wilson (2008), Eurie Stamps (2011), Jose Guerena (2011), and Eugene Mallory (2013) have chilled the blood of people of conscience for years.
SWAT teams and violent military tactics have been used against people suspected of such non-violent crimes as marijuana possession, credit card fraud, and raw milk sales -- and used against their family members, including their babies and their pets.
Police intimidation of photographers has become so widespread that there's a blog that deals with nothing else.
Increasingly, police kill harmless people over petty acts. Handcuffed men are shot, strangled, kicked or crushed to death. Families who call the police to get help for mentally ill relatives often live to regret asking for help.
All of this is the result of police being conditioned to see the rest of us as their enemies. It's getting worse and worse. The callousness sometimes amounts to nothing less than deliberate murder of "proles."
Watching the occupying armies of Ferguson, even the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, one of the many long-time members of the "only cops and soldiers should have guns" faction, appeared to wake up, vaguely and reluctantly. They admitted that Ferguson police had breached rules of civilized conduct and noted, "the government's "monopoly on force" must be subject to civilian control."
Credit: Reuters/Philip Andrews
"Yet millions (including the still-sleepy CSGV) remain willing to believe that these horrors are the result of "a few bad apples" (forgetting that the operative phrase is "one bad apple spoils the whole barrel"). People believe that people killed in SWAT raids must have "asked for it." They watch their local police parading Bearcats and other military equipment down the street on the Fourth of July -- and never imagine that those items are for use against them.
The ignorance of the unaware is one thing (though how anyone can remain unaware of what's been going on these last two decades is a question in itself). But some who profess to be shocked or horrified only now reek of hypocrisy.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued a tsk-tsking statement about the behavior of cops on the streets of Ferguson. Yet surely Holder knows and has known for years that places like Ferguson get their military equipment and their public-is-the-enemy mindset from the federal government. The Pentagon pushes billions of dollars of surplus equipment on local law enforcement, often giving it away free. Homeland Security encourages and funds militarization. Holder's own FBI trains local police to look for "terrorists" threats where none exist. Heck, even the FAA gets in the act. During the confrontations in Ferguson, they decreed a no-fly zone in the area "to provide a safe environment for law enforcement activities."
Seriously? The federal government arms local cops (including arming them with drones, BTW). Then it worries that protestors and journalists might attack these overly armed Barney Fifes from the air?
Even now, reverence for police as some sort of superior class -- a class composed of 100% "heroes" -- still remains common. So common that legislators nearly always give police exemptions from gun laws that constrain the rest of us. So common that even a passionately freedom-loving maker of a new type of "smart gun" wants to sell one type of product to police, and another altogether to the rest of us. (As Kurt Hofmann notes, if the batteries fail on the "civilian" version of the Kodiak "Intelligun," the weapon locks up and leaves its holder helpless -- unless he can find and quickly use a special key. If the batteries fail on the police version, the gun unlocks and allows the holder to shoot at will -- even if his intention is to murder some innocent.)
Well, after all the ugly images broadcast, tweeted, and printed from Ferguson, more eyes are finally open about what's really going on with police in this country.
We can only hope those eyes stay open now, and that they don't get distracted by the next bit of celebrity news or the next sports story that comes along. Otherwise, the police state we're already living in will soon be much worse.
Claire Wolfe hit the Internet back in 1996 with 101 Things to do 'Til the Revolution, which was followed by several other books. She came to the attention of JPFO's founder, Aaron Zelman, and became one of his main writing partners for seven years. Together they authored The State vs the People and the young-adult novel RebelFire: Out of the Gray Zone. She is the author of The Freedom Outlaw's Handbook (successor to 101 Things), writes a monthly column in S.W.A.T. magazine and blogs regularly at Backwoods Home. The Claire Wolfe Archive