As the story in Ferguson continues to evolve, one thing has become clear to me… Now is the time to move against the increasingly militarization of America’s local police forces. The public awareness has never been higher, and, for the first time, I feel like momentum is on our side.
Before we get into that, though, quite a bit has happened in Ferguson, Missouri since we last discussed the killing of Michael Brown. Not only do we now know the name of the officer who shot and killed the unarmed 18 year old, but we also have an increasing number of firsthand eyewitness accounts of the shooting. And, as of this morning, we have an autopsy report, which says that Brown was shot at least six times from the front, with the last shot entering through the top of his head, likely as he fell forward, toward the officer who was shooting at him.
We also know from preliminary autopsy reports that Brown had marijuana in his system. In and of itself, that may not mean much, but, taken together with the fact that surveillance camera footage has surfaced which appears to show Brown stealing cigars from a convenience store and roughing up one of the store’s employees just prior to his altercation with police, I think it’s safe to say that there’s a growing acceptance of the fact that he wasn’t just a good kid walking to his grandmother’s house a few days before heading off to college, as we’d originally been led to believe. This isn’t, of course, to say that he should have been shot down. It merely adds a level of complexity to the story, which didn’t exist late last week, when the people of Ferguson began to rise up, only to be beaten back down by a police department equipped for war.
As it stands, at least from my perspective, it would appear that the officer in question, Darren Wilson, likely acted out of anger, chasing Brown, and shooting at him, in spite of the fact that he was not in any immediate danger. (According to witnesses, Brown was fleeing the scene when the officer, who had been fighting with him through the window of his squad car, exited his vehicle and continued shooting, causing Brown to turn around, at which point he was shot several more times in the head and neck. (The shots to his arm, which can be seen in the medical examiner’s drawing below, were likely received as the two men fought through the window of the car.)) Of course, as of right now, no one really knows what happened. Hopefully, however, the investigation will be both thorough and transparent, and we’ll soon have a better sense of what took place that afternoon, and why. In the meantime, there are a few things that we know right now to be true.
We know that a young, unarmed, black man has died at the hands of a white cop in a city that, despite being 67% black, only has three black police officers on a force of 53… a city in which 47% of young black men between the ages of 16 and 24 are unemployed. Furthermore, we know that the police of Ferguson, Missouri have been known to abuse black men in the past. And we know, since the shooting, that Ferguson’s police force has been hostile to outside observers, first keeping news helicopters from areas of citizen protest, and later going so far as to arrest reporters without cause and fire tear gas at news crews. Oh, and there are also the stories of the police threatening violence against reporters and denying access to reporters of color. And it’s all of these things, in my opinion, that are keeping the grass roots movement in Ferguson going. It’s not just about a young, unarmed black man being shot anymore. It’s about the growing income inequality in in this country, the growing disenfranchisement of the urban poor, the rise of the American police state, and any number of other things. Brown’s death may have been the spark, but it’s not what keeps the fire burning. If this were just about Brown’s death, I doubt we’d be reading today about how Amnesty International, for the first time in their history, made the decision to deploy trained observers within our country. This could well be the start of our Arab Spring, and the folks in power know it. And that, I suspect, is why the National Guard was called to Ferguson today.
Here, with more on the broader context of the uprising in Ferguson, is a clip from the New Yorker.
…The conversation here has shifted from the immediate reaction to Michael Brown’s death and toward the underlying social dynamics. Two men I spoke with pointed to the disparity in education funding for Ferguson and more affluent municipalities nearby. Another talked about being pulled over by an officer who claimed to smell marijuana in the car as a pretense for searching him. “I’m in the United States Navy,” he told me. “We have to take drug tests in the military so I had proof that there were no drugs in my system. But other people can’t do that.” Six black men I spoke to, nearly consecutively, pointed to Missouri’s felon-disfranchisement laws as part of the equation. “If you’re a student in one of the black schools here and you get into a fight you’ll probably get arrested and charged with assault. We have kids here who are barred from voting before they’re even old enough to register,” one said. Ferguson’s elected officials did not look much different than they had years earlier, when it was a largely white community.
…More than one person in the streets of Ferguson has compared what is happening here to the chaotic days of the Birmingham desegregation campaign in 1963. And, like that struggle, the local authorities, long immune to public sentiment, were incapable of understanding how their actions reverberated outside the hermetic world where they held sway—how they looked to the world. That incomprehension was the biggest asset the protesters in Birmingham had. Michael Brown was left lying in the street for hours while a traumatized community stood behind police tape in frustration, grief, and shock: an immobile metaphor for everything that was wrong in Ferguson, Missouri…
Everything came together in Ferguson. To use a much overused analogy, it was the perfect storm. When you have an increasingly poor and desperate community under the authority of an increasingly militarized police force, it’s only a matter of time before there’s a clash. And, given the shifting demographics of America, it’s something we’re likely to see more and more of in this country. Fortunately, there are a few things we can do to make that less likely in the future. First, we can ensure that working people make a living wage. Second, we can roll back the tax breaks on the wealthy so that we can once again make education a national priority. Third, we can enact laws that incentivize companies to stay in the United States and create jobs here. And, fourth, we can stop our local police forces from becoming quasi military units. And, here, with more on that last point, is a clip from Vanity Fair.
…As protesters around the country march in solidarity with the people of Ferguson, Missouri, politicians and the media are suddenly railing against the long-developing militarization of the American police force. But a revealing vote this past June shows just how uphill the battle is to stop the trend of turning police into soldiers. On June 19, progressive House Democrat Alan Grayson (FL) offered an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would block the “transfer” of “aircraft (including unmanned aerial vehicles), armored vehicles, grenade launchers, silencers, toxicological agents, launch vehicles, guided missiles, ballistic missiles” from the Department of Defense to state and local police forces.
The amendment attracted the support of only 62 members, while 355 voted against it (14 didn’t vote). Included among those voting against it was Rep. William Lacy Clay (D), who represents Ferguson. Clay was joined by every senior member of the Democratic Party leadership team, including Reps. Nancy Pelosi (CA), Steny Hoyer (MD), and Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn (SC). Democrats did form the bulk of support for the amendment (with 43 votes in favor), with 19 Republicans supporting as well—led by libertarian-conservative Rep. Justin Amash (MI), who lamented that “military-grade equipment . . . shouldn’t be used on the street by state and local police” on his Facebook page…
Biden was the author of the 1994 crime bill, which vastly increased the numbers of police on the streets, eliminated Pell grant access for prisoners, expanded the death penalty, and increased Border Patrol presence. This criminalization and militarization of Americans’ public-safety concerns has continued under President Obama. As Radley Balko writes, the Obama administration has increased the budget for Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and Byrne grants, both of which finance local police departments in their efforts to wage heavy-handed drug and crime war operations.
All of this provides a windfall for both security and arms companies and police departments, who are often enormous spenders against reforms that would curtail the militarization of public safety. Hoyer is one of the two members who have received thousands of dollars from the National Fraternal Order of Police (F.O.P.) in this campaign cycle. As tensions continued to mount in Ferguson, F.O.P.’s executive director Jim Pasco defended the militarization of police officers. “All police are doing is taking advantage of the advances of technology in terms of surveillance, in terms of communication and in terms of protective equipment that are available to criminals on the street,” Pasco told The Hill on Thursday…
Fortunately, we may have another chance to do the right thing. Representative Hank Johnson (D-GA) is presently drafting a bill that would limit the transfer of military goods to America’s police forces. Here’s a clip from the Associated Press.
…Johnson said city streets should be a place for businesses and families, “not tanks and M16s.” He said a Pentagon program that transfers surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement has led to police agencies resembling paramilitary forces.
“Militarizing America’s main streets won’t make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent,” Johnson said. He said his bill would limit the type of military equipment that can be transferred to law enforcement, and require states to certify they can account for all equipment received.
The bill targets a 24-year-old military surplus program that transfers equipment from blankets to bayonets and tanks to police and sheriff’s departments across the country. An Associated Press investigation last year of the Defense Department program found that a large share of the $4.2 billion in surplus military gear distributed since 1990 went to police and sheriff’s departments in rural areas with few officers and little crime…
Maybe I’m naive, but this seems to me like something that the Liberals and the Libertarians of America should be able to come together on. I know our politicians like the financial contributions that keep coming in from the military industrial complex, but I’d like to think that even they can look at the events in Ferguson and see that a line’s been crossed… No one, regardless of party affiliation, should want to see an America that looks like this.
I know it’s a tall order, but it all comes back to campaign finance reform. That’s the key to it all. Until we can get the money out of politics, the heads of the Hydra we’re fighting will just keep growing back. For now, I’d be happy to have legislation passed that keeps military grade hardware out of the hands of America’s local police forces. In the future, though, we need to aim higher. We need to remove the money from American politics so that our elected officials begin to legislate with our interests in mind, and not those of the ruling 1%, who have an interest in selling military arms, closing down public schools, killing unions, and all of those other things that we’re so used to discussing on this site. I know it’s difficult, but we need to step back from the fight for a moment and focus on the money that keeps the Hydra alive, and not just the immediate threat posed by each of its heads. To you the analogy of Grover Norquist, we need to take a page from the conservative play book and starve the beast.