A police officer shoots an unarmed minority teenager dead in the streets. Mostly peaceful protests ensue, triggering an increasingly and disproportionately heavily armed police presence. As the days go by, the police impose a ban on certain types of media at certain hours. They refuse to release the name of the officer who killed the kid. They tell the peaceful protesters to go home or face arrest. They roll up in giant armored vehicles, train high-powered rifles on the protesters and fire tear gas at them They harass journalists, body slam them, and then arrest and inexplicably release them. They openly call the scene a "war zone." They say what they are doing is in the name of public safety and security, but to most of the public on the ground and witnessing the events online, things have never seemed more out of control.
You'd be forgiven for thinking the above scenes are from Tehran or Cairo or Tunisia or some other place Americans by and large view as dangerous, conflict-prone, and totalitarian. But if you've been following along on Twitter or other online media outlets, you'd know the sad and horrible truth that these are the events that have taken place over the past few days in early August, 2014, in the small, predominantly black St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri.
It's hardly the first time that police in the US have overreacted with brutal force to crackdown on protests over perceived injustice. We all witnessed similar police violence in the breakup of the Occupy Wall Street movements in 2011 and in the Oakland, California, subway protests of recent years. Harsh police clampdowns have occurred in many eras of American history, from the Civil Rights, Gay Rights, and Anti-War movements of the late 1960s and '70s, going all the way back to the country's founding, with Shay's Rebellion. At times, there have been provocations that would make such police crackdowns perhaps more understandable: a gas station was set on fire in Ferguson earlier this week, and reports suggest another building has been lit on fire as of Wednesday night. Ferguson is no Los Angeles post-Rodney King, when crime ran rampant, however, it is not entirely nonviolent.
And compared to prior protests, the actions by police in Ferguson seem of a different caliber altogether. For maybe the first time, many Americans are getting a good, hard look at just how militarized and aggressive police forces in their country have become in the past decade and a half. Since 9/11, a heavier police presence has been apparent to residents and visitors of New York and other large cities. But should small town police officers be wearing fatigues, rolling around in armored vehicles, and pointing guns at citizens? The St. Louis County police are doing all these things in Ferguson, and police have the same capabilities in many other cities around the country, thanks in large part to the growing practice of passing down military hardware, a practice green-lit by major US politicians.
I counted 70+ SWAT officers. Guns trained on crowds. Insanity. pic.twitter.com/stev2G6v4b— Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) August 13, 2014
A few voices have been sounding the alarm on this creeping police militarization in recent years, most notably in the form of dutiful investigative journalism by the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Center for Investigative Reporting. We've seen flashes of the trend in the form of SWAT raids and "SWATings," the latter a life-threatening hoax that involves placing a phony call to police in an effort to provoke a SWAT raid, as my colleagues have written about.
Still, the American public has by and large reacted to these disparate events with handwringing at best, and more predominantly, shrugs of indifference. Like many societies in history, and perhaps more than most, ours is one that allows for passive disengagement from any situation, however ultimately important to our society, unless it directly affects us. Also, there is a vocal minority of Americans who flaunt their own heavy weaponry, a privilege they say is guaranteed to them under the Constitution's Second Amendment "right to bear arms." It's easy to see how that type of arrangement could lead to an "arms race" type mentality on both sides, in which police departments feel they need more firepower to keep up with armed citizens, and vice versa.
the ability to flick the police state on like a light switch, anywhere at any time, is what terrifies me the most— Chris Ziegler (@zpower) August 14, 2014
Is Ferguson the moment we as a people look at this situation of escalating force and say "enough is enough?" And even if we do, what's the right way to solve the problem? No American police department seems ready to voluntarily disarm to a more restrained level, including the one active in Ferguson. Few American citizens who have spent money and time collecting their own weapons would join them. And fewer still are the violent criminals who would willing cede their tools of destruction. Politicians concerned about electability also seem disinclined to challenge American's gun lobby, or to be the ones who cut police resources only to see crime rise. Can the President alone do anything? Would he, distracted as he is by global conflicts that few Americans support, committing more American firepower overseas? The larger question, where do we go from here as a people?, is even more worrisome. Because from the events in Ferguson alone — filled as they are with racial mistrust and a stark power imbalance, the police at least temporarily with the upper hand— it appears that things are going to get worse before they get better.
Future of news: I'm sitting in St Louis glued to Twitter to see what's up in Ferguson. It's not on a single TV station.— Eric Garland (@ericgarland) August 13, 2014
It's also easy to blow things out of proportion in the moment, especially now thanks to the ease of publication afforded by the internet. We who follow and report the news immerse ourselves in a stream of live updates posted on social media (nominally Twitter) from the direct witnesses of harrowing events, good and bad. We can't help but feel the drama of the moment. There's a possibility that things in Ferguson could calm down over the next few days and disputes could shift back to the realms of words and TV show appearances. That too would be a tragedy. Like Trayvon Martin's death at the hands of George Zimmerman, the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson could join the long list of disgraces that African-Americans have endured throughout our history without much meaningful change for the country as a whole. But if the country is to change, people can't just sit by and wait for Ferguson to blow over. Because at a certain point, it will blow into your town.