August 9, 2014 saw the killing of a “black youth” Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson. As is so often the case in these fatal police encounters, the policeman was white and the “offender” black. Since the killing, the Ferguson Police and the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office then seemed to make exceptional efforts to make themselves look as bad as possible (see the John Oliver video below…it’s spot on): the officer was given 72 hours to make a statement on the incident (this is due to very real psychological results of exposure to violence, which can alter a person’s perception of the event), followed by a bumbling press conference about how Brown was shot many more times than a couple, but not that much more; to the heavy handed response to the protests by Ferguson residents that included attacks on the press (well, al-Jezeera…), and finally the petulant refusal after taking well-deserved heat from the national press to even respond to looting and other violence. The Missouri governor, Nixon, then decided to double down on the stupid with a press conference to chastise the people of Ferguson for being angry and rolled out the National Guard.
Which had exactly zero effect on the violence and criminality now loose in the poor to middle class suburb of St. Louis. Why? asked The Washington Post‘s Emily Badger. Her thinking is actually pretty accurate: the National Guard were once an escalation of force, as they were during the Vietnam and Race riots of the 1960s and 1970s, but today, they wear the same uniforms and have the same weaponry as the police themselves. They aren’t an escalation; they’re just more cops to the rioters. Ed Morrissey — ordinarily a good analyst and reporter — pooh-poohs this notion, citing the heightened authority of the National Guard as the greater deterrent. He is, in this case, wrong. The poor of the city, those who feel (rightly or wrongly) oppressed by a status quo that allows the police to act as they will with little risk of censure, and the professional agitators brought in from Chicago and other Progressive cities do not see a difference. It’s “the Man”, as they would say in the 1960s (or the Golden Age of Protest, as some baby boomer idiots would like to remember it.)
Michael Tomasky over at the less-than-laudable The Daily Beast threw his hand in with the usual baby boomer progressive response to anything that looks white-on-brown: It’s a Race War! It’s a suburban on urban war! It’s…well, you get the idea. Kevin Williamson over at National Review took the opportunity to point out that Ferguson and St. Louis, like most towns with these kinds of problems, are symptomatic of the Progressive governance of the past half century. He’s got a few good points, but they don’t explain why Ferguson is so emblematic of this time, and why it’s causing the stir it is across the nation.
A white cop shot a 6’5″ behemoth of a black “teen.” He claims he was rushed by this unarmed teen who had allegedly stolen cigars a few minutes earlier, and was in fear for his life. This is the new narrative of the police apologists, and it may even be true. I’ve known quite a few men this size (and one woman) — if they were rushing me, intent on doing me bodily harm, I’d probably shoot them, as well. The idea that this teen was not a threat because they were “a kid” is also laughable to anyone who has ever been outside the civilized world — teenagers are the lion’s share of soldiers in Africa, with the jihadis, and historically in Europe. A sizable portion of those US troops in Afghanistan? Teens. Teenagers are more dangerous than adults because they often haven’t internalized social norms nor the idea of mortality. But neither of these is the point. Painful as it might be to hear for the pro-Wilson and pro-Brown sides — this is not an unusual case. It’s the response that made this a greater story.
It’s not even about white on black violence, although certainly the racial component makes it easier to cast this in a comfortable racial narrative. In Albuquerque, a homeless man James Boyd was shot in even more egregious circumstances by heavily armed police. He was white. The resulting protests spiraled into a riot, although it did not escalate to the levels of Ferguson (and I would suggest this is where the racial aspect is important in Ferguson — it allows the rioters to claim legitimacy for their actions.) The Boston Marathon bombing saw police going house to house in armor, aiming weapons at people without regard for public safety (or FourthAmendment protections.) The Bundy Ranch fiasco wasn’t about an old white guy illegally grazing his cattle on BLM land. All these have one thing in common… The police lied about their motives, and aggressively used military hardware to try and intimidate people.
’cause nothing says “We hear and understand your concerns about police violence” like a line of police dressed as soldiers, armed to the teeth, and backed by armored personnel carriers. This is about the burgeoning police state, as John Oliver humorously but accurately lampoons:
Lest you think that criticizing the police is appropriate, however, Rich Lowry over at National Review would like to tell us how wrong we are:
When Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, the officer was presumably wearing a typical police uniform and driving a typical police car. He either acted in entirely justifiable self-defense, made a catastrophic misjudgment after an altercation, or (in the extreme version of the protestors) shot Brown because he wanted to execute a black teenager. None of these possibilities have anything to do with the militarization of police one way or the other.
Except…the likelihood the situation would have escalated to the status of full-blown rioting might have been much less without the presence of heavily armed, armored men. Lowry addresses this, as well:
What Ferguson needs is the restoration of basic order, and the absence of it has never been the fault of the police, but of a small, lawless fringe of protestors bent on mayhem.
I am in full agreement. As with any instance of rioting, be it the Watts Riots, the Rodney King riots, Ferguson, or any number of anti-war demonstrations turned violence during Vietnam War — things normally jump the line between protest and violence quickly and due to the presence of a small number of malcontents. However, mob mentality only goes so far. Wide-spread rioting grows when the rioters feel entitled to do so. Now why might they (or the rioters in Albuquerque for Boyd, or Los Angeles for King, or the “patriots” at the Bundy Ranch feel that?
Let’s start with the police response to not just these incidents, but to the multitude of violent police encounters involving warrant service, drug searches, suspect canvassing, or other low-impact offenses. We have seen an increasing use of military-style tactics and force on even small offenses from small municipal forces to federal agencies like the EPA or FDA. Even when someone is not shot, they are often put in danger by police who are using “violence of action” to achieve surprise and initiative. This is made more dangerous by the changes in training since 9/11.
1) Police are now trained to view their own safety as paramount, despite the violence directed at police being at a historic low. This focus on the officer “going home after his tour” heightens the likelihood and perceived legitimacy of use of force. This is especially on display with officers armed with “less than lethal” weapons like the taser, perhaps because the notion that the violence is not lethal — like 20,000 volts or a bean bag moving at 700fps — is somehow cuddly.
2) Their training exaggerates the threat of terrorism and drug violence, as well — but that is to be expected: both of these federal efforts (or “wars”, as they term them) are exceedingly profitable for local and state and federal law enforcement. Annually, $62 billion alone is spent on the futile “drug war”, and counterterrorism money and equipment through the DoD 1033 Program adds to that. That’s without addressing the additional profits made using asset forfeiture laws.
3) Police were not given special legal protections when they abuse their authority, from being able to lie to a suspect about their investigations, to no knock-warrants, to surveillance overreach. When they transgress the law, they are given special protections thanks to police union contracts that give them more leeway for making statements, that make it difficult to fire problem officers, and support from the various officials that allow them to skew public opinion to protect miscreants in the system.
The issue of police militarization, however, is itself symptomatic of a more insidious problem. Progressives like Tomasky — with his suburb vs. urban tropes — are already trotting out the specter of class war, but their understanding is hampered by a fondness for materialist nonsense. The United States has always been a radically different case from Europe, where the ideas of Marx developed and then were taught to all those late 19th Century progressive thinkers. Ask any American what “class” they are and you will get the same response from most working class to the wealthy like Ann Romney: We are middle class. Our “classes” are not based on money, as much as the means by which it is acquired. One group works, the other — let’s call them the political class — use the monopoly of the legitimacy of force to take from that first group.
The militarization of police is a symptom of the increasing desperation of the would-be aristocracy, who see the general populace as a threat to them, as much as they are the host from which they feed. These oligarchs have their pet sycophants, like Lowry, who will always find a way to excuse the excesses of the police, for those police are there not to protect the people, but to defend this political class from their prey.