Thursday, August 14, 2014

Ferguson, The Commonality of the Police Riot, and the Long Road to Justice

This exists. We should all be incredibly ashamed.
If you're reading this, you've no doubt been following the horrific events unfolding in Ferguson. Touched off by the murder of an innocent child by an as-of-yet unnamed police officer, the town has become a virtual war zone (to the point where citizens of Gaza are tweeting the citizens of Ferguson helpful info on how to avoid tear gas and random beatings). There are so many horrible things Ferguson demonstrates about the current state of America, from the devaluing of Black lives (especially of young Black men), to the fealty of our major media (who ignored the tragic murder until social media forced the issue), to our depressing fondness for victim blaming (sure, an innocent child was murdered, but maybe he once did something bad?). I don't study those issues, so I'll leave all those points to others who can speak to them more eloquently (I highly recommend Greg Howard's piece America is Not For Black People). But I do study policing and actually have some expertise in that area, so this is what I can offer.

But before I begin anything, let me make one thing crystal clear: the death of Mike Brown is inarguably murder. Even if the current (albeit rapidly changing) story of the police (which just happens to contradict every eye witness) is perfectly true to what transpired, there is no legal justification for shooting an unarmed teenager who is several dozen feet away from oneself. The Tennessee v. Garner ruling clearly and unambiguously holds that the only time an officer of the law may use lethal force is in the immediate protection of life. That is, unless someone is directly presenting the ability to seriously harm another human being, police are not allowed to shoot to kill. By even the police's own account, Brown did not pose any immediate danger to anyone. This is not a justified use of force, this is not an accident, this is the illegal taking of a human life, which we colloquially and legally refer to as murder. But back to what I actually want to talk about...

My very first ever academic publication was on the subject of police riots, situations in which law enforcement officers are the principle (often only) perpetrators of violence and disorder. Developed by Rodney Stark in the late 60s, the concept still holds as the best way to understand what police in Ferguson are doing right now, as the extreme militarization of our police has only made such riots more common. In fact, Ferguson right now is almost the platonic ideal of a police riot.

Police riots typically follow six steps: some type of incident (say, the murder of an innocent child) leads to a convergence of people. The police do not like people looking at what they're doing, especially when they are committing blatant crimes (which would be why they are currently arresting journalists in Ferguson without even bothering to make up criminal charges), so this leads to some sort of confrontation. In the third step, police demand the dispersal of everyone, often demanding they return home.

This is the step when a riot is imminent; often crowds cannot disperse and go home because they are already home. This is happening on the streets in front of their houses. The people of Ferguson have no other "home" to go to. Or, as is very often the case, the orders are contradictory. Police are rarely trained in any meaningful way for these types of situations, and communication between law enforcement when order breaks down is spotty at best, often non-existent. So it's quite typical that people actually trying to do what the police tell them cannot; a famous incident from the limited police riot at the 2008 RNC in St. Paul illustrates this: police on one side of a long bridge told everyone they had to exit the other side of the bridge, while police on the opposite side said the mirror opposite, leaving no legal way to leave. So the crowd does not disperse and police begin to use force and arrested everyone on the bridge for failure to disperse (check out the not-that-greatly edited but containing awesome raw footage documentary "Terrorizing Dissent" which covers the incident). The point is that crowd had no way to legally disperse, so the use of force will not "help" them disperse, it will just inflict pain upon them for no reason.

It's also important to remember that the riot gear police wear in preparation for such situations (which in itself is incredibly provocative) typically obscures the officer's face and all identifying information. You probably can guess what happens when you give a bunch of people in a tense situation a lot of firepower and the knowledge no one will ever know who they are, virtually guaranteeing a lack of consequences for their actions.

This leads to a limited riot in which police use force indiscriminately and arrest without provocation or cause (witness the WashPo reporter who was arrested and taken to jail, then released not only without charges, but no paperwork of any kind). Multiple reports and videos show that the Ferguson police last night simply went throughout town gassing journalist and even tossing tear gas into people's back yards. At this point, we have reached full police riot.

I'll take a quick moment to address the inevitable "what about the looters?!?!?!?!?!?" argument people make as if that somehow absolves the scores of egregious police abuses. Even ignoring the fact that the looting was limited to a small number of people in a neighborhood nowhere near the demonstrations and lasted for all of a few minutes, pointing to that as any justification for the actions of the Ferguson PD has the merit of arguing "It all started when he hit me back!" And as this great piece in the Jacobin points out, if you are systematically denied your rights in every avenue of life to the point where police feel fine murdering your children and leaving their dead bodies in the middle of the street to serve as a general warning to the community, what choice is there beyond the riot?

For truly the most important thing to remember about police riots is that the only factor distinguishing them from every day police practices are the size and scope. Police are not ashamed of the use of violence against innocent citizens, they often enjoy it greatly:

This is a t-shirt produced by the Denver FOP after the repeated beatings of innocent citizens during the demonstrations against the DNC. Take whatever stance you will on the merit of the demonstrators, but they unequivocally have the constitutional right to gather, air their grievances, and, you know, not be savagely beaten for it. But this is exactly the point I'm trying to make about police violence: it is not an aberration of which police are ashamed, but the kind of thing they make "hilarious" fundraising t-shirts out of.

Finally, I imagine/hope people are wondering what we can do to stop this sort of thing. Like all forms of social change, there are no quick fixes. Obviously identifying and fully prosecuting the officer(s) responsible would be a tiny first step to some form of justice. Furthermore, identifying and prosecuting the many officers who have been involved in the obvious beginnings of a cover up would help, too.

But to prevent the murder of innocent citizens and the indiscriminate use of force by police that turns our cities into grotesque parodies of war zones (I once spent 3 solid months spending every afternoon at major, volatile demonstrations in Iraq during the war, and the police used more restraint. Let that sink in for a few minutes) requires some massive changes. It requires us to value the lives of citizens, to recognize the inherent humanity of people of color, to resist the urge to arm our police to the teeth as if they're trying to overthrow a nation, to not place our trust in an obviously corrupt institution which does incredible harm to the communities it is supposed to be protecting. It requires fundamentally reorganizing not only our police (and courts, and prisons), but reorganizing the very concepts we have of crime and especially what we think constitutes "justice."

And if you've got any idea how to make that happen, trust me, I am all ears...

R.I.P. Mike Brown.

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