An American War Zone, Ctd

by Dish Staff

Events in Ferguson seemed to take a turn for the better yesterday, with a “notably smaller police presence” presiding over “wholly peaceful” protests:

On Thursday, August 14, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon told voters he would be “reframing” the chain of command among police in Ferguson. The office of Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri confirmed that the St. Louis County Police Department, which had been in charge during Wednesday night’s protests, would be removed from Ferguson. The chief of the St. Louis city police department also announced that his department would not be participating in Ferguson on Thursday night.

On Thursday afternoon, Governor Nixon formally announced that the Missouri Highway Patrol would be taking over police response to protesters in Ferguson. However, he said, the St. Louis County Police Department would remain in charge of the criminal investigation into Brown’s death.  Protesters gathered again Thursday by the police station and along West Florissant. However, protesters did not block the road. Police were absent from afternoon protests. … Missouri Highway Patrol captain Ron Johnson marched with the protesters and apologized to those who had been teargassed.

Alex Altman describes the scene as a “dramatic departure” from the unrest of previous nights:

[It was] a peaceful – if extremely chaotic – demonstration that had the vibe of a street party. And some of the credit should go to Johnson, an African-American captain with the Missouri State Highway Patrol who was appointed Thursday by Gov. Jay Nixon to assume control of a situation that had veered badly out of hand. With the change in leadership came a change in tactics. Gone were the gas masks, the armored SWAT tanks and the semiautomatic weapons trained on angry crowds. There were no barricade lines, no cops in riot gear. For long stretches of the night, there were barely any police in sight at all. But there was Johnson, striding through the crowd in his blue uniform, approaching groups and glad-handing as if the contentious scene were a reunion of old acquaintances. “This is my family. These are my friends,” he said. “And I’m making new friends here tonight.”

Margaret Hartmann suggests Johnson’s presence made a difference:

Johnson, who is black and grew up in Ferguson, was welcomed by demonstrators, and many embraced him, thanked him for joining the march, and asked him to pose for selfies. Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times reports that a young man came up to Johnson and started filming as he told him his niece had been tear-gassed this week. “When you see your niece, tell her Captain Johnson said he’s sorry and he apologizes,” Johnson replied. The man walked away then came back to shake Johnson’s hand.

Dara Lind praises the turnaround:

Governor Nixon did exactly what he needed to do in placing one agency in charge of the response to protesters. Until there are no longer dozens of police from multiple agencies responding to protests, the Ferguson Police Department can’t fix its relationship with the community and defuse tension. Now that there is a clear agency to hold accountable, hopefully that tension will begin to be defused – and as tension is defused, it’s likely police will feel they need to de-escalate their presence.

Radley Balko suggests that de-escalation is exactly the right strategy for the police to take:

Maj. Max Geron is in charge of the Media Relations Unit, Community Affairs and Planning Unit of the Dallas Police Department. He’s also a security studies scholar who recently wrote his master’s thesis on policing and protests at the Naval Postgraduate School. Specifically, his thesis studied police reactions to the Occupy protests in Oakland, New York, Portland, and Dallas.  “The ideal police response to a protest is no response at all,” Geron says. (Geron emphasized that he was speaking as a scholar, and his views don’t necessarily represent those of the Dallas Police Department.) “You want to let people exercise their constitutional rights without interference.”

Barring that, Geron says, it’s important for police to communicate with protesters to establish expectations. “The technical term is negotiated management. What that means is that you want to come to an agreement about what’s expected, what’s allowed, and most important, you want to reach an agreement about what won’t be allowed.” But Geron cautions against setting arbitrary expectations, such as mandatory dispersal times. “Most protesters will meet, protest, and go home when they feel they’ve made their point. If they aren’t breaking any laws, they can be left to express themselves.” Establishing a dispersal time then gives protesters something to rebel against.

Yishai Schwartz seconds that:

This growing body of research focuses on the difference between how police and peaceful fans perceive a rowdy crowd. Police tend to see a crowd with a handful of hooligans as a uniform body inherently prone to violence, while ordinary fans near these hooligans at first see themselves as entirely distinct. But because the police are the ones with batons and armor, they end up imposing their perception onto the crowdquite literally, by advancing on the crowd, hooligans and peaceful fans alike. The crowd then unifies around their shared victimhood, turning some peaceful fans violent. The police’s perception of a crowd as violent mob becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Recognition of this dynamic led senior officers in Portugal’s police force to implement a distinctly low-profile form of policing at the 2004 European Championship. There, matches had fewer policeman overall, and virtually no police visible in riot gear. The police also worked closely with a team of researchers so that their methods could be studied both quantitatively and accurately. After Euro 2004 proved peaceful, with far fewer arrests and violence than both earlier and later championships, the team of researchers published a comprehensive analysis of police tactics and their effects. The 2008 study in Psychology, Public Policy and Law combines quantitative data with questionnaire information collected directly from English soccer fans, and the paper’s conclusion forcefully advocates low-profile policing as a means of curtailing crowd violence.

Meanwhile, Obama impressed few people with his remarks on the matter yesterday:

President Obama took a break from his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard today to speak about the death of Michael Brown in Missouri. Referring to the shooting and subsequent demonstrations as “something that’s been in the news,” Obama said, “I know many Americans have been deeply disturbed by the images we’ve seen in the heartland of our country as police have clashed with people protesting.” “Today,” he said, “I’d like us all to take a step back and think about how we’re going to move forward.” Obama called once again for calm reflection, acknowledging both sides. “There is never an excuse for violence against the police,” he said. “There is also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests.”

Scott Shackford rolls his eyes:

I thought about highlighting some comments from the four-minute speech, but it’s just that shitty that I can’t quote anything that you can’t just make up in your own head. Calls for peace and calm? Check. Statement that feds are investigating? Check. Declaration that we all have “shared values” in the face of clear evidence otherwise? Check. Belief that we’re all equal under the law as though that has ever been the case for law enforcement officers? Check. … Completely absent: Any sort of reference to the militarization of the police, the very thing that has become a central, fundamental part of this narrative. It’s the one component that is drawing the left and the right together. And yet, the issue of these police officers having absurd, unnecessary weapons and trucks is completely unmentioned.

Paul Waldman cuts the president some slack:

It’s understandable to hear Obama talk this way. First of all, he was probably eager to avoid saying anything that would get anyone too riled up, particularly while the situation is ongoing. And since the Justice Department is participating in the investigation, it’s important for him as the head of the federal government not to express an opinion (yet) about what actually happened between Michael Brown and the officer who killed him, lest it appear that that investigation is anything but an objective one.

All that may be true, but it still won’t go down easy.

But Brendan Nyhan suggests there’s no good way for Obama to address the issue:

Many who have called on Mr. Obama to speak up may not realize that it could be counterproductive for him to be visibly involved in the debate. Research by a Brown University political scientist, Michael Tesler, shows that the mere mention of Mr. Obama, the first African-American president, polarizes the public along racial lines on issues ranging from health care to how people feel about his dog, Bo. The Ferguson controversy may end up being as divisive as the Trayvon Martin case and the arrest of the Harvard professorHenry Louis Gates – two racially charged controversies that became more prominent and arguably more polarized after Mr. Obama addressed them.

Previous Dish on Michael Brown here. More to come shortly.