With tensions in the St. Louis area remaining high following the shooting death of unarmed teen Michael Brown, Conor Friersdorf gapes at the now-famous photo of heavily armed police confronting a local protester:
[T]hose three officers are dressed and outfitted such that they could as easily be storming into an ISIS safe house in Iraq. Actually, they are on the streets of an American city, clad in combat gear, squaring off against a nonviolent protestor in a t-shirt and jeans with both of his hands raised over his head. It is easy to see how visuals like these could dissuade people from taking to the streets to assemble in protest of police shootings, as is their moral and Constitutional right.
A handful of protestors in Ferguson, Missouri have reportedly thrown rocks at police, a wholly unjustified act that ought to result in their arrest and prosecution, if the perpetrators can be identified. But in the image above, the camouflage pants and assault rifles are hardly there to protect against thrown rocks. If the police were dressed as civilians, but with helmets and shields, that would be more understandable. The other bit of necessary context: as mostly black protesters face these pseudo-military troopers to protest what they believe to be a civil rights violation, they’re staring at another police excess that disproportionately affects people like them.
Notably, the photographer, Whitney Curtis, was struck by a rubber bullet while covering the scene. Jay Caspian Kang decries the police response:
[A]s the images and stories from Ferguson, Missouri, joined the news churn, many who registered their thoughts via social media noted that what they were seeing – policemen with dogs and AR-15 assault rifles standing in a Stygian, blue-lit cloud of tear gas; crowds of protesters with their hands in the air, screaming “Hands up, don’t shoot”; members of the press being removed from the scene – did not look like America. The sentiment underlying the shock – that the United States should be better, that we have a Constitution that protects its citizens from violent excesses, that an unarmed young man ought to be able to live through an encounter with a police officer – seems almost precious, when one considers the country’s racial history. … But after last night’s militarized reaction to the protests in Ferguson, it’s worth considering whether the typical ending to the story, wherein the outrage of the community is met with silence on the part of the authorities, has changed for the worse.
Annie-Rose Strasser observes ominously that on Tuesday the FAA issued a no-fly zone over Ferguson “to provide a safe environment for law enforcement activities”:
To get more of a sense of what that means, ThinkProgress called the helicopter dispatcher at the St. Louis County Police Department. St. Louis, not Ferguson, has been “responsible for crowd control,” a Ferguson Police spokesperson said. According to the dispatcher, the department originally requested the no-fly zone – for certain flights; “the ceiling is only at 5,000 feet,” the dispatcher said, though the website actually lists 3,000 feet – for 24 hours. The department then asked the FAA to extend the ban on flying.
The reason? “It’s just for a no-fly zone because we have multiple helicopters maneuvering in the area and we were having some problems with news aircrafts flying around there,” the dispatcher, who would only identify himself by his first name, Chris, said. The effort to stop media from flying over the area to film is troubling, especially in light of reports that police have turned journalists away from the sites of the protests.
Melissa Byrne suggests the police bear some responsibility for the rioting:
They should have gathered people of faith and trauma specialists to listen to the community. They should have ordered pizzas and sodas to feed people into night as they aired their anger and grievances. They should have packed away all need to fight the community. They should have committed to an open and transparent process for justice. They should have not relied on creating the conditions for a riot to cover up for their history of problematic policing. Yes, it was wrong for people to commit property damage, but I am 100-percent confident that non-violent, non-aggressive policing would have prevented the outburst of rage.
Emily Badger examines the racial composition of the Ferguson Police Department:
The St. Louis suburb of Ferguson where the working-class, majority-black population has been clashing with law enforcement for the last three days has 53 commissioned police officers. According to the city’s police chief, three of them are black. These numbers matter not just for the terrible optics of white officers clutching tear gas canisters opposite black residents shouting back. They speak to a fundamental problem rooted deep in history and driving the perception of injustice in Ferguson today: This community isn’t represented in its own institutions of power.
Robert Tracinski, in a post regrettably titled “Why Ferguson Needs John Adams,” urges observers not to rush to conclusions:
We ought to know how much can be distorted, misrepresented, and misunderstood by seemingly official or sympathetic sources on all sides, how long it can take for accurate information to come out, and how equivocal the results can be, with the evidence so evenly balanced as to convince partisans on both sides that they are right. But when every new politically charged shooting comes along, we forget what we should have learned, and there we all go, back to making confident pronouncements about who we think did what, who is the villain, and what is the remedy. The cardinal sin here is the subordination of facts to a “narrative” adopted by activists and by the media. To adopt a narrative about how all police are racist or all police lie about shootings would be as unjust as to adopt a narrative about how all young black men are violent. Instead of insisting on our cherished narrative, we should be calling for the rule of law—which applies for everyone.
But John McWhorter contends that the narrative about racially biased policing is accurate:
I am the last person to jump in with overheated rhetoric that America is engaged in a “war against black men.” There is no evidence of anything so deliberate. However, when more temperately minded people say that black lives are valued less in the clinch than white ones, jump in I must, because it’s true.
A few weeks ago, white 18-year-old Steve Lohner could tote a gun around in Aurora, Colorado (where in 2012 James Holmes gunned 12 people to death and injured 70 others), practically taunting law enforcement to mess with him, in a quest to make a showy point about gun rights. Who among us can pretend that if a black kid was doing the same thing he wouldn’t be much more likely to wind up killed? Those inclined to pretend might note that meanwhile, black 22-year-old John Crawford was killed two weeks later for holding a toy gun at a Wal-Mart in Ohio. This kind of thing sits in black American minds and creates a sense of alienation.
Meanwhile, Landon Jones mulls over the shooting in light of St. Louis’ troubled racial history:
There is no large city in America more burdened by racial tension and mutual suspicion than St. Louis. The racial and economic problems that have beset America’s cities are particularly intense in my hometown. Despite the city’s large black population, the single black person I met during my childhood in the 1950s was my parents’ housekeeper, Willie Brown. She would arrive at our house once a week and go to the basement to change into her maid’s dress. St. Louis is the city that produced Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, and Josephine Baker. Yet when Michael Brown died, white and black residents quickly drew back to their default positions of mutual distrust: Black people took to the streets to express their anger, while white citizens expressed dismay at the chaos. There are echoes of this throughout the city’s history.
But Jelani Cobb emphasizes that such an event could happen anywhere:
Three weeks ago, Eric Garner died as the result of N.Y.P.D. officers placing him in a choke hold, a banned tactic, following a confrontation over selling loose cigarettes. His death echoed that of Renisha McBride, the nineteen-year-old who was killed when she knocked on a stranger’s door following a car accident, which in turn conjured memories of Jonathan Ferrell, who was shot ten times and killed by officers in North Carolina soon after the death, in Florida, of Jordan Davis, shot by a man who wanted him to turn down his music, which in turn paralleled the circumstances of Trayvon Martin’s demise. For those who have no choice but to remember these matters, those names have been inducted into a grim roll call that includes Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, and Eleanor Bumpurs. These are all distinct incidents that took place under particular circumstances in differing locales. Yet what happened on Staten Island and in Dearborn Heights, Charlotte, Jacksonville, and Sanford have culminated, again, in the specific timbre of familial grief, a familiar strain of outrage, and an accompanying body of commentary straining to find a novel angle to the recurring tragedy.