The Aug. 9 killing of a defenseless 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was depressingly familiar. Nearly a hundred unarmed black people are killed by cops every year in the United States. Few stir the national conscience despite the often shady circumstances of their deaths. Police impunity is the norm, with one study finding 99.8% of 1,500 officers involved in killing civilians were never convicted of criminal charges.
Dorian Johnson, the primary witness to the shooting, claims Officer Wilson gunned down a wounded Brown who had his hands raised in surrender. Brown’s corpse was left on the street for four hours. Blacks in Ferguson, Missouri, have long decried systematic violence at the hands of a virtually all-white police force. Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, has shifted from 74 percent white to 63 percent African-American since 1990, and has been pummeled by the housing and economic downturn for nearly a decade.
Brown’s killing catalyzed these long-simmering grievances into protests. But few were prepared for what came next. Ferguson police outfitted with armored vehicles, sonic weapons, sniper rifles, body armor, and grenade launchers swarmed the streets, firing tear gas, flash-bang grenades, pepper spray balls, and rubber and wooden bullets at civilians. “The police response has shocked America,” wrote the New York Times. Police in full battle rattle leveling automatic rifles at protesters with their hands held up were likened to the streets of Baghdad. After reporters were attacked and arrested, the Washington Post equipped its staff with blue bulletproof vests emblazoned with “PRESS,” the same gear used on Middle East battlefields. One British paper dispatched its Afghanistan war correspondent to Ferguson to cover the violence.
One welcome surprise was that outrage among Ferguson residents continued for two weeks. It’s rare to see sustained defiant protest in the United States. They were fed up with a level of police brutality that is so casual it’s shocking. One cop, in full view of video cameras, pointed a rifle at unarmed protesters and yelled, “I will fucking kill you.”
Images like that led to an outcry to demilitarize the police. Washington has created a grab bag of military aid through the “1033 program,” the Law Enforcement Support Office, and Department of Homeland Security grants, enabling local enforcement agencies to snatch up drones, mine-resistant vehicles, battle gear, and chemical weapons. Much of this came into effect after the September 11 attacks, but some of it pre-dates the attacks, and ending it is not so simple.
Junking surplus military equipment won’t alter the social attitudes that give police so much latitude they are effectively the law. The war on drugs and war on crime attitudes have created a disdain for civil liberties in America, especially the rights of the accused and by extension entire communities. Civil liberties deteriorated even further after September 11. In an atmosphere where the public has been stampeded into trading freedom for security, police violence and lack of accountability flourishes with or without military equipment.
After Brown’s death it was apparent police were violating constitutional rights: freedom of the press, the use of unreasonable force, the right to assemble, and equal protection. Cops from Ferguson and surrounding communities told protesters when, where, and how they could demonstrate, arresting many engaged in peaceful activity. At least 11 journalists were arrested. Police threatened and attacked journalists and protesters who were filming interactions. And there is a documented pattern of Ferguson police using profiling, stopping, and arresting African-Americans.
Given the systematic crimes by Ferguson police, Missouri State Gov. Jay Nixon was complicit in their lawlessness by not replacing them immediately. Nixon dragged his heels and employed half measures, such as bringing in a state police commander with limited powers and deploying National Guard troops to protect the police 10 days after the police violence began. But at no point were local police ordered off the streets. President Obama whose oath of office is to uphold the Constitution laid low before finally dispatching Attorney General Eric Holder to Ferguson.
Elected officials vacillate because they are afraid to challenge the social power of police. It is a truism that for the police to function the public has to allow itself to be policed. But this truth is startling to many, and what is happening in Ferguson is a rebellion against this order. Most Americans support the police in their explicit function to protect property and implicit function to protect a social order based on racial and class hierarchies. This is not an abstraction. A crowd-funding webpage for Darren Wilson raked in nearly a quarter-million dollars in donations in under a week and was rife with incendiary comments. (A new fundraising site for Wilson was set up with the support of the Ferguson Police Department and netted another ninety thousand dollars in two days.)
One individual who donated a hundred dollars wrote, “I thank all Police, you are the ‘Thin Blue Line’ protecting normal Americans from aggressive and entitled primitive savages.” That sentence succinctly if inadvertently sums up the reactionary view of American history. Only state violence keeps civilization safe. “Entitled primitive savages” crams together three racial stereotypes: the welfare queen, backwards Africans, and uncivilized natives. “Normal” Americans are undoubtedly white as other comments made clear. Brown was a “thing,” a “thug,” and “a waste of good ammo.” “Blacks [use] every excuse in the book to loot and riot.” One person exhorted, “Wake up White America.” Another said, “All self-respecting whites have a moral responsibility to support our growing number of martyrs to the failed experiment called diversity.”
The racially charged aggression reveals the hollowness of the age of Obama. In 2008 Obama presented himself as an avatar of a post-racial America. The more he succeeded, the more it proved America had triumphed over its racist legacy. Liberals embraced this fantasy because through Obama they could see themselves as good, just, and free of bias. But the post-racial ideology made Obama impotent to confront the structural racism that still exists in America. White liberals are no less complicit than white conservatives in supporting and benefiting from the economic and social power they gain from segregated housing, educational and employment. If anything, conservatives more readily acknowledge the role of police is to enforce this order. The two times Obama did speak out about state-sanctioned violence against Blacks, the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., for breaking into his own home and the stalking and killing of an unarmed Trayvon Martin by a vigilante, Obama was met with derision by the right and silence by most liberals.
Obama learned his lesson. He had nothing to gain from confronting racism because his power was based on denying, and not confronting, how America is fractured by race and class. If he had successfully challenged it in his first presidential run, which is no mean feat, that would have brought together an organized social base to counter the white reactionary response to Ferguson. Instead, Obama vacationed in silence on Martha’s Vineyard, the summer redoubt for America’s elite, and took five days to issue a statement that was “tone deaf and disappointing.”
For Obama to state the obvious—that the police are the architects of the violence in Ferguson, that they act like an occupying army towards the Blacks there, and that unreconstructed racism is alive and well—would provoke a huge backlash among many whites, and a fair number of Asians and Latinos as well.
To reduce the issue of police violence in America to the equipment they use can easily backfire. While it will be a real struggle to shelve the armored vehicles, body armor, machine guns, and chemical weapons that’s a small part of the battle. Removing all the military gear is not going to magically transform the police into officer friendly in a fifties patrol car. The racist policing and profiling won’t end, nor will the wide license society, the courts, and the media give them.
I’ve watched the NYPD in action for 25 years. They rarely rely on military weapons, though they probably have every one imaginable. The New York police brass is savvy. Using tanks, which they once did in 1995 as a show of force against squatters, looks bad for tourism. Using tear gas, rubber bullets, or other “less-lethal” weapons is a no-no given how many bankers and executives might get hit. As observers of Occupy Wall Street witnessed the police used good old-fashioned fists and clubs to bash demonstrators. I talked to one reporter who caught sight of cops bloodying handcuffed activists in the back of a police van during an Occupy protest.
But the most devastating weapon the NYPD has is a policy: stop and frisk. Since 2002 the NYPD has been under court order to collect, compile, and make public data regarding stop-and-frisks. By its own data, the NYPD has violated the constitutional rights of hundreds of thousands of Black and Latino males. They are stopped disproportionately compared to whites by every measure: if there is a warrant against them, they have a weapon or contraband, have committed a crime, or are in a high-crime area. The only way to explain the vast disparity is the policy is racist. Stop and frisk assumed Black and Latino males were criminal suspects based solely on their race. In 2010, former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly allegedly told New York State elected officials outright that the police deliberately targeted young Black and Latino men because “he wanted to instill fear in them, every time they leave their home they could be stopped by the police.”
During the last decade a movement came together in New York to stop the racist policing that has destroyed tens of thousands of lives by sending innocent men to prison or for nothing more than possessing a little marijuana. More court orders were handed down. Many media outlets called for an end to stop and frisk, and Bill de Blasio won the mayoralty in 2013 by making the policy a campaign issue. Once victorious, however, de Blasio angered many supporters by rehiring Bill Bratton as NYPD Commissioner, who instituted the dubious “broken windows” policing in the 1990s. Stop and frisk appears to have dropped by 90 percent from its peak of 685,000 stops in 2011. But Black and Latino males are still being disproportionately targeted. Moreover, Bratton’s focus on infractions like pan handling, pot smoking, graffiti, and subway fare jumpers deliberately targets minorities as well. In three overwhelmingly Black and Latino neighborhoods in Brooklyn, more than 50,000 summons were issued for biking on sidewalks between 2001 and 2013. I never have to worry about that in Manhattan, where I live. Bikers on sidewalks—of which there are many—in the tony white neighborhoods of Tribeca and the Finance District received only 325 tickets during the same period. Making this “crime” central to policing will mean many more young men of color will go directly to jail.
Once snared in the criminal justice system, Black and Latino men have fewer resources to prove their innocence and are less likely to receive leniency. Tickets often snowball into arrest warrants, jail time and permanent criminal records that diminish employment, education, and housing opportunities. Even if stop and frisk has ended, one racist policing practice has been replaced with another. Bratton’s policy of sending police to look for minor nuisance and imposing quotas on them for arrests, as the NYPD reportedly does, guarantees needless and hostile encounters. On Staten Island, police targeted Eric Garner on July 17 because he was involved in breaking up a fight. At every point the cops escalated the confrontation and eventually piled on him, choking the 43-year-old father of six to death.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, says, “We need an end to the kind of philosophy of policing that says it’s OK to engage in preventive, detention-like tactics.”
That’s what really at stake in demilitarizing the police. Undoubtedly military weapons enables greater violence against the public, just as a huge standing army enables U.S. wars abroad. But it was the post-9/11 mindset of preventive war that set all the tanks, planes, and missiles in motion.
The mindset needs to change, one that says police should have latitude and no oversight because whenever “excesses” happen like the killing of Michael Brown occur (or Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, and thousands of others), the preventive policing still serves the greater cause of keeping the peace of the existing social order.
Take away the military weapons from Ferguson police and they will still be an occupying army to the Black community there. Many Americans want to keep it that way. They have the mindset Blacks and Latinos are a threat and need to be contained. That’s what enables the police to take to the streets with military weapons and gear. Ending this mentality is what will stop out-of-control police forces, not taking away their toys.