Monday, September 1, 2014

We need a better class of police

The Ferguson Police Department’s incompetent and repressive handling of protesters in the days and weeks following the shooting of Michael Brown is embarrassing, but typical.


That word, and its synonyms, have apparently become the adjective of choice for journalists, pundits, and lay commentators when describing the recent conduct of the Ferguson, Mo. Police Department (and, to a lesser extent, the St. Louis County and Metropolitan Police Departments). 

Attention to the small Missouri community exploded in the wake of the murder of (black) 18-year-old Michael Brown by (white) Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and the subsequent protests in that community.

Baffling: the word The New Republic’s Brian Beutler used to describe Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson’s decision to disclose his belief that Michael Brown and his friend, Dorian Jackson, were involved in a “strong-armed robbery” of a local convenience store prior to Brown’s killing. 

It was the word Rory Carroll and Jon Swaine at The Guardian employed to describe the reactions of the outside world to images of Ferguson police officers, adorned in military gear, armed with AR-15 assault rifles, mine-resistant armored cars, and sniper rifles, firing tear gas and rubber bullets into a crowd of peaceful protestors, criticizing the department’s handling of yet another police shooting of a young black man.

This feeling of bafflement is justified, particularly with respect to how police have handled the protests, which is as incompetent as it is repressive. If the objective of law enforcement authorities is to protect First Amendment rights of the protesters (and the media covering them) before eventually clearing the streets at nightfall (which, by the way, was the stated objective of the police force on the first night), the tactics employed could only be described as ineffectual. Digest the words of Jason Fritz, an Iraq War veteran and policing policy expert:

If the police keep [using excessive measures against the protesters], I don’t see any possibility of them quieting the unrest and forcing people off the street. Which is not something police should want here in the United States anyway. There are some cases of police and excessive force like this in Kosovo, and all that did was bring out larger crowds the next day and bring more attention to the situation, until the situation becomes untenable and they actually have to leave the field themselves.

Protection of freedom of assembly, rubber bullets and tear gas canisters. Quieting the area, provoking further protest and more anger at the police forces. Failure. 

However, good faith may not be the appropriate frame through which to view the actions of the Ferguson Police Department over the past week. Considering the Department’s long history of abuse (this Daily Beast story chronicling the assault of an innocent man by Ferguson police officers who was later charged with destruction of property for the blood which was splattered across the officers’ uniforms is particularly ghoulish), racial antagonism (The Atlantic found that police stops and searches disproportionately fell on blacks vs. whites at a level of 92-8 percent, in a community where only 67 percent of residents were black), and, as demonstrated recently, amateurish decision making, perhaps the more suitable attitude would be one of suspicion and mistrust.

A police officer watches over protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. (Scott Olson/Getty Images News)

And under that microscope, their behavior is as graspable as it is pernicious.

Take Beutler’s dissection of Chief Jackson’s decision to release information on Brown’s alleged involvement in the theft of some cigar swishers from the Ferguson Market. Beutler’s bafflement stems from the many unanswered questions posed by the disclosure, such as, Why did it take Jackson five days to release this information? Why wasn’t Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson arrested for accessory to larceny immediately after the shooting? Where did the swishers go?

On top of all that is the glaring fact that, when Darren Wilson confronted Brown and Johnson, by Jackson’s own he had no idea they were suspects in the robbery, and instead approached them for the offense of jaywalking. That fact puts the whole relevance of the entire robbery into question.

In good faith, these questions could be met with a charge of incompetence directed at a small-town police force that is clearly in over its head. But taking a more clear-eyed approach, devoid of assumptions of sincerity or reliability, reveals the decision (truthfully, I believe) to be the defamation of Michael Brown to ensure the acquittal of his murderer, Darren Wilson.

It’s a very simple strategy. Paint the image of Michael Brown as a thug (the latest “polite” version of the N-word), a thief, a gangster, a ne’er-do-well. Being an alleged hooligan while black, in the mind of most Americans, specifically the ones who serve on juries, seems to be enough to warrant death. 

After all, it worked for the killers of Trayvon Martin, and Amadou Diallo, and Arthur McDuffie, and  Eleanor Bumpers, and Sean Bell, and Oscar Grant, and the members of MOVE, and Anthony Baez, and Michael Griffith, and Timothy Thomas, and countless others. 

The Ferguson Police Department is just executing a time-honored playbook for getting away with killing black people to protect one of their own. The thinking goes that Michael Brown was a thug, he was less than cooperative with Officer Wilson, and he therefore deserved to die. Unsettling, yes. Baffling, no.

But, in a way, maybe it still is. If the police are attempting to conduct a character assassination against Brown, why are they going about it so ineptly? They could’ve done it a day or two after his killing to make it less obvious that they were going out of their way to slander Brown. Why didn’t Jackson, the police chief, just lie and say Wilson approached Brown and Johnson about the robbery, creating a clearer connection between the two incidents?

It gets even more confounding when one turns a more adversarial eye toward how the police managed the protesters. While the pretense of protecting First Amendment rights is stripped away, the incompetence in suppressing protesters is stunning. If the goal was to minimize and eventually eradicate the protests, why did the police adopt a strategy that would assure the exact opposite? Back to Fritz:

In the Ferguson police's perception, they're trying to disrupt a hostile crowd. I'm not saying the people of Ferguson are hostile, just that that's how the police see it. [And when you're responding to a hostile crowd], what the police use is a phalanx system: police with their batons and their shields, like at the [World Trade Organization] protests. They become a physical presence to either block off terrain or push the hostile crowd off of the terrain.

There’s a couple levels on which what the Ferguson police are doing, compared to the phalanx, is ineffective. They're not near the protestors, and they're not pushing them off the ground they want to push them off of. They're not doing what they want to do. They're standing back, using this show of force — I guess that's the best way to describe it — and it doesn't work. Obviously, the protestors are still there. Trying to intimidate the crowds off the street, especially considering that it's a protest against police aggression — well, it's just stupid. It's going to exacerbate the problem.

From an image standpoint, it’s even more bush-league. Tear-gassing protesters, arresting journalists, aiming sniper rifles into crowds of civilians, and dressing like jack-booted goons only brings more negative media attention, alienates possible sympathizers, and inflames existing tensions to a point that more protests are inevitable.

Again, baffling.

I think the answer lies in the title of The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on Donald Sterling. “This Town Needs a Better Class of Racist.” It refers to a line in the memorable scene of the Batman film, “The Dark Knight” where the Joker, about to murder a greedy and uninspired Russian mobster, opines that Gotham City deserves “A better class of criminal.”

A similar sentiment can be seen in the Ferguson Police Department. When cop after cop, civilian after civilian are allowed to kill blacks with near impunity, when police forces are allowed to eschew civil liberties in favor cracking heads at protests such as Occupy, the 1999 World Trade Organization conference in Seattle, or the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York without accountability, why should we expect competency or tact, even in the service of constitutional violations and racism? 
When you make it easy to violate laws and principles, both legal and moral, why should you expect the offenders to take anything but the easy route?

Matthew Byrd is a contributing writer for Iowa Peace Network. Originally from Chicago, he is an undergraduate studying History and English at the University of Iowa

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