Littwin: A sudden calm in Ferguson
Fair and Unbalanced
The story isn’t over. A young man is still dead. We still don’t know what happened. A community is still outraged. The protests will no doubt continue until there are some answers in the questionable police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.
But even so, the storyline has changed dramatically.
This doesn’t happen very often in real life. Real life, even when moving quickly, doesn’t move at this kind of pace. One night in Ferguson, Missouri, the world — or at least the world as we understood it — seemed to be coming apart. A police force in little Ferguson had morphed before our eyes into an army of occupation, and the enemy, this time, really was us. The police chief overseeing it all had conceded it didn’t look good, as if it were simply a matter of optics. He was right about it not looking good, though. It looked like Iraq. What it didn’t look like was America.
The very next night, a new guy was on the job. The overwhelmingly white St. Louis County police force was out, and the Missouri State Highway Patrol was in. Not only did the optics change, but everything seemed to change. Instead of tear gas, there were hugs. Instead of cops marching on the protesters, Capt. Ron Johnson — an African-American who grew up in the area and who now heads the police operation — was marching alongside them.
The flash grenades were gone. The tear gas was gone. The smoke hanging over the town was gone. The mine-resistant, ambush-protected armored vehicle — yes, really — was gone. Everything was tamped way down. Cops took off their gas masks, revealing their faces. Camo outfits were replaced by cop-on-the-corner blue. Reporters weren’t being arrested. Film crews far from the protests weren’t being gassed. The barricaded streets were open to traffic.
No one, finally, was pointing a gun at anyone.
And Wesley Lowery, the reporter from the Washington Post who had been arrested, would Tweet, “I do not recognized the Ferguson I am in currently.”
What happened was glaringly obvious. It was as obvious as the nonstop coverage on your favorite cable network news channel.
It took a few days for people to understand what was actually happening. But in a sudden jolt of recognition — in a Bull Connor, firehoses-on-the-kids moment — millions watched and saw the whole thing differently. The Kevlar-jacketed, gun-pointing, armored-vehicle-riding cops weren’t facing full-blown riots. As one Iraqi veteran put it, this wasn’t crowd control; it was intimidation. The protesters were being faced down by an absurdly — in another time, it would be almost comically — overdone show of force.
And the question quickly became: How could this be the proper response in a community torn up by the fact that a white cop — as yet unnamed — had shot and killed an unarmed African-American teen?
The story of race is hardly a new one. But the story in which Rand Paul is way ahead of Barack Obama on race is a different one.
We got the jolt, and Obama called for peace and upbraided the cops. Obama is clearly unhappy with the lack of transparency and with the show of force. But it was Paul who got to the point, writing an op-ed in Time magazine decrying the militarization of police forces in general and noting that race was the obvious factor here. He blamed big government for the military-style response, which may be a stretch. But on race, he got it exactly right: “If I had been told to get out of the street as a teenager, there would have been a distinct possibility that I might have smarted off. But, I wouldn’t have expected to be shot.”
You don’t have to know much about modern policing or much about crowd control to know the cops in Ferguson were doing everything wrong in facing the protests. There was some looting, and one store was burned, but the protests eventually became, as much as anything else, about not being able to protest. It was obviously a time for outreach, not for overreach.
And it was the overreach that shocked. And the fact that someplace like Ferguson has this kind of firepower at its disposal. The stories have been written for years, dating back to the ’70s and the emergence of SWAT teams, about the militarization of the police. But the change since 9/11, when the Pentagon ratcheted up its program of giving away excess firepower to police forces, has gone basically unnoticed until now.
But now that people are noticing, they can’t help but see that the numbers are shocking. According to an American Civil Liberties Union report, 63 police departments have taken on 500 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles in 2011 and 2012. That’s just for starters. Since 1997, the Pentagon has transferred something like $4 billion worth of equipment to cops.
That’s how the streets of Ferguson came to look like the streets of Gaza. As someone put it, these guys give out traffic tickets by day and dress up in Kevlar by night. And that’s how a lot of suddenly outraged Americans came to understand that if this happens in suburban Ferguson, it can happen anywhere.
Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for ColoradoIndependent.com.