Friday, August 15, 2014
I haven't been writing here much lately in part because so many of the events of the last week have been so overwhelming, draining, and frankly appalling.
The murder-by-cop of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, was shocking to anyone with a shred of conscience, and we saw over and over again that the powers that be in St. Louis simply had no shred of conscience, compassion, or simple human decency.
From the moment young Brown was shot down in the street by a still unnamed Ferguson cop who seemingly was completely out of control, apparently the only concern of those Powers, was to keep those Negroes suppressed.
At first they called it "crowd control," and they got the dogs and the riot gear out, and the police stormed and stomped around to frighten and intimidate the onlookers, the witnesses to the killing, and the family of Mike Brown in actions that didn't surprise anyone who's been paying attention, but which certainly shocked anyone with a grain of empathy in their souls.
The dead body of Mike Brown was left bleeding out in the street for hours and hours that awful Saturday, while police chased away family members and went around confiscating cell-phone cameras and other potential evidence.
There were dozens of witnesses, but the man who was with Mike Brown and was closest to the murder when it happened was somehow ignored in the media rush to find some excuse for the police behavior. Oh, he was interviewed by media shortly after the killing, but only the CBC in Canada put his statement on the air, and others who had things to say about what they saw were largely invisible for days while the police issued statement after statement that seemed patently false or protective of the officer without regard for truth or justice.
The people of Ferguson were understandably upset at the official stonewalling, lying, and wagon circling. They were "allowed" a bit of "space" to gather in the streets to protest, but on Sunday that protest turned into what has been deemed a "riot" during which a number of businesses were looted and one was burned. The one that was burned, the convenience store at the Quick Trip gas station down the street from the site of Mike Brown's murder, was where there were initial claims that Mike Brown had "stolen a cigar." But it turned out that no such claim had been made by the proprietors. It was one of many false rumors that were circulating in Ferguson in the first hours and days after Mike Brown's homicide, rumors apparently intended to impugn the young man's character so as to more easily justify his summary execution.
Yet even on Sunday, as the "riot" progressed, there were suspicions that provocateurs were at work and the looting and burning going on sporadically in the community was not an expression of spontaneous rage at all. No, even then, the "riot" was being seen by many in Ferguson as the work of agents of chaos, not the people. The burning of the Quick Trip convenience store was even attributed to the proprietor as a means to obtain insurance money. The "riot" itself was seen as a means to distract attention from the killing of Mike Brown and put the focus and the onus on the community because it's largely black and working class and supposedly gang-ridden.
In other words to make it seem that Mike Brown's death-by-cop was a natural consequence of the innate criminality of the residents.
There was an immediate and strong push-back by those residents and the family of Mike Brown. They denounced the violence, and they wanted answers from the authorities, answers which were not and so far are not forthcoming.
In fact, it seemed that everything was being done by those authorities to cover up what had happened, to blame the victim, and to control the mob of angry Negroes.
It was a scene out of the brutal South of yore. It was absurd. It was terrifying. It was wrong.
As protests continued, the authorities, who I took to calling the Cowards of the County, escalated their repressive measures, until finally on Wednesday night, while people were in the streets demonstrating non-violently, a military-style operation was launched against them. It was the kind of thing we've seen over and over again, especially since Occupy suppression in 2011 and 2012, in which police deploy overwhelming military-style force against angry but generally non violent citizens and residents for the purpose of instilling terror.
Wednesday night's operations were even more outrageous than other similar instances in that it was entirely uncalled for. There was no violence, no riot, no effort on the part of the people to do anything but let their presence and outrage at the actions of Authority be seen and known as widely as possible. They defied repeated orders to disperse sufficiently quickly and thoroughly enough to be subjected to a terroristic operation in which assault vehicles were deployed, snipers positioned, machine guns were trained on the crowd and individuals "painted" with laser targets, and ultimately sound-weapons, tear gas, grenades and rubber bullets among other ordnance were deployed liberally by camo-fatigued "troops" "sweeping" the streets with automatic weapons pointed in battle array.
It was an absurd level of overkill, and it was promptly and forcefully denounced by military veterans who pointed out that even in the overseas war-zones where they'd served, they weren't as armored up as the St. Louis County and other police in Ferguson were (there were said to be 15 police agencies deployed in Ferguson on Wednesday under the command of St. Louis County police) and they were forbidden to go through the streets firing weapons or even pointing them at citizens and residents.
As was pointed out by Ferguson residents and as was obvious to anyone watching more than the national news about what was happening, the police were, time after time and essentially from the beginning, starting with the murder of Mike Brown itself, the ones instigating and precipitating violence, not the citizens and residents of Ferguson.
The police were using violent tactics against nonviolent protest. They were apparently attempting to incite violence by the protesters so as to excuse their own violent behavior in suppressing the protests. It was stark and appalling and for those who saw more than the national news about it, the tactics were obvious.
As it happened, a number of media workers were directly subjected to those tactics, including arrest, tear gassing and being told to "leave the area," and to "shut off cameras." A Huffington Post reporter and a Washington Post reporter were hustled out of a McDonald's restaurant by camo-fatigued police and arrested -- apparently for not moving fast enough to suit the officers. A St. Louis alderman was pulled out of his car by camo-fatigued officers, arrested and held overnight in jail, apparently for "being there" and bearing witness to what was going on. An Al Jazeera news team was tear gassed and their equipment dismantled -- apparently because they were bearing witness and broadcasting/recording what was happening. Other independent media were fired on, gassed, and threatened throughout Wednesday's operations.
This does not sit well with media types, and there was an immediate outcry.
Apparently, the outcry reached the Attorney General's office in Washington, and even the President on vacation on Martha's Vinyard became aware.
Something had to change.
And it did. Literally overnight.
Eric Holder issued one of his harshest and most direct statements yet regarding police action and misconduct, practically ordering the Ferguson and St. Louis regional police apparatus to change its behavior toward the people of Ferguson immediately.
The President came out from socializing on Martha's Vinyard to suggest that things were a bit out of hand in Ferguson, and they ought to cool it.
The Governor of Missouri who had been absent through the turmoil showed himself in town talking with the faith community.
Senator Claire McCaskill showed up to say that the militarized response to the protests was inappropriate and doing more harm than good.
Then the Governor held a press conference at which he announced that the St. Louis County Police Department, which apparently had been in charge of the armored response to the public outcry was being relieved of duty for policing protests in Ferguson, and that the State Highway Patrol would henceforth be the lead agency in command. A captain named Ron Johnson would be in charge. There would be changes made in the approach to the people and a different tone would be set going forward.
So let it be written, so let it be done.
And so it was.
Captain Ron Johnson became a rock star within seconds of his appointment. He said he would be out on the streets and so he was, leading a march down W. Florissant Avenue, talking with the people, wearing a casual uniform without even a hat -- let alone a helmet -- and bringing with him a number of other officers also in casual uniforms, all of whom mingled with the people and respected their dignity and their rights. '
Armored backup was staged some distance away, but it was never deployed during the boisterous protest/party (hashtag #Partest) proceedings yesterday and last night. Police kept their distance and didn't interfere despite the fact that thousands of people were on the streets until late into the night, and cars honked their horns incessantly as they passed by what has become the community gathering grounds at the burned out QuickTrip gas and market.
There were constant reports on the scanners of gunfire in the area, but the one incident that could be confirmed indicated that a man accidentally shot himself in the leg. Others turned out to be fireworks. Some were apparently bogus. There were a couple of incidents of fighting or assault and battery reported -- and confirmed -- but in each, the victims were promptly cared for, and the fights broken up by #Partest participants. There was no necessity, in other words, for police involvement in these incidents, and so far as I know, police were not involved.
They stayed well in the background, and in one case I'm aware of, they were "invited" to leave the McDonald's parking lot. Which they did.
The #Partest wound down some hours after I went to bed, apparently without incident.
The people of Ferguson used the opportunity last night to celebrate liberation from a brutal military-style occupation, and used the opportunity to dialogue with one another about what needs to be done to improve the situation and deal with the issue of police misconduct in the specific case of Michael Brown's murder but in the broader context of policing and civil society as well.
It was transformative.
There were dozens of solidarity demonstrations around the country last night as well. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people turned out in city after city for a National Moment of Silence observance to honor the memory of Michael Brown and everyone who has been a victim of police brutality and murder. Thousands showed up in St. Louis at the park in front of the Old Court House facing the Gateway Arch, and at 6:20pm, they raised their hands in common cause, in the now iconic gesture based on reports of Michael Brown's upraised hands as he was shot dead: "Hands Up! Don't Shoot!" All over the country, thousands and thousands of people were doing the same thing at the same moment.
In city after city, people marched and declared their solidarity with the people of Ferguson, and with the many thousands of named and nameless victims of police brutality everywhere.
The optics changed radically overnight.
And perhaps today behavior will change.