Things are settling down in Ferguson, Missouri. The governor, Jay Nixon, is slowly withdrawing the National Guard:
“I greatly appreciate the men and women of the Missouri National Guard for successfully carrying out the specific, limited mission of protecting the Unified Command Center so that law enforcement officers could focus on the important work of increasing communication within the community, restoring trust, and protecting the people and property of Ferguson,” Gov. Nixon said. “As we continue to see improvement, I have ordered the Missouri National Guard to begin a systematic process of withdrawing from the City of Ferguson.” …
Meanwhile, the unified command, which includes officers from the Missouri State Highway Patrol, St. Louis County, St. Louis City and other jurisdictions, will continue its mission to respond appropriately to incidents of lawlessness while protecting the rights of all peaceful citizens.
That’s nice, but over at the reliably left-side-of-things Daily Kos, there’s this reaction:
Did he really, seriously say “restoring trust”?
What does he have in mind for accomplishing that in a community where cops looked as if they had just parachuted into Taliban territory, pointed sniper rifles at protesters, tear-gassed them, shot them with rubber bullets, arrested them as well as reporters covering the story and, three times in a week, raided a church providing safe haven for protesters to get food, water and first aid?
All that did happen and no one seemed to be concerned about trust as this unfolded. The armored vehicles and lines of angry police in full battle-rattle, pointing amazingly powerful combat weapons at protesting unarmed women and children and clergy, did look like a bad day in Fallujah, or a series of bad days over there, way back when. This is, however, how an occupying power deals with a situation where more than a few folks in any large crowd are the enemy, out to kill you right then and there, and it’s a safe bet that the rest of the crowd, while looking innocent enough, wouldn’t mind if they did just that. It’s war, and it’s scary. The thing to do is send in overwhelming force and scare the shit out of all of them. Intimidate them. Subdue them. Make them understand how powerless they are, at least in this circumstance – and make sure no one gathers in groups of even two or three ever again – and keep the press away from it all. They don’t get to tell their stories to the world. The so-called free press is the enemy too. They give the enemy a platform. Deny the enemy that platform.
This is a matter of survival, one we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is what you do when the job is to impose a new form of order in a place where no one wants you there, when their seething resentment has turned to hatred and they’re likely to act on that. Even the infants in the strollers might kill you. One of them might be a suicide bomber – mothers are different over there. Don’t try to understand it. Everything is different over there, and it doesn’t matter if any of these folks trust you. That’s irrelevant. Submissiveness will do just fine. Break their will.
That’s what we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in more than a few other places – winning the hearts and minds of the locals is a long and difficult job, and there’s never time for that, and it seldom works anyway. You’re occupying their country, telling them how you think they ought to live, no matter how they think they ought to live. Endless discussion of why you’re right and they’re absolutely wrong never goes well. They’re not going to embrace country and western music and become NASCAR fans and do the Jesus thing. They’d rather you’d just go away. Sooner or later they’ll force the issue. That’s what happened in Iraq.
That would never happen here, but that’s kind of what happened in Ferguson. One more unarmed black kid was shot dead by the police and the community exploded, being mostly black. The police were almost entirely white, and they rolled in like an occupying army in an active war zone, there to intimate the local populace, the enemy, into total and abject submission. The idea was to be scary, so scary no one would mess with them, but that didn’t work out. America isn’t supposed to be enemy territory. We’re all Americans here, damn it. We only created police forces to take care of the few bad actors, the criminals, to keep us all safe – to protect and serve, as it says on the door of almost every police cruiser everywhere – not to treat us like the enemy. They serve us, but this time something went wrong:
A police officer who was part of the effort to keep peace during protests in Ferguson has been suspended for pointing a semi-automatic assault rifle at demonstrators, then cursing and threatening to kill one of them, police said Wednesday.
A protester captured the exchange on video that has been posted to YouTube and several websites. It happened Tuesday night during the latest of several protests that have followed the Aug. 9 shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer.
On the video, a man is heard saying, “Oh my God! Gun raised!” as the officer approaches. The identity of the man who shot the video is not known.
“My hands are up, bro! My hands are up!” the man said.
The officer walks near the man with his gun pointed and appears to say, “I will (expletive) kill you.”
Yeah, the guy was told to go home and sit the rest of this out. You don’t stand there in full body armor and point your super-duper military assault rifle at an unarmed fellow American and scream you’ll fucking kill him for not moving along peacefully. Ferguson really isn’t Fallujah – but the mistake is understandable. The federal government has transferred over four billion dollars’ worth of surplus combat gear to civilian police departments over the last decade – some have tanks now – along with sending them such gear in case 9/11 ever happens again, maybe some suburb of Boise – you never know. One thing leads to another. Dress the part, become the part. This guy just got into character a little too much. It happens to Hollywood actors all the time. Ronald Reagan came to believe he actually fought in World War II. He made movies about it for the Army and then for Warner Brothers. He got a little confused. So did this police officer.
Perhaps these folks shouldn’t play dress-up, but they say they must:
Law enforcement lobbying groups appear unsettled by a growing call to reform the federal programs that funnel military-grade equipment to state and local police, sparked by images of decked-out police officers confronting protesters in Ferguson, Mo., over the last two weeks.
The Daily Beast interviewed the leaders of several law enforcement groups and they were adamant in their belief that the programs, which help agencies obtain things like the mine-resistant MRAP vehicles, should not be cut off.
“The presence of an MRAP for defensive positioning should not unnerve a law-abiding citizen,” Jon Adler, the national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, told the Beast. “Police officers are human and bleed like everyone else. They deserve the best protection from violent assaults, and providing them with MRAPs or advanced body armor minimizes their exposure to serious injury or death.”
Yep, you never know when you’ll encounter landmines and the occasional IED out there in the suburbs of Boise, or a crazed suicide bomber. It’s a war zone out there, but law-abiding citizens shouldn’t get all twitchy about the tanks rolling by. If you’ve done nothing wrong you have nothing to worry about. You’ve done nothing wrong, ever, have you? Relax. But keep your nose clean. We’re watching.
That seems absurd to Americans – it’s a free country and you can do what you want as long as you’re not hurting anyone else, or gay – but everyone was talking about Sunil Dutta, a professor of homeland security at Colorado Tech who had been an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department for seventeen years, who laid it all out in a guest column in the Washington Post:
If you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you.
In short, do what you’re told – shut up, submit – or bad things will happen. You may even die. I’m a cop. I have that power. They might even give me a medal. That’s just the way it is.
That may be how it is, but Heather Parton is confused when Dutta tries to soften that up a bit:
Later he suggested that one needn’t submit to illegal searches or stops and said that citizens are allowed to refuse to consent to a search of your car or home if there’s no warrant. He also says that an officer must let you go if there’s no legal basis to stop and search you. How that’s supposed to work is a little bit obscure. After all, that would easily be seen as arguing and telling him that he can’t stop you – and then he will feel free to tase you, pepper spray you, shoot you or beat you.
That is a puzzle, but that’s very American, and Michael Bond explains that:
One of the most worrying aspects of this drama is what it reveals about US crowd-control methods. In Europe, many police forces have started to accept that the traditional model of public-order policing, which treats all crowds as potentially dangerous, often makes things worse. This model dates back to the French Revolution, which seeded the idea that crowds turn people into primitive, dysfunctional automata, and that the only way to deal with protestors is to attack, disperse or “kettle” them – a draconian form of containment.
Such tactics are slowly being abandoned in Europe because social psychologists have demonstrated time and again that they can have a dramatic and often catastrophic effect on how people in crowds behave. They have found that the way a protest is marshalled has a greater influence on whether it ends peacefully or violently than the actions of any hooligan minority within the crowd. This puts the police in a powerful position, even before they take aim with rubber bullets or tear gas.
Europe seems to have this figured out, and Matt Steinglass says that’s why what is going on here amazes folks over there:
The confrontation in Ferguson, as many observers have noticed, looks uncannily like the ones in Ukraine, Gaza and Iraq. There is clearly some kind of a global blowback going on, in which military techniques of forcible population control developed for use at the periphery of states’ areas of sovereignty are now being applied at the centre. Leonid Bershidsky, a brilliant Russian journalist and editor, laid out the similarities in a fascinating column yesterday in Bloomberg View. “Police officers around the world are becoming convinced they are fighting a war on something or other, whether that’s drugs, terrorism, anarchists or political subversion,” Mr Bershidsky writes. “This mindset contrasts with the public’s unchanged perception of what the police should be doing, which is to keep the streets safe, a conceptual clash that can lead to unexpected results.”
The difference between these two kinds of policing, Mr Bershidsky writes, can be modeled as the division between the London Metropolitan Police Force established in 1829, which conceived itself as fighting crime in concert with the populace, and the repressive colonial police forces the British Empire employed in “colonies of rule” such as Ireland and India, who conceived of themselves as keeping potentially hostile local populations in line.
On June 19, 1829, Robert Peel established the Metropolitan Police Service in London, which would not use the military techniques of forcible population control that were being used in India and elsewhere. The “bobbies” – without guns – would consult with ordinary blokes to stop the few bad people from doing bad things. It was a cooperative effort – Arthur Conan Doyle later invented Sherlock Holmes, the private-citizen Consulting Detective, to show this at its best – and it has been a cooperative effort ever since. The Brits might suggest we do the same – better late than never.
That’s not going to work. Our guys like their new gear, and Amanda Taub points out how dangerous that can be:
When the ACLU asked officials in the town of Farmington, Missouri (less than a 90 minute drive from Ferguson) to provide a copy of training materials for its Special Response Team, which is roughly like a SWAT team, the town sent only a copy of a single article. The article warned that “preparations for attacks on American schools that will bring rivers of blood and staggering body counts are well underway in Islamic training camps,” and went on to say that “because of our laws we can’t depend on the military to help us … By law, you the police officer are our Delta Force.”
In contrast, SWAT programs in larger cities tend to train extensively, and constantly. The Los Angeles police department’s SWAT teams go through months of intensive training before being brought on, and once there spend at least fifty percent of their on-duty time training, former LAPD Deputy Police Chief Stephen Downing told me. It is effectively impossible, Downing suggested, for small police departments to appropriately train their officers in the use of SWAT-style equipment, because they simply do not have sufficient resources or personnel. Small departments simply do not have the resources to support that type of program, but they do have the guns and trucks and armor, which they use.
It’s cool gear, and Taub also explains the Ferguson gear:
Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles, or MRAPs, are heavily armored trucks designed to withstand the detonation of land mines or IEDs. They were first deployed by the US military in 2007, designed specifically for use in Iraq, where al-Qaeda and Iranian-backed Shia militias were using highly developed IEDs. Now the vehicles are being passed down to police departments.
Asked why MRAPS were being used in Ferguson, a place with neither land mines nor IEDs, Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson replied that “people are using bombs now.” However, there have been no reports of bombs being used in Ferguson – he may have been making an existential point about bombs being items that exist in the world.
They do, and Gene Healy sees the future:
A Homeland Security report obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 2013 revealed that the agency has considered outfitting its expanding inventory of drones with “non-lethal weapons designed to immobilize” targets of interest. Meanwhile, both Homeland Security and the Pentagon maintain a keen interest in developing crowd-control weapons for occupations at home and abroad. In 2007, the department’s science and technology arm “contracted for the development of the LED Incapacitator, a nauseating strobe” weapon meant to overwhelm and disorient targets with rapid, random pulses of light.
Some have called it the “puke saber,” but the final product won’t necessarily be handheld. As the department noted in a cutesy blogpost entitled Enough to Make You Sick, “output and size can easily be scaled up to fit the need; immobilizing a mob, for instance, might call for a wide-angle ‘bazooka’ version.”
Who wouldn’t want a Puke Saber? That would be so cool, but militarized forcible population control has its downside. The American population isn’t the enemy. We have, however, made one segment of it understand that it is the enemy. Lanre Akinsiku explains:
To be black and interact with the police is a scary thing. The fear doesn’t have to come from any kind of historical antagonism, which, trust me, would be enough; it can also come from many data points of personal experience, collected over time. Almost all black men have these close-call-style stories, and we collect and mostly keep them to ourselves until one of us is killed. You know how the stories go: I was pulled over one day and the cop drew his gun as he approached my window; I was stopped on the street, handcuffed and made to sit on the sidewalk because the cop said I looked like a suspect; I had four squad cars pull up on me for jaywalking.
We trade them like currency. And it almost goes without saying that these stops are de facto violent, because even when the officer doesn’t physically harm you, you can feel that you’ve been robbed of something. The thing to remember is that each of these experiences compounds the last, like interest, so that at a certain point just seeing a police officer becomes nauseating. That feeling is fear.
That is intentional. Fear keeps people in line. Ta-Nehisi Coates got a worried text message from his wife recently, about a bunch young guys fighting outside their apartment building, and knew what to do, or not to do:
My wife wanted to know what she should do. She was not worried about her own safety – boys like this are primarily a threat to each other. What my wife wanted was someone who could save them young men from themselves, some power which would disperse the boys in a fashion that would not escalate things, some power. No such power exists. I told my wife to stay inside and do nothing. I did not tell her to call the police. If you have watched the events of this past week, you may have some idea why.
Experience is the best teacher:
Among the many relevant facts for any African-American negotiating their relationship with the police the following stands out: The police departments of America are endowed by the state with dominion over your body. This summer in Ferguson and Staten Island we have seen that dominion employed to the maximum ends – destruction of the body. This is neither new nor extraordinary. It does not matter if the destruction of your body was an overreaction. It does not matter if the destruction of your body resulted from a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction of your body springs from foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Protect the home of your mother and your body can be destroyed. Visit the home of your young daughter and your body will be destroyed. The destroyers of your body will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.
Even white guys like Matt Zoller Seitz, who got into a fight with some Hispanic guy in front of a local deli, will get the message:
I said, “Oh, no, he didn’t hit me first. He poked me in the chest.”
“That’s assault,” my cop said. “He hit you first.”
“I don’t think he actually meant to touch me, though,” I said, while a voice deep inside me said, Stupid white boy, he’s making it plain and you’re not getting it!
“It doesn’t matter if he meant to touch you, he hit you first,” he said. He was talking to me warmly and patiently, as you might explain things to a child. Wisdom was being imparted.
“You were in fear of your life,” he added.
By now the adrenaline fog seemed to be lifting. I was seeing things in a more clinical way. The violence I had inflicted on this man was disproportionate to the “assault,” and the tone of this exchange with the cop felt conspiratorial.
And then it dawned on me, Mr. Slow-on-the-Uptake, what was really happening: this officer was helping me Get My Story Straight.
Seitz gets it now:
I’ve never been profiled. I’ve never been stopped and frisked. I’ve never experienced anything of the sort because of the gift that my parents gave me, and that my son’s parents gave him: white skin. I’ve had encounters with police, mostly during my youth, in which I’d done something wrong and thought I was about to get a ticket or go to jail but somehow didn’t, because I managed to take back or apologize for whatever I’d said to a cop in petulance or frustration; these encounters, too, would have likely gone differently, perhaps ended differently, if I hadn’t been white.
Again, I already knew this stuff. But after that night in front of the deli, I understood it.
Good for him. Everyone should understand it. Our police have become an occupying army in full combat gear, in what they see as enemy territory where there are only a few good folks. All others will be intimidated into utterly passive submission, and won’t be pretty. Some will die, but many Americans, who aren’t them, seem to be fine with that. Those are those “other” people. They should be policed, if that’s the term. We don’t even know what that means any longer. Does policing involve a puke saber? It’s time to talk.