Policing the Masses

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.

Posted in Militarization of Police, Race and America | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Summer Things Fell Apart

Some prefer to visit Paris in August, because all those pesky French people leave town. They head for the mountains or the beach or the woods, because they not only know nothing much happens in the last month of summer, by law they get six weeks of paid vacation each year, and it’s just easier for everyone to take vacation at the same time. Half the restaurants in Paris are closed – actually half of everything is closed, by general agreement. The tourists can talk to each other. The first week in September, which they call “the reentry” of course, is when it’s back to the old grind. Americans don’t get this – we’re morally opposed to the whole concept of vacation, or afraid our job will be gone when we return – but we do get the idea that not much happens in late summer. Congress does its French thing, taking a six-week recess even if August has only four weeks. They’ve left town. Immigration reform can wait. Any permanent fix for the Highway Trust Fund, finding a way to pay to keep the nation’s roads from disintegrating and the nation’s bridges from falling down, can wait. They passed a bit of stopgap funding and will get to that highway stuff later, maybe. The symbolic House votes to repeal every word in the Affordable Care Act, meant to fire up the Republican base, have been put on hold too. There’s not even any talk about getting rid of Obamacare, to save the nation from socialism and the scourge of birth control that has turned American women into sluts. Let it rest. These are the hazy-lazy days of summer, and that may be a losing battle anyway. Obamacare is in place, and working well enough. There’ll be something else to be outraged about in September, maybe Benghazi again – and this is an election year, the midterms when the Republicans could take back the Senate and really shut down the government, again and again and again, unless Obama does exactly what they want – that’s the plan they’ve just announced – and if not that, they’ll make sure nothing gets passed on anything. But that’s for the fall. Summer is for kicking back. Nothing much happens in summer.

Not this summer – one more unarmed black kid shot dead by the police made sure of that. Black communities have had enough of that, and even white guys like Rand Paul are appalled by the militarization of the police everywhere. 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, looks too much like a bad day in Fallujah. Ted Cruz is upset with the police arresting reporters trying to cover this all – and Paul and Cruz are Republicans. That whole Republican law-and-order thing seems to have run its course, and things in previously obscure Ferguson, in entirely forgettable Missouri, get worse and worse by the day. Yeah, we elected our first black president six years ago, but anyone who thought all racial issues in America had been resolved was a fool. Obama’s election only made things worse. America’s fear and resentment of its black citizens, and their full-well knowing about that fear and resentment and how it marginalized their lives, was something that was only sleeping for six years. This was the summer that all exploded. Everyone woke up at the same time, and they didn’t like what finally saw – but this had to happen sooner or later. This was the summer it did.

This is also the summer Israel rolled into Gaza, gun blazing, to end all the rocket fire from Hamas, and that soon descended into Israel screaming to a horrified world, Look what they’re doing to us! Hamas screamed back – Look what the Israelis have been doing to the Palestinians since they grabbed our land, Gaza and the West Bank, in that 1967 war! They have a point. The UN and everyone else says that’s not Israel’s land, and all the settlements they’ve built in those “disputed territories” over the years are illegal, at least under international law. Israel, however, under that same international law, has a right to self-defense, but then using one of the most advanced militaries in the world to wipe out the nearly powerless defenders of a dirt-poor people, that you’ve cut off from the world for decades, seems a bit much, and the civilian casualties, nearing a thousand now, many of them children, does seem exactly proportional – but that was this summer too. Israel is our ally, but the Obama administration has been catching heat. The Netanyahu government has done everything it can to let the world know that Obama is a fool, and maybe anti-Semitic – which pleases our Republicans no end. They can hammer Obama with that. It’s been that kind of summer.

It’s also been the Summer of Ebola, and the less said about the Ukraine the better. There are still a few bodies out there in the fields, rotting in the late summer sun, from the commercial airliner Putin’s rebels shot down, and he’s still sending them tanks and missiles and whatnot, and massing his troops at the border, ready to roll in there and take back what he can for Mother Russia, just as he did in the Crimea – and he laughs at our puny sanctions, even if they may ruin Russia. What should we do about this? No one knows, but it’s been that sort of summer.

This is also the summer that ISIS (or ISIL if you prefer) took over most of northern Iraq after they’d taken over a lot of Syria, to establish a Sunni caliphate in the region – killing anyone who didn’t agree with their flavor of Islam, with mass executions and the heads of heretics stuck on pikes everywhere, even the heads of children. They scare the crap out of everyone, and the Shiite government in what’s left of Iraq, now with a somewhat less absurd prime minister, has been hopeless. The Iraqi Army, sent to deal with them, ran away, leaving behind all the tanks and artillery and other gear we provided them. ISIS has that stuff now, and they’re using it. Do we go fight them because the Iraqi Army we set up and trained wouldn’t? No one here wants another ground war in Iraq, a third one for us, so we’ve been carefully bombing selective ISIS targets, blowing up what we gave the Iraqis that ISIS now has. At least the Kurds are fighting the good fight, but they want to set up their own country, so the more we support them the more we hasten then breakup of Iraq, which was the whole point of the Iraq War exercise in the first place. There should be an Iraq. There has to be such a country – but there may not be one soon. There probably won’t be one soon. Oh well – it’s been that kind of summer. September can’t come soon enough.

Ah, but things can get worse, and they just did:

A clearly furious President Obama condemned the Islamic militants who claimed responsibility for beheading an American journalist, vowing Wednesday to beat back “this cancer” and showing no sign of constraining the U.S. military intervention in Iraq.

As 14 new U.S. airstrikes pounded Islamic State positions, the grisly video and photos of a masked militant killing James Foley ricocheted around the Internet and focused global outrage on the Al Qaeda-inspired army that has swept across much of eastern Syria and western Iraq this year.

The summer just got worse, with a new worry:

In the video, the executioner speaks English with a British accent, and U.S. and British authorities scrambled to identify him. British Prime Minister David Cameron told the BBC that it was “extremely likely” the killer was a British citizen.

The tape thus raised fresh fears about the hundreds of recruits with Western passports, including dozens of Americans, who have rallied to the Sunni insurgents’ side in Syria and Iraq and may return home to wreak havoc, U.S. and European officials say.

The Pentagon had sent in a Special Forces team, with actual air and ground forces, into Syria this summer, to try to rescue Foley and other American hostages there, but that didn’t work out:

The government had “what we believed was sufficient intelligence, and when the opportunity presented itself, the president authorized the Department of Defense to move aggressively to recover our citizens,” Lisa Monaco, the White House counter-terrorism advisor, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, that mission was ultimately not successful because the hostages were not present.”

Obama doesn’t want us going in, so to speak, but we went in. That was a surprise, but enough is enough:

Denouncing “an act of violence that shocks the conscience of the entire world,” Obama accused the extremists of also “killing innocent, unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence. They abduct women and children and subject them to torture and rape and slavery.”

The extremists “speak for no religion,” Obama said. “Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday, and for what they do every single day.”

As Twitter and other social media tried to block the spread of the video, Obama said the United States would “continue to do what we must do to protect our people. We will be vigilant and we will be relentless.”

Perhaps this is the summer everyone should be ruthless, but careful. Obama didn’t mention ISIS’ threat to kill Steven Joel Sotloff, another American journalist they grabbed long ago – but he was in the video too. No need to dare them to do that. Obama just ramped up the airstrikes. We won’t let up. What were these ISIS guys thinking? We immediately blew up six more of their Humvees, which used to be ours.

Does this mean war? Maybe it does:

“America and our allies and partners will only be secure when ISIS is defeated,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), two GOP hawks, said in a joint statement. “That means we must get beyond half-measures, tactical responses and defensive actions. We need to develop a comprehensive strategy – political, economic and military – to go on the offensive.”

They didn’t spell out what going on the offensive means. They’ll let Obama take the heat for getting into another ground war in Iraq, which is just what he should do, and not ever do. They’re sitting pretty.

Time’s Michael Crowley sees where this is heading:

The worry is that Obama’s rationale of “protecting Americans in Iraq” can be stretched to justify almost any kind of military action – especially now that he has more than doubled the U.S. presence in Iraq to nearly 2000 personnel since June. (A key stage of mission creep in Vietnam involved sending troops to protect U.S. air bases in that country.) But Obama has given himself even broader license than that. When he announced the dispatch of 300 military advisors to Iraq back on June 19, Obama wrote himself something like a blank check.

“We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action,” Obama said, “if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.” That language covers even more action that Obama’s protect-Americans vow. ISIS is little too close to Baghdad? Boom. Intel about suicide bombers eyeing Erbil? Boom. Imminent slaughter somewhere? Boom, boom, boom.

And now it is this beheading, and the Cato Institute’s Benjamin Friedman thinks this is madness:

Only the speed of this slide down a slippery slope is surprising. As I recently noted, the humanitarian case for protecting the Yazidi easily becomes a case for continual bombing of ISIL and resumed counterinsurgency war in Iraq. Their danger to civilians was never limited to Sinjar. And as in Syria, the major humanitarian threat in Iraq is civil war. Americans, the president included, need to admit being out of Iraq potentially means letting it burn. The collapse of the fiction that U.S. forces stabilized Iraq before exiting forces us to confront the unpleasant contradictions in U.S. goals there. We want to avoid the tragic costs of U.S. forces trying to suppress Iraq’s violence. We want a stable Iraqi federal government and we want Iraqis to live peacefully. Each of those goals conflicts with the others.

We cannot have it all:

Even if the new Prime Minister is amenable to Sunni demands, U.S. bombing is unlikely to allow Iraqis to destroy ISIL and its allies. Large-scale violence will likely continue. Suppressing insurgency will likely require resumption of U.S. ground operations. And even that, we know, may not help much.

As they say, been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Massive ground operations got us where we are nowd, and the American public is conflicted:

Thirty-one percent said they disapproved of the airstrikes, while 15 percent of the 1,000 randomly selected respondents who took part in the survey, which was carried out between Thursday and Sunday, declined to give an opinion. The poll found major partisan differences, with self-described Republicans markedly more hawkish than Democrats or independents, although a majority of Democratic respondents said they also supported the airstrikes.

However, a majority (57 percent) of Republicans said they were concerned that Obama was not prepared to go “far enough to stop” the Islamic State, while majorities of Democrats (62 percent) and independents (56 percent) said they worried that he may go too far in re-inserting the military into Iraq three years after the last US combat troops were withdrawn. Overall, 51 percent of respondents expressed the latter fear.

Slate’s William Saletan sees that fear might be justified:

In his weekly address on Aug. 9, Obama added a third mission to the military agenda: “We will protect our citizens. We will work with the international community to address this humanitarian crisis. We’ll help prevent these terrorists from having a permanent safe haven from which to attack America.” He repeated that point in a press conference: “We will continue to provide military assistance and advice to the Iraqi government and Kurdish forces as they battle these terrorists, so that the terrorists cannot establish a permanent safe haven.” That’s a huge undertaking. Any land controlled by ISIS can be construed as a safe haven. Does Obama plan to drive ISIS out of places such as Fallujah, which it held for months while the United States looked on? Does he plan to push ISIS all the way back to Syria?

Obama hasn’t forgotten all the principles that limited his commitment. He continues to insist that the solution to Iraq’s crisis is political, that Iraqis must achieve that solution themselves, and that putting U.S. troops on the ground creates a dangerous rationale for additional deployments to protect them. But 12 days into the military campaign, he’s showing signs of slippage. He’d better watch himself.

That may be easier said than done. In the American Conservative, Daniel Larison argues that these things take on a life of their own:

Once a president has committed to using force in a foreign conflict, all of the effective political pressure is on the side of escalation.

Having conceded that the U.S. should be involved militarily in a conflict, the president is bombarded with demands for deeper involvement in order to pursue the illusion of victory. If he doesn’t agree to these demands, he will be steadily pilloried in the media until he does, and any adverse development in the affected country will usually be attributed to insufficient American involvement. Since the initial decision to intervene was driven in part by the same sort of pressure, it is more than likely that the president will keep yielding to calls to “do more.”

That’s not just Obama. That’s any president. That’s what happened with Lyndon Johnson long ago. It’s structural, but Slate’s Joshua Keating argues here that what “mission accomplished” will mean in Iraq this time around is as unclear now as it was the first time around:

The cynical answer is that the goal seems to be for Iraq to become just stable enough that we can go back to not paying attention to it. And I suspect that in the end, that may have more to do with how long the U.S. media continues to treat Iraq as a major story than with what’s actually happening there.

Maybe we should let it burn, and then Freddie deBoer considers how we consider such things:

Though the left is often seen as home to only pacifists and those who see the hand of imperialism in all proposed military action, there is also a healthy strain of messianic militarism on our side. I regularly engage with lefties who believe we should be “doing something” for the people of Syria, although what that something entails is not consistent or clear. In this telling, the Syrian uprising is a legitimate revolutionary force, the Islamists among them a small corruption that doesn’t jeopardize a post-Assad future, and the situation such that the United States could deploy military power in a way that increases stability and humanitarian outcomes rather than degrades them. These lefties believe in revolution, and they want the United States to be a revolutionary power.

Freddie deBoer doesn’t want that:

I would simply start by asking: is the United States military in the habit of supporting revolutionaries? What about the history of this country compels you to think that it has the capacity to support revolution, or any interest in doing so? If the United States goes to war, it doesn’t go with some hypothetical benevolent military machine. It goes to war with its actual existing military machine, under the auspices of the same-old warmongering politicians and officials, and with the same old military leadership. We don’t have some spare revolutionary force lying around. So: do you want to break bread with those people? Do you want to give your support to them? Do you want them to do what they do? Because that is a necessary precondition of getting involved. The neocons who want us to get into every war are not suddenly going to throw up their hands and say “we’re sitting this one out, the lefties have got it.” You are free to say that you don’t want to get involved with Bill Kristol and his cronies, but they will most certainly get involved in your war.

And they all said we should have helped out the good guys in Syria long ago, because if we had none of this would have happened, which deBoer thinks is nonsense:

There are more arguments against intervening in Syria than I can count. The first and most salient is the only argument we need against calls for more righteous bloodletting: should implies can. The United States went to war under ostensibly humanitarian pretenses in Iraq. We had over 100,000 troops stationed there, and the result was a humanitarian calamity, limitless slaughter. We sent cruise missiles to liberate the people of Libya, and the country has descended into civil war and chaos. Saying that we should free the Syrian people implies that we can. But for now, I want left-wing advocates of military intervention in Syria to recognize: anything that the United States does, will be done in the way that the United States always does it. This will not suddenly become the country you want it to be. And no matter how much you wish it were different, you will be lying down with the Tony Blairs and the Dick Cheneys and the Weekly Standards… They will be getting involved, and they will exercise more control than you ever can. That’s reality.

Sometimes there’s nothing you can do:

Back in a rare moment of clarity, before quickly rediscovering his cruise missile liberalism, Peter Beinart wrote an apology for his previous support for the war. He explained that he had come to learn “a painful realization about the United States: We can’t be the country those Iraqis wanted us to be. We lack the wisdom and the virtue to remake the world through preventive war.”

That was true then, and it’s true now. Because the United States is not that country, because everything about our history, recent and distant, teaches you that this country does not rescue. It doesn’t liberate. It supports dictatorships, destroys enemies, secures resources, destabilizes countries, drops ordnance, and generally imposes its will. But it does not liberate, and no amount of wishing will make it the kind of power you want it to be.

In the Guardian, James Foley (not the one who was beheaded) is a bit more blunt about it:

One thing is clear from this latest evil act: the connected nature of a planet in which a possibly British man beheads an American journalist to advance religious insurgency in the Middle East, and the video is posted online. The idiocy of those who claim they have all the answers is equal only to the stupidity of those who think we can ignore global problems.

We can do what we can do:

Western nations should offer sanctuary to many of those devastated refugees and collectively ban for life the return of any young fools joining the jihad. But we cannot solve this explosion of complex economic, social and political issues – let alone heal religious fissures dating back centuries. This is not to advocate isolationism, merely to suggest any fresh interventions are laced with realism.

That’s not very satisfying, given this outrageous act, but that’s the kind of summer it’s been, one outrageous act after another for which there is no good response. Some summers are like that, one damned thing after another. It’s enough to make you wish you were French, heading for a campground north of Aix or something, but this is our August, here, this summer when everything fell apart – but that’s okay. We’re Americans. We don’t do vacations. It seems we can’t.

Posted in ISIS, Obama Escalates | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Unavailable Boldness Option

Any ten-year-old will tell you they wish they were a grown-up. They could say what they want and do what they want, without picky parents and impossible teachers telling them they can’t say this and can’t do that. Adults don’t have to put up with that – they’re free – but ask any adult and they’ll tell you they sometimes wish they were a ten-year-old again, back when they could do any goofy thing, or say something really stupid, and those same teachers and parents would cut them some slack, for being just a kid and not knowing better. If there was punishment it wouldn’t amount to much. Have you learned your lesson, Johnny? Yes, sir, and I’ll never do anything like that again – but the kid will do something like that again, and learn his or her lesson again, and make the same promise, and do something else stupid, and none of it will amount to much. That’s the freedom kids have, even if they can’t see it on any given bad day. That’s even harder for teenagers to see as they slowly morph into adults, angry that they aren’t granted full adult autonomy yet, even if their bodies are getting there quickly. They’ll scream that it’s just not fair that they can’t decide for themselves about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and all that. They want their freedom, adult freedom.

They’ll get that soon enough, and then they’ll be sorry. Adults can’t do any old thing they want, any old time, or blurt out, loudly and in public, any angry or enthusiastic thing that suddenly occurs to them. That’s a good way to lose your job, or your marriage. Those who are uncompromisingly bold and direct end up sleeping alone under a freeway overpass, or in jail, or on a psychiatric ward – although they might end up the next Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck, fabulously rich, and endlessly mocked. But those two do provide a service. They say rash and imprudent nonsense so that those who know better, but do wish they could say such things, don’t have to get in trouble. They’re surrogates. It would be that free, wouldn’t it? Ah well – back to work. There’s that deadline that idiot of a boss invented out of thin air, so what are you going to do? It sure would be nice to be the boss though – bosses get to do what they want and say what they want. Sigh. But there’s always Limbaugh and Beck. One can dream of freedom.

One can always dream of freedom – kids dreaming of how it would be if they were all grown up – adults dreaming of what it would be like to be the boss, firing fools and deciding what should be done and what shouldn’t, and when – but that’s a hopeless fantasy. The least free people are bosses. They got to be boss by being prudent, by saying the right things to the right people, doing the right thing even if it seemed stupid at the time, and mixing in a little boldness here and there, but circumspect boldness. They proposed nothing that might drive the company into bankruptcy, only something new that might actually work – a new process, a new product, or maybe some sort of restructuring. They showed, in detail, how whatever it was could work, and also laid out a contingency plan for everything that might go wrong, showing how to recover if something went south in a hurry. That’s how they moved into management, how they became the boss – they offered careful and prudent boldness. Letting it all hang out, as they used to say in the sixties, had nothing to do with their success. The sixties are over. No one’s that free. There are no hippies left, other than the toothless old guys down in Venice Beach, panhandling.

Everyone dreams of boldness anyway. The country’s nominal boss, the president, our chief executive, should be bold – everyone knows that. Those who run for president tell us how bold they will be because that brings in the votes. Americans don’t want someone careful. They want someone who will do something bold about whatever it is the nation faces. Democrats and Republicans always disagree about just what big problem the country faces, but both sides want boldness. That’s why there are sometimes third-party candidates too – George Wallace, Ralph Nader again and again, Ross Perot. They always say they’ll be bolder than any Democrat or Republican, given the mess the country is in, as it always seems to be. People are unhappy, they always are, and boldness is everything to them. So-and-so won’t take crap from anyone and just do whatever needs to be done. Things will be wonderful again.

We learned better. We gave that a try with George W. Bush, who actually did whatever he felt like doing and said whatever he felt like saying. We went to war in Iraq in spite of most of the world saying that was a really bad idea, something that would only end in tears, or something worse. It was, however, bold, as was finding a Justice Department lawyer who would certify that the Geneva Conventions regarding torture were now merely quaint, so we needn’t comply with them, or comply with most international law. We’d be bold, even if many were alarmed, and said so. Yeah, well, so what? Bush generally didn’t give a shit about what anyone said about him. He mangled the language, often saying stuff that made no sense at all – but he was president and those who cringed weren’t. He was a goofball in college with only the minimal grades to even graduate, but now he was president and all the smart people who actually knew things weren’t. It also might have been a bad idea to decide not to enforce what little regulation of the financial system was left after Clinton got through with taking most of it down in the nineties, but there, too, Bush would be bold. The SEC became a place for those who like to prop their feet up on their desks and take long afternoon naps. After all, totally free markets regulate themselves and generate amazing prosperity for everyone. Bush went for it. The economy collapsed, but at least he was bold. The two rounds of massive tax cuts for the very rich were bold too. Why not see what would happen when the rich had more money than they ever even imagined and no one else could catch a break? That could lead to good jobs for everyone, and general prosperity, all around. It didn’t. The idea that pure boldness was what we needed did turn out to be a hopeless fantasy.

America figured that out. In the 2008 election cycle George Bush hid, and his party was fine with that. Their new candidate, John McCain, didn’t stand a chance, and what was worse, he ran on his boldness. He’d stay in Iraq, he’d go to war with Russia over their brief invasion of Georgia (their Georgia, not ours), and he would bomb Iran, right now. His choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate was equally bold. She knew nothing about much of anything, and complexity confused her – even Dick Cheney, of all people, called McCain’s choice irresponsible, but she fired up the crowds. She was bold. He was bold. They lost. Obama offered an alternative to pure boldness.

Actually, Obama kind of cornered the market on moderate and sensible and pragmatic – he turned out to be careful and thoughtful and not radical at all, just as he promised. He’d think things though. Hope was fine, but doing things right takes time – it really is hard work – and one shouldn’t do stupid stuff, as he recently reiterated. In fact, from all the screaming on the right, Obamacare wasn’t socialized medicine, or even a single-payer system like Medicare – it turned out to be a series of exchanges, a matchmaking service setting up the uninsured with private insurance companies, and offering to help the uninsured pay whatever premiums they charged. It did set new standards for what health insurance should include, but we have standards for food safety too – nothing radical there – and forcing everyone to buy health insurance or pay a small fine was an idea that came from the Republicans long ago, to make sure there were no freeloaders. Obamacare was rather boring, actually – a middle-of-the-road system that disappointed the left and left little room on the right for outrage. They’re still trying to figure out what is wrong with it, other than it was too bold, which it wasn’t. It’s what Mitt Romney had done in Massachusetts, which had worked just fine. If Obamacare was bold, this was severely attenuated boldness. It was what could be done, given the Republican Party at the time. Obama understood, early on, he was not free to do more. No one was that happy with the result – Obama never considered a single-payer system – but no boss is as “free” as people imagine.

It may be that we never understood that, because now that there has been a week of racial upheaval in Missouri, with things only getting worse, there’s this from Ezra Klein:

President Obama’s statement today on Ferguson began with the words “I also want to address the situation in Ferguson. Earlier this afternoon I spoke with Governor Nixon…” It didn’t get much more passionate from there. The president’s tone was clinical. His delivery was understated. He seemed to be trying to avoid headlines. Even the setting was banal: Obama spoke from the White House Press Briefing Room; not from, say, St. Louis.

The main news in Obama’s remarks was that Attorney General Eric Holder will be traveling to Ferguson – which mostly highlights that Obama has not traveled to Ferguson, and has no plans to do so.

This situation may call for boldness, and the left is up in arms about Obama’s apparent detachment, but Klein reports that there will be no boldness now:

Obama’s supporters aren’t asking for anything Obama can’t do – or even anything he hasn’t done before. Obama was elected president because he seemed, alone among American politicians, to be able to bridge the deep divides in American politics. The speech that rocketed him into national life was about bridging the red-blue divide. The speech that sealed his nomination was about bridging the racial divide. That speech, born of a crisis that could have ended Obama’s presidential campaign, is remembered by both his supporters and even many of his detractors as his finest moment. That was the speech where Obama seemed capable of something different, something more, than other politicians. In the White House, it’s simply called “the Race Speech.” And there are no plans to repeat it.

Obama learned his lesson:

The problem is the White House no longer believes Obama can bridge divides. They believe – with good reason – that he widens them. They learned this early in his presidency, when Obama said that the police had “acted stupidly” when they arrested Harvard University professor Skip Gates on the porch of his own home. The backlash was fierce. To defuse it, Obama ended up inviting both Gates and his arresting officer for a “beer summit” at the White House.

Nor is Obama able to bridge the red-blue divide anymore. Presidents are polarizing figures, and Obama is more of a polarizing president than most.

Klein then dives into the data that shows that polarization, something one might expect to happen with our first black president:

This all speaks to a point that the White House never forgets: President Obama’s speeches polarize in a way candidate Obama’s didn’t. Obama’s supporters often want to see their president “leading,” but the White House knows that when Obama leads, his critics become even less likely to follow. …

If Obama’s speeches aren’t as dramatic as they used to be, this is why: the White House believes a presidential speech on a politically charged topic is as likely to make things worse as to make things better. It is as likely to infuriate conservatives as it is to inspire liberals. And in a country riven by political polarization, widening that divide can take hard problems and make them impossible problems.

President Obama might still decide to give a speech about events in Ferguson. But it probably won’t be the speech many of his supporters want. When Obama gave the first Race Speech he was a unifying figure trying to win the Democratic nomination. Today he’s a divisive figure who needs to govern the whole country. The White House never forgets that.

The big boss is really not free at all:

There probably won’t be another Race Speech because the White House doesn’t believe there can be another Race Speech. For Obama, the cost of becoming president was sacrificing the unique gift that made him president.

The blogger BooMan isn’t pleased:

I’m glad the president isn’t narcissistic and recognizes the limits of his powers. “First, do no harm” is a wise maxim for a physician or a president. I think there are real limits to how much benefit the country can get from the insights of the president on issues of race. But I still believe there is a way for him to talk about Ferguson that wouldn’t prejudice the case or exacerbate the divide. He used to be the guy who knew how to do that when no one else could. I’m sad that he can no longer do it, or, at least, that he no longer believes he can do it.

I don’t like to see the assholes win.

Adam Serwer simply sees Obama’s discomfort:

Obama is renowned for speaking eloquently about America’s lingering racial divides and how to bridge them – but he has also come under attack from critics on the right, particularly when it comes to racial profiling. During the press conference Monday Obama seemed to prefer discussing the ongoing U.S. mission in Iraq, where large swaths of territory have been taken over by the Muslim extremist he referred to as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. ISIL has rampaged through the country, displacing and killing Iraqis in their pursuit of a fundamentalist state. There was perhaps better news about Iraq, where U.S. airstrikes and Kurdish fighters appear to have at least temporarily turned back ISIL, than Ferguson, where the conflict between protesters and police appears to be escalating.

On the right, however, Jazz Shaw argues here that the Obama administration is over-reaching in ordering another autopsy of Michael Brown:

We try not to leap to conclusions, but it seems there is a rather obvious case to be made that the Obama Administration (unless Holder took this upon himself without approval, which seems unlikely in the extreme) has decided to latch on to this incident and it has political fingerprints all over it. How else would you explain it? Yes, the Brown family attorney supposedly made the request, but I’d be willing to wager that most every family in the country – of any race, religion or otherwise – who lost a family member in violent, questionable circumstances would love to have big guns like this brought to bear. But they don’t get it. And that, again, is assuming that it’s even appropriate for the feds to be injecting themselves into an ongoing investigation to begin with. There haven’t even been any charges filed, to say nothing of a trial being held which some might dispute after the outcome. I don’t care for the looks of this at all.

Also on the right, Allahpundit is skeptical:

Holder and Obama are going to do what they can to make black voters believe that someone they trust is conducting a serious inquiry, even if they think St. Louis County isn’t. Maybe Holder will end up prosecuting Darren Wilson for civil-rights violations if he’s acquitted in state court, a la the LAPD officers after the Rodney King beating 20+ years ago. Or maybe not: Holder tried to placate lefties last year by promising to look into civil-rights violations possibly committed by George Zimmerman against Trayvon Martin and then quietly let that slide down the memory hole as people moved on. They can worry about Wilson later.

Joshua Green, however, argues here that Obama simply has to get more involved:

There’s a good reason presidents usually don’t swoop in to the scene of a local catastrophe like the one that has emerged in Ferguson, Mo., since a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, a little over a week ago. It’s because the presence of the commander in chief would greatly complicate the logistical and security difficulties police are already struggling to confront.

But in Ferguson, it’s now become clear that those security problems are being exacerbated by the police. They have been firing tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters for days. They further inflamed the situation by releasing, against the wishes of federal investigators, a videotape allegedly showing Brown robbing a convenience store (the tape provided no basis for killing Brown). The menacing defensiveness with which the police have conducted themselves – arresting reporters and refusing to release basic information – has badly undermined the public’s faith. In general, they’ve done such a poor job of deescalating the tension and bringing about a return to order that Missouri’s governor, after inexplicably keeping his distance from the shooting for days, has now concluded local law enforcement can’t do the job itself and has called in the National Guard.

In Ferguson, the logic of why a president should keep his distance has now flipped.

This is a special situation:

It’s no accident that Brown’s family felt the need to hire its own pathologist to conduct an autopsy. It’s also no accident that the FBI and Justice Department are running their own investigations of what happened. Clearly, they lack confidence that local law enforcement officials will do a capable and honest job. But things are so far gone in Ferguson that only Obama himself can reassure the broader public and instill confidence that Brown’s case will be handled as it should be. All the more so, given his impressive track record of speaking to the country about race. Obama did the right thing by cutting short his summer vacation. But he should go to Ferguson before returning to Washington.

He may, he may not, but there’s always Rush:

Rush Limbaugh on Tuesday inevitably found a way to tie the protests in Ferguson, Mo. to the Benghazi scandal.

A caller on his radio show told Limbaugh he was tired of reading about Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson in media coverage of the Ferguson protests and said he felt they have been “using this event to gain political bank.”

“That’s the point. You gotta understand something. This is far bigger than the Reverend Jackson and Al Sharpton,” Limbaugh responded.

And this may be why Obama has decided to say little:

“But this is the Democrat Party, folks. The president of the United States is in charge of what’s happened here,” he said. “I think it is time for everybody to come to grips with a simple reality. I don’t care what scandal you name – Benghazi, Fast and Furious, take your pick, IRS – has anybody involved in any of these scandals been fired? Not a single person.”

The pundit argued that Ferguson is actually about quashing Republicans.

“This is about wiping out the Republican Party. This is about wiping out the Libertarians. This is about wiping out anybody who opposes Obama. Every bit of this,” Limbaugh said. “This isn’t Al Sharpton. This isn’t Jesse Jackson. They’re just tag-alongs now. This is Obama and Holder. But all of this is Barack Obama. Every event, every detail, every occurrence is Obama. And the end result is the end and absence of any opposition. So that’s what Ferguson’s all about, like all the rest of this has been about.”

Limbaugh has a vast national audience. With views like that out there, Obama saying much of anything at all would only outrage that vast audience even further, and he’s their president too, even if they don’t like it much. So the ten-year-old wants to be a grown-up, because grown-ups can do and say just what they want, anytime, all the time. And the frustrated worker, addicted to Limbaugh, wants to be the boss, because the boss can do and say just what he wants and no one can do a damned thing about it. That would be so cool. Rush does that. And the grown-up actual boss has to be very careful about what he says and does, because no adult gets to do and say just what he or she wants. Obama could be bold, not prudent, and speak from the heart, eloquently, and that might really tear the country apart, so he won’t, not now. Ah well. At least there’s a grown-up in the room.

Posted in Ferguson Missouri, Obama the Pragmatist, Obama Too Cool | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sensing There’s Something Wrong

There are those of us who are connoisseurs of irony, mostly former English teachers, who note that the current Democratic governor in Missouri, now torn apart by racial upheaval, is named Nixon – and his first name is awesomely biblical, Jeremiah. That would be Jay Nixon – but he’s not related to the rather nasty former President Nixon, who had to resign when everyone found out how nasty he actually was, the guy who despised Jews and blacks and the Kennedys and the press and all sorts of folks. The new HBO documentary – just Richard Nixon talking on those White House tapes that are now finally available, saying he doesn’t give a shit about the law (yes, really) – is the other Nixon. The Missouri Nixon isn’t perpetually paranoid and out to “get” his imagined enemies. This one is actually kind of boring, although he does have whiff of the other Nixon about him.

Jay Nixon is what they call a Clinton Democrat, one who practices what Bill Clinton called triangulation – do everything a right-wing Republican would do and there’s no reason anyone would ever vote for a Republican ever again. Bill Clinton gleefully deregulated everything he could, signing the bill that eliminated the Glass-Steagall Act, freeing the big banks to make money in any tricky way they could, and signed the bill that exempted all futures trading from any oversight at all, that led to the Enron mess and then the credit default swap mess that tanked the economy at the end of Bush’s second term, but he did say from the start that the era of big government was over. He was serious. He left the Republicans with no room to maneuver, and he reformed welfare too. To get your unemployment benefits, that you had paid for, now you had to work, doing something, anything, or provide documentary evidence each week that you had applied for some sort of job that week – no proof, no check. That didn’t help a whole lot of people – when there are no jobs there are no jobs – but it shamed them. That’s all that the Republicans wanted anyway, but Bill Clinton laid on the public shame for them, so the Republicans had nowhere to go with that. It was all very clever.

Jay Nixon is no slouch at that sort of thing – he oversaw Missouri’s involvement in the court settlements that ended mandatory busing in St. Louis and Kansas City’s public schools. He was the one kept the black kids out of white schools, not any Republican. Missouri Republicans criticized him for his campaign managers’ soliciting campaign contributions from utility companies, from the big money people, but then Hillary Clinton sat on the board of Wal-Mart for years as Wal-Mart made sure their employees were paid crap wages and would have no chance in hell of ever unionizing, and she’s tight with Wall Street – they love her and she loves them. It’s the same sort of thing, a Republican thing and no big deal, and when the Missouri Information Analysis Center issued a report on “The Modern Militia Movement” in, 2009, letting the Missouri State Highway Patrol know that these groups seemed to be linked to other domestic militia groups, white-power terrorists, many on the right complained. Nixon made the report disappear. No one will outflank him on the right. It’s no wonder Bill and Hillary love the guy. They’ve both campaigned hard for him in the past. Obama’s a little wary of him, but then he’s always been a little wary of Hillary Clinton. Obama likes Democrats to be Democrats, and then there’s that name – Nixon.

Obama may not see that name as an ironic coincidence – and think of Kent State. After the mess that was the summer of 1968, Richard Nixon won on a law and order platform – he would put an end to riots in the streets, even to rowdy protests, and he made good on his promise. Maybe the Ohio National Guard guys, a few years later, shooting a few protesters dead at Kent State, was going a bit far, but these things happen. There will be order, damn it. Democrats may tolerate a bit of rowdiness. Republicans won’t, and the question is whether Jay Nixon is a bit of a Richard Nixon. Will he try to outflank any law and order Republican with a bit of the old Clinton triangulation, and call up the National Guard?

That’s why the Clintons love this guy. He did just that:

As angry, sometimes violent protests stretched into a ninth day in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon played his highest-value executive card – activating the state’s National Guard.

Authorities have tried unsuccessfully to quell the nighttime violence that erupted Aug. 9 in Ferguson after Officer Darren Wilson, 28, who is white, fatally shot unarmed black pedestrian Michael Brown, 18. They beefed up the police presence and imposed a curfew. They tear-gassed unruly protesters and fired rubber bullets. On Saturday, Nixon declared a state of emergency, laying the foundation for his executive order Monday that called up the National Guard.

That’s usually done for fires and floods and earthquakes and whatnot, but Jay Nixon would outflank any Republican appalled by these uppity folks, and make history:

The last time the Guard was federalized for a civil disturbance was in 1992 during the riots in Los Angeles that followed acquittal of the police officers charged with beating Rodney King, National Guard spokesman Rick Breitenfeldt said.

Nixon said he issued the order Monday after peaceful protests and prayer meetings on Sunday turned violent. He said protesters shot at police officers, looted businesses, threw Molotov cocktails, blocked roads and attempted to overrun the city’s command center. He said the National Guard’s mission will be limited to protecting the command center that was attacked Sunday night.

“As long as there are vandals and looters and threats to the people and property of Ferguson, we must take action to protect our citizens,” Nixon said in a written statement.

It’s unclear that anyone shot at police officers or threw Molotov cocktails or attempted to overrun the city’s command center – the reporting on the ground is ambiguous at best and this was Obama federalizing the National Guard – but that didn’t matter to this Nixon. On his own he sent in the troops. It might have happened.

Obama has had enough trouble with Hillary Clinton calling his foreign policy utterly foolish, and now he has this, another loose cannon, and he tried to limit the damage:

President Obama appeared wary today about the National Guard being sent to Ferguson, Missouri, saying he urged the governor to ensure the troops were involved in a “limited” way. …

Obama addressed the volatile situation in Ferguson for a second time in recent days and said he called Nixon about his decision to send in the Missouri National Guard.

“I spoke to Jay Nixon about this and expressed interest that if it was used, it would be in a limited and appropriate way,” Obama said this afternoon. “He described the support role they’d be performing and I’ll be watching to see that it’s helping, not hindering, progress.”

Obama didn’t have long to wait. It wasn’t helping:

Several hundred protesters, some of them throwing bottles, surged toward a wall of police Monday night in Ferguson, Missouri, before members of the crowd began pushing them back in a tense confrontation over the police killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.

The crowd surged forward and back as police officers standing 60 wide and five deep held their ground. An armored vehicle began moving toward the crowd, and as clergymen and community leaders locked arms to hold the protesters back, the crowd appeared to be retreating about 10 p.m. (11 p.m. ET), potentially averting what could have been the worst unrest since officers fired tear gas and arrested at least six people Sunday night.

As authorities ordered media crews to retreat – saying they were provoking the crowd – police with shields and weapons drawn briefly began advancing while retreating protesters shouted at them. All through the showdown, clergymen and other community leaders waved their arms and screamed for the crowd to stand down.

The scene remained very tense late Monday night, but by 10:20 p.m., most of the demonstrators had dispersed. A lone protester who continued struggling was grabbed by officers, briefly setting off another round of object-throwing and shouts of “Mike Brown can’t relax! Mike Brown can’t move back!” but by 10:30 p.m., order had largely been restored.

Maybe the National Guard wasn’t the answer. Maybe there is no answer, but Jay Nixon has positioned himself well. No one can accuse him of being soft on crime – maybe an opportunistic fool and maybe an enemy of the black community – but not soft on crime. The Clintons would understand, and approve. They know a winner when they see one, and they’re probably still trying to figure out how Obama got elected, twice. Obama didn’t triangulate. That’s a puzzle.

That’s only a puzzle if every issue is a political puzzle to be solved by clever positioning that leaves you vulnerable to no one. Heck, the Republicans were left with nothing bad to say about Bill Clinton and had to resort to impeaching him over lying about his hot and heavy affair with Monica the Eager Intern, so there’s something to seeing every issue that way. Here, however, a young unarmed black man was gunned down by a white policeman and the people of the community, and many across the nation, said enough is enough and took to the streets. This isn’t a political puzzle, and Matthew Sitman addresses that:

In what I’ve read about the killing of Michael Brown and its aftermath, certain issues have been front-and-center, with the widespread evils of entrenched racism and the militarization of the police being the most prominent. But I’ve also noticed something else going on, which is that more and more people seem to believe that Ferguson reveals something quite damning about America itself, that it points to deeper, systemic issues that go far beyond one killing in one town – that the disregard for black lives in America is a sin that undermines so much about what we like to believe about our country, and our hopes for its future.

Something may be terribly wrong here, and Sitman cites James Poulos with this:

Americans—in and out of my Twitter feed—have begun to grasp that hideous possibility: that America has manufactured a violent and predominantly black permanent underclass, subjected to our malignant paranoia about crime, living slow-motion death sentences in ghettos from which no amount of presidential hope, change, or lecturing can release them.

Even more important, Americans have begun to understand that the scourge-ification of this underclass is inseparable from the realization of our worst collective nightmare – the scourging of America itself, the ruin of the promise of America that still strikes us in our gut as providential. The widespread belief, still largely subconscious or at least unspoken, that America is breaking, and that we deserve the suffering ahead.

Poulos then invokes Abraham Lincoln:

“Fondly do we hope,” Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural, “fervently do we pray that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”

We do not want this to be true. This is what we fear: that America, despite its brilliance and its progress, is inescapably complicit in the sin of slavery and racism, bearing a moral debt that cannot be repaid but in suffering and blood – as such debts are paid so routinely around the world which we pride ourselves, however rationally, on standing so far above.

We may not stand above all others, and sitting pretty when the next election cycle rolls around may not matter much when the country is tearing itself apart and most folks would rather just move to Canada or Portugal or New Zealand and be done with it all. Of course most people can’t do that, so they’ll take to the streets. Sitman just sees one thing as obvious:

I think it has to be clear by now that we do bear that moral debt and are complicit in the ongoing sin of racism and white supremacy, even if too few of us are willing to admit it, and what I found compelling about Poulos’ essay is that he points beyond policy questions to the deeper moral issues involved. I certainly hope the killing in Ferguson leads to policy changes, especially when it comes to the militarization of our police forces. I also hope that the protests in Ferguson are the first stirrings of dragging the police back under community control. But these reforms won’t really be enough, even if they do help. Ferguson is about more than a few police officers with big guns behaving badly.

Sitman then cites Ta-Nehisi Coates with this argument for reparations:

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices – more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

Sitman:

Beyond policy fixes is the necessity of a “national reckoning” with the reality of racial injustice in this country. More white people like me should care about the criminalization of black men apart from when it’s trendy to mention it on Twitter. What I am concerned about is what happens after the situation in Ferguson is “resolved.” And I don’t see how we can really have that national reckoning apart from the ways Coates lays out in his essay, addressing the full breadth of the way blacks have been marginalized, punished, and plundered throughout our history. We can take away the police’s military equipment, but we also need “a revolution of the American consciousness.” The question we face is not just “Why do the police in Ferguson have that equipment?” but “Why did they turn those arms against black people?” Beneath policy debates lurks the problems of the human heart, and the hate and indifference residing there.

The Clintons, and Jay Nixon, would understand none of this. There’s no political advantage to be gained with thinking like this, but in Politico of all places, Michael Bell tells a different story:

After police in Kenosha, Wis., shot my 21-year-old son to death outside his house ten years ago – and then immediately cleared themselves of all wrongdoing – an African-American man approached me and said: “If they can shoot a white boy like a dog, imagine what we’ve been going through.”

I could imagine it all too easily, just as the rest of the country has been seeing it all too clearly in the terrible images coming from Ferguson, Mo., in the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown.

That’s the whole point:

I have known the name of the policeman who killed my son, Michael, for ten years. And he is still working on the force in Kenosha.

Yes, there is good reason to think that many of these unjustifiable homicides by police across the country are racially motivated. But there is a lot more than that going on here. Our country is simply not paying enough attention to the terrible lack of accountability of police departments and the way it affects all of us – regardless of race or ethnicity. Because if a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy – that was my son, Michael – can be shot in the head under a street light with his hands cuffed behind his back, in front of five eyewitnesses (including his mother and sister), and his father was a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who flew in three wars for his country – that’s me – and I still couldn’t get anything done about it, then Joe the plumber and Javier the roofer aren’t going to be able to do anything about it either.

What have we become? We’ve become this:

The police claimed that one officer screamed that Michael grabbed his gun after they stopped him, for reasons that remain unclear though he was slightly intoxicated, and then Gonzalez shot him, sticking the gun so close against his temple that he left a muzzle imprint. Michael wasn’t even driving his own car. He’d been out with a designated driver, but the designated driver drank and was younger, and so my son made the decision to drive.

Wanting to uncover the truth, our family hired a private investigator who ended up teaming up with a retired police detective to launch their own investigation. They discovered that the officer who thought his gun was being grabbed in fact had caught it on a broken car mirror. The emergency medical technicians who arrived later found the officers fighting with each other over what happened. We filed a 1,100-page report detailing Michael’s killing with the FBI and US Attorney.

It took six years to get our wrongful death lawsuit settled, and my family received $1.75 million. But I wasn’t satisfied by a long shot. I used my entire portion of that money and much more of my own to continue a campaign for more police accountability. I wanted to change things for everyone else, so no one else would ever have to go through what I did. We did our research: In 129 years since police and fire commissions were created in the state of Wisconsin, we could not find a single ruling by a police department, an inquest or a police commission that a shooting was unjustified. There was one shooting we found, in 2005, that was ruled justified by the department and an inquest, but additional evidence provided by citizens caused the DA to charge the officer. The city of Milwaukee settled with a confidentiality agreement and the facts of that sealed. The officer involved committed suicide.

That’s instructive:

The problem over many decades, in other words, was a near-total lack of accountability for wrongdoing; and if police on duty believe they can get away with almost anything, they will act accordingly.

Anyone who lives in a black community knows this, and now white guys like Michael Bell know this. Soon everyone will know this, and know that Jay Nixon may be Richard Nixon come back to haunt us with seductive promises of law and order he cannot keep, but which make him look good. Perhaps enough overwhelming force will restore order in Ferguson, and make Jay Nixon a hero no hard-ass Republican can assail, and then Hillary Clinton will make him her 2016 running mate, outflanking the Republicans once again, but so far this hasn’t been going well, and the sense that there’s something wrong here grows daily. Clever political positioning won’t help with that. We do not want this to be true, but this may be what we fear.

Posted in Ferguson Missouri, Jay Nixon, Political Positioning, Race and America | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

No Longer Even a Thin Excuse

Over on the west side of town, on the north side of Pico Boulevard, at the top end of Motor Avenue, the massive Twentieth Century Fox studios form a long and imposing blank wall – no one can see what’s going on back in there. That’s just as well. Fox has had its share of disasters. The back lot, with its western streets (with the requisite saloon) and city streets and quaint European villages, is long gone. Liz Taylor and Richard Burton ended that with that absurdly expensive 1963 Cleopatra movie that brought Fox to the edge of bankruptcy. Fox took a bath on that epic and had to sell off the back lot to stay in business. The old back lot is now Century City – shiny skyscrapers and a still trendy mall and clumps of expensive townhouses in small gated communities. The real estate consortium led by Alcoa made that old back lot solidly profitable, and now that Rupert Murdoch owns Fox that sort of thing will never happen again. The movie business is, however, a bit of a crap-shoot – the sure-thing blockbuster bombs and the throw-away small quirky movie, starring no one anyone ever heard of, makes a mint. Go figure.

No one is sure why this happens, but sometimes it’s just bad timing. On August 13, 2014, Fox released Let’s Be Cops – a buddy-comedy about two young losers who, on a lark, decide to wear cop uniforms that they had worn to a costume party, all the time. Suddenly people respect them, and people ask them for help and advice, and for protection, and the girls swoon. Then they buy a used police cruiser and really get into it and do actual good – and screw up a lot, which is where the comedy is supposed to be. The reviews were scathing – this was stupid stuff – and the movie-going public, if there is such a thing, went elsewhere.

They were in no mood for this. On August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, an eighteen-year-old black man died after being shot multiple times by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who is white, and that was followed by a week of massive protests. The Ferguson police chief called in the county police force, and the police forces from other nearby towns, and they assembled all the surplus military equipment the federal government has been transferring to local police departments everywhere and rolled in with the armored personnel carriers and giant assault vehicles, and the troops in full combat gear carrying assault rifles. The snipers on top of some of these tank-things, in full body armor with advanced special rifles with laser scopes – aimed directly at this protester and that – was a nice touch too – and then the flash grenades and tear gas flew everywhere. It looked like a war zone in Afghanistan for four full nights, and the local police also arrested and roughed up two reporters, sitting quietly in a local McDonalds using the free internet access there to file their stories. Someone also captured, on camera, the local police scaring off a television crew with tear gas and then tearing down their equipment. The national media, except for Joe Scarborough, was outraged. Even Ted Cruz was outraged.

It really was a war zone, and this sort of undermined the premise of the cute comedy that Fox was just then putting in general release, the same day the governor of Missouri sent in the state troopers to take over for the local cops. That bought a day of calm. Let’s be cops? It’ll be fun? The chicks will dig us? It doesn’t work that way. That movie didn’t stand a chance. Anyone who wants to play cop, just for the fun of it, or to get the girl, must be a jerk.

There is an alternative explanation, however, as Annie Lowrey explains:

The story of Michael Brown’s death has in no small part been a story of police overreaction. The local force evidently killed an unarmed teenager, and then suited up as if going to war to police the generally peaceful protests that followed. And it’s revealed an irony: Over the past generation or so, we’ve militarized our police to protect a public that has broadly become less and less violent.

She explains the complex history of how that happened, but conveniently Kevin Drum gives the condensed version:

Two decades ago violent crime really was out of control, and it seemed reasonable to a lot of people that police needed to respond in a much more forceful way. We can argue forever about whether militarizing our police forces was an appropriate response to higher crime rates, but at least it was an understandable motivation. Later, police militarization got a further boost from 9/11, and again, that was at least an understandable response.

But at the same time the trend toward militarization started in the early 90s, the crime wave of the 70s and 80s finally crested and then began to ebb. Likewise, Al Qaeda terrorism never evolved into a serious local problem. We’ve spent the past two decades militarizing our police forces to respond to problems that never materialized, and now we’re stuck with them. We don’t need commando teams and SWAT units in every town in America to deal with either terrorism or an epidemic of crime, so they get used for other things instead. And that’s how we end up with debacles like Ferguson.

There’s only one possible conclusion:

Police militarization was a mistake. You can argue that perhaps we didn’t know that at the time. No one knew in 1990 that crime was about to begin a dramatic long-term decline, and no one knew in 2001 that domestic terrorism would never become a serious threat. But we know now. There’s no longer even a thin excuse for arming our police forces this way.

There is no longer even a thin excuse for any of this. Five days after the shooting, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson was saying that Michael Brown was a robbery suspect at the time – he released some fuzzy videotapes that showed the robbery in progress and the kid might have been Brown – and Brown somehow ended up dead, as these things happen with brutal robbery suspects, but a few hours later he then said that their guy, who shot Brown dead, was not aware of any robbery at all. He was actually just telling Brown and his friend to stop jaywalking, and they refused, so this had nothing to do with the robbery, which the officer knew nothing about. Later in the day, Jackson then said he understood his guy, who fired all the rounds into Brown’s body when Brown had his hands up and said he was unarmed, had seen the small box of stolen cigars somewhere on Brown, maybe, so maybe that explains everything – except this officer, Darren Wilson, hadn’t known that any cigars had been stolen anywhere. This was puzzling. Potential suspects in a minor robbery aren’t usually shot on sight, by a police officer who didn’t even know they were suspects, which is what the chief had previously said. This guy was worse than the two bumblers in that stupid movie Fox was pushing. Needless to say, the kid’s family wasn’t happy.

No one was happy, and that led to what happened eight days after the shooting:

A midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew will remain in effect early Monday in Ferguson, Mo., amid unrest surrounding the police shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, officials in the St. Louis suburb announced Sunday afternoon. Also Sunday, at a rally in Ferguson, speakers including the Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III sounded calls for the nation to respond constructively to the situation by addressing what Sharpton called the militarization of police. …

Community members need to take positive action too, Sharpton said. “Don’t loot in Michael’s name,” he implored, and told residents to wield influence by participating in elections. “You all got to start voting and showing up – a 12% turnout is an insult to your children.”

Sharpton also announced a class-action lawsuit for people hurt in the demonstrations, perhaps not that plausible, but something to make the folks who get a kick out of playing cop to worry a bit. Others actually know what they’re doing, which is not playing at all:

Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald Johnson, who took over the police response last week at the direction of the governor, said at the rally that he met Saturday with some of Brown’s relatives.

“They brought tears to my eyes and shame to my heart,” Johnson said. “I wear this uniform. And I should stand up here and say I’m sorry.”

Christine Ewings, a cousin of Brown’s, erupted in cheers, as did the rest of the crowd.

“When this is over,” Johnson said, “I’m going to go in my son’s room, my black son, who wears his pants sagging, wears his hat cocked to the side, got tattoos on his arms, because that’s my baby.”

Ewings and the crowd of more than 1,300 applauded.

“Thank you!” she shouted.

“Michael’s going to make it better for our sons,” Johnson said before sitting down.

A cop who knows it is life and death out there and says he’s sorry? He acknowledged that there’s no longer even a thin excuse for any of this. That’s not the stuff of Hollywood buddy comedies, and there was more:

Earlier Sunday, citing “extraordinary circumstances” in Brown’s death, U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. instructed Justice Department officials to have an additional autopsy performed by a federal medical examiner after unrest in Ferguson escalated again overnight… Holder’s decision is the latest development showing that federal investigators are conducting a far different inquiry than that underway by local officials.

Those who like to play cop, because it’s cool, are going to find it’s not that cool at all:

On Saturday, Justice Department officials revealed that they had repeatedly urged local officials not to release a video purporting to show Brown robbing a local convenience store shortly before the shooting. They said they warned local authorities that the video might further inflame tensions in the city, and were unhappy when the video was released nonetheless.

Appearing on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” on Sunday, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon echoed the Justice Department’s unhappiness that Ferguson police released the video.

“We were unaware they were going to release it, and we were certainly not happy that it was released, especially the way that it was,” Nixon said. “It appeared to cast aspersions on a young man who was gunned down in the street. It made emotions raw.”

Character assassination is not policing. Who knew? And these things have a way of backfiring:

The Rev. Al Sharpton on Saturday said the fatal shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager in Missouri would be featured in a large New York City rally next week originally intended to protest a Staten Island man’s police-custody death. Sharpton compared the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo., with the July 17 death of Eric Garner, who was put in an apparent police chokehold after being arrested on Staten Island for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. Mr. Garner’s death has led to calls for the New York Police Department to rethink its policing strategies…

This isn’t some Hollywood movie, and Sharpton was on a roll:

He began a short, powerful, applause-line-filled speech by declaring that the shooting of Brown represents a pivotal moment in what he views as a much larger fight for the rights of people around the world against the repressive forces of government.

“We… have… had… enough!” Sharpton pronounced, adding that people who agree with him could make a difference at the ballot box.

“Nobody can go to the White House until they stop by our house!”

The famous activist demanded to know why police had released a videotape of Brown shoplifting from a now-looted and burned-out convenience store. Sharpton said that he does not condone shoplifting, but he also doesn’t believe the tape has anything to do with the subsequent shooting of Brown by police officer Darren Wilson.

Sharpton demanded a federal investigation of the shooting, called for federal jobs programs in the area and urged community members to protest peacefully.

“We are not looters. We are liberators,” he said, to a massive amount of applause.

Folks cheered. The rally went well, and then it didn’t matter:

Hours ahead of a second night of a mandatory curfew, the most chaotic violence in a week of unrest broke out here Sunday evening, with law enforcement officers facing off against angry protesters and responding to reports of gunfire and fire bombs.

The violence began about 9 p.m. along West Florissant Avenue, one of the city’s main streets, within two blocks of where Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was fatally shot. Hundreds of police officers turned out in riot gear, shooting rubber bullets and firing canisters of tear gas in an effort to disperse protesters. Some in the crowd retrieved the smoking canisters and threw them back toward the officers.

It was not immediately clear what set off the violence, but there were reports that the police feared that some of the protesters were trying to encroach on their command post in a shopping center parking lot. Protesters said the police fired without provocation.

That is what CNN reports:

Officers fired tear gas into a crowd of hundreds of protesters marching toward a police command post Sunday night. Authorities also struck one defiant protester with rubber bullets.

St. Louis County police said several protesters had thrown Molotov cocktails toward the officers before authorities shot tear gas toward them.

“That is a lie. It was no fight, it was no shots fired,” a very upset protester, Lisha Williams, told CNN. “The only ones who fired were police. All we did was march to the command center to fall to our knees and say, ‘Don’t shoot.’ And they started shooting.”

Officers tried to push back and contain a crowd of protesters, which included children. The crowd didn’t let up despite an impending midnight curfew.

Let’s be cops? No thank you. And the late Malcolm X was wary of church rallies anyway:

The greatest miracle Christianity has achieved in America is that the black man in white Christian hands has not grown violent. It is a miracle that 22 million black people have not risen up against their oppressors – in which they would have been justified by all moral criteria, and even by the democratic tradition! It is a miracle that a nation of black people has so fervently continued to believe in a turn-the-other-cheek and heaven-for-you-after-you-die philosophy! It is a miracle that the American black people have remained a peaceful people, while catching all the centuries of hell that they have caught, here in white man’s heaven! The miracle is that the white man’s puppet Negro “leaders” – his preachers and the educated Negroes laden with degrees, and others who have been allowed to wax fat off their black poor brothers – have been able to hold the black masses quiet until now.

That miracle may be over, but there was other news:

One of the bullets entered the top of Mr. Brown’s skull, suggesting his head was bent forward when it struck him and caused a fatal injury, according to Dr. Michael M. Baden, the former chief medical examiner for the City of New York, who flew to Missouri on Sunday at the family’s request to conduct the separate autopsy. It was likely the last of bullets to hit him, he said.

Mr. Brown, 18, was also shot four times in the right arm, he said, adding that all the bullets were fired into his front.

The bullets did not appear to have been shot from very close range because no gunpowder was present on his body.

Now things get interesting. Brown might have been charging the officer like a mad bull or something, so he had to shoot him dead, even if Brown was unarmed. Brown was a big fellow. Everyone on Fox News will run with that. The cop was entirely justified in firing again and again, into the kid’s head and chest. He had no choice. Alternatively, Brown could have been standing there, at a distance, with his hands up, mouthing off, being uppity, or just having a bad attitude. It’s the George Zimmerman shoots Trayvon Martin thing all over again. The cop will probably walk.

And it just keeps going – Man Describes How Police in Ferguson Arrested Him for Smoking Cigarette in His Parked Car After Curfew and Supporters Of Police Officer Who Shot Unarmed Teen Dead Stage Rally, Raise Thousands and Rupert Murdoch Blames Ferguson Protests on High Unemployment in US and on and on and on. And some things said at that church rally didn’t help:

The civil rights attorney who represented the family of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17-year-old shot to death in Sanford, Fla., in 2012, told a rally here Sunday that police are trying to assassinate the character of Michael Brown, the young man shot dead by police more than a week ago.

“They tried it with Trayvon, and now they are trying it with Michael,” Benjamin Crump said.

“We know that this was an execution,” he said, noting that at the time of his death, witnesses say Brown had his hands raised above his head. “This means ‘Surrender! Don’t shoot!’ And the most hardened criminals in history, when they put their hands up, we didn’t execute them.”

And there was this:

Martin Luther King III said the local prosecutor looking into the shooting should recuse himself from case. “Justice perhaps won’t come without an independent prosecutor,” he said.

Yeah, that is an issue:

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley on Friday said he is leading an effort to remove the county prosecutor from investigating the Michael Brown case because he thinks the prosecutor’s personal experiences and recent statements have tainted his ability to act objectively. …

Dooley’s spokeswoman, Pat Washington, said there have been long-standing concerns among many black leaders in the community regarding County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s ability to handle such cases because his father was killed in the line of duty when McCulloch was 12 years old. The man who shot his father was black.

Most recently, she said, Dooley feels McCulloch crossed a line when he publicly criticized a decision this week by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) to bring in the State Highway Patrol to lead efforts to quell the violent street protests that erupted after the shooting of Brown.

“He injected himself in a matter in a way that further exacerbates the community distrust of him,” Washington said. “Rather than stay focused on the investigation, the prosecuting attorney decided to wade over into a whole other area and challenge the governor. He inflamed the community, which already distrusts him.”

That’s why Eric Holder and the Feds are involved. Robert McCulloch will probably decline to proceed with anything in this matter, because that Brown kid got what he deserved. McCulloch’s father is still dead after all. Robert McCulloch knows who deserves what. And on the other side there’s Al Sharpton:

“We are not going to shut up,” he said. “We are going to come together and have a real peace.” He told protesters not to loot in Michael’s name. “There’s a difference between an activist and a thug,” Sharpton said.

The cops might not see that difference. Except for Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ronald Johnson, every other cop in this debacle is just playing cop, because it’s cool, like those two bumblers in that misconceived new movie from the folks over on Pico Boulevard, and there’s no longer even a thin excuse for that. There’s no way to make a comedy out of tragedy.

Posted in Ferguson Missouri, Race and America | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Way It Is

Everyone wants to know what’s going on but no can know what’s going on, all on their own. The obvious thing to do is to pay others to find out what’s up in the world, to sort it all out, arrange it all in order of significance or usefulness, or its amusing oddity, then explain it all clearly and concisely, with the basic stuff up top and the subtleties and ambiguities further down that page, if anyone decides to read that far. Most people are fine with just getting the general idea. They’ll pay for that, the news, and they did in most of the twentieth century – when the news was in the newspapers, and then in the weekly news magazines like Time, or for those who preferred pictures to words, Life. Radio disrupted the business model, providing short news programs that were all the general idea and nothing more, and then network television news changed the model again when in the early sixties the three broadcast networks decided to offer a half-hour evening news program each weeknight. There wasn’t that much more detail, but no one had to buy a newspaper any longer. The price one paid for getting the news was no more than sitting through a lot of commercials for the new Oldsmobile or whatever, but the newspapers weren’t quite dead. Their reporters did the work of finding out what was going on the world, and making sense of it, and the network anchors would note that “the Washington Post reported today” or “the New York Times reported today” that this or that had happened. The network news functioned as an aggregator of other new stories, until they developed their own resources, a staff to go out there and find out what’s going on – but it wasn’t the same thing. Investigative reporting – digging down and finding out who did what, when, and why, and just how they did it – was the province of the newspapers. Television is a visual medium. Their folks in the field let us know that “this is what it looks like” and “this is what it feels like” when something big happened. You were there, sort of, and that sort of thing happened when the news shifted to cable. Think of how CNN and the others covered Hurricane Katrina. We were shown the horror. Anderson Cooper, in his tight black t-shirt, was outraged. The sad story of just how this could have happened, and then did happen, was secondary, and pulled from the newspapers and wire services.

Consider it a division of labor, and the television guys got to be the heroes, out there, right in the middle of awful crap, risking their lives for us, so we could see what was really going on – without much explanation. We’d get the general idea. Edward R. Murrow did the same sort of thing during the London Blitz, with the sound of the German bombs falling in the background. Forget geopolitics – the British people were heroic, and carrying on. That was the story. In 1963, Walter Cronkite starting signing off every newscast with “And that’s the way it is” – and that seemed right. We weren’t sure of the details of any of it, but we got the general idea. We got a feel for things. When, on February 27, 1968, Walter Cronkite paused for an editorial comment, and told America, after his trip to cover the Tet Offensive, that the Vietnam War was unwinnable and that we ought to move on, the nation was stunned. Lyndon Johnson told his folks that they had just lost Middle America. Six months later Johnson told everyone in America he would not seek and would not accept his party’s nomination for another term as president. What would have been the point? Reporting on what’s actually going on can change things. Cronkite gave us Richard Nixon as president.

That’s why intrepid reporters are always heroes in movies, except for goofy Lois Lane. Think of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, saving the nation from that same Richard Nixon. Reporters uncover things and save the day. The press keeps public figures honest, and reporters can explain what no one else can. They can see what everyone else missed – that’s the job – but sometimes the job seems impossible. That may be the case in Missouri:

Public anger flared again in the St. Louis suburbs on Friday after police sought to clarify what happened in the moments before an officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager last weekend. But that anger, sparked by claims the killed 18-year-old was a suspect in a robbery, did not spill over into violence as night fell over Ferguson Friday.

After days of refusing to release the name of the officer, the police chief identified him as Darren Wilson, a four-year veteran of the force in Ferguson, Missouri, and said that he was devastated.

The police also revealed that the teenager, Michael Brown, was suspected of stealing a box of cigars from a convenience store and assaulting a clerk minutes before he was shot to death.

But Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson said later in the day that Wilson did not know Brown was a suspect when he stopped Brown and a friend. Asked why they were stopped, the chief said: “Because they were walking down the middle of the street blocking traffic.”

The release of a surveillance tape appearing to show Brown engaging in an altercation with the store clerk infuriated Brown’s family, which said that the police were trying to smear the teenager’s name and justify a “brutal assassination” in broad daylight.

Here NBC is simply reporting who said what, in this case the police saying that Michael Brown was a robbery suspect at the time, and he somehow ended up dead, as these things happen, but also saying that their guy, who shot Brown dead, was not aware of any robbery at all. He was actually just telling Brown and his friend to stop jaywalking, and they refused, so this had nothing to do with the robbery, which he knew nothing about. Later in the day, Jackson said he understood his guy, who fired all the rounds unto Brown’s chest when Brown had his hands up and said he was unarmed, had seen the small box of stolen cigars somewhere on Brown, maybe, so maybe that explains everything – except this officer, Darren Wilson, hadn’t known that any cigars had been stolen anywhere. Needless to say, the kid’s family isn’t happy. Smoking is bad for you, but not this bad. And potential suspects in a minor robbery aren’t usually shot on sight, by a police officer who didn’t even know they were suspects, just as the chief said.

And that’s the way it was? If anything calls for investigative reporting, this does, and Ezra Klein states the obvious:

During Friday’s press conference, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson tried to sow doubt that Brown really was “One of the Good Ones.” He released stills from a “strong-arm robbery” showing someone who might be Brown grabbing a convenience-store clerk by his collar and throwing him backwards. The Good Ones don’t rob convenience stores. The Good Ones don’t assault clerks.

But this is a sick conversation. The Good Ones don’t deserve to be shot when they’re surrendering. But neither does anyone else. … If Brown surrendered, the threat was neutralized, and Wilson shot him down anyway, then the shooting was illegal whether or not Brown had previously committed a violent crime. This case is not about whether Michael Brown was “One of the Good Ones.” It’s not even about whether he robbed a convenience store. The penalty for stealing cigars from a convenience store is not death. This case is about whether Wilson was legally justified in shooting Michael Brown.

Some intrepid reporter really ought to looking into this, expect that early on Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson had called in the county police force, and the police forces from other nearby towns, and they assembled all the surplus military equipment the federal government has been transferring to local police departments everywhere and rolled in with the armored personnel carriers and giant assault vehicles, and the troops in full combat gear carrying assault rifles. The snipers on top of some of these tank-things, in full body armor with advanced special rifles with laser scopes – aimed directly at this protester and that – was a nice touch – and then the flash grenades and tear gas flew everywhere. It looked like a war zone in Afghanistan for four full nights, and Jackson had his guys arrest and rough up two reporters, sitting quietly in a local McDonalds using the free internet access to file their stories. One was from the Washington Post and the other from the Huffington Post. The reporters caught it all on their cell phones. Oops. Someone also captured, on camera, his guys scaring off a television crew and then taking down their equipment. It really was a war zone. It’s hard to report from a war zone, unless you’re embedded with the troops or something. Then you report on the good guys doing great things. How else would you ever again get access to what’s going on?

That’s how the game is played. Everyone knows it, and as Jonathan Chait reports, this led to an odd dust-up:

One of the more fascinating sidelights of the crisis in Ferguson is the way it has revealed the complacent, obedient, and fundamentally non-journalistic instincts of certain leading centrist establishmentarian journalists. The precipitating event was the arrest of Wesley Lowery, a young Washington Post reporter who was illegally ordered to leave a McDonalds near the demonstrations and, correctly, refused, leading to his arrest.

This angered Joe Scarborough. And by “angered,” we should be clear, we mean angered at the presumption of Lowery for refusing. The avuncular host of Morning Joe instructed him, “Next time a police officer tells you that you’ve got to move along because you’ve got riots outside, well, you probably should move along.” (Because nothing says “journalism” like following orders from authorities, however questionable, self-interested, or illegal they may be.)

And it gets better:

Scarborough attributed Lowery’s refusal not to any commitment to continue doing his job but to his desire to “get on TV and have people talk about me the next day,” because the desire to get on television in any way possible is the only motivation that makes sense to Joe Scarborough.

Lowery wasn’t having any of this:

“Well, I would invite Joe Scarborough to come down to Ferguson and get out of 30 Rock where he’s sitting sipping his Starbucks smugly. I invite him to come down here and talk to residents of Ferguson where I have been Monday afternoon having tear gas shot at me, rubber bullets shot at me, having mothers, daughter, a 19-year-old boy, crying, running to pull his 21-year-old sister out from a cloud of tear gas thinking she would die,” Lowery said on CNN’s New Day. “I would invite Joe Scarborough down here to do some reporting on the ground, and then maybe we can have an educated conversation about what’s happening down here.” …

“I have little patience for talking heads. This is too important. This is a community in the United States of America, where we’re seeing it on fire, they are on fire, this community is on edge, there is so much happening here and instead of getting more reporters on the ground we have people like Joe Scarborough who are running their mouths and have no idea what they’re talking about,” Lowery said.

Someone has to go out there and figure out what’s going on, and report back – that’s the job – but at Politico, Dylan Byers is not impressed at all:

The popular line on Ferguson, Missouri – the site of ongoing protests over the police shooting of an 18-year-old African-American — is that it’s become an American Iraq. The Huffington Post banner reads “Baghdad USA.” Lydia Polgreen, deputy International editor for The New York Times, has asked for a photo quiz called “Fallujah or Ferguson?” Phillip Carter, an Iraq War veteran, says the police’s military gear has transformed them “into an occupying army.”

Ferguson is not Fallujah, or Baghdad, but to the degree that it has caused people to lose all manner of perspective, it does resemble a war zone.

That’s what happened here:

Lowery and Reilly deserve recognition for their reporting efforts, but getting arrested at a McDonald’s does not a great reporter make. Video of the arrest shows that Lowery didn’t exactly move with great haste when the officer told him to vacate (though that doesn’t make the officer’s actions forgivable). MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough criticized Lowery for that on Thursday morning, and Lowery responded by telling CNN that Scarborough should “come down to Ferguson and get out of 30 Rock where he’s sitting, sipping his Starbucks smugly.” Many sided with Lowery. A few may have sided with Scarborough. One hopes that the majority chafed at how a story about race and police brutality turned, for a moment too long, into a pissing match between two members of the media.

Byers will grant, however, that these two reporters so full of themselves might have done some good:

All things considered, Lowery and Reilly did Ferguson a great service. At a time when Iraq, Gaza, Russia, Robin Williams, Lauren Bacall and the status of President Obama’s relationship with Hillary Clinton are competing for headlines, their arrest may have helped elevate Ferguson to lead status. If it takes reporters getting arrested to heighten our awareness of an issue – it often does, even in Iraq, Gaza and Russia – then so be it.

But they’re not heroes:

They’re two reporters who happened to be in the right place at the wrong time. The sooner this story returns to the death of Michael Brown, the standoff between the protesters and the police, and the issue of accountability and justice, the better.

That prompts P.M. Carpenter P.M. Carpenter slap Byers down:

Byers says “Ferguson is not Fallujah” – a negative comparison that certainly holds true in many ways. But in our two Iraq wars, you may recall, the American press was “handled” and often sidelined by a Defense Department worried about bad press. As a result, the American public received an often skewed view of those wars. Are police departments to be allowed the same freedom of First Amendment-nullification at home? Whenever law enforcement bungles the job of crisis management, are reporters covering the bungle expected to cringe and bow and “move with great haste” in the face of incompetent authority? And are the likes of a law-and-order politicking Joe Scarborough to assume some sort of journalistic respectability? Dylan Byers is correct; this is “a story about race and police brutality” – and Lowery’s story is but an extension of the latter, with heavy First Amendment overtones.

Ed Morrissey, however, gets technical:

I’ve been puzzled about some reactions to the video of police arresting Wesley Lowery and Ryan Reilly at a McDonalds and the teargas attack on an Al Jazeera news crew for just standing on the sidewalk with their cameras. Some have suggested that these journalists didn’t respond to police orders to disperse, and were therefore subject to detention and counter-riot tactics. However, that’s only a legitimate argument when an emergency decree is in effect that explicitly authorizes police to act in such a manner. I’m unaware of any such declaration by [Missouri Governor Jay] Nixon, and if one does not exist, the police don’t have the authority to impose it themselves. Our whole system of civil rights is based on police being servants of the law, not on citizens being servants of the police based on their assessment of when we can and cannot exercise those rights. That includes pointing cameras at the police, and sitting in a public restaurant in a lawful manner.

Bob Butler, the President of the National Association of Black Journalists, is thinking the same way:

Fifty years ago, America’s living rooms were interrupted with images of peaceful protesters in Selma or Washington or Chicago being bitten by police dogs, sprayed with fire hoses and pummeled by batons.

Fifty years later, Americans again are witnessing similar images, this time from Ferguson, Missouri, near St. Louis. The shooting death of Michael Brown and the subsequent police clampdown on protests in 2014 is frighteningly similar to how law enforcement treated civil rights marchers and the media in 1964. This time, their tools are stun grenades and assault weapons.

Okay, let’s go back:

Fifty years ago, the mainstream media failed miserably because its virtually-all-white reporting corps did not have the life experience to explain the reasons behind the protest marches. And stories of the attacks on protesters too often were told from the viewpoint of the police. This created an atmosphere of distrust and hostility and eventually it became unsafe for white reporters to venture into the black community.

Things shut down then, and there’s now:

I have covered dozens of protests. I have always worn my press credentials. I have experienced the acrid, sweet smell of tear gas during the Occupy Oakland demonstrations in 2013. Police have manhandled me. Yet, I have never been arrested.

What planet are these police officers on? Where did they get their training? In what manual is it spelled out that it’s OK to arrest and manhandle peaceful demonstrators, much less exhausted reporters simply trying to file their stories and recharge the cell phones at a McDonald’s?

Journalists are there to report on the protests. We document those people who break into Foot Locker and beauty supply stores for whatever reason. We report on those protesters who bring backpacks filled with bottles, rocks, hammers and spray paint cans, as well as those who march peacefully through the streets to bring attention to a perceived injustice.

We also report on police behavior, some of which does not always comply with their own police policy. During Occupy Oakland, reporters documented violations of police procedure. The police department later used our reporting as justification for re-training officers.

We can’t do our jobs if the police look at us the same as a guy wearing a ski mask throwing rocks. We can’t do our job if we are arrested for shooting video of police behavior.

Butler doesn’t want to be a hero. He just wants to do his job. Everyone wants to know what’s going on but no can know what’s going on, all on their own. That’s why there is a press. People want to have at least a general idea of what’s happening out there. They’ll pay good money to find out. And that’s the way it is. Yes, some folks just don’t want to be found out. Should we side with Joe Scarborough and tell ourselves we should just let that be? What good can come of that?

Posted in Ferguson Missouri, Press Freedom | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Unfortunate Show-Me State

People tend to forget that the Cold War was not just the United States and the Soviet Union building up absurd nuclear arsenals that neither side dare use, but could, and might, or grabbing small nations to use as proxies in an attempt to gain effective control of this strategic region or that. It was also a public relations war. Those communists were atheists. “In God we trust” was adopted our official motto in 1956, and on Flag Day, 1954, the words “under God” had been added to the Pledge of Allegiance, which every kid in America dutifully recited each morning at school. This was about which way of life was better, and we had something to prove, but that called for more than official and mandatory God-talk. We had to show the world just who we were, so the State Department sent Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, and later Dave Brubeck, just about everywhere. America was jazz – open and free and happy and damned cool. The Soviets sent the Bolshoi and a lot of tractors everywhere else. They were formal and practical – not goofy. This wasn’t war of any kind, but it was just as serious, and kind of fun. Those of us who were kids in the fifties remember it all. The vinyl Ellington and Gillespie albums are in the other room.

This all came to a head on July 24, 1959, at the famous Kitchen Debate in Moscow – Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the opening of the American National Exhibition there, in the nifty model kitchen of a nifty entire model house that we said anyone in America could afford. It was a cultural-exchange thing, and this amazingly American kitchen was filled with all the latest labor-saving gizmos and amusements, showing what a capitalist consumer market could do for everyone. Khrushchev wasn’t buying it. It was all toys. Nixon told him it was all great stuff, and the very reason communism was doomed. They argued back and forth and it was pretty much all nonsense, but this particular nonsense might have helped Nixon win the Republican nomination the next year, which he did. Then he lost to Kennedy and disappeared for eight years. The whole thing was forgotten.

Then we lost the public relations war. Bull Conner did that. It was blasting the young kids in Birmingham with the fire hoses. It was turning the police dogs loose on them. Elsewhere it was angry white crackers spitting on young black mothers. It was George Wallace standing in the door, refusing to let a young black man enter and enroll in his state’s university. Those images went out around the world. No words were necessary. This was the American way of life. Forget that model kitchen with the fancy gizmos. This was the American government doing awful things to its own citizens, the ones we said have certain inalienable rights, at the state level, with the federal government being sad about it, but then not doing a damned thing about it. The whole concept of American freedom and opportunity and inclusiveness, or at least tolerance, seemed to be a joke. The images said it all, and they may be one reason the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, and the Voting Rights Act passed the next year. Those images did incalculable damage. They were far more damaging than any words in any speech about America, or any book no one ever read. A totally illiterate peasant in South America or Africa or Asia could just look and see. We had to make sure nothing like that ever happened again. We passed some laws, hoping for the best. Then the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, and the subsequent riots that left many American cities in flames, produced more images for which no words were necessary.

Yes, the sixties were a disaster for us. Who could now believe a word we said about how wonderful we were? They had eyes, they could see, but time passes. Things settled down, and by 2008, we had elected our first black president. Every picture of him, a reasonable and thoughtful and courteous man, with a warm smile, and every picture of his perfect family, with the requisite cute dog gamboling about the White House lawn, countered all the images that had come before. The sixties were over and the South was, well, the South. All that stuff had been a temporal and geographic anomaly. That wasn’t America.

Missouri is America – the Show Me State – the starting point for the Pony Express and the Santa Fe Trail and Oregon Trail, where folks headed west. The mean center of the United States population is the town of Plato in Texas County, Missouri, too. That town is the actual center of America, or at least of America’s population. Missouri is the center of America in many ways, but Plato is not Ferguson, a predominately black town of about twenty thousand, a suburb of St. Louis, with a white city council, but for one black man, and a police force of over fifty officers, with three black officers. Trouble was inevitable, and it came on August 9, 2014, when a white police officer shot and killed a young unarmed black man, Michael Brown. Brown and his friend wouldn’t walk on the sidewalk. Witness after witness says Brown asked why he had to, as he was heading home just down the street, and ended up facing the officer, hands up in surrender, and getting shot in the chest over and over and over again. That’ll kill you.

The community was outraged – Brown seems to have been a good kid – but Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson miscalculated. He said he’s look into it, and there was no way he would reveal the name of the police officer involved, and everyone should just go home and wait for an eventual investigation. There was no need to make a big deal out of this.

That was a bad move. The locals didn’t want to go home and sip lemonade and wait for the white guy to look into this. There were initial minor riots, a bit of looting, that didn’t last long, then long protest marches with thousands with their hands up, carrying signs that said “Don’t Shoot Me” – covered by the national and international press. This was a few weeks after the New York City Police had restrained a young black man they had found troublesome with an illegal choke hold, and that guy had died. That had been ruled a homicide, but no one had been charged with anything. Something was up, and here in Missouri, the images of the folks in the street were compelling. Images are always better than words.

Jackson must have known this, so he decided to put an end to it. He called in the county police force, and the police forces from other nearby towns, and they assembled all the surplus military equipment the federal government has been selling local police departments everywhere and rolled in with the armored personnel carriers and giant assault vehicles, and the troops in full combat gear carrying assault rifles. The snipers on top of some of these tank-things, in full body armor with advanced special rifles with laser scopes – aimed directly at this protester and that – was a nice touch – and then the flash grenades and tear gas flew everywhere. It looked like a war zone in Afghanistan for four full nights, and Jackson had his guys arrest and rough up two reporters, sitting quietly in a local McDonalds using the free internet access to file their stories. One was from the Washington Post and the other from the Huffington Post. The reporters caught it all on their cell phones. Oops. Someone also captured, on camera, his guys scaring off a television crew and then tearing down their equipment. It really was a war zone.

It just wasn’t done well:

For veterans of the wars that the Ferguson protests so closely resemble, the police response has appeared to be not only heavy-handed but out of step with the most effective ways for both law enforcement and military personnel to respond to demonstrations.

“You see the police are standing online with bulletproof vests and rifles pointed at peoples chests,” said Jason Fritz, a former Army officer and an international policing operations analyst. “That’s not controlling the crowd, that’s intimidating them.” …

Scriven King, a 10-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force’s law enforcement component and a SWAT officer, attributed the initial spasm of violence to a lack of leadership and mismanagement of public perception on the Ferguson Police Department’s behalf.

“The first thing that went wrong was when the police showed up with K-9 units,” Scriven said. “The dogs played on racist imagery… it played the situation up and [the department] wasn’t cognizant of the imagery.”

King added that, instead of deescalating the situation on the second day, the police responded with armored vehicles and SWAT officers clad in bulletproof vests and military-grade rifles.

“We went through some pretty bad areas of Afghanistan, but we didn’t wear that much gear,” said Kyle Dykstra, an Army veteran and former security officer for the State Department.

They just didn’t get the concept:

As the violence continued to escalate over the course of the week, King said, Ferguson police also exacerbated tensions by allowing individual officers to engage with protesters.

“Officers were calling the protesters ‘animals,'” King said. “I can’t imagine a military unit would do that in any scenario.”

King added that if it were a military unit in a similar situation there would be a public affairs officer or civil affairs engagement team that would help bridge the gap between the riot control elements and the general population.

“I would hate to call the Ferguson response a military one,” he said. “Because it isn’t, it’s an aberration.”

These were wannabe soldiers, playing dress-up, but the damage was done. The images were out there. Everyone around the world saw that America would do to its own citizens what had done to countless locals in Iraq and Afghanistan – scare the shit out of them, to keep them in their place. Perhaps they’re wondering if there’s more to come. As more and more workers are left out the economy, no matter how hard they work, and left out of the political process, they might get uppity too. A fully militarized police might be needed to keep them in their place. This could move beyond matters of race. What America are we seeing here? Is the Show Me State showing us the future?

For America, this doesn’t look good. The images are appalling, but folks higher up decided to step in:

Federal and state officials unveiled a sweeping response Thursday to violent clashes between police and protesters over the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, with Missouri taking over security operations from local police and authorities agreeing to accept Justice Department help in handling protests.

Speaking from Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where he is on vacation, President Obama called for national unity following the police shooting Saturday of Michael Brown, 18, in this St. Louis suburb. “Now is the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson,” Obama said. “Let’s remember that we’re all part of one American family.”

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. then announced a series of steps his department is taking, including a meeting held Thursday with civic leaders to calm tensions and an escalating civil rights probe in which federal investigators have already interviewed witnesses to the shooting.

In unusually blunt remarks, Holder said he was “deeply concerned” about “the deployment of military equipment and vehicles” on Ferguson’s streets, and that Missouri officials have accepted federal assistance “to conduct crowd control and maintain public safety without relying on unnecessarily extreme displays of force.”

There was a fix:

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) announced that the Missouri Highway Patrol would take over security operations in Ferguson, led by Capt. Ronald S. Johnson, an African American who grew up in the area. “We are going to have a different approach and have the approach that we’re in this together,” Johnson said.

As a result, the heavy riot armor, the SWAT trucks with sniper posts and the gas masks were gone from the streets of Ferguson Thursday night, and Johnson marched with the crowd, eliciting cheers from the protesters. Johnson vowed to not blockade the streets, to set up a media staging center, and to ensure that residents’ rights to assemble and protest were not infringed upon.

“I’m not afraid to be in this crowd,” Johnson declared to reporters.

That seems to have fixed thing for now. He’s a good guy – so there will be better images coming from Missouri now, although that may not solve the underlying problem:

In a sudden burst of interest fueled by photos and video of heavily armed police that swirled on social media, politicians from both sides of the aisle rushed on Thursday – five days after the shooting – to condemn the tactics of the nearly all-white police force in the predominantly African American town.

The reactions were remarkably similar across the political spectrum. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), for example, called for authorities to “de-militarize this situation,” while Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), a likely Republican presidential candidate, condemned “the militarization of our law enforcement” in a Time magazine essay.

Fine, and now there’s a bill limiting military weapons being transferred to municipalities:

A Democratic congressman plans to introduce a bill to restrict a Defense Department program that provides machine guns and other surplus military equipment for free to local law enforcement agencies across the country.

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., said the legislation is in response to the death of an unarmed teenager who was shot by a police officer in a St. Louis suburb. The bill comes as members of Congress have called for the Justice Department to investigate the shooting of a black teen by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

Police in riot gear and military garb have clashed nightly with protesters since Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown and at times have trained weapons on them from armored trucks.

Johnson said city streets should be a place for businesses and families, “not tanks and M16s.” He said a Pentagon program that transfers surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement has led to police agencies resembling paramilitary forces.

“Militarizing America’s main streets won’t make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent,” Johnson said. He said his bill would limit the type of military equipment that can be transferred to law enforcement, and require states to certify they can account for all equipment received.

The bill targets a 24-year-old military surplus program that transfers equipment from blankets to bayonets and tanks to police and sheriff’s departments across the country. An Associated Press investigation last year of the Defense Department program found that a large share of the $4.2 billion in surplus military gear distributed since 1990 went to police and sheriff’s departments in rural areas with few officers and little crime.

The program is known as 1033, and Newsweek explains it:

America has been quietly arming its police for battle since the early 1990s.

Faced with a bloated military and what it perceived as a worsening drug crisis, the 101st Congress in 1990 enacted the National Defense Authorization Act. Section 1208 of the NDAA allowed the Secretary of Defense to “transfer to Federal and State agencies personal property of the Department of Defense, including small arms and ammunition that the Secretary determines is – (A) suitable for use by such agencies in counter-drug activities; and (B) excess to the needs of the Department of Defense.” It was called the 1208 Program. In 1996, Congress replaced Section 1208 with Section 1033.

The idea was that if the U.S. wanted its police to act like drug warriors, it should equip them like warriors, which it has – to the tune of around $4.3 billion in equipment, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union. The St. Louis County Police Department’s annual budget is around $160 million. By providing law enforcement agencies with surplus military equipment free of charge, the NDAA encourages police to employ military weapons and military tactics.

Yeah, well, it seemed like such a good idea at the time. It wasn’t, and in the New York Times, Jeremy Peters suggests some chickens are coming home to roost:

When the police bring the hammer down, whether on Occupy Wall Street in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in 2011 or outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, the response from conservatives tend to be fairly consistent: The protesters got what they had coming.

But demonstrations this week over the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., and the overwhelming law enforcement response that followed have stirred more complicated reactions, with many on the right torn between an impulse to see order restored and concern about whether the crackdown is a symptom of a state run amok.

You can’t have it both ways:

With broadcasts from Ferguson showing the streets engulfed in smoke as officers looked on wearing military fatigues and carrying high-powered rifles, some prominent conservative commentators and leading Republican politicians began questioning whether the police had gone too far.

These reactions point to a larger debate inside the conservative movement today, as Republicans struggle with how enthusiastically to embrace an ascendant strain of libertarianism within their ranks.

Rand Paul is one of those libertarians, but somewhat alone:

“There should be a difference between a police response and a military response,” he wrote. “The images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action.”

Other conservatives have focused on instances in which chaos has broken out in the streets. Images and headlines on The Drudge Report and Breitbart.com have singled out acts of violence among demonstrators and shown looters breaking store windows.

In one segment broadcast on Fox News on Thursday, a reporter walked down the street with demonstrators who he said were members of the New Black Panther Party, a radical group.

That worked before but it gets old:

Since Richard M. Nixon made cracking down on crime a central issue of his 1968 presidential campaign Republicans have held themselves up as the alternative to a Democratic Party they have derided as soft on issues of law and order. But an appetite for changes in the criminal justice system has been building among Republicans, many of whom believe the tough-justice approach has run its course.

Mr. Paul, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin are among those who say that the federal and state governments need to rethink the way convicts are sentenced and imprisoned, arguing that the current system is inhumane and too costly.

Mr. Paul’s remarks on Thursday were similar to those of other leading conservatives who have weighed in on the events in Ferguson.

“Reporters should never be detained – a free press is too important – simply for doing their jobs,” Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, wrote on his Facebook page on Thursday, reacting to news that journalists from The Washington Post and The Huffington Post had been held by the police. “Civil liberties must be protected, but violence is not the answer.”

Erick Erickson, a conservative writer, took to Twitter to question why the police needed to display so much firepower. “It is pretty damn insane that people who spend all day writing speeding tickets,” he wrote, “hop in tanks with AR-15s at night.”

Perhaps so, but you do want law and order, but not a police state, and they haven’t quite worked out how you find something in-between, and there’s that other matter:

Another question raised by the unrest in Ferguson – one that poses far more discomfort for Republicans – is how race plays into unequal treatment under the justice system.

On this delicate issue, Mr. Paul went a step further than many other conservatives this week. With a system so broken, he wrote, it is no wonder black people in Ferguson feel singled out.

He added a personal aside. “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,” Mr. Paul wrote. “But I wouldn’t have expected to be shot.”

Is he allowed to say that? He won’t be appearing on Fox News again anytime soon. They’re telling us about the massive threat posed by the New Black Panther Party – all twenty-seven of those guys, at best guess. Every time someone looks at that group it’s smaller than the last time – but Fox News knows what keeps people watching, and buying reverse mortgages and denture cream from their advertisers. Let it be.

It’s the images that matter. Nixon and Khrushchev argued over a kitchen blender in 1959, about what America has to show the world about who they really are. In the early sixties there were those images from Birmingham and Selma, and then six years ago those images of Obama dancing with his stunning wife at the balls on inauguration night, and images of his pretty daughters looking on. Now there are images of a town in the Show Me State looking a lot like Baghdad in 2006 or so. All the words don’t matter. People see what’s going on.

Posted in Ferguson Missouri, Law and Order, Militarization of Police, Race and America | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment