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.
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.