Fortunately for all of us as members of an active democracy, the protests in Ferguson, MO have continued strongly for three weeks now. What would normally have been driven down under the heel of police action, the Ferguson protests have gained numbers and a higher profile over their course. In that time, the lessons, the implications and facts of the events have been subject to change, pushed in various directions by competing narratives. As an ongoing event, the various sides in this conflict have continuously worked for control of information, with some claiming that race has been over-emphasized while others have made it clear that this is only the tip of a racial iceberg that’s been sitting below our societal surface for too long. Even as protestors and supporters of the Brown family hold vigils for their deceased son, the St. Louis PD have organized a fund-raising effort and PR campaign to fight the “unfair shake” that Officer Darren Wilson is reportedly likely to receive. On our biased cable news channels, the battle for the narrative is fought most succinctly, wrapping talking points in conveniently punchy headlines and employing pundits to discuss these points ad nauseum; the more times you repeat something, the more likely it is to become true. In our personal discussions and on social media, opinions are thrown around with the freedom that online relative anonymity allows. Kansas City police officer, Marc Catron, recently made news by posting a false photo of Mike Brown on his facebook page with disparaging remarks such as, “Remember how white people rioted after OJs acquittal? Me neither.” The photo, showing a young man with a gun in his hand and a wad of money in his mouth, was actually of a murder defendant in Oregon. Catron is now “under internal review”.
Saying both sides of this conflict are fighting the same battle to control the narrative is inherently problematic. Firstly, saying so infers two polar sides to the conflict and, much like any tangled mess involving we humans, there are far more than just two. Secondly, placing two sides to the conflict assumes some relatively equal level of responsibility and I’d say that lets off the Ferguson PD pretty easy. In this large conversation there is a fact that is absolutely essential we not overlook: law enforcement officers (LEO’s), as protectors of Law and Order are ALWAYS to be held to a higher standard than both general civilians and any suspects/persons they may encounter in the course of performing their duties. To introduce the idea that these guys are just people, eager to do their job and get home to their family just like the rest of us ignores the basic idea that we have endowed each and every officer in this nation with a weapon (several, in fact) and a mandate to protect us. We therefore require from them a higher level of bravery, poise, sound decision-making, and selflessness than we would require of ourselves. Far too often, as we’ll see below, tragedies involving police originate/escalate because the officer ignores or forgets one or both of the following: 1. Police are to be held to a higher standard of conduct than civilians and 2. Police are not above the Law. We’ll talk more about the latter in a moment but the former rears its head all too often as LEO supporters attempt this line of support: “If you were in the situation, you’d shoot first too.” Well I’m not a cop. In truth, ANY event involving police abuse of power is a danger to our society so measuring police statistics on the matter becomes spurious in the face of any single tragedy.
As we look into the face of the #Ferguson protests and the subsequent conversation, there are two big points that need to be addressed.
#1 – This is not just about Race, this is about abuse of authority. And not just in Ferguson, Missouri, this is about a culture pervasive across our nation that imbues LEO’s with the belief that because of who they are and what they do they are not subject to the same societal (and legal) rules, such as not threatening an unarmed person with a gun to the face as seen in too many of the below examples. As the disputed events of Mike Brown’s death, the riots, and the subsequent protests bring police brutality to the forefronts of our minds, several examples from the past ten months alone form a frightening picture/pattern.
Back in March of this year, Iberia Parish, Louisiana hit the news with the death of Victor White III, who supposedly committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest while handcuffed behind his back in the back seat of a police car. The details of White’s death are predictably sketchy and hidden, including a coroner’s report that doesn’t corroborate the police version of events. And “suicide while handcuffed” isn’t as uncommon as one might reasonably believe/hope (and yes, the ridiculousness of that statement does not escape me). Three days before Mike Brown lost his life, in Baltimore Tyree Woodson was also the victim of alleged suicide by means of a secret handgun while cuffed in the back of a cop car. And in November of 2013, 17-year-old Jesus Huerta’s supposed suicide was a head shot while handcuffed.
Two weeks after Mike Brown’s death, police in Ottawa, Kansas gunned down a mentally-unstable, unarmed teen named Joseph Jennings even as the victim’s family stood by and begged for his life.
Not far away, in St. Paul, MN earlier this year video hit Youtube of a black man being harassed for no apparent reason and then tasered in front of his children whom he was picking up from school (update: this video is no longer available). On Wednesday, a Commander for the Chicago police department, Glenn Evans, was placed on desk duty after an incident where he simultaneously stuck a gun in a man’s mouth and his taser to his groin. Sadly this is the last of 9 excessive force accusations Evans has faced in the last ten years, two of which he was disciplined for. Four days later an Oklahoma police officer named Daniel Holtzclaw (nicknamed “the Claw”) was charged with “four counts of sexual battery, four counts of indecent exposure, burglary, stalking, four counts of forcible oral sodomy, and two counts of rape” (all during the course of executing his duties). And outrage has recently been sparked in Chicago over the September 2013 shooting of Marlon Horton by off-duty officer Kenneth Walker as security footage has surfaced showing Walker and the female security guard involved initiating the conflict and then cavalierly standing around as Horton bleeds out on the pavement.
This is by no means an exhaustive list nor was it difficult to assemble. Moving back to Ferguson, the cop that has been nicknamed “Officer Go Fuck Yourself” has resigned his position after video recently surfaced of him pointing his assault rifle into the face of passing protestors and threatening to “fucking kill” them. When asked for his name and badge number he simply replied, “Go Fuck Yourself”, and thus his nickname was born. In the video, Officer GFY’s panic is evident, a fact that several of the protestors/cameramen bring to the attention of his superior officers. It is anger, rage even, in the face of Officer GFY, an attitude seemingly unwarranted by the relatively peaceful crowd and unshared by his fellow LEO’s. As he moves within inches of one protestor’s face with the barrel of his AR-15, GFY displays a genuine, uncontrollable desire to do damage to someone around him. Where do we draw the line between public protection and personal vendetta?
Though Officer GFY (real name: Lt. Ray Albers) resigned, many LEOs facing accusations of abuse are investigated not by any independent source but through a highly disputable process of “Internal Review”. Internal Review is the biggest crock of shit in these cases and a diseased root of the problem of cop abuse of power. Departments are eager to bury the situation in a “review” process that will do nothing but put the officer on temporary (usually paid) leave, protecting the above-the-law notion inherent in the country’s biggest fraternity. It is that exact same attitude that allows serious abuse of power, resulting in undue incarceration and, all too often, death. When we allow our officers of the law to go on believing that they create law and order rather than protecting those ideals which exist outside and without them, we inherently allow personal biases (which is often latent racism, to be honest) and ulterior motives to inform their actions. We have allowed our officers in far too many stations and cities across the country to become over-testosteroned, angry, driven-by-racist-vengeance vigilantes, eager to bust someone for something rather than being driven by a desire to protect. And it would be different if these instances of blatant police misconduct were met with outrage on the part of their fellow officers. It would serve to disprove my generalizations but that is never the reaction. It is always and continuously an effort to cover up and bury away in the principle of “protecting their own”. Fraternal Order, indeed.
Side note: We’re lucky in this country that our gun nuts and our military are generally aligned on the same side. If it were WGWG’s (white guys with guns) being harassed, disproportionally incarcerated, and killed by the justice/military segment of our democracy you best believe it would look a lot more like Ukraine around this bitch.
#2 – It IS strongly about race and claims that it is not are attempts to change the narrative and ignore the more basic facts. Ferguson stands as an outlier to the surrounding St. Louis area where the overall black population is around 25%. Ferguson is the result of what’s called the “Great Inversion” where whites began to reverse the trend of urban flight, heading back into the city and leaving some suburban neighborhoods racially disparate. In the city of Ferguson, 65% of the population is black and only three out of 53 police officers are. Many have described the predominantly black town as a pot ready to boil over, facing high unemployment rates and a staggering 21% of its population below the poverty line.
It’s in the larger conversation, though, that the question of race and prejudices strike me strongest. Especially in the subsequent developments of the conversation, those on our own social media and within our personal groups, we can see some clear examples of the racial divide. Keen to me is the quickness to anger, to blindly group people and ignore the facts, as latent racism boils its way to an otherwise falsely calm surface. Racism is alive and well in America, even in those one might think too young to feel its wicked influence. The truth is there are a whole lot of our country’s youngest citizens who have been indoctrinated with prejudices and justifications thereof (for this generation, especially toward Muslims), coupled with the idea that racism shouldn’t be spoken about. This is a dangerous dichotomy.
One narrative that has been making the rounds on both cable news and social media outlets is the notion that we aren’t talking about the thousands of other shooting deaths that occur each year (roughly 30/day in 2013) . Though it is great to see “black on black crime” underreporting suddenly being of concern to conservatives, it feels a bit contrived. And the distortion goes beyond our divergent news media, it is on wide display across our social media platforms. In one example that’s come across my news feed this week, several people have expressed outrage at the 2012 murder of Autumn Pasquale in New Jersey. A young white girl murdered by two black men and placed in a garbage can, this case is indeed horrific and some in my own social media circles have cited it as an example of reverse racism – where are the riots, the protests for young Autumn Pasquale? This type of pandering uses a truly terrible circumstance to confuse and twist the narrative. I think, given what I’ve read of that case, it would be reasonable for those involved to be angry and raising a protest about the lack of police action in bringing the girl’s killers to justice. But one event obviously has nothing to do with the other and Miss Pasquale, while tragically killed, was not murdered at the hands of officers of our justice system.
Last Tuesday, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show returned after a two-week vacation and opened with an especially poignant segment (even for Stewart) on Ferguson and race in our country. Employing his typical brand of sharp wit to begin the segment, Stewart wrapped up with some straight-forward talk about racial disparity and our efforts to ignore it, speaking directly to conservative pundits and the many others who think that the events in Ferguson have now gotten far too large a light shined on them. “You’re getting tired of hearing about it?” says Stewart. “Imagine how exhausting it must be living it.”
One of the dangerous pieces that’s added to the militarized feel in Ferguson is the national military 1033 program in which police departments are given old military weapons, gear and vehicles. While the use of additional gear is certainly necessary in the face of riots and looting to protect the public and the officers involved, 1033 has led to an over-eagerness to roll tanks down the middle of our city streets and the use of LRADs to break up civilian protests. But the terrible image that the use of such military-grade weapons against citizens evokes is not the greatest danger with 1033. Firstly, the program inherently urges the deployment of such equipment by demanding it be used within a year or be returned to the military. This obviously places an automatic bias towards using the equipment rather than an only-if-totally-necessary philosophy. Secondly, 200 police departments have already been suspended from the program for losing weapons, including M14 and M16 assault rifles and at least two armored vehicles. In the face of mass citizen action, our police forces seem all too eager to show their might in the form of tear gas, assault rifles, tanks and other instruments of war.
So what is the endgame of the Ferguson protests? What do the protestors hope to achieve? Simply increased police accountability of is it something more? What would real change look like?
One important step announced by the Ferguson PD on Monday is that they will begin wearing body cameras, a move gaining greater traction with PD’s all across the country. The cameras, attached to the middle of the officer’s torso and pointing outward, provide greater accuracy of the events and a higher level of accountability on the part of the officer. Problems still arise, though, such as the case of Officer Lisa Lewis in Algiers, LA whose department requires their officers to be wearing body cams at all time. On August 11, Officer Lewis shot a man, Armand Bennett, twice in the head but not before taking off her body cam.
“What good is the camera if officers are able to take them off and just put them on the side?” Bennett’s attorney, Campbell asked. “There’s supposed to be some sort of checks and balances, so if we have an officer who has no problems shooting at a man two times. Why should I be surprised that she took the camera off? I’m not surprised at all.”
Real police accountability would mean more breaks in the thin blue line. If “not all cops are bad” and the job is more about justice than simply protecting the fraternity, then there should be more cops willing and eager to expose the bad apples since they inherently make the whole system look worse. Instead we are left with examples more like Officer Regina Tasca of Bogota, NJ who is now facing suspension and further punishment for stopping two other officers from beating a mentally-handicapped man. Photos of the event show Tasca pulling two large male officers off of the victim as they pound him in the head. It is images like that, cops punching individuals under restraint that really get my blood boiling. It is the justification, the feeling on the part of LEO’s that they are right in their violence because the suspect is “bad guy” that I can’t wrap my brain around. As an officer of the law, your aim should be justice and once a suspect is restrained and on their way to incarceration your personal feelings on the matter should dissipate. One should not feel justified in assaulting or otherwise denigrating the suspect; that is not part of justice. Yet in the era of Youtube we are confronted with all too many images of those hired to protect us ganging up to beat us down.
I am, of course, making generalizations about cops. Police officer is by no means an easy profession. It is one that the majority of people wouldn’t and couldn’t undertake, one of strength, bravery and conviction. It is a position that should carry with it a sense of Honor, not the sensibilities of a group of frat boys out on a Friday night to whom you’re afraid to say the wrong thing. It’s unfortunate; I look back with my own nostalgia on a time when police were truly designed to protect us. But I honestly don’t believe that is what many of them believe anymore. I think too many believe that the people need to be controlled and are all too eager to do so. Here is something sad that I know: I don’t yet have children but when I do I will not be teaching them to inherently trust the police to protect them. I will teach them to be watchful, and to use the police as a resource in the correct situations but also to know their rights and to never get caught being coerced by an officer of the law. That is a different stance than even what my parents taught to me a generation ago and an unfortunate progression (regression?) for authority in this country. And again, I’m a white guy.
The events of Ferguson, MO – Mike Brown’s murder and the protests that have followed – tell the story not of one community or one segment of the population but of us all. It is the story of the dangerous coupling in our country of prejudices, most often racial, both latent and obvious, with a system of justice riddled with abuses of power. If it seems imbalanced to be citing these specific examples without talking about their relative percentage among other shooting deaths in this country then you are missing the point. These are abuses of power. And any and all abuses of power are a threat to our society and to justice as a whole. People will continue to do ill to one another in a democracy; law and justice will continue to clean it up, as is their role. When authority of law is abused it impacts not only the victim and his family, but his population and our society as a whole. And if you feel that that’s altering the narrative then perhaps you’re not getting the whole story.