United States

Police as occupying army

Print edition : September 19, 2014

Riot police stand guard as demonstrators protest the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 13. The police responded as if they were in an insurgency--not just in riot gear, but also with military equipment. Photo: MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS

Officer Darren Wilson, who shot the teenager.

Michael Brown's parents Lesley McSpadden (centre) and Michael Brown Sr, seen here holding a picture of his son as a young child, listen as attorney Benjamin Crump speaks during a news conference on August 11. Photo: Jeff Roberson/AP

President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder discuss the situation in Ferguson in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on August 18. Photo: LARRY DOWNING/Reuters

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency on August 16, with a curfew in place. The curfew did not hold; the government had to withdraw it two days later. Photo: Charlie Riedel/AP

Demonstrators march in the street in Ferguson on August 12. More than 150 people were arrested in the 10 days after Michael Brown's death. Eighty per cent of those arrested had "refused to disperse", or, in other words, they had refused to stop their protests. Photo: REUTERS

The death of a black teenager at the hands of a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent war-like response by the police to the protests expose a culture of hatred for the black community and the militarisation of the police in the United States.

ON AUGUST 9, Darren Wilson, 28, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, responded to a call about a robbery. On the street, he encountered two black teenagers. It was after noon. The police officer shot dead one of the teens, Michael Brown, 18. Brown was unarmed and, witnesses say, had his hands in the air. Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson, who had been walking with him, said that the police officer shot Michael Brown “like an animal”. The autopsy of Brown found that he had been shot six times, including twice in the head. Brown’s uncovered body remained on the street for several hours. When his mother Lesley McSpadden arrived on the scene, she pleaded with the police, “Why’ve you got my son out in the street?”

A week later, after the autopsy results had been announced, the Brown family’s lawyer Benjamin Crump —who represented the family of Trayvon Martin, fatally shot in 2012—called this a case of a “police officer executing a young unarmed man in broad daylight. The sheer number of bullets and the way they were scattered all over the body showed this police officer had a brazen disregard for the very people he was supposed to protect in that community.”

The Ferguson police had suggested that Officer Wilson had been attacked in the “confrontation” and that his eye socket had been fractured. CNN’s Don Lemon said that Officer Wilson did not go to any hospital, nor was there any injury. Witnesses do not corroborate the story leaked from “top brass” in the police department to Fox News’ Nancy Grace. Dorian Johnson is thus far the best witness for what happened. Officer Wilson remains silent, pending an investigation and likely court proceedings.

On August 10, the Ferguson police intimated— against all the available evidence and rumour—that Brown assaulted the officer and was then shot. A candlelight vigil that evening was emotional and raw. The presence of the police, in riot gear, and the already high emotions did not help the situation. Some people smashed cars and shop windows. Frustration, already high, now reached fever pitch. The police responded as if they were in an insurgency—not just in riot gear, but also with military equipment. They fired tear gas shells and rubber bullets towards the protesters and used their dangerous LRAD (long-range acoustic device) sound cannon which can create acute discomfort (and permanent hearing loss). What appeared to confront the people of Ferguson a day after the shooting of the teenager was less a police response and more the response of an occupying army.

In June, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a powerful report entitled “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing”. This 100-page document detailed the many ways in which United States police departments had begun to use military ordnance, military strategy and a military attitude in their police practices.

In 1997, the National Defence Authorisation Act created the “1033 Program”, which encouraged police departments to purchase surplus military equipment at low prices. The Law Enforcement Support Office, strengthened after 9/11, facilitated the transfer of $4.3-billion worth of military ordnance to police departments. “From warfighter to crimefighter” is the motto of this office, which oversaw the delivery of 500 mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles as well as assault rifles and military aircraft to police departments. A South Carolina police department has a ballistic engineered armoured response counter attack (BearCat) tank (with a 50-calibre turreted machine gun) called “The Peacemaker”. A North Dakota police department has a MQ-9 drone, which it used to arrest a family alleged to have stolen five cows.

Within days of the death of Michael Brown, the police began to treat the town of Ferguson as enemy territory. Police officers in full combat gear patrolled the streets in military vehicles. They refused to identify themselves when asked and arrested journalists (from The Washington Post and The Huffington Post) who seemed to get in their way. The police fired tear gas directly at Al Jazeera America journalists and arrested Alderman Antonio French, who had been one of the main political officials speaking with and for the protesters. All this is against the various rules and regulations of most police departments and is certainly against the spirit and law of the U.S. Constitution.

On August 14, President Barack Obama was forced to say, “Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs to report to the American people on what they see on the ground.” But this was precisely what was happening, and it would get more intense as the days went by.

As if the situation was not already bad enough, the Missouri Governor declared a state of emergency on August 16, with a curfew in place. This curfew did not hold, and the government had to withdraw it two days later. The culture of hatred for the community and of violence amongst the police was on full display. On August 17, a police officer, unfazed by the press cameras around him, yelled at the protesters, “Bring it, all you fucking animals! Bring it!” With his gun ready, he was taunting the protesters to do something so that he could shoot at them. Two days later, an officer pointed his gun directly in the face of a protester, again in sight of cameras, and said, “I will fucking kill you. Get back.” When he was asked for his name, the officer responded, “Go fuck yourself.” More than 150 people have been arrested in the 10 days after Michael Brown’s death. Eighty per cent of those arrested had “refused to disperse”, or, in other words, they had refused to stop their protests.

Epidemic of killings
Ten days after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, 6.5 kilometres away in St. Louis, Kajieme Powell, 25, had robbed a convenience store for energy drinks and candy. A police car pulled up. Video of the incident shows Powell reaching into his pocket for a knife, at which point he says, erratically: “Shoot me. Shoot me. Shoot me now!” The police tell him to drop the knife, and seconds later they fire nine shots, killing Powell instantly. At a vigil for Powell, an elderly resident of the area said, “Whatever happened did not require two police officers to shoot him. He was mentally challenged. Everyone knew he was mentally challenged. If you didn’t know him, you could look at him and tell he was mentally challenged.”

It is impossible to know how many people such as Michael Brown and Kajieme Powell the police kill each year. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) maintains a register of “justifiable police homicides”, which shows that each year the police kill about 400 people. David Klinger, who teaches at the nearby University of Missouri, does not put “credence in the numbers that they call ‘justifiable homicides’”. These numbers are based on voluntary reporting by police departments, which have a vested interest not to make their numbers public. One reason they offer is that if it becomes clear that this or that precinct has a high rate of shootings by the police, it would encourage vigilance and protests. This is a poor argument. It seems that if there is indeed a problem of police violence in an area, vigilance is precisely what might be needed to rectify the situation.

Senior black political officials know that the epidemic is serious. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick told the media that he was “sick of it. I’m sick of unarmed black men being shot by the police. I’m sick of the lawlessness on the streets. I think everybody’s tired of it. When are we gonna get through this kind of thing?” Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder went to Ferguson, where he told the press that his Department of Justice would “continue to stand with Ferguson. Few things have affected me as greatly as my trip to Ferguson.”

The streets of Ferguson remain alert and tense. Activist leaders from across the U.S. have come to stand in solidarity with the people of this sad and angry community. A majority black community, Ferguson had an unemployment rate of 5 per cent in 2000, which has now risen to 13 per cent. Poverty stalks places like Ferguson —its poverty rate doubled over the past decade. One in four people in this town of 21,000 lives in poverty. The response to the poverty has not been social services or jobs programmes. It has been a muscular police force that does not feel like it is a part of the community. It is a true reflection of reality for the police to behave like an occupying army. That is precisely its relationship to the growth of poverty and hopelessness in places like Ferguson.

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