Until last night, the scenes from Fallujah, Missouri – excuse me, I mean Ferguson, Missouri – were difficult even to watch. These were not standard fare “heavily armed police officers,” of the kind we see here in Washington at inauguration time or when a foreign leader of a volatile nation comes to visit. The images seemed to suggest an invasion was afoot.
There was an invasion afoot, an invasion of the Constitution. President Obama spoke quite rightly when he said that here in the United States, the police do not arrest journalists for doing their job nor deploy excessive force against those exercising their right to peaceful protest. Yes, like any crowd, I am sure this one attracted some outside hangers-on, more intent on looting than on protesting, but a well-trained police force knows how to distinguish between the two and isolate the bad apples from the good. Last night, thankfully, a change of police tactics brought a change of atmosphere. There was no reported violence, no tear gas, no looting, no criminal gangs.
Part of the reason the police actions against the crowds were so stupid, as well as disturbing, was that they confirmed the narrative. The underlying cause of the protests was the shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, last weekend. Whenever a police officer shoots an unarmed person, the concern is that the police officer used excessive force. In response to the protests that gave voice to that concern, the police officials only confirmed the suspicion by meeting the protesters with excessive police force.
Like a Rorschach test, different people saw different narratives in the images of humvees, flak jackets and sub-machine guns. After spending a great deal of time and argument defending the proposition that the police officer who shot Michael Brown should be presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, Sean Hannity spent the rest of the show insisting that the protesters should be presumed guilty before they were even arrested. The “law and order” emphasis was so thick at Fox, you half expected Richard Nixon to come back from the grave and make a cameo.
Laura Ingraham, the Catholic conservative commentator, was hosting for Bill O’Reilly last night. She accused the journalists who were roughed up and arrested by the police of provocation, instead of defending her fellow journalists and discerning the provocative actions of the police. One video clearly showed a tear gas shell hurled at a camera crew, forcing the crew to abandon their equipment, and the police putting that equipment on the ground. What was the crime prevention strategy at work in that? Ms. Ingraham did not inquire. I used to think that Ms. Ingraham was a softer version of Ann Coulter, and I suppose she is. But, increasingly, I think both of them would have enjoyed chatting up Mussolini or Pinochet long into the night.
A few months back, Fox News was not so concerned about armed citizens. If some of the protesters in Ferguson had Molotov cocktails, all of the protesters outside Cliven Bundy’s ranch had automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Mr. Bundy was a hero, remember, until his racist comments caused even Fox to look away. But, the protesters in Ferguson, a crowd that appeared to include all races and many ages, they were the mere tools of thugs, dangerous people whose activities (putting their hands up as young Michael Brown reportedly did) warranted a show of force worthy of a Hollywood movie starring Bruce Willis or Vin Diesel. Needless to say, no one at Fox seemed very interested in the basic rationale for the protests: Yet again, a young, unarmed black man was killed, another example in a series of examples of black folk experiencing too many injustices for far too long. Race still matters in America and nowhere more so than when it conflicts with the police and criminal justice systems in this country.
It is interesting that our conservative friends did not use the protests to bolster their case for the Second Amendment. I do not find any arguments against stricter gun control laws persuasive – the violence in our country is so great, the hurdle for persuasion is higher and higher each year. But, the only argument I have ever heard that gave me pause came from a philosophy student at Catholic University some years ago who asked me, “Would you really feel safe in a country where only the police had guns?” In the end, yes I would. But, I had to think about it. Images of the Gestapo raced through my mind when he asked that question.
I did not entertain images of the Gestapo when watching the horrible scenes this week outside St. Louis. No police force in America, not even the very bad one in Ferguson, has anything in common with the black shirts. But that is a low bar. Americans, especially our police commissioners, prosecutors and attorneys general, must all find ways to make sure more Michael Browns are not killed. Our law enforcement and criminal justice systems must be hyper-attuned to racial animus in the same way doctors in a hospital are hyper-concerned to prevent infection in a patient. America has had the sickness of racism for a long time, and each renewed infection causes more grievous harm. We have come a long way in this country when it comes to race but we have a long way to go too.