Sunday, August 24, 2014

What will Ferguson's aftermath be?

It's no surprise to learn that many of the cops we saw misbehaving in Ferguson, Missouri have turned out to be somewhat psychopathic-- such as St. Louis County officer Dan Page, last seen shoving a CNN journalist on camera although what actually got him suspended from the force was an earlier speech he gave before an Oath Keepers meeting:

“I personally believe in Jesus Christ as my lord and savior, but I’m also a killer,” this 35-year police veteran said in the video. “I’ve killed a lot. And if I need to, I’ll kill a whole bunch more. If you don’t want to get killed, don’t show up in front of me. I have no problems with it. God did not raise me to be a coward.... I'm into diversity — I kill everybody. I don’t care.”

Or Matthew Pappert, who posted on his Facebook page that “These protesters should have been put down like a rabid dog the first night.”

Page and Pappert were easy to identify because they were arrogant enough to openly make such statements elsewhere. Actually identifying police on the ground in Ferguson has been difficult, since they stopped wearing their nametags or other forms of ID early in the protests.

What were the names of the police officers who fired tear gas and bean bags at TV news teams Wednesday night? Who operated the sound cannons that disoriented protestors before commanding them to disperse? The police don't think anyone has the right to know such things.

Luckily, somebody was able to identify the man who threatened to kill members of the media on camera; when asked his name he originally said “Go fuck yourself” although, as it turned out, his name was actually Ray Albers – a 20-year police veteran.

How many innocent people have Page, Pappert and Albers arrested over the course of their careers? Given how badly they misbehave when they know they're being filmed, what did they do off camera? The cops who fired tear gas and sound cannon — what other overreactions and escalations do they have under their belts?

Of course the protesters (peaceful or otherwise) and journalists weren't the only ones who suffered from the indiscriminate punishments police inflicted on the Ferguson's population; families in their own homes did too. Consider this opening paragraph from the story “The Ferguson Riots: Overkill – Police in a Missouri suburb demonstrate how not to quell a riot,” from the latest issue of The Economist:

NEARLY every night, Felicia Pope’s house fills with smoke and tear gas. Her four-month-old granddaughter has no idea why the air stings her throat. Her family feels trapped. But the protests outside over the death of Michael Brown, a local 18-year-old, show no sign of ending.

Not that Pope and her family were the only ones who suffered whle trapped in their own homes; police used plenty of teargas in residential neighborhoods, not just the business-district street where journalists were corraled most of the time.

That's America today. I'd like to think this will finally be the turning point (at least involving police misbehavior; the TSA and NSA are another matter) – the point when police departments have to give back their military-grade toys, the point when they'll be required to film themselves interacting with the public rather than continue having carte blanche to mistreat suspects pretty much any way they want, secure in the knowledge that in any case where it boils down to a cop's word over an ordinary individual's, the cop's word always takes precedence.

Though it would be unfair to single out Ferguson-area police for criminality; also this weekend came news that Oklahoma cop Daniel Ken Holtzclaw raped at least seven women while on duty, by threatening to arrest them if they refused to have sex with him. And of course: had they refused, and he arrested them, whatever lies Holtzclaw told to justify it would have been believed, despite the lack of evidence, because he's a cop.

All seven of his known victims were black, probably because he knew that black people make easier prey for predatory cops. (Not that being white makes you immune to police misbehavior.) The Economist's article also delved into the problems of police racism in Ferguson:
Ferguson is a small community—some 21,000 people live there—with a rapidly changing population. In 1990 it was 75% white; in 2010 it was 67% black. The police force has not adapted: it is 95% white and widely distrusted. The mayor, who is also white, has appeared clueless since Mr Brown’s shooting. He said in a television interview that there was no racial divide in Ferguson. That is not how many black residents see it. Stephan Hampton, for example, recalls that his grandfather was killed by police in 1984. He also remembers the date when the cops first stopped him: “May 26th, 2010”. Mr Webster remembers being stopped on his bicycle when he was 15; he adds: “I can’t count how many times I’ve been stopped since.”

In this context, “it is hard to point to anything that Ferguson police did [since Mr Brown’s shooting] that was not wrong,” says Gene O’Donnell of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. They left Mr Brown’s body on the street for four hours. They withheld the name of the officer who shot him. They confronted peaceful demonstrators and rioters alike with a stunning show of force—armoured cars with snipers on top—and precious little tact.

When I despair over the state of my country today, I console myself with the reminder that no trend lasts forever; sooner or later there will be a reversal. But when—soon enough for me to see it, let alone benefit by it?

The next few weeks will provide some hints, one way or the other. If you know any reasons for optimism, I'd surely like to hear them.

On the Road to Lake Anna

Jeff and I drove down to Lake Anna State Park to visit a friend today -- Anna is a man-made lake, dammed to provide coolant for a nuclear power plant. I did not know this until we entered the park and the first thing we saw was a sign informing all visitors that the Lake Anna Nuclear Plant is ten miles away, and in the event that you hear certain sirens and other sound effects, tune your radio to this emergency broadcast station and then kiss your ass good-bye. (Those weren't the exact words, but the meaning came through all the same.)

On the two-lane road leading to the state park we passed a few brick or stick-built houses and a much larger number of single- and double-wide trailers (on individual plots; not a trailer park). Most of those trailers were in decent, maintained shape, except for one ancient, rotting single-wide covered with enormous rust spots. I had ample time to study that trailer, because the road in front of it was temporarily blocked by a man backing a shiny new $40,000 Nissan SUV into its driveway. "Behold," I said to Jeff, "a maker of wise financial decisions."

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Ferguson police declared war on Ferguson's people. Which city will be next?

Over the past few months, “American cops kill unarmed black person” has become the new “Local woman gives birth” – a headline appearing so often, you can't even keep track of all the stories unless you personally know one or more of the actors involved.

And over the past couple years, “Police declare war on entire city due to one man within” has also become commonplace: remember last year, when cops in California searching for Christopher Dorner forced people out of their homes at gunpoint, fired at random pickup trucks just in case Dorner might be inside one of them (he wasn't), surrounded entire stores and told the shoppers within that they were forbidden to leave? No warrants, no constitutional oversight, just cops flexing their authority muscles because they can.

Remember April 2013, when the entire city of Boston was put under house arrest while cops searched for the Boston Marathon bombing suspect? When I first heard that a Dunkin Donuts was the only city business open that day, I figured that must be an anti-cop joke – they're all a bunch of donut-suckers, ha ha ha – except it turned out to be absolutely true: the donut shops stayed open so cops could get their fried-pastry fix while performing warrantless searches of Bostonians' homes.

And then, just over a week ago, Americans learned about Ferguson, Missouri – a town whose overwhelmingly black population is overseen by an overwhelmingly white police force so corrupt, they've been known to beat an innocent man and then charge him with destruction of property for staining their uniforms with his blood – and two days before an 18-year-old named Michael Brown was supposed to start college, a Ferguson cop shot him dead in the street. The usual MO: cops swear he was a vicious criminal on the attack, witnesses say he was unarmed, had his hands in the air and was trying to surrender.

So the people of Ferguson took to the streets in protest, and the military was called out against them – sorry, I meant to say police with military-grade equipment including armored personnel carriers and other tools generally used by foreign occupying armies were called out against them.

Ferguson residents were tear-gassed while standing in their own fenced-in yards. The FAA declared a no-fly zone over the city – police craft can fly, but the media's not allowed to see what's going on there. Journalists were being arrested, then released without charge, for doing their jobs (were I a cynic, I'd say “It's as though the cops don't want anyone to witness what they're doing.” But surely I am wrong, for our own authorities so often assure us that privacy is unnecessary since only wrongdoers ever have anything to hide).

This morning I was up until about 2:30 (Eastern time) watching the Livestream video feed from Mike Brown at KARG Argus radio: the media were ordered not to leave the “staging area” on pain of arrest, so of course the video feed was limited to whatever was within camera range of that staging area just in front of a beige-brick McDonald's.

But even that limited line of sight showed plenty of horrors. I saw cops firing teargas cannons into distant crowds of peaceful nonviolent protestors whose only “crime” was being outside after midnight, in violation of the curfew imposed on the city. Then the cops fired temporarily blinding flashbomb cannons into the crowd; I lost count of how many after the sixth or seventh.  An armored vehicle pulled up near the staging area, and soldiers (sorry, “cops”) in body armor came pouring out and ran off-screen. Then the cops started using “sonic cannon” – noise-making machines designed to cause immense pain and disorientation to whoever hears them. At the same time these sonic cannon and blinding flashbombs were being used to disorient people, the cops announced that anyone who didn't leave and go home immediately would be arrested.

Then all the action happened off-screen: I watched journalists and cops milling around the “staging area” while sonic cannon (and possibly screams?) could be heard in the distance, and a radio announcer (presumably Mike Brown?) said that police were arresting protesters on another street – a street which no media has the right to film, a street Americans are not allowed to see, thanks to the no-fly zone and the designated staging area and similar authoritarian diktats. More teargas fired into crowds. More sonic cannon shattering the night air. In the United States of America.

I will not dare to predict what will happen next, in Ferguson and throughout the country; I'd love to think “This'll be the last straw, this'll start the pushback; Americans have had enough tyranny in the name of security and now things will change for the better.” Except, if you're a longtime reader of this blog, you probably recall all the times I made similar predictions before, and every damned one of them turned out wrong. “TSA demands the right to sexually molest you before a flight? Surely my fellow Americans won't put up with this … oh, dammit, yes they will.”

Still: as bad as things are, they could always be worse. Missouri's senator Claire McCaskill at least had sense enough to say “We need to de-militarize this situation—this kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution.”

Meanwhile, in the alternate universe where Todd Akin never said anything abut “legitimate rape” and thus managed to win that senatorial election, Sen. Akin released a statement expressing support for the brave police of Ferguson, Missouri and pointed out that when legitimately innocent people get shot by cops, their bodies have ways of shutting the whole thing down.

Ferguson will be under curfew again tonight. I suppose the police are re-stocking their supplies of teargas and flashbombs, too.

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