What will Ferguson's aftermath be?
“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.