The killing–execution style–of Michael Brown, the protests in Ferguson that followed, and their policing, both rhetorically and literally, demonstrate some chilling facts about modern American life.
Most obviously, police continue to over-police, with overbearing aggressiveness and force, communities of color. They have poor relationships with their subjects–an apt description given the asymmetry of power that exists between them–and all too frequently, consider violent physical and verbal intimidation as an essential part of their arsenal of tactics. This is old hat, and nothing new is being pointed out in noting this. A long list of dead black men is adequate testimony to this age-old policy. As many have noted, white men can carry guns, subject only to withering descriptions of ‘open-carry patriots’, black men with toy guns are likely to be shot dead.
More interesting is the response to the protests that have followed. The language of ‘riot’ and ‘looting’ quickly comes to the fore: the former suggests uncontrolled, violent, inchoate responses; the latter suggests an outbreak of criminality, taking advantage of the cover afforded by the protests. We will soon hear pious suggestions the rioters are indulging in counterproductive behavior, that they are destroying their own neighborhoods, that they are offering refuge to the criminals among them, that they would do better to seek justice–perhaps via an internal police investigation, a criminal indictment, a civil rights suit. They should, that is, channel and their indignation and anger into dreary dead-ends that will defuse them and result in nothing more than a series of banal bromides.
Those on the receiving end of police violence know it is subject to no law; that the police’s famed ‘Thin Blue Line’ does not protect those who are policed but only the police themselves; that the resolution of a complaint against the police will always involve its misplacement in a series of bureaucratic procedures that will punish no one but merely prolong the bitter anger and frustration of those who have lost their loved ones. The anger on display in Ferguson is only the visible expression of a seething frustration that knows it can expect no justice from the system that regulates it, that is aware that talk of justice and procedure is a cruel joke, played by the powerful on the powerless. If the protests seem misdirected and inappropriate that is only natural; they are the only avenues left for those consistently on the receiving end.
Lastly, the policing of the protests shows how the never ending militarization of police forces will play out. The police resemble storm-troopers: they ride around in what look like armored cars, they use tear gas and rubber bullets, they point loaded weapons at unarmed men, women, and children, they will not hesitate to use armed and deadly force if provoked. When they could use it against young unarmed men, then why not against those who are actually mouthing aggressive imprecations, even if still not carrying guns? The images of this policing, of black-clad men, tramping through the streets, looking like an occupying force in wartime, will have precisely the impact desired: they will render ever more timid the citizenry, now more than ever made susceptible to the suggestion that it would do best, in times of political and civil strife, to stay safely behind locked doors and to disdain the public assembly, the storming of the barricades. (It behooves us to remember the policing of Boston in response to the Boston Marathon bombing; we are now increasingly used to the total shutdown of a city by police and paramilitary forces. Note too, that there was never any question of such an aggressive display of force against those guarding Cliven Bundy’s ranch earlier this year. )
One can only speculate about the future contours of such a charged relationship. Perhaps the citizenry will be stunned and beaten down into cowering submission, or perhaps, someday, realizing the forces arrayed against them are only bored and amused by the conventional street protest and the filed judicial complaint, those famed gigantic arsenals of privately owned weaponry in America will be deployed to refuse and resist.