Political and law enforcement officials in the Ferguson, Missouri area had some difficult decisions to make in the period between the shooting death of Michael Brown Aug. 9 and the Nov. 24 announcement that the officer who killed him, Darren Wilson, would not be indicted. Would they make a concerted effort to win over the hearts and minds of African American residents in St. Louis County by addressing the long history of abuses by local governments, police, and the criminal-justice system, or would they double down on militarizing the police and criminalizing protests? Long before the grand-jury decision was announced, it was clear that they were choosing the latter approach.
Throughout the 100-day “cooling off” period orchestrated by St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch, state officials from Gov. Jay Nixon on down took no real steps to change practices that have alienated African-American residents. They made no commitments to change police procedures, no efforts to fix municipalities’ outrageous reliance on traffic fines to finance local government, and no pledges to do something about the racial disparities in funding for local schools and the pervasive residential segregation that accompanies them. Instead, officials bought lots of militaristic hardware. Since August, St. Louis County has spent more than $170,000 on tear-gas grenades, pepper balls, and other civil-disorder equipment. This is on top of the millions spent on military and riot-control equipment by state, county, and local police in recent years through Homeland Security and Pentagon weapons-transfer programs. More important, however, was the Governor’s decision to declare a legally questionable pre-emptive state of emergency and then mobilize more than 2,000 National Guard troops.
Wasn’t this just prudent preparation, given the property destruction immediately after the shooting? Shouldn’t authorities take whatever steps they can to ensure the protection of life and property? There are two major problems with this line of thinking. First, it is not at all clear that these measures actually advanced the cause of public safety. And second, the right to protest cannot be abridged solely because of the threat of illegal activity or even the commission of violence nearby. All this militarized posturing failed to prevent widespread looting and property destruction in Ferguson on the night of Nov. 24. Neither local police nor the National Guard were able to adequately protect local businesses. What they were able to do was to attack protesters and the media with barrages of tear gas and smoke grenades.
The main thing that concentrating police forces on the protests accomplished was to distract law enforcement from the real threat of dispersed individuals and bands of people focused on attacking local businesses. In the process, it further inflamed tensions and undermined local police’s credibility in the eyes of Ferguson’s African-Americans and the general public. In addition, it is quite possible that the police’s militarized response immediately after the shooting and their continued aggressive posturing actually contributed to the outbreaks of violence and property destruction. People subjected to tear-gas and baton charges often react by either fighting back or dispersing into small groups to engage in property destruction. Those watching on TV may be motivated to come out and defend those being attacked in a similar manner. The overall effect is to undermine people’s basic acceptance of the police as enforcers of legitimate authority.
Also, people have the right to protest despite the presence of violence or property destruction nearby. There are clearly established U.S. and international standards for protecting the right to protest. Even when there is isolated criminal conduct within a demonstration, police have an obligation to target those engaged in that illegal behavior without criminalizing or brutalizing the entire protest, as long as its primary character remains peaceful.
The First Amendment guarantees the right to protest, and U.S. criminal law requires the police to act on individualized suspicion. The collective punishment of protestors because they are demonstrating while others are setting fires abridges those fundamental rights. The policing of the demonstrations in Ferguson failed both to protect property and to re-establish the police’s legitimate authority. A more effective approach might try to do two things. First, local politicians knew that a criminal indictment of Officer Wilson was highly unlikely, but they took no steps to deal with the underlying political issues in a way that might have reduced the rage that resulted.
Gov. Nixon in particular could have initiated a real conversation about the economic, social, and political dynamics that have contributed to the profound alienation of African-Americans in the St. Louis area. Signaling a real rethink of the hodgepodge of poorly funded municipalities and schools, which was largely designed to facilitate white flight from the city of St. Louis, and of the criminal-justice system and the way it’s operated, could have gone a long way to restore public trust and divert attention from the specifics of Darren Wilson’s case.
Second, local officials could also have attempted to dial back the police posture towards protest. It’s been clear since the first protests over Brown’s killing that they and local police viewed anything but the most docile dissent as threatening and illegitimate. Protests are by their nature disruptive and disorderly. The attitude of police in St. Louis County has been to treat that as a fundamental threat to the social order. There really is almost no legitimate reason to deploy armored vehicles and snipers to manage protests—even those where some violence has occurred. Officer protection is an issue, but so are police legitimacy and constitutional rights.
There is an alternative. Police across the U.S. on the nights of Nov. 24 and 25 generally relied on a very different approach. Rather than embracing militarization and preemption, many decided to try to accommodate protest as much as possible. Police in Philadelphia and Washington, and to a lesser extent in New York and Chicago, avoided confrontation and escalation by giving demonstrators a great deal of latitude. This is known as the “negotiated management” model of protest policing and is widely practiced in developed countries. The goal is to do as much as possible to maintain the fundamentally nonviolent nature of a protest even if it is disruptive, doesn’t have a permit, or there is isolated violence and property destruction. In many cities, police allowed demonstrators to temporarily block interstate highways, bridges, and tunnels.
While they made efforts to prevent this or bring it to an end, they generally avoided the use of force (Los Angeles and Seattle were exceptions) and didn’t feel the need to “die in ditch” to stop it. Critics may point out that this was attempted in Ferguson in August when Missouri State Police Captain Ron Johnson was brought in to “take command” of protest policing operations. In reality, it was abundantly clear to everyone involved that this represented nothing but a desperate public-relations ploy. Johnson did not have operational command of police forces, and the basic tactics remained largely unchanged. As soon as the first disruption broke out, the police quickly reverted to an escalation of force. It takes time and real changes in behavior to build up trust between police and demonstrators, and this did not happen. As the Rev. Martin Luther King pointed out in 1968, riots are the language of people that have no other voice. The political leaders in Missouri have overseen a long-entrenched system of political, social, and economic disenfranchisement for African-Americans, and then had the gall to react in shock and righteous indignation when people responded with rage. As much as police may have mishandled the situation in Ferguson, it is those political leaders who should be held accountable. While this insight seems to be lost on those in Missouri, others across the country will hopefully take note.