Lingering questions from Ferguson

Observing the images of militarized police units rolling into the streets of Ferguson, Missouri on Wednesday evening, I could see what the authorities were going for: an overwhelming display of force that would intimidate potential rioters out of behavior that might get a lot of people hurt.  One interesting observation I heard floating through the Twitterstream yesterday was that the militarized police aren’t wearing police colors, but rather military-style uniforms with camouflage patterns, which sends the “messing with us will be hazardous to y our health” message as strongly as their weapons.  If they look like soldiers, people make the mental connection that they’re going to respond like soldiers, which is scary, and was presumably meant to be.  Former police officer Jack Dunphy has some thoughts on that subject at Ricochet.

But this kind of heavy-handed tactic seemed tonally wrong for a city where hostility towards the police had become a major problem.  (Looking at those surreal images, which were doubtless the first glimpse many Americans had of paramilitary law enforcement, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that it’s tonally wrong for any city that hasn’t degenerated into absolute anarchy or full-blown insurrection.)  This same thought occurred to the governor of Missouri, Jay Nixon, who on Thursday put Captain Ron Johnson of the state Highway Patrol in charge of security for the troubled town.  Johnson, who is black and hails from Ferguson, made an impressive debut, as seen here in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper as he walked the streets with his officers:

Johnson’s lighter touch was met with a greatly improved mood on the street, as reported  by Fox News:

Hundreds of people protesting a police officer’s fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager marched peacefully Thursday alongside state troopers in Ferguson, Missouri as the Highway Patrol took over supervising security in the city.

Several of the marchers stopped to shake hands with police and troopers, and some stopped to hug and chat with Capt. Ron Johnson of the Highway Patrol, who is overseeing security. The scene stood in stark contrast to clashes earlier this week when officers wore riot gear.

The latest protests had a light, almost jubilant atmosphere among the racially mixed crowd, more akin to a parade or block party. The streets were filled with music, free food and even laughter. When darkness fell –the point at which previous protests have grown tense — no uniformed officers were in sight outside the burned-out QuikTrip convenience store that had become a flashpoint for standoffs between police and protesters.

“You can feel it. You can see it,” protester Cleo Willis said of the change. “Now it’s up to us to ride that feeling.”

“All they did was look at us and shoot tear gas,” said Pedro Smith, 41, who has participated in the nightly protests. “This is totally different. Now we’re being treated with respect.”

That’s obviously a huge improvement.  Did you know three of Johnson’s officers were hit with rocks last night, and three police cars were damaged?  I’ll bet you probably didn’t, because I haven’t seen that detail reported in a single mainstream media report, including the one from Fox News.

Also completely absent from Big Media reports of the newly peaceful Ferguson: a university student was hit by a “Knockout Game” attack, and a news cameraman was punched in the face four times by an unknown assailant.  The Knockout Game victim received speedy assistance from the now-infamous McDonald’s where two reporters were arrested by police, while the cameraman said people from a nearby crowd rushed to his assistance.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has those details, along with some angry words from S.t Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch, who sees Governor Nixon’s action as undermining the local authorities and insulting the county police:

???It’s shameful what he did today, he had no legal authority to do that,” McCulloch said. “To denigrate the men and women of the county police department is  shameful.”

McCulloch noted that no one was seriously injured in the effort led by County Police Chief Jon Belmar until Nixon handed control of the Ferguson over to the state agency on Thursday.

???For Nixon to never talk to the commanders in the field and come in here and take this action is disgraceful,” McCulloch said.

“I hope I’m wrong, but I think what Nixon did may put a lot of people in danger.”

As for the night of militarized police terror, the total number of arrests clocked in at 16, and two of them were journalists.  That’s not an overwhelming number of arrests for a situation as dire as the one in Ferguson.  The lingering question is whether the big show of force on Wednesday night made things better or worse.  Things were unquestionably looking better Thursday night.  Was a “bad cop, good cop” dynamic at work?  If so, it was almost certainly unintentional on the part of the authorities, but when the armored fighting vehicles rolled away and kindly, hard-working native son Ron Johnson came onto the streets with a far less intimidating force, the protesters surely felt a great sense of relief.  Changing the leadership and putting different officers on the street was bound to be seen as a constructive change.

McCulloch’s question about what this does to the morale and reputation of the county police who must someday return to daily duty in Ferguson is something to consider.  Their critics will surely say they brought it on themselves by going overboard Wednesday night.  There have been other incidents that contributed to the atmosphere of local hostility toward the police force; a harrowing example of outrageous treatment after a case of mistaken identity from 2009 is recounted today at The Daily Beast.

I’m not looking to defend militarized police forces, or understate what Captain Johnson has accomplished.  But the story of what’s happening in Ferguson is a story.  It evolves day by day.  What happened Wednesday has some bearing on the events of Thursday.  The media is very obviously treating this as a story, and as usual, their coverage is influenced by their action lines, biases, the goal of attracting readers through sensationalism , and their personal response to the events that affect them directly.  As Ben Shapiro puts it at Breitbart News, in an article that also chastises the police for acting too defensively and deploying paramilitary forces:

Suddenly, the media began revving up the outrage. Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post stated, ???This is what happens when local police are allowed to become para-military units.??? That outrage is appropriate. But outrage against government seems to be reserved solely for situations in which the media themselves are targeted. When it comes to federal overreach, the media were significantly less concerned about the IRS targeting conservative citizens than about the Department of Justice bugging the phones at the Associated Press.

The media, in short, consider themselves a special breed of Americans entitled to better treatment than ordinary folk. No wonder reporter Stefan Becket tweeted (then later deleted) this: ???Reporters are granted a privilege by the Constitution. Like it or not, their rights being violated rise above that of an average citizen???s.??? He then followed that up with, ???Sorry, that was stupid. Deleted. My point was that the outsized attention is understandable because the arrest crossed a definitive line.???

The White House realized its ghastly mistake in having President Obama dance the night away in Martha’s Vineyard while the media was writing stories of stormtrooper horror from Ferguson, so Obama finally made a statement on the crisis yesterday, along with remarks on the situation in Iraq.

There’s an element of equivalence there, a “both sides made mistakes” approach in which the President criticized both violent protests and “excessive force against peaceful protests” by the police.  That might be what angry people in Ferguson need to hear, in order to bring calm to the town, but it will be dismaying to those who support the police wholeheartedly.  They sure looked excessive on Wednesday night, but what they actually did that could be called “excessive force” primarily involved rough treatment of the reporters and the use of tear gas, which is something police have been criticized for in far less heated situations.  Obama made a point of saying the police “should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground,” leading to jokes that bullying journalists is Obama’s job, and he’s mad at the Ferguson cops for muscling in on his turf.

At any rate, anyone who thinks Obama’s statement was helpful has to ask why he didn’t give it a day or two sooner, when it would have been even more helpful.  Was he determined to keep his vacation rolling no matter what, or was he waiting for the police to do something he could denounce?  Such criticism has by no means come exclusively from conservatives.  For example, the New Black Panther Party took control of a press conference held by Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson on Thursday to express their extreme displeasure that Obama didn’t seem to care about the situation.

We can all wish Captain Johnson success at keeping the peace in Ferguson, which would leave us to consider the incident that caused all this unrest: the shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer.  The identity of the officer was finally released today, as reported by the L.A. Times: Darren Wilson, a six-year veteran of the department with no disciplinary record.

There has been stern criticism of the police for keeping his name secret – a strong example comes from Kevin Williamson at National Reviewwho observed on Thursday that “we know the names of the nine people charged with felonies in the Ferguson looting, but not the name of the police officer at the center of the case” – but clearly there was good reason to fear for the safety of this officer, and there is no evidence either the local police or federal government were going to let him skip away scot-free without a thorough investigation.  (There was never any reason to think that, which makes the swift outbreak of unrest in Ferguson especially mournful.)

The police say Wilson was physically assaulted by Brown, and has the injuries to prove it.  That would seem to discredit the eyewitness testimony that claimed the officer mercilessly gunned Brown down in the street for no reason whatsoever.  The police also say Wilson’s weapon was discharged inside his police car, while Brown was trying to gain possession of it.  That should be something that can be proved or disproved through forensic study, along with the number of shots fired, the number of bullets that hit Brown, and the approximate range from which the killing shot was fired.  One way or the other, this case won’t be entirely settled by witness testimony.  It just takes some time to study the evidence, which is what the police said right at the outset, before anyone started smashing convenience-store windows.

It has been said all along that Michael Brown had no criminal record.  This is true, but along with the identity of the officer who shot him, Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson released information that sheds light on why he was a person of interest to the police on that fateful Saturday afternoon.  From the Washington Post:

Jackson provided few other details about Wilson at the news conference and did not take any questions. He said that Wilson had been responding to a call shortly before noon on Saturday when there was a 911 call regarding a ???strong-arm robbery??? at a convenience store, Jackson said.

A description of a possible suspect was given over the radio, saying this person was walking toward the QuickTrip convenience store in Ferguson. An incident report handed out by police on Friday labeled Brown as a suspect in the convenience store robbery, which involved the theft of some cigars.

Wilson left the call he had been responding to and encountered Brown on Canfield Drive at 12:01 p.m., Jackson said.

Police also released these stills depicting a confrontation between Brown and a convenience store worker:


So there was more to the story, after all.  Wouldn’t it have been great if everyone just kept their cool until these details came out, just six days after the incident took place?  Wouldn’t it be great if “community leaders” had encouraged a modicum of patients, and if the cultural atmosphere of grievance and paranoia – deliberately cultivated by those who profit from animosity – wasn’t so explosive?  These new details hardly “exonerate” the cop, but they certainly do put the situation in a very different light than the stories flying around Ferguson on the night rioting began.  As I said above, our society is shaped at every level by the stories we tell each other.