A Momentary Interlude to Discuss Violence in America

“Hands up, don’t shoot,”—a modern mantra.

Before the events of Aug. 9, it was a phrase that we all knew, a classic plea of self-defense. It shows surrender, peaceful surrender. Yet in Ferguson, that phrase has become a rallying cry, precisely because of how it did not work.

When you look at pictures on the news, it’s everywhere. On t-shirts. On posters. It is a jab at the police force there where, according to witness reports, Michael Brown, who raised his hands in surrender, was shot regardless by a white officer.

The end result hasn’t just been a slogan, though. Protests, riots, and an indefensible police response have been at the heart of news circuits over the course of the last week. Some outlets have come to refer to this St. Louis suburb as “Fergustan,” a not-so-veiled reference to the fact that we expect this sort of behavior more overseas—we just don’t expect to see it on the streets of what our leaders regularly proclaim, “The Greatest Nation on Earth.”

I write this message not because it’s not being covered. Lord knows, there’s round the clock coverage of this mess, both at home and abroad. Amnesty International is sending a team to its first ever American investigation for goodness sake, and it’s no longer unusual to see war correspondents on the scene. People are tense. People are watching. I’m writing this message as an appeal, and as an airing of details.

Last night, after the Missouri State Police finally relieved the Ferguson Police Department of their duties—following endless criticism of their overhanded efforts to dissolve protests—and hopeful speeches throughout the day, things took their darkest turn yet. Hours before a governor-imposed curfew, things turns violent when police attempted to disperse the crowds and “restore calm.”

The stated reasons: reports of gunfire, a protest a little too near to a police command center for their liking. The end result? Molotov cocktails, lines of riot police, tear gas, and as of this morning, a call for the National Guard.

Yes, that’s right, the National Guard. The people that are deployed against disasters have now found themselves in a situation they haven’t had to deal with since the 1960s—a need to quell raw, simmering rage, and restore order for those whose sole job should be to do so. Gov. Jay Nixon signed an executive order this morning deploying the U.S. state militia to the area, effectively dubbing Ferguson a disaster zone.

“Tonight, a day of hope, prayers, and peaceful protests was marred by the violent criminal acts of an organized and growing number of individuals, many from outside the community and state, whose actions are putting the residents and businesses of Ferguson at risk,” Nixon said in a statement on his website.

In contradiction, you have residents saying things like, “The smoke bombs were completely unprovoked,” said Anthony Ellis, 45. “It (the protest) was led by kids on bikes. Next you know they’re saying, ‘Go home, Go home!’” (Reuters)

State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson explained, in turn, that while most protesters were peaceful, the trouble came from “a few people bent on violence and destruction.” Elevating the level of the police response was, in his opinion, simply par for the course. Following that example, the state has now raised theirs, even as the Federal government steps in to autopsy Brown’s body (a third time it’s had to go through this, mind you), and supporting protests spring up in other cities.

In Ferguson, they’ve even closed schools today.

It’s out of control

So let’s break this down:

A week of protests.

Brutal police tactics, from start to finish, including the shooting of a man they later released criminal details on, but which they knew nothing of at the time. Journalists have been arrested for nothing more than reporting on the details, and there has been a determined effort to keep the information gatherers out.

Local, state and federal agencies scrambling for a response.

Autopsy after autopsy after autopsy.

Those people taking the streets say there often is no other outlet for their objections, that they have no alternative but to protest until they are listened to. It’s a sad state to find oneself in, not just as an individual, but as a community. Young and old alike, they’ve put up with a lot, for a very long time—the thing breaking here in Ferguson is not a single man’s poor decision, but the latest in a long-running sense of one versus the other, of an outlook on a community that does no one any favors.

It wasn’t even until a few days ago that the police finally caved to Civil rights activists’ demands for the name of the officer who shot and killed Mr. Brown—ostensibly out of concern for his safety, and probably logically so, but nonetheless, a poor move which only served to fan the flames in the community.

Conclusion?

Police, Politicians, and fellow Citizens, we need to rethink how this whole society thing is working. Because if this is how things turn out, it’s not. We don’t want the United States of America to be the land of freedom under which terms and conditions may apply. None of us signed a terms and licensing agreement.

What’s more, this should be a wake up call. With the militarization of police forces across the USA, the buying of surplus military arms, and, if a concerted effort is not made to rein in what exactly is “the law,” what exactly is “right and wrong,” the capacity for what is happening in Ferguson could happen anywhere, and that’s a truly dark thought.

Communication, people. It makes the world go round. Let’s engage before we disintegrate.

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