Originally published on January 9, 2015, on Geopolitika.lt (in Lithuanian)
Having flamed up in a small town of Ferguson, Missouri, protests have quickly engulfed many parts of the country. On December 13, we saw massive crowds of protesters marching on the streets of Washington, New York, Boston and other major cities. Peaceful demonstrations aimed to vocally draw attention to police brutality which has been on the media’s radar and in public debates for the past months now. It all started when 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot dead by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. Michael Brown was black and unarmed, and his crime remains unclear. We could treat this incident as a one-off case, however, it would be painfully ahistorical: protests in Ferguson are raising much bigger questions about the American justice system, its increasing police militarisation and what it all means to the American democracy itself.
Where and Why it All Started
What has sparked the protests is not only the death of Michael Brown in itself, but what followed after. At first, the police weren’t straightforward in their description of how exactly Brown died, and the officer who killed him, Darren Wilson, was acquitted. It’s interesting to note that Ferguson Mayor James Knowles, albeit later having admitted regretting saying this, in his first interviews after the death of the teenager claimed there was no racial divide in Ferguson.
Let’s deconstruct this claim. First, in a city that is two-thirds black, the police force is comprised of 50 white and three black officers, clearly showing underpresentation of the city’s non-white population. This kind of composition wouldn’t be bad in itself but for a combination of discriminatory practices and abuse of power that it has resulted in in this case. A case in point is a gruesome incident from 2009 where Henry Davis, a black man, was mistaken for another suspect, arrested and then severely beaten up by the police officers after having asked for a sleeping mat for his cell. What makes this situation even more appalling is the fact that Davis was later charged with “destruction of property” for having bled onto the uniforms of the officers who beat him.
It’s not shocking or controversial to state that racial tensions and racial inequality is still very much alive in a country where legally racism was still being fought only one generation ago. Structural inequality, as a consequence of historical racial and social oppression, can’t be eliminated in a generation; it’s difficult to think of any country with a colonial history where that would have been done quickly and successfully. Therefore, the developments in Ferguson don’t really reveal racial tensions but rather illustrate them. The illustrations of institutional racism are ample: in New York City, during police stops that didn’t result in an arrest, police would be 12 times more likely to use force with blacks compared to whites; statistically, once convicted, African American offenders get longer sentences for the same crimes compared to their white counterparts; juvenile incarceration rates are higher for non-white offenders, who are also more likely to be sent to adult prison, etc. That’s why, when we talk about racism, it’s by no means enough to talk about “everyday racism”, but to name the institutions, practices and policies that are at the root of this problem.
Let’s also deconstruct some of the counter arguments that are being used to seemingly cover up the surfaced debates about racist policies and police violence in the country. One of them is the following: instead of focusing on disproportionate police force against black Americans, we should instead notice that the crime rates are higher in black communities than in white communities. Another counter argument states that instead of criticising police we should really be looking at gang violence. Lastly, there’s also the saying that white Americans, too, suffer from racism. An answer to all of these points is rather simple. Higher crime rates stem from higher poverty rates, and higher poverty rates can only be analysed in the broader context of the already-mentioned structural inequality. Neither of the counter arguments named are addressing the core of criticism towards police as an institution: it’s about setting high standards of how officers treat the people they’re supposed to be protecting, it’s about imposing these standards efficiently, and it’s about the inevitability of reforming the criminal justice system in the country. The counter arguments are what-about-isms at best.
Events in Ferguson shed more light on another issue regarding the police: that is its increasing militarisation. Viral photos have exploded of unarmed protesters with their arms in the air facing police officers with weapons and military equipment that could be easily photoshopped onto the streets of Baghdad and not seem out of place. Even though looting did happen during protests in Ferguson, militarisation of police forces should always raise an alarm, especially in liberal democracies.
Militarised police force is often considered to be a characteristic of authoritarian regimes, where instead of being used for external threats, armed forces are being used for internal control (as commanded by the government). Therefore, increasing police militarisation has to affect how we see the US perform as a liberal democracy. In addition, the right to peaceful protest, guaranteed to US citizens in its Constitution (freedom of assembly) has already been broken recently during the Occupy Wallstreet protests. In 2012, as the protests were happening, the Global Justice Clinic published a report listing human rights violations during the demonstrations in New York. Excessive police force against peaceful protesters and obstruction of press freedoms were some of the violations listed there. These violations might not compare to what authoritarian states practise in terms of scale, yet they do compare to what such states practise in terms of their objective. If increased internal control is what the country is going after, militarising its police to curb the protests does make a lot of sense.
$5.1 billion USD: that’s how much police militarisation (modernising its arms and weapons) has received from the US national budget since 1997; it was $450 million USD in 2013 alone. A national programme plans to pass outmoded military equipment to police units at a very low or no cost: we’re talking ambush-protected armoured vehicles, helicopters, automatic rifles, and other gear. If we distribute the money already spent on this programme evenly throughout 17 years (since the law was passed until now), it doesn’t seem much: on average, it’s less than a dollar a year per capita. Our perception might change when we see what exactly this money was spent on. As John Oliver has pointed out on his show on police militarisation, as a part of this national programme, Keene, a town in New Hampshire of less than 25,000 people, now has an armoured personnel carrier patrolling its streets. The reasoning behind it was the following: it is to prevent terrorist attacks during its annual pumpkin festival. Four grenade launchers in a tiny town of Bloomingdale, George, and a tank in Doraville, in the same state, are other examples of military equipment going to law enforcement. It’s difficult to imagine the threats these towns would need to face to match the military gear they now have.
An Explosive Combination
It’s hardly surprising that a combination of social inequality, racist behaviour by police forces and their militarisation is provoking protests, unrest and other forms of civil disobedience. This is exactly what we’re seeing in Ferguson. Having assessed reports by 260 law enforcement agencies in 26 states, in its report War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarisation of American Policing, the ACLU concludes that “American policing has become excessively militarised through the use of weapons and tactics designed for the battlefield. Militarisation unfairly impacts people of colour and undermines individual liberties, and it has been allowed to happen in the absence of any meaningful public discussion.”
In Cleveland, a white police officer shot and killed a 12-year-old African American boy who was playing with his toy gun outdoors. In New York, a white police officer put Eric Garner, a black man, in a chokehold during a confrontation that ended in Garner’s death soon after. The police officer was later acquitted. “I can’t breathe”, which is what Garner was repeating before he was suffocated, has turned into a phrase the meaning of which extends beyond its immediate words.So what do the protesters in Ferguson and other cities want? It seems that it is justice, police demilitarisation, mandatory police body cameras (something Barack Obama has already initiated), and a more civil relationship between the officers and those who they are supposed to serve and protect. Let’s not forget that this is one of the core pillars of a democratic society: do we have the police to serve and protect, or are they here to put down any protests that are challenging the status quo favourable to the powerful? Unfortunately, when unprotected, even core pillars can tumble and fall.