As of writing this we are over a week into the quagmire that is Ferguson, Missouri. A town of roughly 22,000, most people had not even heard the name until August 9th when a Ferguson PD officer, later identified as Darren Wilson, fatally shot Michael Brown after an exchange between the two in the middle of the street. This isn’t about the shooting; which is still under investigation and until more details emerge, remains mostly media speculation, bias, conjecture and pure fantasy at this point. No, this is about the response to the shooting and the troubling reality it portrays.
Brown was shot on the 9th; the first reports of looting came on the 10th. A gas station looted, damaged and set on fire. On the 10th this may have seemed like an isolated incident of anger in the community boiling over; the sort of feelings of injustice that make people run out and steal, break and burn a third party’s property I suppose. The media provides plenty of coverage of the first night of looting, but drastically fails to do anything to try and stem the anger. Instead they seem to want to pour fire on the flames, and they do. By the 11th, organized and peaceful protests are on the streets of Ferguson; with daylight comes some ability to control the crowds, which is more a testament to the more peaceful protestors than it is to the abilities of law enforcement.
The night of the 11th brings more unrest, more property damage and more anger at law enforcement as the news giants such as CNN and FOX go into full coverage mode and lacking new facts, continue to speculate on those they have or those that have been created by other person’s speculation. Again, the media does little to calm the people of Ferguson.
More gasoline, bigger fire.
On August 12th, the venerable Al Sharpton is on the ground in St. Louis, press conferences, hyperbole and outrage as he stands by the family of Michael Brown. More details emerge, but the story is still lacking the sort of hard facts that investigations take time to develop. Time for facts to develop doesn’t seem to be something the media is interested in. The night of the 12th sees some calm but it doesn’t last. The media speculation at this point has reached a sort of critical mass and speculation has more or less normalized on the narrative of Brown being some sort of Gentle Giant who was inexplicably shot by an officer so malicious he had not received a single citizen complaint during his service with FPD (okay, that’s my bias).
On the 13th the protests continue, violence seems to increase and the first very troubling sign appears; the use of Molotov cocktails. Multiple media outlets capture photos and video of “protestors” armed with Molotovs, at this point you are not dealing with a protest. At this point law enforcement is under threat of lethal force by a mass of unknowns hurling rocks, bottles and fire. Instead of focusing on this very real threat, the media instead covers benign facts and the use of tear gas against an Al Jazeera news crew (who had set up inside a containment zone against the orders of law enforcement and been told repeatedly to leave). The night of the 13th brought more violence, more looting.
The internet was already awash with harsh criticism of law enforcements uniforms (still don’t understand how clothing violates anyone’s rights) weapons and gear such as MRAPs and APCs. On the 14th, US Attorney General Eric Holder met with Brown’s parents and expressed that he is “deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message” to the community of Ferguson. Yes. The top law enforcement official in the nation doesn’t like law enforcement using tools intended for such situations.
Agree or disagree with law enforcement having such tools, they (to date) have not been used effectively in Ferguson (if at all) and this is my point. These tools, uniforms and gear are not everyday police equipment, they are for emergencies, which I am fairly sure this qualifies as. Despite the very real fact that law enforcement officers are facing lethal force sporadically from “protestors” they are held back, few arrests occur and as the sun sets on the 14th, the night belongs to looters and criminals.
On the 15th we learn the officer who shot Brown is white. Apparently this is still a big deal in America, at least that’s what the media says, because Brown was black and a black officer probably couldn’t be dispatched to the scene in time to deal with Brown because that seems to be what the media wants…or maybe that’s just conjecture on my part. The night of the 15th brings some of the worst violence yet, especially as we also learned that Brown “allegedly” committed a strong arm robbery just prior to his fatal encounter with Officer Wilson.
Now, Wilson appears to have had no knowledge of the robbery so this fact doesn’t actually do anything for the investigation except make law enforcement look like fools in the face of a media juggernaut crying racial disparity and police brutality. In my opinion, this is literally the moment that law enforcement effectively ended in Ferguson; this is where the failure began. The night of the 15th saw few arrests, more property damage and more lethal force used against law enforcement that simply “contained” the problem by standing around in some semblance of a formation. For all the Facebook fear and distrust I see over LE having MRAPs and wearing this-or-that color uniform, it seems that the oppressive nature of such things are lost on the crowd as they hurl fire, rocks and take an occasional shot or two from the crowd.
Business owners are trying to protect their property. Photos of store owners armed with rifles, store employees pulling armed security on sidewalks have been floating around the internet (largely ignored by the mainstream media) and of course the image of the Korean store owners on their roof from the 1992 King riots is once again in heavy rotation. The 16th was the first night of a curfew. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and implemented a midnight to 5 a.m. curfew. Law Enforcement stood by to enforce it, driven mainly by the Missouri Highway Patrol. The night brought less than 10 arrests and one man shot by someone in a requisitioned restaurant. A police cruiser was also shot at.
So much for MRAPS and OD green uniforms.
The failure in Ferguson isn’t that police have military equipment (likely gained through the Defense Logistics Agency’s “1033 program” which was born in the 1990s as a way to get excess military equipment such as computers, night vision, vehicles and other equipment to LE as part of the war on drugs or though DHS grants) because police have always, to one degree or another, had “military” equipment. The equipment is routinely immobile. It’s not used as part of normal operations and the criticism against it in most cases is media and fear driven. Objects are not responsible for their actions, people are (where have I heard that before?).
The failure is that Officer Wilson, while on patrol in a traditional squad car wearing a traditional uniform, shot and killed Brown with his service issued sidearm and all we can do (media included) is talk about the police responding to an emergency with emergency equipment and listen as it’s peppered with racial malice. The failure is that the media frenzy ignores the civil unrest and threat to life and property in order to spin more ratings, more violence and more story. Like it or not, their focus becomes ours. Let’s not talk about the officers on the line dodging bottles of flammable liquid or worrying about random shots fired from a massed crowd. Let’s not talk about store owners being looted, people being beaten and all the other crimes taking place that have absolutely nothing to do with the shooting death of Brown, let’s not talk about the government failure to control the problem out of what I can only imagine is fear that the media will cover any attempt at positive control in a negative and draconian way.
Instead, let’s focus on what officers are wearing, what they drove up in and what weapons they are using to not shoot at or kill anyone. The hands of law enforcement in Ferguson have been effectively tied by the media and the mob mentality; we are literally witnessing media-driven law enforcement. The failure is that instead of working on a solution to what may or may not be a problem, we are instead pointing all our energy at a very real fear of police suppression and power not possessed by the citizenry. I almost think that many of the most outspoken opponents to LE having such equipment would be perfectly fine if the cops were replaced with soldiers using the same gear, which I think is a failure in understanding of why we have civilian LE to begin with.
Ferguson will serve an example of how the media can help make a situation gravely worse, and then make a peaceful resolution a difficult goal by tying the hands of law enforcement with public opinion, no matter if that public opinion is influenced by the truth or by a bias agenda. Many of the same people who don’t trust the media will still buy their words when dealing with law enforcement because apparently they don’t trust them more.
Cops have armored vehicles. Cops wear camouflage uniforms on occasion. Cops have rifles; some of those rifles are select-fire. It’s all gear and while it may be visually troubling to some, it in and of itself it isn’t the problem, it’s a symptom of the problem. The problem and failure is in a distrust that has been magnified by the media, both mainstream and social, with little to no attempt on the part of law enforcement to correct it.
Law enforcement doesn’t correct it because the individual officers are not given a voice and instead are spoken for by government and government actions. “Law Enforcement” is a function of a civilized people, a necessity to law and order; it isn’t a faceless mass but that’s how it’s seen by many and distrust of one part becomes distrust of the whole. Distrust leads to the sort of people willing to throw Molotov cocktails at police; who are but one reason LE has emergency equipment. The fact that law enforcement in Ferguson effectively lost control is because the media wasn’t interested in them having any and we as a people, through social media and a lack of outrage at the way media behaves, were more than willing to help. If you want to create change in law enforcement, it starts with perception. Law enforcement needs emergency equipment because situations arise where this equipment protects lives. So long as it’s used to protect life and not to impose unjust force or authoritarian rule, none of us should have a problem with it. If the equipment is misused, the guilty party should be person, not property.
A healthy distrust of government is as American as America, it’s part of who we are and should always be, but what does no one any good is trying to fix symptoms of a problem by blanketing that distrust across an entire profession and ignoring the systemic problem of media driven opinion for the sake of a story. As citizens we usually have the luxury of opinion without the duty of thought. We can come to a conclusion and choose a side without any solid time spent on figuring out which side is right, we just choose the one that most aligns with our sensibilities and take to the internet to defend it; our readiness to behave like this continues to fuel the media’s ability to pump out low-information news and amplify the problem.
We don’t share the good stories about law enforcement on our news feeds, we share the bad. Of my 300+ friends on my personal Facebook, the only pro-LE stories I see come from people in law enforcement; that is quite telling. Community oriented policing, supported by the media would go far towards preventing such a problem in the future, towards preventing a failure like Ferguson. Unfortunately there isn’t much story there and since we seem to like our news violent and dramatic, the media isn’t likely to pursue it. This shouldn’t stop law enforcement from adopting more aggressive community focused programs, but if a cop saves a dog from drowning, a cat from a tree, a man from a burning car or arrests a violent stalker bent on murder and there was no camera there to film it, did it really happen? If it becomes acceptable to be pro-law enforcement in the media, perhaps we would see a more inclusive cadre of people wanting to become police officers.
Maybe that’s just a pipe dream that could never exist in a world like ours.
Editor’s note: since Aaron wrote this article, we have learned that Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has called in the National Guard. -Brandon