Ferguson Shows Need for Democracy of Our Own Making
Failure of Justice Department and Obama in Ferguson is a Failure of U.S.-Style Democracy
In several statements concerning the just resistance in Ferguson, Missouri to the police killing of an unarmed African American teenager, President Obama urged calm instead of anger. While saying he understood the passions and anger, he did not speak to their source in the racism of police departments across the country and the whole culture of militarism that pervades policing agencies from the federal FBI, DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency), ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms), ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and many others to state, county and local police. And in failing to identify these problems, the actions being taken, like the Justice Department investigation, are not designed to solve them. On the contrary, they are designed to admit some fault while leaving the source — the racism and militarism of the U.S. state — untouched.
President Obama did not go to Ferguson himself, saying he had to wait until the “investigations” are complete. He did send Attorney General Eric Holder, who in turn sent 50 FBI agents to Ferguson to make their presence known and question people. This is the same FBI notorious for its spying and disruption of anti-war, Palestinian and Muslim groups in the present, and its arming and protecting of the KKK while targeting civil rights groups and organizations like the Black Panthers in the past. It is an agency racist to the bone and known to ensure that state-organized racist attacks are covered up, all while being investigated!
The same can generally be said of Justice Department investigations. Invariably they admit that problems raised by the people do exist, but then take no action to actually ensure they are eliminated. Here in Buffalo, for example, a Justice Department investigation of the Holding Center confirmed the many concerns people raised about horrendous conditions, including high levels of suicide. A report was done and suggestions “fir improvement” made. But those dealing today with the Holding Center know well that the much needed substantial changes, including actions against racist police profiling and excessive use of force against minority youth, have not been made.
President Obama’s comments show that the targeting of the U.S. state and its racist policing agencies — from top to bottom — is to be blocked. Speaking August 18, he said, “We have all seen images of protesters and law enforcement in the streets. It’s clear that the vast majority of people are peacefully protesting. What’s also clear is that a small minority of individuals are not.
“While I understand the passions and the anger that arise over the death of Michael Brown, giving into that anger by looting or carrying guns, and even attacking the police only serves to raise tensions and stir chaos. It undermines rather than advancing justice.” He urges protesters to “seek some understanding rather than simply holler at each other.” So, while by his own admission the vast majority are peacefully protesting, they are still his main target. The stand of protestors against police and condemning them is what is undermining justice — not the brutal, racist actions of the police themselves, imbued as they are with a militarist culture. As people worldwide are well aware, this militarist culture is racist to the core, constantly dehumanizes the peoples and justifies their slaughter by portraying them as less than human — much as was done with slaves.
It is the military that coins racist terms and drills them into the soldiers’ heads and popularizes them in the monopoly media. A militarist culture relies on violence and force, not political solutions to social problems. Ferguson police, like the county and state police, cannot escape this pervasive culture and instead repeatedly reflect it. This is the culture of U.S.-style democracy today and reflects its failure to provide solutions or even protections in this modern day.
Obama does attempt to speak to the issue of excessive force, saying, “Let me also be clear that our constitutional rights to speak freely, to assemble, and to report in the press must be vigilantly safeguarded: especially in moments like these. There’s no excuse for excessive force by police or any action that denies people the right to protest peacefully.”
There is no excuse for excessive force by police, which is precisely what was repeatedly on display for the world to see. And this includes the continued killing of unarmed African American teenagers and men, in St. Louis, in Los Angeles, in New York City and Chicago and elsewhere.
Excessive use of force, repeatedly exercised by police on a racist basis, has no place. Yet no actions were taken by the federal government to stop the excessive use of force, and repeated display of combat-level force used against demonstrators. What is the excuse?! Perhaps an investigation is needed to prove what is right before everyone’s eyes.
The people of Ferguson and their just anger are not the problem. Young African American teenagers and men are not the problem. U.S.-style democracy, with its racist core and culture of militarism today is the problem. It is a failed democracy and its representatives necessarily fail when it comes to solving social problems.
The people of Ferguson have shown they know what justice requires and that charging the individual policeman involved with murder is necessary but not enough. They have said they have no trust in the existing system, including the various police agencies, prosecutors, grand jury, FBI and politicians. But they are not the ones deciding these issues — and they should be, just as the people as a whole should be the decision makers. It is the people, organized and fighting for their rights, as those in Ferguson have been, that are the source of justice and democracy. It is the right of the people to govern and decide and that is what is required for democracy today.
We are all supposed to be impressed with the fact that Attorney General Eric Holder parachuted into Ferguson Missouri the other day to wrap his arms around the local top black cop and get briefed on the pending federal investigation into the police killing of Michael Brown. But we should not be.
For the last 20 years, since 1994, Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act obligates the Department of Justice (DoJ) to collect statistics on the extent of brutality and excessive force used by police officers, and to make those findings available to the public. Twenty years down the road no such stats exist, because the Justice Departments of the Clinton, the Bush and the Obama administrations have all simply ignored the law and refuse even to try to gather the information. Let me say this again: the Clinton Justice Department defied the law and refused to gather national stats on police misconduct. The Bush Justice Department thumbed its nose at the law and also refused to gather national stats on police misconduct, and now the first black attorney general, who sometimes even utters the phrase “mass incarceration,” which he recently discovered, selected by the first black president who says if he had a son, his son could be Trayvon Martin – Eric Holder and Barack Obama have likewise shown no interest whatsoever in fulfilling their legal duty when it comes to assembling a national database of police misconduct.
This should not surprise the president’s apologists, who will surely counsel us that he has to be president of all the people, including the police. Everybody knows black and brown people are the disproportionate targets of police violence, so enforcing laws which particularly benefit black and brown communities are something we must not expect. Perhaps after the president leaves office, they will tell us, he will speak out more forcefully on this. […]
Let’s get real. The Republicans have not stopped Obama and Holder from doing this, they stopped themselves. Like every cop on the beat, the Obama administration chooses which laws to enforce, which ones to bend and in what direction, and which ones to ignore. Obama’s DoJ has resurrected the century old Espionage Act, not to prosecute spies, but to threaten and imprison whistleblowers who tell the truth to reporters — like Chelsea Manning — and journalists themselves if they do not reveal their sources, with decades in prison using so-called “secret evidence.” So when you think about it, it is entirely logical that a president and attorney general who place such a high priority on protecting their torturers, their bankster friends, and the official wrongdoers of past and future administrations should want to protect the police from scrutiny as well. […]
Barack Obama and his Justice Department are no more interested in justice than the administrations of ten presidents before him, and uncritical black and brown support has made this president less accountable to black and brown people than any in living memory.
[Note that while the government refuses top kept these statistics, various organizations have organized to gather evidence of police killings and shootings, commonly of unarmed minority youth. As well, a website started in the midst of the Ferguson actions quickly got hundreds of examples of such killings.]
There is at least one line every Marine knows. It is ingrained at boot camp or Officer Candidate School and follows us to the front lines and back home again. It is a simple command and it is the second of the four weapons-safety rules. It says, “Never point a weapon at anything you do not intend to shoot.”
As smoke hangs over the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, it is important to understand its source. Some of this understanding will require us to reassess the history of police militarization in the United States. This will mean acknowledging its origins in the aftermath of the Watts Riots (1965) and the birth of the SWAT team shortly thereafter.
It will mean noting the conservative reaction to the Warren Court’s civil libertarian protections in the 1950s and 60s to President Nixon’s launching of the drug war at the end of that same tumultuous decade. It will mean harping on President Reagan’s wholehearted embrace of racial policing and mass incarceration in the 1980s.
It will mean interrogating the devastating effects of the 1208 Program (1990), which became the 1033 Program (1996), both of which authorized the transfer of military hardware to domestic precincts, a practice that has only accelerated in the wake of the Battle of Seattle (1999) and the attacks of September 11, 2001. The basic contours of this trajectory can be found in Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (2013). [Between 2011 and 2012, sixty-three agencies polled by the American Civil Liberties Union reported that they had received “a total of 15,054 items of battle uniforms or personal protective equipment”; some five hundred agencies had received “vehicles built to withstand armor-piercing roadside bombs.” In many instances, the receipt of these military-grade weapons is contingent on their use within a calendar year — BF Ed. Note]
As Tamara K. Nopper and Mariame Kaba argue in Jacobin, however, any serious reckoning must account for the ongoing dehumanization of black people, tout court. One small way to measure the police violence against black people in Ferguson is to attend to its details. It is in that spirit that I present this simple catalog.
There is a growing chorus of military veterans who have chimed in on the absurdity of photographs [showing police in full combat gear.] Let me join the parade. What we are seeing [in Ferguson] is a gaggle of cops wearing more elite killing gear than your average squad leader leading a foot patrol through the most hostile sands or hills of Afghanistan. They are equipped with Kevlar helmets, assault-friendly gas masks, combat gloves and knee pads, woodland Marine Pattern utility trousers, tactical body armor vests, about 120 to 180 rounds for each shooter, semiautomatic pistols attached to their thighs, disposable handcuff restraints hanging from their vests, close-quarter-battle receivers for their M4 carbine rifles and Advanced Combat Optical Gunsights. In other words, they are itching for a fight. A big one. It is a well-known horror that the U.S. military greets foreign peoples in this fashion as our politicians preach freedom, democracy and peace. It is an abomination that the police greet black communities in the States with the same trigger-happy posture. Especially on the occasion of an unarmed teen’s death by cop.
Smoke Grenade and Smoke Bomb
There is at least one line every Marine knows. It is ingrained at boot camp or Officer Candidate School and follows us to the front lines and back home again. It is a simple command and it is the second of the four weapons-safety rules. It says, “Never point a weapon at anything you do not intend to shoot.” The St. Louis County Police Department apparently never received the memo. Either that or they intend to shoot.
Although their tactical flashlights might be assisting them in spying on (and blinding) their targets, I suspect their air-purifying respirators and the smoke and CS gas they have released might be getting in the way of said objective. It is unclear whether it was cheap fuse-operated smoke bombs (think fireworks) or more expensive pin-operated smoke grenades that are responsible for the fog. Both tools have been reported onsite. For what it is worth, such smokescreens are usually executed during flanking attacks, retreats, close air support missions or casualty evacuations. All of these situations are presumed to take place under real or potential conditions of heavy enemy fire. Make of this what you will. My guess is that they have got a surplus of toys to play with, and a powerless demographic to experiment on.
There are scattered reports of stun grenade use in Ferguson. Also known as flashbangs or flash grenades, this weapon of choice for American SWAT teams (and Israeli soldiers) originated in the British special forces community more than four decades ago. Ostensibly less than lethal, stun grenades have been known to kill or severely injure numerous victims, and the device was recently in the news for burning a 19-month-old baby in Georgia, resulting in a coma, during one of the thousands of domestic police raids this year.
They are designed to temporarily blind and deafen, thanks to a shrapnel-free casing that is only supposed to emit light and sound upon explosion. Nonetheless, the list of casualties is long, and the number of flammable mishaps is disconcerting. In Rise of the Warrior Cop, Balko recounts a story of an FBI agent accidentally lighting himself and his vehicle on fire.
Before moving on to the ammunition most visible in the media, it is important we consider the machines from which they are being shot. The most likely culprit is the ARWEN 37, which is capable of discharging 37mm tear gas canisters or wooden bullet projectiles. Another possibility is the SL6, a 37mm six-shot rotary magazine projectile launcher that is seemingly capable of firing every relevant “non-lethal” round in the book. When a Marine or other warfighter is introduced to one of these for the first time, he likely thinks of the M203 Grenade Launcher as a point of comparison. This is because they are all part of the same family. They are all grenade launchers.
The police used tear gas unsparingly the past week, and it was perhaps the most disturbing ingredient in the stew. As others have noted, the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 actually bans the gas as a permissible means of warfare. Then again, it is allowed for domestic riot control, and nations like Turkey, Bahrain, Israel and the United States have exploited the loophole to great avail. If you are interested in the weapon’s mechanics or science, the Internet has your back. In the meantime, I can assure you its effects are far from pleasurable. Every Marine has his or her own story about their time at the “gas chamber,” the place we go to become familiar with our gas masks (so they tell us). Suffice it to say it sucks out your organs, hogs your oxygen and burns you inside and out. Interim blindness and extended coughing fits are common, as well as an overall sense that you are dying or dead. And they are dispersing this poison in people’s backyards.
Pepper Spray Projectile
These “pepper balls” are lethal; the Boston Police Department banned them after a young woman was killed by one. It passed right through the eye and skull to the brain. She was guilty of being present in a rowdy crowd after a Red Sox vs. Yankees game in which the former won. The ACLU condemned the use of such projectiles for the purposes of crowd management back in 1997, following an unfortunate incident in Eugene, Oregon. They even convinced Eugene officials to do the same. It is about time St. Louis County and the rest of the country followed suit.
You can find pictures elsewhere of the kinds of welts these things leave. The key takeaway is that, like so many of the other “safe” items on this list, they disable and kill. It appears the preferred method of discharge in Ferguson is by way of the 60-caliber Stinger, which contains approximately 42- or 27 32-caliber rubber balls per casing.
Wooden Bullet Projectile
Again, the wounds are nasty. All these injuries remind me of the after-affects of Simunition training for Marine officers at The Basic School, except worse. Like the stun grenade, employing wooden pellets as a form of riot control was spearheaded by the British decades ago, mainly in Hong Kong. As the ACLU makes clear, considerable litigation has proceeded in the aftermath of such tactics, including suits brought by protesters in Oakland who bore the brunt of these measures around the beginning of the Iraq War. Longshoremen on their way to work also suffered and sued accordingly. As a result, the Oakland police department caved and beating residents with wooden projectiles as a means of crowd management was rendered illegal.
Bean Bag Projectile
The Super-Sock constitutes yet another less-than-lethal impact munition that kills people. It also happens to have been directed at KSDK-TV photojournalists and Al Jazeera America TV crew members in Ferguson, along with a good dose of tear gas. Numerous suits concerning bean bag usage are also pending.
The BEARCAT G3 is the SWAT team’s version of the military’s Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle, or better yet its MRAP All Terrain Vehicle. Seeing that there are not any mines or IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) in Ferguson, that the chances of an ambush are slim to none, and that the terrain is relatively boring, the decision of the St. Louis County Police Department to roll out with (or even own) one of these is questionable. The same could be said for SWAT teams across the nation, some of them presently operating actual MRAPs. As Balko reports in Rise of the Warrior Cop, some are even fitted with 50-caliber machine gun turrets. A rumor in the warfighting community has it that a 50-caliber gun can maim or kill a target even when it misses by a few feet. I do not think this is true, but it speaks to a certain truth about the gun in question. Why any of this is still allowed anywhere, much less in our neighborhoods (especially in our neighborhoods of color) is beyond me.
Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD)
The LRAD is a sonic weapon that my psychological operations (PSYOP) friends could probably discuss more intelligently. All I can tell you is that the sound is so pain-inducing that in addition to being used to keep pirates at bay and break up groups of protesters or black people, it is wielded in order to regulate the movements of wildlife. […]
The arsenal on display in Ferguson is not the arsenal of riot control. In a town whose population is 67 percent black while its police force is 94 percent white, we are dealing with something more insidious, both locally and as a nation. We are dealing with an arsenal of racial oppression. It is time we look it in the face, in all its awful detail. It is time we call it by its name. And it is time we finally do what we were tasked to do over a half century ago. It is time we challenge, transcend and extinguish it.