You can argue about the looting and the brick-throwing. You can argue about what constitutes a race “riot” these days – and why the hell we are seeing teargas every other evening in the suburbs, or Jim Crow-reminiscent police dogs in the year 2014. There are a lot of things worth arguing about now that the world’s eyes are focused on Ferguson, Missouri, a town where two-thirds of the population is black and 50 of the 53 police offers are white, where one of those officers gunned down an unarmed black kid in broad daylight.
But here is something that makes no sense, that is inarguable: Ferguson (population: 21,135) has about 40 robberies per year, a couple of homicides, almost no arson cases and a crime rate only a bit higher than the national average. Indeed, the town’s crime rate was going down as of two years ago, when the last major data is available. Ditto in neighboring St. Louis.
Now St. Louis isn’t exactly the picture of safety, but two years ago the St. Louis Police Department also acquired a Lenco BearCat armored military vehicle, a “tactical support vehicle” and a helicopter that’s popular with the Korean air force. Earlier this year, the US Department of Homeland Security donated a 22-ton Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle – the thing we used on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan – to the police department in nearby St. Charles, Missouri (population: 66,463).
On Saturday night, as people took to the streets to protest the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, the Ferguson Police Department, the chief of which reportedly displays a confederate flag in his home, had that machine at his disposal
Sure, there may have been “unrest” that needed paying attention to, but why were there Iraq-grade trucks even at the ready in the police station of an American suburb in the first place? Since when do local cops need wooden bullets and AR-15s? What the hell is the point of cops looking like this?
What is happening in Ferguson is exactly what opponents of the rise in military-style policing across America have long feared: when the feds arm white local cops with weapons of war and their superiors encourage them not to just play dress-up but to use their new war toys, it is inevitable that ordinary citizens – especially citizens of color – will get treated as the enemy. As we’ve seen in Ferguson, when military might comes to Main Street, “hands-up, don’t shoot” quickly turns into a quasi-declaration of war on a grieving community.
How the hell do we stop equipping and training suburban cops as warriors? I’ve written about this for a long time, and I’m not sure another unarmed black kid getting shot is going to end what Radley Balko calls the Rise of the Warrior Cop – even now that military veterans themselves have had enough.
But this much we know:
Small-town America does not often contend with military uprisings or terrorist attacks, so the war machines tend to get used on, you know, pumpkin festivals.
Many small-town residents don’t like when federal grants put armored vehicles in their backyards, and even some local Republican lawmakers want to ban their acquisition without voter approval.
You would think that a police force sworn to protect us would make us more safe with tanks and assault rifles in waiting, but an ACLU report released this summer – examining just 800 incidents of the estimated 45,000 annual Swat team deployments in America – found the opposite: seven people were killed and dozens were injured, including a baby – and 61% of people impacted by drug-case Swat raids were minorities.
Kara Dansky, the chief author of the ACLU report, told me this week that “the unnecessary use of paramilitary policing tactics tends to escalate the risk of violence to both civilians and officers.” She said there is no central tracking system of the military equipment going out to local police departments – just as there is no oversight on how the equipment is used, or any reporting requirements other than hitting drug-enforcement numbers that bring in more cash to the local PD.
One Georgia Congressman wants to introduce real federal oversight, but it’s currently very difficult to know exactly which police department has what, how much they paid for it or what they use it for.
We may never know whether Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson – the one with the flag, apparently – ordered in the armored vehicles of war this weekend, because we don’t know very much about which paramilitary police force is in control on which night. (They are arresting reporters, after all.) But we know what Jackson said on Wednesday: “that the anarchists that are coming in, the people that don’t want healing, the people that just want to continue to fight” are the people he’s allegedly “concerned about.”
We know that one cop in riot gear described Ferguson to the Guardian on Monday night as “a war zone.” And we know that cops who think they are fighting in a war zone like to use their MRAPs and their battlefield guns on the street corner. We know that this was the scene on Wednesday night, before the teargas came again.
On Tuesday, hours after the teargas and the wooden bullets came out in Ferguson for the first time, Jay Caspian King at the New Yorker asked questions we shouldn’t have to:
"[H]ave we ... become anesthetized to images of police in armored vehicles and full military gear? And has the proliferation of images on news and social-media sites made them seem any more normal?"
The world is arguing about whether the U.S. should be intervening in Iraq, whether we’ll have “boots on the ground” in Baghdad or Mosul. Meanwhile, we have boots on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri. There is nothing normal about that. Why are we even arguing and asking anymore? The toys of war do no belong in a town of 21,000 – not for protests peaceful or less so, not for looting or brick-throwing. Certainly not for the memory of Michael Brown, who was killed by a policeman with a gun in the year 2014.