There was a moment during MSNBC’s live coverage of Ferguson, Missouri, Monday night through 2AM Tuesday morning when Chris Hayes and one of his guests conceded the police (now augmented by National Guard troops said to be guarding a police command center) begrudgingly deserved a good grade because — unlike riots in Newark and Los Angeles — no one had been killed. This was after cops had “barked” at Hayes and threatened him with macing if he and his camera crew dared again venture “in front of” the police.
It was about this time rumors surfaced that the police were planning to announce Tuesday morning new rules for media on the street. Frustrated police were beginning to take the usual position and blame the media for the persistent protests in Ferguson. Hayes wondered on-air what that might mean; he was concerned what the police would do without cameras covering their actions. Was the media creating disrespect for the police? Or was it the unaddressed murder of an 18-year-old African American manchild?
I’ve watched an awful lot of cable news over the past week, and Ferguson, Missouri, for me, is an amazing public collision of citizens rights and police power. One of the ironies of Monday night was how critical Shepard Smith of Fox News and a couple of his on-the-street reporters were of the police.
“There’s not a bit of professionalism across the street from me,” said one of the on-the-street Fox reporters live at around 10:30PM Ferguson time, referring to the gathered cops in military garb and gas masks. “I can’t see what’s provoking the police.” Until that moment, protesters had been ordered only to keep moving — not to stop and cluster up — a command one might hear from guards in a volatile prison public area.
Both MSNBC and Fox felt the police had not been provoked at 10PM Ferguson time when they suddenly collected en-mass in warrior mode and started demanding on loudspeakers for protesters to leave the area. Soon, the flash bang grenades came out, the tear gas, the use of spooky L-RAD sound blasters — all intended to force protesters to flee. As Hayes pointed out with a chuckle, having gotten a snootful of tear gas and fled himself, as far as clearing a street “this stuff really works.”
It seemed clear to me sitting at home as it did to the reporters on the street and to the angry protesters themselves, that the police authorities had decided at 10PM Ferguson time that aggressive police action would begin. A midnight-to-5AM curfew had been lifted, but in effect what they did amounted to the same thing, a midnight curfew as a fact-on-the-ground. Dissipated stragglers could be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
This is what has become of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America. All of us opposed to the Iraq, Afghanistan and terror wars since 9/11 have seen it grow on our streets for over a decade. It can only be described as a police state of control as to when and how citizens will be permitted to express their First Amendment rights. By now, many of us are very familiar with one of the most absurd elements of this regime: The First Amendment Zone.
It’s a place usually at some remove from the entity to be protested; at least, it’s far enough away that the people being protested will not be disturbed my the voices of protest. (That is, unless it’s protests against abortion clinics; in that case, the courts and police seem fine allowing the angry voices as close as possible.) The First Amendment Zones are usually fenced off with portable iron railings and cattle chute assemblies supervised by police squads.
The goal is self-evident: To contain and control the protesting. Police PR likes to call all this “protecting first amendment rights.” They have no doubt convinced themselves and pat themselves on the back that what they’re doing is “protecting”. And they have the guns, the courts and the jail cells to back themselves up. But who and what are they really protecting?
In Ferguson, you see police leading all formal protests. This has been the case with all demonstrations in Philadelphia. A police captain leads the march. This supports the idea that the police are allowing the march, as they put it, protecting the citizens’ rights. I helped negotiate with a Civil Affairs police captain the large march in Philadelphia on February 15, 2003. The captain, who I actually like, walked ahead of the entire march. This has always been a little hard for me to stomach. It removes any sense of “edge” for the march. It becomes safe. Let’s be honest, this idea that the police are “protecting” our First Amendment Rights is nonsense. It’s like the burly, insulting cop who demands you move “for your own protection.” Both you and he know very well he’s the only one threatening you. It’s like the old protection racket logic: Pay me “protection” or I’ll burn your bar down.
This kind of relationship is now well established across the land, and the rise of the warrior cop only raises the ante. Who grants a citizen his or her constitutional rights? Is it the police? Or are those rights extended to citizens by a venerable social contract established by actual revolutionaries in the 18th century. As Missouri governor Jay Nixon put it when he sent in the National Guard, his concern was “to respond appropriately to incidents of lawlessness and violence, and protect the civil rights of all peaceful citizens to make their voices heard.”
There’s a lot of ambiguity and wiggle room in that statement, certainly enough for pumped-up warrior cops, MRAPS, tear gas and L-RAD sound guns to establish zones and allocated times for First Amendment expression. And enough room to abuse the Constitution. Who decides what “appropriately” means? What constitutes “incidents of lawlessness and violence?” How does a police force define “peaceful citizens” when the anger level is so high?
The governor appointed a fine, sensitive African American man to run the security in Ferguson, State Trooper Captain Ron Johnson. But is Johnson really in charge? As Hayes put it in his witty fashion, “it’s like there’s a Game Of Thrones power struggle going on here.” There’s local police forces that seem to be protecting Officer Darren Wilson; there’s the state forces under Governor Nixon, who is said not to be a great friend of the African American community; and there’s the federal forces under President Obama and Attorney General Holder. In a climate of conflicting power lines, police power naturally trumps the confusion. And outside agitators become a very convenient source of the problem.
OK, Ferguson is not Tiananmen Square by a long mile. Our warrior cops have figured out how to use technology to control crowds without gunning people down with automatic weapons. Still, our police forces in Ferguson appear to have the identical goal as the anti-democratic forces in Tiananmem Square, which is to break up and disperse an embarrassing outburst of citizen rage and the hope for change it implies.
As many voices have expressed over the past week on MSNBC and other venues, there is a pretty easy way to dissipate the fury on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. It’s chrystal clear to me. One 37-year-old Ferguson resident named Antione Watson put it this way to the New York Times:
“I don’t see an end to all this until there are charges against the cop.”
Stop hiding the man and covering up his actions while undermining the character of his victim. Arrest Officer Darren Wilson for murder and put him into the clutches of the same criminal justice system you would have put young black Michael Brown if the roles had been reversed. It’s called Justice.