Why is the response of police in Ferguson, Mo., to protests about the killing of an unarmed black teenager so different? So over the top? There have been police shootings and killings of other unarmed African-American teens and men. There are usually protests and sometimes a violent community reaction. But I can’t recall another situation where the police used such extreme military tactics in a response.
Actually, I can. I’m old enough to remember the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where demonstrators in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, Old Town, Grant Park, and Michigan Avenue created disturbances and were severely beaten by police. The demonstrations and overreactions lasted eight days and left the city with a big black eye.
The Youth International Party, or “Yippies,” led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, came armed to create mischief, nominating an actual hog named Pigasus the Pig for president. They sought permits to demonstrate and march everywhere in the city, most of which were denied. Many groups were there protesting the Vietnam War, including the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. Thousands of protestors came to Chicago to demonstrate against the war.
Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley decided that he would have none of it. There had been racial riots for the past few years in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965 and in many cities in April of 1968 after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This was not going to happen again in HIS city. Daley had already given a “shoot to kill” order to police during the April riots, and he wasn’t afraid of giving one again.
Police wearing riot helmets went beyond their usual billy clubs and standard-issue guns and were armed with Mace and tear gas. They used all of their weapons — frequently. National Guardsmen were on hand to mobilize if the situation got out of control. Protestors were beaten with little provocation — some injury estimates were up to 500 injuries a night. And it went out on TV for all the world to see.
At the convention itself, the police acted little better. Journalists such as CBS’ Mike Wallace and Dan Rather were roughed up by security — events that got broadcast live nationwide. One journalist described entering the convention hall as “exactly like approaching a military installation; barbed-wire, checkpoints, the whole bit.”
On the floor of the convention, delegates got into shouting matches with each other. The failure to include a “peace plank” in the party platform caused delegates to march in protest around the convention floor. In his speech nominating Sen. George McGovern for president, Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut said, “With George McGovern as president of the United States, we wouldn’t have Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago.” At one point, as Mayor Daley and other Chicago delegates tried to shout him down, Ribicoff answered from the podium, “The truth hurts, doesn’t it?” (As for Daley’s response, people who could read lips claimed to have observed Daley shouting, “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch.” No confirmation is possible, but it’s a hell of a quote.)
Daley, never a total master of the English language, also uttered the famous line, “The police are not here to create disorder, they’re here to preserve disorder.”
Afterward, a national government report blamed the violence on the police force, calling it a “police riot.” It has been said that because of the police overreactions in Chicago, America elected Richard Nixon as president.
But what we have in Ferguson goes way beyond Chicago 1968 — it’s more like Tahrir Square in Cairo. Like Baghdad in Iraq. Many former military have observed that they wore less armor in Iraq and Afghanistan than Ferguson police are wearing.
Many of us watched as police in Ferguson threw smoke bombs and canisters of tear gas and fired rubber bullets at groups of mostly peaceful protestors. They rode atop tanks aiming assault rifles at civilians. The night after Michael Brown was shot and killed by police, some — a minority — of residents did some looting at local businesses. That’s pretty much stopped. There were no “riots” in Ferguson. Those individuals who did the looting have been charged with burglary and theft. So far, there are no charges against the officer who shot Brown, whose name is still under wraps.
It was interesting that this situation received little or minor coverage for several nights, except for quick mentions. No doubt much of that was caused by the saturation coverage of Robin Williams’ suicide. It also was interesting that the coverage didn’t become front-page news until some national reporters from the Huffington Post and the Washington Post were arrested. Since when do police have the right to order reporters and cameramen to “stop filming”? Obviously, they don’t. Since when do police have the right to order a curfew? Obviously, they don’t — they “asked” that all protests end at dusk. As if that would happen, when many of those joining the protest are at work during the day anyway.
There is the added problem of the over-militarization of U.S. police forces — a subject on which others are more competent to comment than I am. But none of us likes to see our neighborhood Officer Friendly in riot gear. It creates distrust and makes every situation worse. Add the racial elements, and you’ve got a disaster in the making. Ferguson has a majority black population but only three black police officers. Who thought this would turn out well?
So far, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has said St. Louis county police will be removed from the area. That’s a start. Releasing the name of the officer in question is a no-brainer — it happens every time there is a shooting like this, in any city in America.
Again — why are things so different in Ferguson, Mo.?
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