Within hours of his untimely death, Michael Brown’s name was popping up in news reports and social media networks around the United States. At the time, Brown was known primarily as the most recent of an ever-increasing number of young, unarmed African-American men killed by white police officers around the country. But before long, Brown’s hometown of Ferguson, Missouri was front-page news around the world.
The situation in the days that followed Brown’s death were somewhat familiar in a global context; large, mostly peaceful public demonstrations centering on a legitimate community grievance, repressed by security forces armored and armed to the teeth, ready to move in with heavy force at the slightest hint of disorder. The news website GlobalPost even updated its list of “photos that suggest tear gas unites us all” to include pictures from Ferguson alongside similar images from protests in Bahrain, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere. Only this time, it wasn’t happening in some far-away, “developing” nation. It was happening right in the heartland of America.
On August 19, Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the officer in charge of operations in Ferguson, defended the police response under his command, which has included the widespread use of tear gas (banned under international law in military combat scenarios) and other “non-lethal” weapons such as “stun grenades,” “LRADs” and “rubber bullets.” “These are not acts of protesters,” Johnson said, referring to scattered reports of property destruction as well as gunfire, rocks and molotov cocktails aimed at police from the crowd. “These are acts of violent criminals.”
As police attempted to disperse various groups of demonstrators amidst sporadic looting on the night of August 15, reports surfaced of local residents taking it upon themselves to protect the properties being menaced during the chaos. In many cases, protesters have reportedly helped protect each other from the police, whom many journalists and community leaders have accused of using intimidation and excessive force. Rather than helping the community police itself, the security forces in Ferguson appear to have assumed an adversarial stance toward the people they are meant to protect.
Some of the most interesting criticism of the police response in Ferguson has come from former and current US military personnel. One veteran tweeted, “In the [US Air Force], we did crowd control and riot training every year. Lesson 1: Your mere presence has the potential to escalate the situation.” Another noted, “A few people have pointed it out, but our [rules of engagement] regarding who we could point weapons at in Afghanistan was more restrictive than cops in MO.”
The militarized police presence has likely contributed to the unrest. Ferguson local Miller Gardner told the Daily Beast “It’s messed up [that the police are] suited for war against civilians…I’m not on that side and I’m in the military. They need to come on this side of the line.” “I don’t know why they hate us so much,” an 11 year-old boy told a local reporter. “It seems like police are about to go to war with the people.” In fact, the only peaceful night of the protests was the evening of August 14, when Capt. Johnson, on his first day in command, walked the protest route with fellow officers and local residents and ordered the police to leave behind their gas masks and “MRAPs.”
The Defense Department has defended the so-called “1033” program, by which some $4.3 billion worth of “excess” military equipment has been transferred to local police departments around the country since the mid-1990s. In St. Louis County, which includes Ferguson, the program has provided the police with six pistols, 12 rifles, 15 weapon sights, a bomb disposal robot, three helicopters, seven humvees and two night vision devices since 2007, according to Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby.
President Obama has hinted that the 1033 program may need to be reviewed in light of recent events, but civil rights organizations have been warning about the dangers of police militarization in the United States for years. In June 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union released an extensive report documenting the “unnecessarily and dangerously militarized” practices of modern American policing and detailing the prominent role played by the War on Drugs in this development.
Some commentators have pointed out a correlation between campaign donations from military contractors and congressional votes in favor of the 1033 program. In June 2014, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted down an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act to prevent the sale of heavy-duty military equipment to local police forces, despite extensive polling data showing Americans are increasingly weary and wary of war in general.
Private prison companies, police and correctional officers unions, weapons manufacturers, and companies in the alcohol and pharmaceutical industry all have an interest in maintaining prohibitive drug policies and the high crime and incarceration rates that accompany them. As a recent headline at the Open Secrets blog put it, “Money, not morals drives [the] prohibition movement.”
The ACLU report mentioned above is aptly titled “The War Comes Home.” The War on Drugs and the War on Terrorism have melded into a sort of Forever War being waged virtually everywhere – even within the United States. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2011 that the Department of Homeland Security spends tens of billions of dollars annually on domestic security. As this handy government map makes clear, the United States gives billions in foreign aid, much of it for security assistance, to nearly every country on earth.
The United States has also played a critical role in training, arming and diplomatically supporting many countries’ security forces, including some that have been credibly and repeatedly accused of serious human rights abuses, corruption and impunity throughout its history. It seems only logical that the issues faced in those countries would be mirrored by similar issues within the US domestic police forces.
For example, Customs and Border Protection (as it describes itself “one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the world”) has grown rapidly since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011. Many agents have been accused of human rights violations, extrajudicial killings and even ties to organized crime. James F. Tomsheck, the recently ousted chief of internal affairs for the agency, said that Border Patrol suffers from an “institutional narcissism” that engenders widespread impunity for violations of rules and laws. A report from the American Immigration Council released in May 2014 found that 97 percent of internal investigations into detainee abuse complaints lodged against CBP agents ended with no disciplinary action taken.
On the evening of August 19, Amnesty International deployed a group of human rights observers to Ferguson. The Washington Post described it as “the first of its kind…in the United States.” Later that night, Amnesty’s Twitter account sent out a message that read: “US can’t tell other countries to improve their records on policing and peaceful assembly if it won’t clean up its own human rights record.” Earlier that day, another young black man had been shot by police in the St. Louis area. A graphic video of the incident was released the following afternoon, essentially confirming the account given by the police but raising questions about the appropriateness of the two officers’ use of deadly force.
In media interviews and raw video footage being posted online, the frustration and tension in Ferguson has been increasingly apparent. The desire of the majority of residents to lawfully demonstrate and express their grievances – not to mention simply going about their daily lives – has been interrupted by police all too eager to treat large groups of mostly peaceful civilians according to the behavior of the most belligerent individuals among them. And they have plenty of equipment with which to quell any and all resistance.
In March 2014, US Secretary of State John Kerry called on the Venezuelan government to end what he described as a “terror campaign” against its citizens. Dozens of police and civilians, some of them innocent bystanders, were killed during the following two months of protests, with many anti-government factions overtly calling for and carrying out acts of violence. In April, Secretary Kerry again criticized President Maduro for “us[ing] security forces to disrupt peaceful protests and limit freedoms of expression and assembly.”
Yet Secretary Kerry and other prominent US political figures have generally refrained from condemning the use of militarized tactics and force in Ferguson too strongly in public, if at all. It is easy to criticize a country like Venezuela, which receives virtually no security assistance from the United States, for inappropriate behavior by its security forces, but the United States provides billions of dollars worth of direct and indirect aid to countries, counties and cities whose militaries and police have similarly poor if not even worse human rights records.
The tweet from Amnesty International hits on an important point: if the United States government lacks sufficient mechanisms to ensure accountability for the funding it provides to its own domestic police forces, this raises questions about how effectively it can monitor and evaluate the vast multitude of programs and large amounts of funding that go into security assistance abroad.