On Aug 9, Michael Brown, 18, who was unarmed, was shot several times by a police officer in a town near St Louis, Mo., and he died before medical help arrived.
That’s about all we know, since reports of the exact sequence of events on Saturday vary widely. In a light most favorable to Michael, he was running away and shot in the back. In a light most favorable to the anonymous Ferguson police officer who shot him, Michael was assaulting the officer and attempting to take his firearm. The latter version of the story, if true, would make this homicide clearly justifiable, but authorities have refused to release the name of the police officer, making it more difficult for the public to understand what happened that night.
Authorities have even arrested, detained, and roughly handled members of the working press, actions in which the government clearly impeded the operation of a free press within our shores.
Police from the St Louis Area Regional Response System have sent military-style vehicles and equipment into the streets around Ferguson to quiet four nights of civil unrest and protest. Some violence has erupted during the protests, and police have answered firebombs, bottles, and rocks from protesters with rubber bullets and tear gas of their own. Police sharpshooters have aimed sniper-scoped military assault rifles on crowds of protesters, as shown in the picture above.
A personal take
For me, personally, this brings back memories of my life in grad school, which was also in a Midwestern town, not far from St Louis: Champaign, Ill. Two African-American men unscrewed an incandescent light bulb near the entrance to an apartment building I had to enter late one night in August 1987. Once I entered the building, into the darkness, they jumped me and beat me over the head with a pipe.
I never lost consciousness, although I’m sure that was their goal. Blood was squirting out of the top of my head, and my top lip had been split at the middle, making it impossible for me to buzz on a trumpet after that attack.
Police and EMT units responded immediately but, to my knowledge, never found the people who had attacked me.
I was so shaken by the attack that I joined the University of Illinois Police Student Patrol. We carried police radios and walked around campus after dark. If we saw anything, like a fight at one of the bars on campus, we called it in and got out of the way. Never were we to take the law into our own hands.
Those were the days when student patrol kids and neighborhood watch commanders didn’t carry firearms at all. Even still, before we were allowed to wear our white jackets with “Student Patrol” stamped on the back, one of the sergeants from the University Police had a serious talk with us about the use of force.
He distinguished between justifiable uses of “force” and “deadly force.” There’s a huge difference between the two under this nation’s laws, and we were even tested about this and other police business, like the “10 Codes,” before we walked the quad as an extra set of eyes for the police.
Clearly, whatever that police sharpshooter is holding and pointing in the picture would constitute “deadly force.” If the rules are about the same as they were in 1988, he’s not allowed to fire it unless someone’s in danger of losing his or her life or in immediate danger at the hands of someone who’s violating a law.
We have been told by authorities that police can use force, as opposed to deadly force, to remove protesters from school board meetings in Chicago or open community forums on education just north of Baltimore where people are talking out of turn. And even though these officers may be armed with weapons that can apply deadly force to a situation, they aren’t allowed to use them unless someone is in immediate danger.
But the police use of force rules seem to have changed after 9/11. Certainly, the SLARRS group used federal money to buy that assault vehicle, most of the fully automatic rifles, which can be used to take out an entire mob of protesters in a few seconds, and its two helicopters, the New York Times reports. President Barack Obama and US Attorney General Eric Holder have called for a demilitarization of the nation’s police forces.
Back to college and police shootings
I’m sick of hearing stories like this in which reporters think they have to justify the victim’s reasons for being in a certain place at a certain time by telling us which college he was planning to attend. As tragic as Michael’s death was, the college he never got a chance to attend is not—repeat, not—part of the headline.
The tragedy here is the escalation of our police forces into something that looks like an occupation force in Eastern Europe. The tragedy here is that this could happen to you and me, as police lower the bar in terms of what actions on the part of citizens justify the use of force or the use of deadly force.
If weapons that can spray deadly force on a mob of protesters are available to police, the chances are higher they’ll use this equipment, which was truly intended to be used on terrorists after 9/11, not on mobs of people asserting their First Amendment rights.
The tragedy here is that protests, a vital fabric of America, will be squelched and voices shut down, voices like those of Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly, journalists who were doing their job in a McDonald’s restaurant near the scene of Saturday’s shooting and forcibly arrested.
State police in charge, tone changes
Update (8/15) … The New York Times reports today that with Capt Ronald S Johnson, a highway patrol officer appointed Thursday to be in charge of operations in Ferguson, peace has started to come back to the town.
“The whole tone just turned around,” one mother, who was marching with her young children, said after she had listened to speeches by the governor and other politicians. “Now I feel like they are letting us know they think it’s tragic, too. It’s a beautiful thing.”