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The Ferguson Cops Have Been More Inept Than Strategic

Even if a planned operational shift calms Ferguson streets, the fight against the police state must continue.

by Natasha Lennard
Aug 15 2014, 1:05pm

Photo by David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP

On Wednesday night in Ferguson, Missouri, police continued their violent assault on the St. Louis suburb. According to reports, 16 arrests were made over the course of the night. The inept, excessively militarized municipal cops used tear gas, rubber bullets, and aggression with astounding disregard for young black lives — and a seeming disregard for public opinion.

Cops arrested and assaulted two journalists with national platforms, Ryan J. Reilly of the Huffington Post and Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post. They put Alderman Antonio French in a cell overnight and shot tear gas at an Al Jazeera America camera crew. In response, Twitter bubbled with outrage about how such blatant disregard for press freedoms pointed to an explicit attempt to sever flows of information about police brutality in Ferguson.

While I agree that the upshot is an abrogation of constitutional protections, I don't credit Ferguson or St. Louis County cops with the Machiavellian cunning required to intentionally silence journalists. Rather, I see idiocy. Indeed, when the Los Angeles Times' Matt Pearce called Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson to ask about the journalists' arrests, Jackson responded, "Oh God." In a press conference Thursday, a red-faced and stuttering Jackson told an Al Jazeera reporter that "the media is not a target" and that he did not know why tear gas and rubber pellets had been used on their crew. Peak faux pas, reached.

'Hands up, don't shoot': Ferguson protests in photos. See them here.

I commend both Reilly and Lowery for using their experiences to direct attention toward the violence inflicted on Ferguson arrestees possessed of no journalistic privileges. And I am grateful for the work of professional journalists deploying their skills on the ground right now. But in the age of social media, professional reporting is no longer the sole means of information spreading. The undeserved arrest of journalists in Ferguson does not point to a situation more grave than one in which a young, unarmed black man is executed by cops, nor one in which people protesting that execution meet a military-style crackdown.

It's hard to judge whether the police forces in Ferguson right now are brazen or simply stupid — or a mixture of both.

When I was reporting for the New York Times in 2011, I was arrested alongside Occupy protesters who had marched onto the Brooklyn Bridge. The arrest of a Times freelancer certainly brought heightened attention to the Occupy efforts, but putting me in cuffs was among the least violent acts I saw the NYPD carry out. We shouldn't need the vaunted Fourth Estate to encounter this brutality firsthand to trigger a push back against police violence.

It's hard to judge whether the police forces in Ferguson right now are brazen or simply stupid — or a mixture of both. But Missouri Governor Jay Nixon decided to intervene after four nights of police brutality and public rage. (I don't personally think Nixon gives a shit about the impoverished suburb, but national outrage is not a good look for state leaders.) On Thursday he announced that there would be an "operational shift" and a "change in tone" in the policing henceforth, and that the Missouri Highway Patrol would take over policing duties in Ferguson.

One can only assume that the "operational shift" will entail less fodder for viral outrage — the upshot of local policing infused, as it is, with thuggishness and military weaponry. I expect less tear gas, more police bodies on the ground, and likely some top-down orders urging officer restraint.

Mightier and wealthier police departments in major cities also shoot unarmed black teens with impunity. But they know a little more about optics when it comes to civil unrest. They learned the lessons of the 1999 riots in Seattle, when so much tear gas was used on World Trade Organization protestors that hotels hosting WTO guests had to be evacuated. You won't see tear gas in New York or Chicago. NYPD riot gear looks comparatively subtle. These police departments are militarized but tend to rely on sheer numbers to foreclose riotous dissent after they kill kids.

Anger is boiling over in Ferguson as governor brings in Highway Patrol. Read more here.

Whether cops are ineptly or adeptly brutal, their violence is structural and deserving of revulsion. If the "operational shift" in Ferguson serves to calm the streets at night and reduces the dramatic images on our Twitter feeds, there is still no grounds for quieting the collective fury, burgeoning with each night of rage in Missouri. De-escalation in Ferguson is no reason to forgive the police state that summarily executed Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Eric Garner, Kimani Gray, Ramarley Graham, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo and so many more. 

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard