Kids stand with their hands up over the memorial to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Photo by Alice Speri, courtesy of VICE News
After Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown on August 9, the cops’ reaction provided a neat snapshot of just about every dangerous aspect of policing in modern America.
For starters, there’s the reliable archetype of the racist cop. Brown, though he allegedly stole cigarellos from a convenience store not long before he died, was not stopped over a theft report. The weak jaywalking excuse for a police stop adds a flavor of profiling which angers people further, and makes the racial element of the shooting more pronounced. In Ferguson, the numbers suggest that black individuals are targeted for police stops more than whites. A few of their cops also once beat a 52-year-old man, then charged him for damaging their uniforms with his blood. Brown himself may have been a dumbass teenager who committed a strongarm robbery, but now he can never grow up to be better than that.
The police showed up like an army, thereby antagonizing the mostly peaceful crowds, both before and after looting began on August 10. This reaction, where store owners often got screwed by the mob but the peaceful, pissed off folks got their First Amendment rights violated, underlined another major problem with the police: Aren’t they violating Posse Comitatus by now? Men in SWAT gear that resembles paramilitary garb may bust down the doors of various suspected drug criminals at night, but that mostly goes without video evidence (when there are exceptions to that, people tend to be shocked, even when it’s a normal drug raid). Seeing a roadblock that belonged in the Middle East during a weekday afternoon in Missouri was jarring to people just starting to grasp its new normalcy.
Yet another strike against the Ferguson Police was their incredible opacity after one of their own killed. They enforced a curfew, and then took six days to release the name of Wilson. They did everything they could to block media attention. On Sunday night, a SWAT officer screamed “Turn off that light! Get down!” and then “Get the fuck out of here!” at a student who was broadcasting live radio. The officer, allegedly pointing a gun, also yelled what sounds like: “Get that light out of here, or you’re getting shot with this.” Some outlets – including Mediaite – thought the cop yelled “or you’re getting shot in the face.” Others say the cop might have been yelling “getting shelled with this” instead of “shot.” Regardless, it was bad.
The Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly and the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery were detained on August 13. The same night, an Al-Jazeera American crew was teargassed, and fled, and then cops were seen taking down their camera equipment. On the evening of August 17, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes was threatened with a macing if he crossed a police line. Reporters with Sports Illustrated, the Telegraph, and the Financial Times were cuffed for a few minutes by Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, a man who some had cheered as a good cop when he took command of law enforcement in Ferguson. That same good cop’s underlings also lied about using teargas while they were using teargas over the weekend.
And though the Ferguson PD has two body cameras and two dash cams, none of them are installed yet – reportedly due to the high cost involved. Four cameras for 18 cruisers and 53 officers is unacceptable even without that additional fuck-up.The police department does, however, have a Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicle and a whole bunch of other gear that was made for the streets of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The mainstream media has been taking multiple angles on the Ferguson backlash, and the militarised police one seems to be the easiest to swallow. Sen. Rand Paul, Rep. Hank Johnson, and a few other politicians are now demanding an end to the Pentagon’s 1033 program that helps even small police departments get war gear. But in June, a suggested amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act could have done just this, and it was soundly rejected by most Democrats and Republicans alike. Both parties apparently prefer things the way they are.
The drama of protest-porn photography tends to distract people from serious policy questions. So, indeed, do the folks who always think those damn hippies/anarchists/thugs – meaning black people – deserved it, so there’s no need to hold police to a higher standard. News is easy, and fixing things is hard. We’ll see whether Ferguson’s anger can continue to sustain itself, and whether the attention span of the public, who really do lead (while politicians follow when it’s safe), is good enough to turn this outrage into reform.
Check out the rest of this week’s bad cops:
-VICE News has been all over Ferguson in the past week, with livestreams provided by Tim Pool and Alice Speri. Forget cable news, and tune into a VICE stream tonight in case any more horrible stuff goes down, or more rights to assembly get violated. (They probably will.)
-It’s not exactly "Changes" by Tupac or "Fuck Tha Police" by NWA, but G-Unit has provided fans with the extremely topical “Ahh Shit,” which references both Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the man who died last month after being put in a chokehold by the NYPD.
-In Salt Lake City, police fatally shot an unarmed 20-year-old on August 13 after he supposedly reached for his waistband. Dillon Delbert Taylor had felony warrants (for robbery and obstruction of justice), and had violated the terms of his parole. However, his brother claims that Taylor was wearing headphones and got confused when police began barking orders at him as they searched for another man with a gun. Taylor was not their man and does not seem to have been armed because police have declined to say he was, and they tend to stress that whenever possible.
-On August 11, the Los Angeles Police Department fatally shot 25-year-old Ezell Ford. Ford’s family says that the man was mentally disabled, and was shot while he lay on the ground. Police counter that there was a fight over an officer’s weapon after Ford was “suspicious” and unwilling to speak to them without hiding his hands. On Monday, VICE contributor Charles Davis reported on the protests against the killing of Ford, and provided the distressing fact that 39 people have been killed by the LAPD or the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department in the past year. This includes the homeless man shot for waving a stick, whose death warranted only a credulous LA Times blurb – and a VICE investigation.
-An internal review found that two officers on a Tampa SWAT team were in “fear for their lives” when they fatally shot Jason Westcott on May 27, making their actions justifiable. Perhaps they were in danger, but that was their own damn faults. Officers Eric Wasierski and Edwin Perez shot Westcott, who was holding a pistol, after busting down his door in a pot raid. Wescott, 29, purchased the gun after being robbed, and had reportedly been urged by police to get a weapon to defend himself. Approximately $2 worth of pot, and some paraphernalia, was found in the home. One hundred dollars in sales of a plant to an informant lead to cops “justifiably” shooting a man down in his own home, in front of his boyfriend. That’s your drug war.
-Speaking of a lack of accountability, the May 28 Georgia drug raid that sent a 19-month-old into intensive care provoked shock and outrage, but it might not lead to much else. Little Bounkham Phonesavah is out of the hospital now, but his parents say they need help with the medical bills that came from repairing the hole in his chest and the burns on his face left by the drug task force’s flashbang grenade. Unfortunately, Habersham County looked into it and decided it would be illegal for them to pay those bills. So a) that law is bullshit, and b) if what the county is saying is true, cops had better reach for their personal checkbooks.
-Earlier this month, a North Augusta, South Carolina mother was arrested for disorderly conduct after she said the word “fucking” in front of her children – possibly more than once. The swear was reportedly addressed to Danielle Wolf’s husband, but that didn’t stop a traumatised bystander (who later apologised) from reporting the incident to the proper authorities. And the authorities, in the form of Officer Travis Smith, obliged by cuffing and bringing in Wolf. North Augusta, by the way, is the very same town where they arrest mothers for letting their children play in the park. Not sure what’s going over there, but there must be some really square drugs in the water supply.
-VICE’s good cop of the week goes to every single cop who didn’t shoot anyone or teargas anyone while they tried to protest. Good job, everybody.
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