I really wanted to write something profound about the situation happening in Ferguson, MO. The problem is, I know it’s not my story to tell. My story happened 22 years ago and even to that story, I was still merely a witness.
I am a white person and I don’t live in Ferguson so I can’t truly understand the pain and the frustration that the people on the ground are dealing with there.
From my position what appears to be happening in the streets of a small suburban town in MO, is a community of primarily black people, rightfully outraged by the unnecessary murder of one of their own. A young, unarmed man by the name of Mike Brown was killed at the hands of a mostly white police force. His body was then left in the street for hours. This was reported as the first homicide of the year in that small town if that gives you an idea of the level of violence in the town of Ferguson. The first homicide of the year there, was committed by the police. This is a murder that the police force also refuses to answer for, refusing to release the name of the officer who fired the shots out of fear for his safety and going so far as to not even bothering to interview the one civilian eyewitness to the murder. But the news did.
People in the United States have a constitutional right to gather and peacefully raise their voices in protest of what has been happening in their communities. You’ve surely heard of that right. It’s that widely circulated 1st amendment that the internet trolls oh-so-often often incorrectly assume applies to them when we block them. However, in the context of the Ferguson protests, it actually applies:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
The anger and unrest sparked ultimately by the murder of Mike Brown, caused things in the normally quiet town of Ferguson to get out of control. A convenience store was set on fire and approximately 11 businesses were looted. At this point, a militarized police force was released upon the streets and the people of Ferguson, MO.
And this was a problem.
I don’t have a problem with police being deployed to keep the peace. Not at all. That is their job, to protect and serve the people. But in this case we have seen way more force than is necessary to protect the people. In fact, we have seen such an extreme show of force that it has literally become the instigator and cause of the ongoing violence itself.
As a non active participant in the protests happening in Ferguson, MO I can only serve as a distant witness. The only relevant piece of information I feel like I can contribute to this discussion is my own experience in a riot torn city.
I was a young woman living in Hollywood, CA when the police who were charged with the vicious beating of Rodney King, were acquitted. What followed was 6 days of looting, violence and arson that at times had what seemed like the entire city of Los Angeles ablaze.
Citizens were perched atop their homes and businesses with rifles with the goal of protecting their property. It was rumored that gangs were strategically lighting the fires to make it impossible for the fire departments to react in any effective way. I don’t know if that was true but I do know the air was thick with smoke for days. It was chaos.
Billions of dollars were lost and so were many lives. It was a terrifying experience that I’m glad I lived through but I never want to experience again.
What was terrifying then, was that residents themselves were expressing their rage by burning down buildings and smashing windows and stealing. It was a rage that I understood as fueled by classism and pain over injustice, but it was an out of control rage that went far beyond peaceful protest.
What I really want to point out here with this comparison of situations, is that while the people of Los Angeles were outraged at the justice system and were angry at police violence in much the same way as the people of Ferguson, it wasn’t the police that were instigating the violence during the 1992 L.A. riots. It was the people. The police were trying (and failing) to keep the peace in a bad situation and so when the National Guard was called in to walk the streets, to stop the fires and looting, that was a tactic that I could understand. It was not an unnecessary show of force. It was expected and needed. It helped to create some sense of peace so fire fighters could come in and do their jobs. We as peaceful residents were not feeling threatened by police in the L.A. riots. At least not anymore than usual. And again, I have to point out that I speak as a white person.
Police were trying and failing to keep the peace in The Los Angeles riots but they were not actively instigating violence as we have seen in Ferguson.
What I do not understand is why, in Ferguson a much, much smaller place than the city of Los Angeles, tanks and police dressed as military soldiers immediately appeared on the streets and that they fired tear gas and rubber bullets at what by most accounts seem to be peaceful protestors. I understand that unused war vehicles and army supplies have been distributed across the United States but that does not mean that the police are justified in using that equipment to terrify its own citizens. That these militarized officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the people of Ferguson over multiple days was not acceptable force when enforcing a curfew. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. America is not a war zone.
Then we have alleged civil rights violations. Reporters were told not to photograph and to leave the town and when they did not pack up fast enough, some were then arrested.
The people of this country have a right to peaceably assemble. They have a right to demand answers when young men are gunned down in the streets. They have a right to be treated equally and with respect regardless of the color of their skin. They have a right to report on these situations especially when law enforcement is being used to oppress the people it is supposed to protect. It’s time to demand equality and answers. We should all be paying attention to what is happening in Ferguson because if this can happen in a peaceful suburb like that, it can happen anywhere.
For more info I recommend following the feed of Antonio French. He is the Alderman of the 21st Ward in ST Louis and despite being recently arrested while sitting in his car, his reporting on the ongoing Ferguson situation has been calm rational and very informative. https://twitter.com/AntonioFrench
Photos of a riot torn Los Angeles, were taken by me in 1992.
Author’s edit: Already today photos are coming in from Ferguson showing a much better, less violent police and civilian interaction. The difference? Police are dressed in normal uniforms and not riot/swat/military gear. It really does make a difference how you approach a situation. I hope the situation remains peaceful going forward and I hope other cities will learn from what we have witnessed.