Privacy SOS

Ferguson holds up a mirror to militarized American society, where dissent is a threat and police are above the law

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Since 2003, the Department of Homeland Security has been arming local police departments as if they were small militaries. Grant programs supposedly oriented around "counterterrorism" provide surveillance technologies, weapons, advanced command and control centers, and tools to facilitate the sharing of information and resources with federal law enforcement. The Department of Justice also funds the militarization of the police; for cops to get money from DOJ for new toys, they usually only need to fill grant applications with stats about drug arrests and drug use. The war on drugs and the war on terror have transformed even our smaller, suburban police departments into shadow armies.

One of those armies came out in full force this week in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, after a police officer shot and killed a young black man, Mike Brown. Community members staged protests, and the shadow army emerged for the world to see. Police shot tear gas cannisters, wooden baton rounds, and rubber bullets at unarmed protesters and journalists. In images that recalled the racist state violence of the 1950s and 1960s, mostly white police deployed ferocious looking German Shepard dogs in crowds of black Americans. Ferguson police shut down the city, barring journalists or anyone else from entering, and preventing residents from reaching their homes. One officer reportedly slammed a pregnant woman face first on the ground for the grave crime of 'talking back' when she was told she couldn't walk through her city undisturbed.

The scene resembled a war zone, and the worst of this country.

The photos below and elsewhere should alarm anyone who cares about basic democratic norms like freedom of speech and assembly. As multiple people mused on Twitter last night, it's hard to express your First Amendment rights looking down the barrel of multiple guns, held by men wearing camo and facemasks, backed up by military trucks. 

Meanwhile, the police are refusing to provide the public or Brown's family attorney with the name of the police officer who shot the teen to death. Despite the official silence, some new details of what happened that horrible day are emerging.

Chris Hayes of MSNBC interviewed an eyewitness to the shooting; as of last night the police had not reached out to get a statement from him, even though he's believed to have been the only non-police officer at the scene. Dorin Johnson, a friend of the deceased, told Hayes that Mike Brown was killed after a cop drove by and told them to get on the sidewalk. Johnson, the only on the ground eyewitness to speak publicly about the shooting, says the police department's claim that Brown reached for the shooting officer's gun isn't true. He was shocked that his friend was shot, he said. Another eyewitness, a woman who saw the shooting from her balcony, says Brown raised his hands in the air and pled "Don't shoot" before the officer shot him in the head, killing him.

The police who transformed overnight into an army hell-bent on crushing dissent in Ferguson after Mike Brown's killing don't wear those costumes every day. It isn't every day that they bring out their military trucks into the streets, or shoot tear gas at people holding I AM A MAN signs. But Ferguson, like the rest of the United States, has a serious race problem that leads to disparate impact in policing.

Unfortunately, we won't likely be able to address that crisis—or any number of other crises—if the boys in blue can kill black youth with impunity, and then put on military outfits and mindsets to stop nascent people's movements for justice. If we want justice in the United States, we need to demilitarize our police.

As a black resident of Ferguson told anyone who would listen, it isn't 'terrorists' we need to fear, but our own government.

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© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.