For the past week, many have had eyes focused on the St. Louis, Mo. suburb of Ferguson, where clashes between protestors and police following an officer shooting of an unarmed black teen have raised the spectre of racially-motivated riots in yet another U.S. city.
This isn’t the first time Americans have witnessed the same kind of violence and civil disobedience, nor is it likely to be the last. Although the Ferguson disturbances haven’t been on the same scale, seeing the images it is hard not to be reminded of the 1992 L.A. riots following the verdict in the Rodney King trial.
There are conflicting accounts of the shooting of Michael Brown, the black teen shot by police in Ferguson. Police assert Brown (an alleged thief) had assaulted the officer in question, struggling with him over the officer’s weapon before Brown was shot. Others, including eyewitnesses, have told a much different story, indicating Brown had been in the process of surrendering when he was gunned down by police.
In the end, the truth might not matter with regard to the situation in Ferguson. Suspicion and anger on the part of the citizenry will make any further pronouncements by police, regardless of the truth, subject to scorn and derision. And there is little question a community like Ferguson — 70 per cent black but patrolled by a nearly all-white police force — was a potential racial powder keg when considering any police shooting, justified or otherwise.
The racial question in the U.S. sadly continues to be an inevitable one. But a police shooting hasn’t been the only questionable action that has been witnessed over the past week.
Police claim peaceful protests following the shooting escalated into attacks on officers involving rocks, bottles, shots fired, and in one confirmed instance, the hurling of a Molotov cocktail — all of which they say justified a military-style crackdown on civil disobedience in the community.
That claim appears to have been questioned by more than just the people of Ferguson, as the local police force has since been relieved of duty by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and replaced by the Missouri Highway Patrol. There appears to be fairly wide-ranging consensus that the police response to the protests — before they escalated — was excessive, rolling out armoured personnel carriers and dozens of police dressed in military fatigues and armed with assault rifles.
There is something disturbing and frightening about witnessing police armed and dressed like military personnel being deployed to contain a domestic situation on the streets of an American city. Whether or not the response by police was excessive, there can be little doubt that encountering a military-style contingent that looks like something out of downtown Baghdad didn’t have a hand in further angering an already outraged crowd of citizens.
That being said, Canadians witnessed a very similar response to a domestic crisis in October 1970, with our military deployed in Quebec under the War Measures Act to deal with the terrorist threat presented by the FLQ. It was controversial then, and Pierre Trudeau faced the very same questions about use of excessive force and violation of civil rights as the Ferguson police are facing now. It is not without precedent, even in Canada.
Reportedly during some of the early protests in Ferguson, heavily armed police began marching down streets ordering people to return to their vehicles and homes, while telling them “Your right to assembly is not being denied.”
It would hardly be too much to say our neighbour has taken a significant step toward an Orwellian nightmare when military-dressed policemen begin telling you your fundamental rights aren’t being denied while engaged in the very process of denying them. And this was last Wednesday, before that protest had escalated to violence.
Over the weekend, further violent clashes between police and protestors has prompted Gov. Nixon to deploy the National Guard to maintain order.
Civil disobedience is a crime, and disorder on the streets of any community needs to be dealt with by those duly authorized to respond to those situations. At the same time, there must be consideration by those same authorities as to whether the response matches the situation — and most importantly — if the presence of heavily-armed police using military-style tactics might contribute to, rather than mitigate, an escalation to violence by so-far peaceful protestors.