FERGUSON, Mo. — In Ferguson, Missouri, the crisis that was ignited this summer by the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson continues to burn. Before a Cardinals-Dodgers game on Oct. 7 in St. Louis, for example, protestors outside of Busch Stadium rallying for the indictment of Wilson were met with racist and otherwise offensive remarks from Cardinals fans.
“If they’d be working, we wouldn’t have this problem,” said an older white man at the opening of the livestream video — provided by Argus Streaming News — of the confrontation. “We’re the ones who fuckin’ gave all y’all the freedom that you got,” a young white woman yelled later. Other fans yelled “Africa! Africa!” to the predominantly black group of protesters, while others called one protester a “crackhead,” told him to visit a dentist and to remove his hat and pull up his pants.
“I take what is happening in Ferguson and elsewhere as being symptomatic of implicit racism,” said Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, to MintPress News. “People across the board have these biases and with law enforcement — with this heightened sense of security and environmental awareness — are being seen to act on these biases with the shootings of African-Americans and Latinos.”
This recent situation reflects an evolving issue in which St. Louis — arguably the most racially segregated metropolitan area in the United States — is being forced to deal with the realities of race and racism. With the police being the public-facing presence of most communities, this reality is increasingly being played out in sometimes fatal, typically avoidable escalations between local law enforcement and the community of color in Ferguson and across the nation.
A national crisis
In 2013, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement claimed on Democracy Now! that a black person is shot extrajudicially every 28 hours. Yet no one truly knows how often black men are shot or killed by police action. The FBI only collects information on “justifiable homicides,” defined as police-related shootings in which the firing officer had a clear and distinct rationale for using deadly force, such as protecting a life. Non-justified police shootings are classified as accidents or are not recorded in police statistics at all.
However, based on available data collected by the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report, a white police officer killed a black person — on average — twice a week, every week for a seven-year period ending in 2012. Among the shootings that resulted in death, 18 percent of those killed were under the age of 21. These numbers come from voluntary submissions from just 750 of the nation’s 17,000 law enforcement agencies.
If these numbers were to be taken as an indicator of the state of the current relationship between the police and the community of color (due to the limited size of the FBI report’s sampling range, it is understood that the report does not adequately offer a valid statistical model for police-related homicides), it would suggest that law enforcement is a source of grave concern for the nation.
These numbers — taken as they are — also suggest a willingness among the police to deal with the community of color not from a community-oriented point of view, but from an absolute “nuisance-remedy” point-of-view. This change in philosophy has been credited — in part — to the “militarization” of the police.
Understanding the police today
On April 30, as reported by Occupy Riverwest, Dontre Hamilton, a 31-year-old black man, was killed by a Milwaukee Police officer in Milwaukee’s Red Arrow Park. Police were responding to a non-emergency call placed by Starbucks employees concerning a man sleeping near the park’s arrow statue. According to the Milwaukee chief of police, Hamilton was shot and killed after he struggled with police reporting on the scene, took an officer’s batons and struck the officer over the head.
Hamilton had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and failed to take his medication that day. Police asserted that this may explain Hamilton’s violent outburst.
However, one of the Starbucks baristas who placed the call to police had a different take on the incident. According to the barista, the officers who ultimately killed Hamilton were the third set of officers to report to the scene; the first two sets allowed Hamilton to continue sleeping, determining that he raised no public threat. The barista reported not seeing Hamilton loitering, panhandling or otherwise making himself a nuisance in any way, and the reporting police officers even spoke to the baristas, advising them that Hamilton was within his rights to be in the park.
The third reporting officer, a beat cop identified by the barista as an officer named “Chris,” who regularly patrolled the park, seemed to have been acting more out of fear than in accordance with policy.
According to the barista, Hamilton somehow managed to take the officer’s baton and use it defensively against lunges and dives the officer made to retrieve the weapon. The barista reported not seeing Hamilton use the weapon offensively against the officer. After a short pause, the officer pulled his sidearm and — without calling for Hamilton to disarm or to surrender — fired multiple shots at Hamilton from 10 feet away.
“I counted the shots as they happened. I guess I expected Chris to just disable him, so I didn’t know how many shots to expect,” wrote the barista, Kelly Brandmeyer, for Occupy Riverwest. “I counted 3…then 5…then 7…then 10 all in very quick succession. Surely a trained police officer could have disabled Dontre without putting 10 bullets into him. With the rapid, rhythmic fire, there was no way Chris was stopping to check if Dontre was still alive.”
Situations such as this are part of an increasing rash of incidents in which police overreactions have had fatal consequences.
Other incidents — for example, the Sept. 4 Richland County, South Carolina, traffic stop in which now-fired State Trooper Sean Groubert shot unarmed Levar Jones in the hip after Jones reached into his car to retrieve the driver’s license Groubert ordered him to produce, or the Sept. 24 Hammond, Indiana, traffic stop in which police officers shattered the passenger-side window of the stopped vehicle with an ax, dragged out the passenger and “Tased” him for failure to show identification — show an increased insistence on the part of the police to assume the worst while responding.
This hardened positioning and departure from community-oriented policing have been linked to the allocation of military equipment and training to local police departments and to federal authorities passing the responsibility for fighting the “War on Terror” onto local authorities.
“The famous quote ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ applies here,” said Dan Johnson, founder of People Against the National Defense Authorization Act, to MintPress.
Johnson equated the impulse to use the military equipment to the impulse to race a Ferrari, which would otherwise be sitting in a garage, at dangerous speeds.
“This is the same mentality that is going on with the police — they want to play with their toys. This creates a problem, as this equipment is not made for police use. The use of this equipment and these tactics make the police antagonistic, turning the people the police are supposed to protect and defend enemies to the police’s will. It is safe to say that without the military equipment, the situation in Ferguson would have been much different.”
Collateral damage in the “War on Terror”
Following the Ferguson Police Department’s use of militarized tactics against protesters during the early days of the Michael Brown rallies, Congress has proposed bipartisan-supported legislation calling for restrictions on how the federal government grants equipment and police funding to local law enforcement.
Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, for example, has sponsored legislation that would prohibit state and local police from receiving military-grade equipment, such as M-16 rifles, mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles, and camouflage equipment, as well as require that equipment already received or purchased be returned to the Department of Defense. This bill was introduced following hearings led by Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill to look at how the Pentagon and the Justice Department distribute surplus military equipment.
This represents a change in attitude in Washington. Ferguson, like many other communities, received military equipment — including two Humvees — through the 1033 Program. The 1033 Program — originally created by the 1990 NDAA as the Defense Logistic Agency’s 1208 Program — sought to provide law enforcement military hardware slated to be retired from active military use, such as MRAP vehicles and Humvees. According to the program’s website, since 1997 it has distributed $5.1 billion in military hardware to more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies, including more than 20 school districts.
This program was supplemented by federal funding to local law enforcement agencies, such as the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s Edward Byrne Memorial Grant and anti-terrorism grants from the Department of Homeland Security. More than $34 billion has been allocated via these types of federal channels since 2001. These grants help to compensate for local budget and equipment shortfalls by allocating monies to help develop and improve policing efforts and strategies. However, the funding formula for these grants rewards states and territories with large numbers of part 1 violent crimes, leading many to speculate that the Bureau of Justice Assistance grants are creating a motive for police departments to seek criminal convictions.
While these programs came into fruition during the Clinton administration and were renewed and expanded during the Obama administration, the seeds of federal intervention into local law enforcement were first sowed during the Reagan administration.
A core philosophy of the Reagan White House was to encourage cooperation between federal agencies and local law enforcement. It was under Reagan, for example, that the Byrne grant program was established. Much of the program’s money was earmarked for anti-drug policing and the funding of multi-jurisdictional anti-narcotics task forces — which were additionally funded by an increased use of asset forfeiture, a scheme in which the government seizes assets thought to be materially involved in a criminal act. While this helped politicians appear “tough on crime,” in reality, the allocations were poorly supervised, with local police departments free to use receipts at their discretion.
This has given rise to the current situation, in which these resources are increasingly being used outside of their intended purposes. As reported by the American Civil Liberties Union, nearly 80 percent of all SWAT calls are made for non-violent purposes, such as serving drug-related warrants. This availability of war tactics — coupled with a high level level of non-accountability among local law enforcement agencies — has created a perfect storm that allows a wide array of abuses to proliferate.
“It’s not unreasonable to think that the police have utilized this equipment and tactics in order to enforce community norms and to act on their implicit biases and racism,” said Brooks, of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “We shouldn’t be surprised that this equipment is being used in these destructive means, as this equipment is not designed for civil use. This situation with the police reflects other issues in which the nation has refused to take a direct stance, such as gun control.
“We shouldn’t be surprised that this equipment is being used in these destructive means, as this equipment is not designed for civil use,” Brooks said. “The fact that some police agencies have taken advantage of receiving military equipment from the federal government reflects more upon other issues in which the nation has refused to take a direct stance, such as gun control.”
Mapping the future of Ferguson
In Ferguson, there is no indication that the police situation is anywhere close to calming down.
On Wednesday, an off-duty white police officer shot and killed Vonderrick Myers, Jr. — an 18-year-old black man — after Myers allegedly fired three shots at the officer. The officer responded with 17 shots of his own. Those familiar with Myers assert that the teenager was holding a sandwich, not a gun, and a store clerk has confirmed that Myers bought the sandwich he was allegedly holding just moments before the police encounter.
“They (police) are sparking war. It’s going to be us against them,” said Stan Taylor, a Ferguson area cellphone sales agent, to USA Today. “Turning the other cheek is not getting the job done.”
This continuous re-stroking of the same open wounds in Ferguson helps to explain why this issue continues to resonate in St. Louis County and why — unlike other areas conflicted with police violence — a resolution is likely in Ferguson.
“Lasting change can only come locally, from the people demanding their police to change,” said Johnson, of People Against the National Defense Authorization Act. “While addressing the questions of why the federal government was willing to hand out such equipment is important, this will not answer why the police took the Bearcat when it was offered or why it is being used to stop protesters. The only way forward is to get the police to be accountable for their own actions.”
“The beautiful part of this situation is that the community is not letting this issue go,” concurred Brooks. “They are still seeking out justice for Michael Brown and they are still seeking an indictment of Darren Wilson. None of this will be settled until the indictment is settled. This situation has empowered the people and made them mindful of their ability to force change; nothing will go back to the way they were in Ferguson. I can’t speak for what is next for the city, but I am hopeful for the best.”