shock and awe
Police and demonstrators clash in streets of Ferguson, Missouri

We've seen this movie before

| After days of demonstrations and sporadic violence and looting since a young black man was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri, the police unleashed their own version of shock and awe on the citizens of Ferguson.

Shock and awe, Baghdad, 2003
Shock and awe in Baghdad, 2003
police against demonstrators
Ferguson, Missouri, population 21,135, is outfitted with surplus combat equipment

Wearing camouflage fatigues, helmets, gas masks and carrying assault rifles trained on the crowds, the police moved in on Wednesday night in full force, firing rubber bullets at some. As smoke bombs and flash-bang grenades went off, the night in Ferguson looked a lot like shock and awe in Baghdad. Dozens were arrested, including reporters for the Washington Post and Huffington Post and a local alderman (some were released later without charges).

Residents were enraged by the stonewalling of the police department (that would not release the name of the office who fired the shots) and by being treated as enemy.

By Thursday, cooler heads had prevailed and officials realized that the heavy-handed militarized police presence was making matters far worse than better. The governor announced that the state police would henceforth be in charge, and put Capt Ron Johnson of the highway patrol in charge. In a few terse sentences, Johnson announced that "We are going to have a different approach." Later, Johnson would take to the streets and march with the protesters dressed in his conventional police uniform.

At the moment, it is impossible to sort out what actually happened to Michael Brown, the 18-year old who was killed. The narrative put out by the police department is sharply different from the testimony of various eye witnesses to the event.

The bigger picture

Numerous commentators have observed that the riots and demonstrations were really long-simmering grievances bubbling to the surface and exploding. The town of Ferguson is now almost all black, but it used to be almost all white. While white residents have mostly moved away, city officialdom and the police force did not change. Among a roster of 53 police officers, only 3 are black; by contrast, the population of Ferguson is 67% African-American.

Beyond that, the pictures and video made it impossible for people not to see what has become of American police departments, which have become heavily militarized. Since the 1990s a program has, in fact, doled out $4.3 billion in military equipment to local police (NYTimes, Slate). It is no accident that the police in Ferguson — and many other cities across the country — look like the US forces in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Like so many other things that are wrong with contemporary American life, the equipment transfer program has its origins in the "war on drugs." Since 9/11, transfers have ramped up under the Department of Homeland Security. As people quickly decided when they saw the pictures and video from Ferguson, it's time to hit the brakes on this program.

The good news is that lawmakers on both the left and right sides of the aisle have called for curbing the program. Sen Rand Paul (R-KY) penned an op-ed for Time, and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) plans to introduce legislation when Congress reconvenes in September.

The bad news is that what seems like a no-brainer may go the way of all the resolve to control guns after the Newtown and other shootings. It is simply a fact that police departments and police unions wield enormous political clout. Consider how long it took for officials — local, state, national — to speak up about the Ferguson paramilitary response. You have to be a really brave politician to risk getting on the wrong side of the police.

As usual, the editorial cartoonists have done a wonderful job of focusing attention on Ferguson and the militarization issue.

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Last updated on May 11, 2016

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