The images are shocking, outrageous. If someone told us they were from apartheid South Africa or the southern states of America from half a century ago we would believe them: black protesters, white police officers armed to the teeth, and white civilians with rifles defending their businesses and houses, white authority figures.
But this is 2014, and a police force that seems more like an invading army is intent on taking charge of the streets of the little community of Ferguson in Missouri. Their equipment is not the type we would normally associate with an anti-riot or “crowd control” squad, as they are now euphemistically known. No, from the uniforms to the transportation, weapons and postures, we are dealing with a militarized police force.
This police force, that of Ferguson, has a member belonging to it who, nine days ago, shot an unarmed teenager walking in the street with a friend in broad daylight. His offense, which cost him his life, was just that: He was walking in the street, not on the sidewalk. The police officer ordered him to mount the sidewalk, the teenagers disobeyed him, and a confrontation began, the details of which are still unclear.
Since August 9, Ferguson has lost any semblance of normality. It is a city under siege, and it is not clear if the unrest is more as a result of protests and disturbances or the police response to them — tear gas, curfews, mass arrests, and repression of local people, protestors and journalists. These are intimidation tactics which do not only go against the spirit of the law; they are also in complete contradiction to all forms of basic common sense. This community, which has been shocked by the tragic, and so far inexplicable, death of a teenager without any previous criminal convictions, requires care and consolation, not a heavy-handed and repressive response. What, in this instance, is badly termed as law enforcement has merely served to aggravate what is already a fragile situation.
Two different phenomena are behind what is taking place in Ferguson today.
The old drama of the American inner cities, which were vacated as wealthier residents migrated toward the suburbs, is gradually being replicated in the surrounding neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods, which at one time acted as magnets for the middle and upper classes fleeing the center, are now predominantly lower- or lower-middle class black colonies. The wealthy suburbs are moving ever further out.
While the ethnic and socioeconomic composition of many of those communities is changing, the old power structures remain untouched. Ferguson’s population is predominantly black, unlike their rulers or their police officers. According to the New York Times, two-thirds of the residents are black, but the mayor and five of the six city councilors are white. Of the 53 police officers, only three of them are black.
At the same time, the United States has seen a radical change to the way in which its police officers are equipped.
As a result of the September 11 attacks, an increasing number of cities have requested, or received, equipment that they do not need, and this is causing them to respond in the wrong way to all the things that continue to be their main challenges. A police officer who is uniformed and armed to deal with a dangerous terrorist cell will find it difficult to calm an irritated and angry crowd. As Ross Douthat writes, again in the New York Times, now is the time to take the toys away from police officers who appear more prepared to fight members of al-Qaida than common, everyday criminals.
There are cops, and politicians, who would prefer a Black Hawk helicopter patrolling the streets. Wherever possible, each one projects and replaces their shortcomings or childhood fantasies. But size does matter, and in this case, less is more.