From Arthur’s Policy Desk: Ferguson, MO: The Mixture of Race, Crime, Police Use of Force and the Utility of Riots

On August 9th, Michael Brown was killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. As soon as the killing was made public, every politician, platitude, accusation, argument, justification, rationalization and defense that exists in these types of situations was heard on T.V. and radio. Nothing was new. Then, two nights later, fully armed in riot and militarized SWAT gear, the police moved onto the protestors with tear gas, flash grenades and armed vehicles. There was nothing new in the police using force on what they perceived as African American rioters and looters. What was new was the equipment the police used to suppress them. On that night, the public was introduced to the fact that the U.S. military, since 9/11, has been providing local police departments with surplus military grade equipment.

After the police use of militarized force, the Governor of Missouri removed the Ferguson police as lead agency to deal with security and appointed the state police as the new agency in charge. The officer in command, Captain Ronald S. Johnson, was able to bring a sense of calm and control that reduced the tension on the street. Two days later, the Chief of the Ferguson police released a video showing Brown committing a strong robbery in a local grocery shortly before his confrontation with Wilson. The release of the video occurred during the same press conference in which the Chief identified Wilson as the officer who killed Brown. A few hours later, the Chief stated that Wilson did not know Brown was suspected of the robbery when the confrontation occurred. That night the police were met with a riot and wholesale resentment by the press.

From this point on, the case has been met with calls for special prosecutors and condemnation of President Obama for saying too little and saying too much about the whole incident. Attorney General Eric Holder has been praised and vilified for sending in the Justice Department Civil Rights Division and the FBI. Commentary has proved, again, that there is a significant difference between how African Americans and Caucasians see this entire case. African Americans assume racial bias on the part of the officer and intentional cover-up or mishandling of the case because the loss of Brown’s life is of no consequence to the police. Caucasians assume that race has little or nothing to do with the case because police don’t shoot African Americans for no reason. Further, conservatives asked, if black life is so important to the protestors and politicians, why don’t they decry the death of African American youth that were killed in Chicago during the same period as the unrest in Ferguson?

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There is no simple answer to any of this. But there is one thing that we all can agree on. Riots make society stop and ask why. Riots have utility. Riots are both cause and effect.

Martin Luther King said of riots,

“But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.”

Thomas Jefferson said of rebellion while reflecting on the proposed Constitution,

“God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion . . . .What country ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”

It is interesting that it’s King who teaches us that riots disrupt communities economically, socially and politically; while it’s Jefferson who teaches us that riots are a toll of liberty, the remedy of the people and the creator of positive social and political change.

Dr. Arthur Garrison is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Kutztown University. This piece is the work of Dr. Garrison and does not reflect the opinions of Kutztown University or its faculty, staff, students or alumni.