Ferguson, Missouri is — pardon the unintended pun — a moving target. Events keep taking erratic directions, superseding comment as fast as it’s written. So I’ll open with context as of this writing: After a week of combat in the streets, governor Jay Nixon has ordered Missouri’s National Guard out to, as his office says in a statement, “help restore peace and order and to protect the citizens of Ferguson.”
The only part of the preceding statement to which we can reliably attribute any truth is the part about “order.” Police action in Ferguson has, from the moment of Michael Brown’s death, been about demonstrating who’s in charge and putting uppity citizens back in their place.
“Peace?” Let’s talk about peace. Peace was the situation in Ferguson before an armed government employee gunned down an unarmed young man in the street.
I lived near Ferguson for 12 years. I drove an ice cream truck up and down its streets for two summers. I seriously considered renting an apartment in Canfield Green, the complex Michael Brown lived in, in 2012. So I can say, on reasonable personal authority, that media portrayals of Ferguson as some kind of crime-plagued racial ghetto are baloney. Ferguson is, or at least was, an eminently peaceful community.
American “police forces” of today, on the other hand, are de facto military organizations, occupying the communities they claim to “protect and serve.” They are part and parcel of a political system which, by its very nature, evolves continuously toward complete control of everyone and everything — the exact opposite of anything having to do with “peace.”
This happens to be especially true of the St. Louis County, Missouri Police Department. While democracy is clearly no panacea for the problem of emergent totalitarianism, at least an elected county sheriff must theoretically account to voters for his and his subordinates’ actions. St. Louis County abandoned even that small nod to popular consent in 1955, replacing the sheriff/deputy system with an appointed “police chief” accountable only to bureaucrats whose main concerns are maximizing government size and revenue while ensuring that the sheep dare not resist shearing.
Based on years of personal observation, I can confidently state that in St. Louis County, the primary functions of the county police and most local departments are 1) writing speeding tickets to motorists on the expressways; and 2) harassing young black males in hopes of finding “contraband” (drugs) to justify police seizure (referred to, in High Orwellian English, as “asset forfeiture” to reverse responsibility) of vehicles and other valuable property.
Yes, I just played the race card. The Ferguson uprising should not be ascribed entirely to race — if you bother to look, there are plenty of white faces on the barricades there — but it’s an indisputable fact that race plays a huge role in how police interact with the citizenry in the area.
But just letting it be about race would be a grave mistake. It’s about power, control and the evolution of “police” over the last two centuries from local night watchmen and constables serving and protecting a consenting populace (“peace officers”) into large, militarized, authoritarian organizations serving and protecting the state (“law enforcement”).
To let the uprising die in Ferguson as the National Guard moves in to suppress it, or to regard that suppression as “peace,” would likewise be a grave mistake. If what we really want is peace, we need — to steal a phrase from Nicholas de Genova — “a million Fergusons.” Or however many it takes to prevail upon these occupying armies we call “police forces” to stand down.