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No Law, No Order

Making a federal case out of Ferguson

Sep 1, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 47 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Small-town police departments maintain a special, sinister role in civil rights mythology, and a Justice Department source told the New York Times that the administration does not trust the one in Ferguson. The police force, it is true, has not changed as quickly as its citizenry. Fifty of its 53 officers are white. Of course, that is not prima-facie evidence of racism. The chief, Thomas Jackson, has for the most part been complaisant, even as MSNBC has sought to cast him as some kind of postmodern Bull Connor. He has offered diversity training. He has told the press, correctly, that competition among police departments is stiff for qualified police officers of all races and told the Justice Department (this according to the New York Times): “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” He has been criticized for being slow to release Officer Wilson’s name (citing his safety). He has been criticized by Attorney General Holder for releasing a store security videotape showing Mike Brown involved in a violent shoplifting incident minutes before he was shot (the people of Canfield Green knew about this incident within minutes of Brown’s death). Crucially—and this is the single grievance most often raised by protesters, even if it is seldom mentioned in the press accounts—his police force is accused of disrespecting Brown’s body by leaving it in the street for hours after he was shot. Police have claimed that gunfire in the vicinity made it unsafe to move it. Freeman’s account of the incident seems to bear this out.

It is hard to understand anything about the politics of St. Louis County—and about Ferguson’s police force—without understanding the “Great Divorce.” In an 1876 vote, the people of St. Louis made the shortsighted decision to slough off their rural precincts. The county now has 90 municipalities, some of them with as few as a couple hundred people, and a real small-town mentality. Describing the killing of Brown, former Ferguson mayor Brian Fletcher said, “Another block over and it would have been in Jennings.” This is the equivalent of saying that if that incident of drunkenness last night had taken place 20 yards west, it would have been my neighbor who was hitting the sauce, not me. All of these towns have their own rinky-dink police forces. Ferguson’s was overmatched by the crowds of demonstrators until reinforced from neighboring jurisdictions and ultimately replaced by the Missouri highway patrol at the order of Democratic governor Jay Nixon. The purpose of that rather arbitrary action was to install Ron Johnson—not a particularly high-ranking highway patrolman, but a Ferguson native and a black man—as the public face of the forces of order. 

But there were other reasons for the change. The nightly crowd has been big. It can run into the thousands. Some individuals in it are armed. The demonstrators’ chant was “Hands up, don’t shoot!” after a common local account of Michael Brown’s last words, but 30 shots were fired by the mobs on August 17, and three handguns were confiscated two nights later. This is also a crowd that can get thrown into a passion by the craziest and least plausible rumor. Talking on the street with a half dozen neighborhood kids, the atmosphere is not one that favors the Socratic method. On Wednesday, in the parking lot of Andy Wurm Tire and Wheel on South Florissant Road, a woman was complaining to me about the media treatment of the surveillance video that showed Brown shoplifting. “They got a whole ’nother tape,” she said, “that shows him paying for those cigars. Yeah! But they won’t show that. It’s crazy. You wonder why nobody wants to believe the media, why the media are getting cussed out, look what you’re putting out. Tell the truth—that’s what your job is.” On more than one occasion, I was told that authorities were releasing criminals from prison to wreak havoc in the demonstrations. 

Perhaps the most common media complaint about the Ferguson police—that they were overly “militarized” and even “off the rails”—was wrong. This complaint was, in the end, sartorial. “Tell them to remove the damn tanks,” said Holder in the early days of the unrest, but he seemed to have no objection to the rows of armored vehicles that the National Guard was keeping in the Northland Shopping Center when he visited. Columnist Thomas Byrne Edsall described the complaint about militarization as a moment of “rare right-left convergence.” It is better thought of as a moment of p.c. terror, as conservatives sought to find some grounds for lining up against the police without violating their principles. 

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