Once again, an unarmed black teenager was gunned down. Once again, police responded with an excessive show of force. Only this time, it was worse because the Ferguson gunman was a police officer, and because local police showed up with perhaps the biggest show of military might ever seen in the streets of any American city.
Watching nightly TV reports — with images of tanks, armored vehicles with gun turrets, assault rifles, battle gear and snipers — you thought you were watching reruns of the “shock and awe” invasion of Baghdad, not scenes from a St. Louis suburb. Indeed, Ferguson and St. Louis police rolled out so much heavy military equipment that when the National Guard finally showed up, they seemed tame by comparison.
As first documented by Washington Post reporter Radley Balko in his book “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” the militarization of local police departments is all part of the Pentagon’s giveaway of “excess” hardware to local police, free of charge — a program authorized by Congress in the ‘90s and which picked up steam following September 11. Since 2006, the National Journal reports, under Section 1208 of the Defense Authorization Act, “...the Pentagon has distributed 432 mine-resistant armored vehicles to local police departments. It has also doled out more than 400 other armored vehicles, 500 aircraft, and 93,000 assault rifles.”
Such a massive and unnecessary display of military gear and equipment in the hands of local police not trained to use them seemed to erode what little trust was left in the police department and generated more violence, not less. This overkill by law enforcement upset, not just the residents of Ferguson, but political leaders of both parties. “There is a legitimate role for the police to keep the peace,” noted Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), “but there should be a difference between a police response and a military response.” President Obama added: “There’s a big difference between our military and local law enforcement and we don’t want those lines blurred.”
Among many other troubling aspects of recent events in Ferguson are the ugly reminders of racial polarization. On August 13, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson told reporters that, after the death of Michael Brown, he was going to make race relations a “top priority” in his department. Why did he wait so long? Clearly, one of the underlying factors behind today’s protests is that blacks in Ferguson, especially young black males, have long felt targeted by their police department. And rightfully so.
The city of Ferguson, population around 22,000, is 68 percent black. The mayor is white. Five out of six city council members are white. Six out of seven members of the school board are white. The police chief is white. Most significantly, out of 50 officers on the Ferguson police force, only three officers, or 6 percent, are black. And Ferguson may be Ground Zero for racial profiling. According to the Missouri attorney general’s office, in 2013, Ferguson police pulled over 4,632 black drivers, compared to only 686 white drivers. Even accounting for the disparity in population, AG records show that black drivers are 37 percent more likely to be stopped and twice as likely to be searched and arrested.
Only a police department that was clueless about race relations would have let Michael Brown’s body lie in the street uncovered for four hours, refused for days to identify Officer Darren Wilson, and yet released a totally unrelated video of Brown’s apparently stealing a handful of cigars from a convenience store shortly before his death — a video released only to smear the reputation of Brown and somehow justify his killing. And, all evidence to the contrary, only an equally clueless mayor like James Knowles could proclaim on MSNBC: “There’s not a racial divide in the city of Ferguson.”
In such an environment, perhaps it’s not surprising that a young black man would be shot and killed for jaywalking while, according to two eyewitnesses, holding his hands in the air. We’ve made a lot of progress in burying racism in this country, but Ferguson, Mo., proves we still have a long way to go.
Bill Press is host of a nationally-syndicated radio show.