Thursday, August 14, 2014

Ferguson Nation: Michael Brown,
Ezell Ford and the war at home

ON AUG. 18, 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. was scheduled to start classes at the Sunset Hills campus of Vatterott College, a technical school with branches in Memphis, Des Moines and Wichita.

Instead, Michael Brown Jr. died on Saturday. In that dry recitation of facts are the seeds of a new American tragedy, one that’s been happening in fits and starts across the country as militarization by local law-enforcement authorities is brought to bear against all enemies, real and imagined, foreign ... and domestic.

Brown was walking down the street in the Canfield Green apartment complex in Ferguson, Mo., on Saturday with his friend Dorian Johnson when the two were approached by a police officer in a vehicle. The officer apparently exchanged words with the two, then attempted to get out of his car.

From there the narratives diverge.

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A police report apparently filed by the officer who shot Brown said either Brown or Johnson shoved him back into the vehicle and then grappled with him for his sidearm, firing a shot inside the car. The two ran, and the officer once again stepped from his vehicle and shot at the fleeing teenagers multiple times, killing Brown, who was unarmed.

Johnson said Brown was retreating from the officer with his hands up when he was shot. Gawker reported that Johnson recalled Brown saying “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting!” with his hands in the air. Johnson said the officer then fired several more shots.

The shooting has unleashed a wave of rage among the city’s black residents. Protests and looting soon followed; Ferguson is now in its fifth straight day of protest; SWAT officers arrived Wednesday night to put down a generally peaceful protest. What followed was a running battle whose visual aspects could be superimposed on conflicts in Gaza: the trappings of a war zone.

Brown was shot at least once, and possibly (eyewitnesses say) several times. The actual number of shots fired is being kept under wraps by the Ferguson Police Department. So is the identity of the officer who killed him, a violation of the state Sunshine Law.

And Ferguson police went further in trying to control the situation; two journalists, one from The Huffington Post, the other from The Washington Post, were detained and roughed up before being released, for the act of doing their jobs reporting what is now an international story.

◊ ◊ ◊

In news videos, Ferguson police are seen not just at the ready but locked and loaded in the extreme, bristling with body armor and camo, armored personnel carriers and tear gas, stun grenades and M4 rifles — an armamentarium more at home on the battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan than in a city of 21,100 people 12 miles northwest of the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

Iraq war veteran Phillip Carter writes in today’s Daily Beast: “[T]o a police force with such a military arsenal, every problem potentially looks like one that can be solved with military force. In hindsight, the Ferguson police department’s heavy-handed response to protests arguably caused the situation to escalate into the crisis that exists today.”

It’s telling that the two topics President Obama discussed today while on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard were the situation in Iraq and the situation in Ferguson.

It’s even more telling what thousands of Ferguson citizens of all colors have adopted as a visual rallying cry in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown: the galvanizing, deeply affecting gesture of facing Ferguson police with their hands in the air, in the posture of surrender.

Welcome back to the occupation. The one we’ve been living under for years.

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IT’S AXIOMATIC of 21st-century electronic media that the flood-the-zone strategy of modern newsgathering — saturation coverage of one event and its aftermath — always leaves some other zone unflooded, some other story underreported by comparison. When the focus on Michael Brown subsides, and it will, attention will be paid to another police shooting under questionable circumstances, two days later.

Ezell Ford, a developmentally challenged, 25-year-old, unarmed African American resident of south central Los Angeles, was shot to death by Los Angeles police on Monday night.

From there the narratives diverge.

An LAPD statement said officers made an “investigative stop” on West 65th Street in south-central Los Angeles. “During the stop a struggle ensued, which resulted in an officer-involved-shooting,” the release says. “The suspect was transported to a local hospital and after lifesaving efforts he succumbed to his injuries.”

The Huffington Post on Wednesday reported that an eyewitness to the shooting said he heard an LAPD officer shout “shoot him!” before three shots were fired at Ford, who was on the ground.

“It is unknown if the suspect has any gang affiliations,” the LAPD said in the statement, in a not-quite-deft character assassination by implication.

“He wasn't a gang banger at all,” Leroy Hill told HuffPost. “I was sitting across the street when it happened. So as he was walking down the street, the police approached him, whatever was said I couldn't hear it, but the cops jumped out of the car and rushed him over here into this corner. They had him in the corner and were beating him, busted him up, for what reason I don't know he didn't do nothing. The next thing I know I hear a ‘pow!’ while he's on the ground. They got the knee on him. And then I hear another ‘pow!’ No hesitation. And then I hear another ‘pow!’ Three times.”

HuffPost: “At one point while the police had Ford on the ground, but before the shooting took place, Hill said, he heard an officer yell, ‘Shoot him.’”

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From the obvious invasion-ready stance of the Ferguson police to the suppression of the media to the possible summary execution of an American citizen at the hands of those sworn to Protect and Serve, the militarization of American police is a real and present danger, and has been for years. Especially to young black men.

We know the names of the victims of this oversize response to minor altercations, the objectification of black existence, the persistent calculus that devalues black life: Amadou Diallou. Patrick Dorismond. Ousmane Zongo. Timothy Stansbury Jr. Sean Bell. Oscar Grant. Orlando Barlow. Kimani Gray. Kendrec McDade. Timothy Russell. Malissa Williams. Ervin Jefferson. Trayvon Martin. Victor Steen. Reggie Doucet Jr. Jonathan Farrell. Eric Garner. John Crawford.

What we don’t know, or only suspect in a granular way, is the breadth of this social malignancy. According to a report released in 2013 by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a grassroots activist organization, police officers, security guards or vigilantes extrajudicially killed at least 313 African-Americans in 2012. According to the report, a black person was killed by a security officer every 28 hours.

The report’s findings, first published al AlterNet, were later published on the Occupy web site.

Of the 313 killed, 124 (40 percent) were between 22 and 31 years old, 57 (18 percent) were between 18 and 21 years old, and 25 (8 percent) were children younger than 18 years old.

According to the report, 136 people, or 44 percent, had no weapon when they were killed by police officers. Another 27 percent were deaths in which police claimed the suspect had a gun but none was found.

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A FEW hours ago, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon spoke to his citizens, and the rest of the world. Relaying what some of the 65 percent of Ferguson’s black residents told him, he said “they want the streets to be free from intimidation and fear. They told me they want peace, they want truth, and they want to be treated with respect. Today, my message to the people of Ferguson is that these voices have been heard.”

Nixon announced a “shift” in the security for Ferguson. Effective immediately, he said, “Missouri Highway Patrol will be directing the team that provides security in Ferguson.” That sweeping shift of command suggests a change in the operational tempo, and certainly the firepower, in law enforcement response to this tragedy from now on.

But in the short term, this changes nothing. It doesn’t begin to change the years of mistrust that have  developed between blacks and police in Ferguson, mistrust engendered by a longstanding pattern of arrests, traffic stops and official harassment. It doesn’t alter the basic arithmetic of power, of the police self-identifying as a hammer, which by definition makes everything and everyone else around them a nail.

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THIS is the new war zone. And it’s a war zone not bound by geography or income. It’s not an east coast thing or a west coast thing. This is a national experience, the militarization of police forces as broad as the country itself. Jesse Jackson observed Wednesday in USA Today: “Independent of the racial demographics and dynamics of Ferguson, Missouri, there's a ‘Ferguson’ near you.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told a reporter today: “It is hard to think that the scenes unfolding in Ferguson are taking place in an American city in the year 2014.”

Given the increasingly militarized posture of juggernaut police departments predisposed to see their jobs as containment of crisis, rather than protection of community; given the societal metastasis of suspicion and fear that equates black life with existential threat, it’s hard to think the scenes from Ferguson and elsewhere in the United States could come from any other country at any other time.

Image credits: Hands up in Ferguson: Scott Olson/Getty Images. Ferguson police, street blast: AP/Jeff Roberson. Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin: various news sources, but ultimately from the families themselves. Also published in The Omnibus at Medium.

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