Ferguson fallout: Violent protests can bring change – if it’s the authorities who are violent

December 3, 2014

Police officer holds a line in the rain against a group of protesters during a demonstration against the grand jury's decision in the Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown, in San Francisco

Everyone expected protests would flare up after a grand jury refused to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 9. But some may be surprised that the protests continue not just in Ferguson, but also in dozens of cities and universities around the country. Demonstrations have ranged from the St. Louis Rams NFL football team entering the field with the “Hands up, don’t shoot!” gesture before last Sunday’s game, to major highways and bridges getting blocked for short periods by marchers in San Diego, Oakland, Washington, DC, and other locales.

It remains to be seen whether the current wave of anger against fatal police violence can coalesce into a focused movement, but a threshold of public reaction has been crossed in a way that was not quite the case with the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in 2012.

That doesn’t mean there will necessarily be substantive change going forward: After the Sandy Hook, Connecticut, school massacre two years ago, there was a similar wave of national outrage and shock, and major steps were directed towards new gun control legislation under what looked like immense public pressure. But it all came to naught when the nitty-gritty of working out the details doomed potential reforms to the partisan cutting room floor of Congress.

For the moment, though, as befitting a highly charged controversy involving race and inequality, there are those passionate chants of “Hands up, don’t shoot!” and “No justice, no peace!” Signs, banners, candles, and long marches all proclaim dissent. Police helicopters hover in the sky above, and on the ground, cyborg-like officers hunker down behind riot shields and armored vehicles, utterly separated both from the demonstrators they monitor and masses of uninvolved passersby. Contemporary protest has assumed almost a ritualistic format. But does it work, and if so, how? And if not, why not?

People only feel compelled to protest if they are outraged enough, and if they think they can make some kind of difference by doing so. It’s a very fine line between shouting loud enough to be heard and convince, and having things get out of hand because of violence either inflicted (“burning and looting” by “anarchists” or “criminal elements”) or endured (“police brutality” and “pepper spray”). But the worst-case scenario is simply to fail at attracting enough support or attention at all.

To become a protester is to become an activist, to knowingly and willingly embrace a role of underdog and supplicant, of the powerless petitioning the better instincts of the powerful. Much discussed and repeated as a mantra of every such movement in a democracy is “peaceful protest” or, better, the Holy Grail, “effective peaceful protest.” Yet there is a terrible irony, because the best recruitment for peaceful protest is if it suffers violent repression. Nothing will galvanize middle of the road fence sitters more than the sight of grandmothers and schoolchildren beaten under police truncheons.

Historically, Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement leadership picked Birmingham, Alabama, for their most celebrated campaign not only because of the prevailing strength of segregation there, but because they knew that Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor was one of the most brutal enforcers of the ancien regime. A previous, now largely forgotten effort in Albany, Georgia had petered out anti-climactically when the police chief there used comparatively restrained tactics rather than the attack dogs and fire hoses of Birmingham and Selma.

Conservative critics have argued that King’s deliberate choice to expose non-violent protesters to certain danger was cynical and Machiavellian. But the harsh reality was that calculated risks had to be taken, because there was simply no other way for the great majority of white Americans in that era to see and understand the visceral evils of racism. No other way to catalyze the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. The legacies of those long-ago struggles are still debated vociferously today, as witness the Supreme Court striking down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act just last year.

For two nights following the grand jury’s decision, police cars were overturned and destroyed in Ferguson. An AR-15 assault rifle and ammunition were actually seized from one car, and there were numerous reports of gunfire. Stores were set on fire and infamously looted. Tear gas grenades and rubber bullets sailed through the air. Several hundred people were arrested. The National Guard, already on the scene when the announcement was made, was then reinforced. For whatever reasons, and no matter who was initially responsible, the contretemps had become one of practical effects on property and the economy as well as of symbolic import.

No one is going to claim that attacking the police is the right thing to do, and many worry that violent disorder only discredits peaceful protesters and obscures the justice of the cause. But without a doubt, real damage sends the signal – to all sides – that the problem is serious and critical, requiring urgent attention rather than just more hand wringing.

And with those ruefully beautiful images of fire and smoke broadcast to the world, there is both escalation and belated response. The “Oath Keepers,” a mostly white paramilitary group started by a former Ron Paul congressional staffer, ran armed patrols in Ferguson until asked to stop by the police. President Barack Obama, after a appearing tepid and disconnected, finally announced that the Pentagon would review its transfers of military equipment and weapons to police departments, and also provide more wearable body cameras so that incidents can be better documented. These are useful steps, but hardly constitute inspirational or visionary leadership.

For the protesters to truly succeed, there would have to be a thorough overhaul of police training, rules of engagement, and the legal system, all at various local levels. Crime is actually at near-historic lows everywhere, so conventional wisdom might suggest that this would be a good time to start a process of reform, but fear and the perception of chaos raise the temperature. Polls have shown that opinions on Ferguson and policing are as divided by political orientation as much as by race, with majorities of Democrats and African-Americans favoring greater scrutiny and change while Republicans and whites defend the status quo. So as with guns and school shootings, there is no consensus, only contention.

Not long ago, most American cops were armed only with revolvers and nightsticks, relying on their community relationships more than firepower and technology to keep the peace.

If these Ferguson-inspired protests grow and their energy is distilled into pressure on enough politicians, it’s possible that we could see substantive changes in police policies, procedures and even equipment. But it’s a tall order indeed, considering our sorry history of racial conflict and despair. It has been 22 years since the L.A. riots, but at moments that feels like yesterday.

PHOTO: A police officer holds a line in the rain against a group of protesters during a demonstration against the grand jury’s decision in the Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown, in San Francisco, California, Nov. 28, 2014. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

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