After days of tear gas, rubber bullets, drawn guns and a contentious battle of words and wills, last night marked “a different dynamic” in Ferguson, Mo., according to Capt. Ronald S. Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol who is overseeing security. But with 47 arrests last night, the ongoing presence of the National Guard, and no change in policing tactics, are tensions really calming in Ferguson?
Police are citing the presence of fewer protestors on the street as the cause of the changed mood, noting that there were no shootings or Molotov cocktails Tuesday night. Protestors, however, tell a different story. Though their peaceful assembly on Tuesday night ended with prayer, 47 activists were still arrested. The New York Times is reporting that police cracked down on protestors who flung bottles of water and urine at authorities, but that they did not resort to the more violent suppression of previous nights. However, protestors are still concerned about the “static assembly” policing tactic that essentially requires protestors to be on the move at all times, with police threatening to arrest even elderly and disabled protestors who seem to be idling. Police have also been dropping into the crowd to arrest individuals, creating a charged atmosphere that may or may not hold.
Officials and protestors note that there have been more peaceful evenings before — followed by crowd skirmishes and huge shows of force by police. However, the situation is difficult to gauge due to police efforts to prevent journalists from embedding with protestors and the arrests of 12 or more journalists covering the protests. Though Ferguson police insist that they are unable to distinguish journalists from civilians, they have also been threatening individuals with cameras – not exactly conducive to a clear understanding of Ferguson from the ground.
The more relaxed evening may also be due to the announcement that a grand jury will convene today to look into the fatal shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson. The probe will investigate the criminal case, but some protestors are still concerned that a traditional criminal case via the courts does not appear to be in process. Wary protestors were also dismayed to hear that the inquiry could stretch into October or later, which is not exactly the swift justice being demanded by protestors who say that they won’t rest until Darren Wilson has been arrested and charged with homicide. The probe is launching aside word that the FBI and United States Department of Justice will begin a federal civil rights inquiry into the actions of Ferguson police.
The situation in Ferguson has sparked more than protest; it’s shining a light on a pervasive blend of racial intolerance and police authoritarianism in the United States. And the divisions run deep. Take this op-ed from the Washington Post, in which a Los Angeles Police Department officer states what could just as well be a battle cry for a system run riot: “…if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you.” Perhaps if the police force in Ferguson resembled its community — or at least didn’t disproportionately arrest blacks or weren’t armed by the Department of Defense – opinions like this would ring truer to protestors concerned about their right to assemble, their safety on the streets and in their homes, and the future of black Americans who are subject to discrimination and harassment on a daily basis.
Whether or not tensions continue to simmer in St. Louis and beyond, the standoff in Ferguson shines light on what the Pew Institute is calling “stark racial divisions.” As iconic imagery and deeply charged conversation continues to billow from Ferguson like so much tear gas, it’s unclear whether the fault lines it has revealed — racial foment, the militarization of suburban police departments, twitchy policing techniques, the expression of First and Fifth Amendment rights and even human rights — are ones that can continue to be patched or overlooked. It’s another humid day in Ferguson, but how will it feel tonight?
Photo Credit: Peoples World via Flickr