Michael Brown

Some Thoughts on Ferguson, Newark, State Violence, Insurrections, and Democracy

Whither the Republic?


Ferguson Police, Day 2 of Protests
Fox 2 Now

The situation in Ferguson, Missouri, isn't looking much better. On Saturday afternoon a cop who has not yet been identified shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year old police say was walking in the street. Brown's body was left out in the open for hours—as a warning, some residents said. If it was meant to intimidate, it didn't work. The reaction from the community was immediate—impromptu protests that same afternoon included chants of "Kill the police."

By Sunday night, there were protests, followed by rioters, and the now standard set-piece, the militarized police. The same happened on Monday, and on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, when cops assaulted multiple journalists, arrested at least 16 people, including a St. Louis alderman covering the demonstrations on Twitter, clashed with protesters, and generally acted pretty close to the way an occupying force might when faced by indigenous resistance. Were people shooting at cops?  It didn't look like it. Protests were largely peaceful. The police were not. On Wednesday night, Missouri's Democrat governor, Jay Nixon released a statement "urging" law enforcement to respect the rights of residents in Ferguson. He excused police actions this week as in the interests of "protecting the public." The limp statement was excoriated by activists following events in Ferguson, and rightly so. How could a governor merely urge? But could the governor order cops in Ferguson to stand down?  Would he send in the National Guard instead?

The National Guard was used throughout the 1960s and '70s to respond to anti-war protests (as at Kent State in Ohio) and "race riots" that broke out across the United States. I was raised and lived most of my life in Newark, so was exposed to a lot of the history of the 1967 "insurrection," Newark's riots. For an aborted project in college in the early 2000s, I interviewed several politicians involved in some way in the riots, including then-mayor Sharpe James, his predecessor, Newark's first black mayor Ken Gibson, and State Sen. Ronald Rice.  The Newark riots started over (wrong but believable) reports that cops had beaten a taxi driver to death for improperly passing them. Issues like police brutality and redlining were underlying causes, even as Newark was one of the first cities to hire black officers. After the first day of protest, New Jersey's governor, Democrat Richard Hughes, sent in the National Guard, which instigated more protests and riots after introducing more violence to the situation.

Rice told me he had just returned from a deployment in Vietnam at the time, and said it was a bizarre feeling to come home from a war zone, to what looked more like a war zone than what he saw in the war zone. The riots ended after six days and in the next municipal elections, in 1970, Gibson was elected mayor of Newark. He was defeated by James in 1986, and was convicted of tax evasion in 2007 after earlier being indicted for bribery (those charges were dropped). James, too, was convicted, on federal fraud charges, in the same year. He was prosecuted by Chris Christie, now New Jersey's Republican governor. Gibson's predecessor, Newark's last white mayor, Hugh Addonizio, had also been convicted on corruption charges after leaving office.

Over the last decade, Newark has suffered through some pretty high homicide numbers. In the summer of 2009, Ras Baraka, then a councilman, began a series of "Anti-Violence Rallies," which went on pretty much every week for more than four years. I attended a few of these, about three years ago. The main topic at the rallies was usually how to combat street violence, and the murders, which often involved bystanders as victims. A recurring theme was treating the violence as a "public health" crisis. Another was to bring in the National Guard to patrol the streets. No one mentioned solutions like legalizing drugs. At an unrelated community meeting once, I did hear a firefighter, who later ran unsuccessfully for city council, advocate firearms training in schools and firearms ownership in the community to combat crime.

Instead Newark has been an innovator of sorts when it comes to how many agencies police it. Its last mayor, Cory Booker, was a big proponent of working with "federal and state law enforcement partners," as countless press releases called the alphabet soup of police forces operating in the city. The new mayor, none other than Ras Baraka, while he was perceived when he ran for the office as an anti-charter school candidate, has made his first priority, unsurprisingly, combatting street violence (or, you could say, fighting the war on drugs). He's posted pictures of himself on Facebook tagging along on raids in some of the worse neighborhoods in Newark. While Baraka has been there when his allies suggested the National Guard be brought into Newark, his father, the beat poet Amiri Baraka, was one of the voices of the 1967 protesters. Forty-five years later, had the National Guard come to Newark it would have been welcomed, at least by Newark's political class, of which the Barakas had undoubtedly become part.

In the meantime, Newark's police department hasn't seemed to improve all that much since the '60s, when a white political class used it to dominate the black population. In fact, after a three year investigation the Newark Police Department was placed under federal oversight by the Department of Justice. A former Internal Affairs chief is being investigated for corruption, something I reached out to Booker's office about in April but received no answer. Only three complaints were sustained in the non-consecutive two year period the former chief had been in charge of IA. An American Civil Liberties Union report on the Newark police in 2010 alleged widespread misconduct by Newark cops, and sparked the federal investigation and eventual oversight.

Newark didn't have a Michael Brown, and it's hard to tell what turns a sadly routine incident of police violence into a national story. For example, and there are many, the day before TMZ Sports reported on some racist comments then Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling made to his mistress in a taped conversation, plainclothes cops in Philadelphia shot and critically injured Phillip Holland, a pizza delivery guy who fled when he thought he was being robbed, as pizza delivery guys sometimes are by armed men in Philadelphia. I live in Philly now. The story made the front page here, but I heard of no protests, peaceful or otherwise. His story receded into the background, just another in a long line of incidents of brutality by Philly police. Fighting crime is the mantra used to excuse all manner of behavior by police in Philadelphia, and around the country.

And what do we do? Residents of Ferguson protested. Some rioted. Four days after one of their sons was killed in broad daylight, they don't know the name of the alleged killer. The prosecutor says it's going to be some time before there are any findings. These residents know that if one of them had killed Michael Brown in broad daylight, they'd likely be in jail already. If they had killed a cop in broad daylight, they'd likely be dead already.  And the mayor of Ferguson? James Knowles, a Republican, urged residents to calm down. To an extent, his hands are tied. Ferguson's police contract likely requires Michael Brown's killer to be treated the way he has been treated.

Cops insist the officer's life would be threatened if his name were released. The police claim Brown had an altercation with the officer, leaving him with a swollen cheek. It's hard to argue the unnamed officer isn't getting special treatment. When police didn't arrest George Zimmerman, several days of protest and national attention got police to arrest him. His identity was never kept a secret. Eventually he was acquitted, suggesting police might have made the right call initially, or at least sincerely thought they had. Nevertheless, they reversed it when pressured. In Ferguson, the pressure seems higher, the necessity of an arrest clearer. Arresting Michael Brown's alleged killer, even if he remained on paid administrative leave, would likely defuse the situation in a way police aggression toward protesters and journalists certainly never will, and would make more transparent the legal process the officer will go through.

In Newark, residents called the 1967 riots an insurrection. The police were not nearly as militarized back then. Today, what's happening in Ferguson certainly looks like a counter-insurgency. If cops keep it up long enough, some residents might respond with an insurgency. Around the world, insurgencies are fueled by unemployed young men with few prospects. It's the way things like this tend to work, actions and reactions, supply meeting demand, in this case residents filling roles cops seem to be waiting to have filled. And if Nixon could order local cops to stand down, would he feel compelled for the sake of "law and order" to send in his own National Guard? I saw a talking point emerge from the left on Twitter last night, that Ferguson is what happens when there's too much local control. Would the National Guard be better? Would the army?

Michael Brown's deadly encounter with police started over something stupid, allegedly walking in the street. Just as Eric Garner's, over the alleged sale of untaxed cigarettes, and many others' did. A few weeks ago New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio insisted the "law's the law" and that cops would keep enforcing minor rules even as the claims of brutality piled up. That's what democracy is all about, Bill Bratton, his police commissioner, said. Rev. Al Sharpton, who cut his teeth protesting in New York City in the 1980s and '90s, enjoys a close relationship with Bill De Blasio. He may have protested Eric Garner's death. I didn't read about it. He's in Ferguson now, which has its own activists from its own communities.

And now America has its "conversations," about militarized police, about racism, about violence and crime, about empathy, about remaining calm, and so on and so on. And demilitarizing the police ought to be a top priority, and combating racist police attitudes is a start, but so long as America's various polities pass laws that demand cops police what used to be understood as harmless (selling loosies) or at-your-own-risk (walking in the street) behavior, these encounters will continue, especially among poor and marginalized communities, whom these laws tend to effect most and in whose communities they tend to be more strictly enforced. De Blasio, Baraka, Knowles, these were all democratically-elected leaders. The laws their cops enforce are largely ones produced by the democratic process. Whether they look like it or not, cops will be an occupying force seeking compliance from local residents on behalf of democratically elected central authorities. 

In this Bratton was right, it's what having a democracy, and not a republic, is all about.