Littwin: A sudden calm in Ferguson

By Michael Calhoun

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]HE story isn’t over. A young man is still dead. We still don’t know what happened. A community is still outraged. The protests will no doubt continue until there are some answers in the questionable police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.

But even so, the story line has changed dramatically.

This doesn’t happen very often in real life. Real life, even when moving quickly, doesn’t move at this kind of pace.

One night in Ferguson, Mo., the world – or at least the world as we understood it — seemed to be coming apart. A police force in little Ferguson had morphed before our eyes into an army of occupation — and the enemy, this time, really was us. The police chief overseeing it all had conceded it didn’t look good, as if it were simply a matter of optics. He was right about it not looking good, though. It looked like Iraq. What it didn’t look like was America.

The very next night, a new guy was on the job. The overwhelmingly white St. Louis County police force was out, and the Missouri state troopers were in. Not only did the optics change, everything seemed to change. Instead of tear gas, there were hugs. Instead of cops marching on the protesters, Capt. Ron Johnson — an African-American who grew up in the area and who now heads the police operation — was marching alongside them.

The flash grenades were gone. The tear gas was gone. The smoke hanging over the town was gone. The mine-resistant ambush-protected armored vehicle — yes, really — was gone. Everything was tamped way down. Cops took off their gas masks, revealing their faces. Camo outfits were replaced by cop-on-the-corner blue. Reporters weren’t being arrested. Film crews far from the protests weren’t being gassed. The barricaded streets were open to traffic.

No one, finally, was pointing a gun at anyone.

And Wesley Lowery, the reporter from the Washington Post who had been arrested, would Tweet: “I do not recognized the Ferguson I am in currently.”

What happened was glaringly obvious. It was obvious as the nonstop coverage on your favorite cable network news channel.

It took a few days for people to understand what was actually happening. But in a sudden jolt of recognition — in a Bull Connor, firehoses on the kids moment — millions watched and saw the whole thing differently. The Kevlar-jacketed, gun-pointing, armored-vehicle-riding cops weren’t facing full-blown riots. As one Iraqi vet put it, this wasn’t crowd control; it was intimidation. The protesters were being faced down by an absurdly — in another time, it would be almost comically — overdone show of force.

And the question quickly became: How could this be the proper response in a community torn up by the fact that a white cop – as yet unnamed — had shot and killed an unarmed African-American teen?

The story of race is hardly a new one. But the story in which Rand Paul is way ahead of Barack Obama on race is a different one.

We got the jolt, and Obama called for peace and upbraided the cops. Obama is clearly unhappy with the lack of transparency and with the show of force. But it was Paul who got to the point, writing an op-ed in Time magazine decrying the militarization of police forces in general and noting that race was the obvious factor here. He blamed big government for the military-style response, which may be a stretch. But on race, he got it exactly right: “If I had been told to get out of the street as a teenager, there would have been a distinct possibility that I might have smarted off. But, I wouldn’t have expected to be shot.”

You don’t have to know much about modern policing, or much about crowd control, to know the cops in Ferguson were doing everything wrong in facing the protests. There was some looting and one store was burned, but the protests eventually became, as much as anything else, about not being able to protest. It was obviously a time for outreach, not for overreach.

And it was the overreach that shocked. And the fact that someplace like Ferguson has this kind of firepower at its disposal. The stories have been written for years, dating back to the ’70s and the emergence of SWAT teams, about the militarization of the police. But the change since 9/11, when the Pentagon ratcheted up it program of giving away excess firepower to police forces, has gone basically unnoticed until now.

But now that people are noticing, they can’t help but see that the numbers are shocking. According to an ACLU report, 63 police departments have taken on 500 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles in 2011 and 2012. That’s just for starters. Since 1997, the Pentagon has transferred something like $4 billion worth of equipment to the cops.

That’s how the streets of Ferguson came to look like the streets of Gaza. As someone put it, these guys give out traffic tickets by day and dress up in Kevlar by night. And that’s how a lot of suddenly outraged Americans came to understand that if this happens in suburban Ferguson, it can happen anywhere.

[Photo of Capt. Ron Johnson in Ferguson by Michael Calhoun via Twitter.]


  1. Strange that the sheriffs rally around the gun fanatics and their purported rights to own more firepower. Though it appears that the lawmen have engaged in a good bit of arms escalation themselves. Is this an unexpected consequence of our inability to enact gun laws?

  2. “There was some looting and one store was burned…….”

    Those nine words are the sum total of Mr. Littwin’s attempt to explain the presence of the St. Louis county police force in Ferguson, Missouri. And that was buried deep in the column where few readers dare tread..

    Mr. Littwin devotes no space to the possibility that maybe—just maybe—the presence of the St. Louis county police force–the so-called “militarized” police force–may have prevented further looting and possible loss of life.

    Instead he adopts, for Mr. Littwin, a very unlikely hero, the head of the Missouri State Highway Patrol “Capt. Ron Johnson — an African-American who grew up in the area and who now heads the police operation — was marching alongside (protesters). “ after which “Not only did the optics change, everything seemed to change. Instead of tear gas, there were hugs.”

    And they all lived happily ever after!

    Except, of course, they didn’t and the looting, burning and shooting continued even after Capt. Johnson took command and the Democrat governor of Missouri Jay Nixon had declared a curfew. So Governor Nixon then called in the National Guard. I’m sure in a future column Mr. Littwin will explain how withdrawing the “militarized’ police force lead to the deployment of the National Guard.

    This from the Daily Beast:

    “Shortly after 12 a.m. members of the (Revolution Club of Chicago) and residents advanced toward police, who for the first time since the introduction of Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson into this saga formed a line of riot-ready officers and SWAT vehicles. It was a scene that Nixon and other officials were hoping to avoid, but one that has become bizarrely familiar to residents here. After repeated warnings to disperse, police fired on the crowd, sending tear gas canisters clanking down the street as chaos ensued.”
    “Seven people were arrested and one person was shot and critically wounded by an unknown gunman”.

    “I think Obama understands people’s concerns. After spending the day at the beach, he said, ‘this has been fun but I should really get back to the golf course because priorities are priorities.’”
    Jimmy Fallon
    Veterans Day – November 11, 2014

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