Do you remember “preventive detention? It was the idea of arresting people on the assumption that they might commit some crime, even though they have not yet done so. The concept never got a lot of public support, since it was such a blatantly unconstitutional approach to law enforcement. That is not to say, however, that it has not been put into practice informally in some places.
But now we see a new twist on the underlying idea of controlling expected bad behavior in a population. Yes, it’s Ferguson, Missouri again. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency ad mobilized the National Guard, as a “precaution” in case “unrest” or violence might break out in Ferguson. One must ask, how do you respond to an emergency before it happens?
The action was taken in anticipation of public anger if the grand jury fails to indict officer Darren Wilson. Yet the governor’s precipitous act is quite consistent with previous police actions there. The entire episode over the past three plus months since Officer Wilson shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown to death, has been characterized by institutional overkill.
The initial peaceful protests in Ferguson were met with a highly militarized show of Robo-cop style brute force. The result, not surprisingly, was increased anger, resentment, and tension. Despite organizers’ efforts to keep it non-violent, some vandalism occurred. It only takes a few rocks thrown to trigger a massive police over-reaction, treating all protestors as illegitimate. But what is clear is that the white power structure in not only Ferguson but Saint Luis County is simply prejudiced. Its actions have been and are based in traditional – if publicly unspoken – racist imaginaries about a presumptive “lawlessness” of the black population. Under the circumstances, that population has remained remarkably restrained. Not so the militarized law enforcement institutions or their leadership.
The preemptive declaration of a state of emergency by Governor Nixon is, by its very presumptions, bigoted. It prejudges the character of the mostly black population of Ferguson and implicitly labels “those people” as “lawless.” The actions of the various police agencies, prosecutors, etc., from local to state, reflect a “them vs. us” mentality in which “they” have to be controlled by force. Lip service is given to the people’s right to freedom of speech while police entrap protestors in physical space where no such right can be exercised. And, of course, the old “outside agitators” meme is also invoked.
The indifference of the mostly white Ferguson police and politicians, and the county and state ‘authorities,’ to the current and historical grievances of black citizens is flagrant. Unrelenting authoritative obliviousness to the reasons for popular anger has fed the understandable public frustration with the handling of the case from the start. That indifference, glossed over with feigned respect for human rights, continues as the major factor in the approach of law enforcement to the black population of St. Louis county.
Similar attitudes among ‘authorities’ can be found all across this nation. They are expressed in different ways and cause diverse local crises when specific instances of police abuse of citizens capture sufficient media attention. Death at the hands of police is commonplace in communities of color in this country.
A complex of converging factors seems to be accelerating both the number of instances and the awareness of the public. What might have been only a story a few years ago is now captured on smart-phone video by passers by. Self-selection of violent personalities into police work and indifference or support for aggression by leadership perpetuate the hostile separation of police from citizen. Problems of community relations are seen as needing a “show of force” as in the absurd twisting of the idea of emergency by Governor Nixon.
Unfortunately, it is all part of a larger process of the pitting of the institutions that protect the interests of the power elites against the people of this country. Police are no longer there to ‘keep the peace’ or ‘serve and protect’ the people. Their mission is to control the population to insure the order imposed by a institutional power structure behind a thin veil of ‘democracy.’ If there were any sense of community or democracy in the state of Missouri, the governor would have been meeting with civic groups in and around Ferguson over the past three months seeking to reach a level of cooperation that could resolve the grievances of the citizens of that town. If “the‘authorities” were integral to communities, the gunning down of an unarmed teenager by a police officer would have triggered an immediate investigation by a civilian review body to both establish the facts and determine how such a tragedy could be prevented in the future.
Quite the opposite has happened. Police and politicians bungled and overreacted at every step. They all dodged and covered. The people were enclosed, to protest in as much isolation from media coverage as possible. Neither indictment nor its absence will have much of any bearing on the ability of the power structure to address its failed relationship to the citizenry that is its only real justification for existence.