In an earlier post here Victor Kappeler briefly described the role American police have historically played with regard to social upheaval and civil unrest. Specifically, he outlined the ways in which the political optimism of the Civil Rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s were met with increasing violence by the state in the form of various police agencies, the National Guard and so on. This violent response resulted in more militant organization and protest as well as both race riots and police riots. The end result was the maintenance of the status quo through force, as Kappeler points out, “The optimism for social and political change that marked the 1960s and early 70s was to be thwarted, in no small measure, by the politically directed brute force of the police, rather than progressive political change or reform.”
Fast forward to the present, and the situation on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri. In the aftermath of Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown there seemed to be a moment of opportunity. All of a sudden, media outlets were spending a great deal of time looking at issues of police use of lethal force, racial discrimination and militarization. Politicians on both the left and the right created committees and bills to look into these problems offering a seat at the table to academic, activist and community voices alike. Then, days turned into weeks and weeks into months. The media turned their short attention span to Ebola, beheadings and a midterm election. Finally last night, in spite of the old idea that “you can indict a ham sandwich,” Missouri Governor Jay Nixon announced that officer Wilson had escaped such a fate. Almost immediately, Ben Casselman at FiveThirtyEight.com explained how “It’s Incredibly Rare For a Grand Jury To Do What Ferguson’s Just Did,” and in an article at The Nation, Chase Madar analyzed “Why It’s Impossible to Indict a Cop,” as if they had written those articles in advance. They weren’t the only ones seeming to predict this result as Governor Nixon had announced an activation of the National Guard and the declaration of a state of emergency a week prior to any decision by the Grand Jury.
March Forward! a veteran’s organization against war and racism issued an open letter urging the Missouri National Guard to “make a different kind of history”. Explaining that history will be made one way or the other, they write: “If you take part in the suppression of the protests for Michael Brown, we will be enshrined in history just as the National Guard soldiers who followed their orders to attack and repress civil rights actions, union pickets and anti-war protests. History has not looked kindly on them.” Thus far, however, it appears as though this call has gone unheeded, as tear gas filled the streets of Ferguson shortly after the announcement of no indictment. Social media filled with images of burning police cars and buildings, cops in riot gear and exclamations of disappointment, often invoking the words of W.E.B. DuBois: “A system cannot fail those it was never built to protect”.
In response to Kappeler’s statement that “What remains to be seen is on which side of the barricades the police will stand the next time around”, it seems that, at least this time around, they remain unmoved.
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University