Week 33: Villain(s) – the Police of Ferguson, Missouri

by Jackie_South on August 18, 2014

Jefferson_MO_VillainThis week, our panel has decided that the police force of the St Louis suburb of Ferguson deserve our award for being the greatest villains of the last seven days

The full truth of the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by policeman Darren Wilson has still to emerge. But what is already abundantly clear is both the local community’s sense of injustice and the combustive over-reaction of the same police force to the protests.

I am currently in the USA, and coverage of Ferguson is dominating the news. On Friday, the police released CCTV evidence to show that Brown had been involved in a ‘strong arm robbery’ of a convenience store: a shoplifting involving violently shoving a shopkeeper and then threatening him. It also released the name of Darren Wilson, whilst stating that he was currently injured, presumably from the incident. The story suggested that the police officer had acted within the law: arresting a suspect for a violent offence and then shooting when threatened. In fact, the law states that even if the suspect is trying to flee after being apprehended for a violent offence, the police are entitled to shoot.

The story then quickly appeared to unravel: Wilson has apparently been unaware of the robbery when the shooting took place. Witnesses state that Brown had his hands up and on the ground when the final, and fatal, shots were fired. Protesters have been marching with their hands held high.

Whether it emerges that the officer behaved legally or not, what is clear is that there was no justice in the killing: either Wilson was guilty of unjustified homicide or the legal ‘justification’ is an unjust one: there is no disputing that Brown was unarmed, posed no lethal threat to the officer and was incapacitated by the first two shoots fired that brought him to the ground. Either way, it is understandable that the local community is shocked and angered by the actions of a police force that is meant to be there to protect them. Today, Governor Jay Nixon condemned the way the police had released the footage as being inflammatory.

That is why the actions of the police in trying to suppress the protests are pure villainy. As part of the disturbed thinking around the post 9-11 Patriot Act, county police forces were given military hardware such as armoured cars and teargas. The panicked Jefferson police decided that it was appropriate to call these in and use these on largely peaceful demonstrators in acts of over-reaction reminiscent of Alabama in the Civil Rights era.

All this has led Nixon to intervene and effectively sideline the local police by putting state police in there to bring things under control. The governor has been keen to listen to the protestors whilst also imposing a curfew (policed reasonably judiciously in comparison to the local police efforts) last night to try to restore order. Ferguson’s police have been left trying to cover their tracks rather than healing the wounds they have imposed.

Ferguson’s police force looks very unlike the community it is there to protect. That is in part due to the rapid change in demographics there: in 1990, three-quarters of the suburb’s population was white, but as people migrated from the City of St Louis over the next two decades that population is now two-thirds African American. That helps explain, but not excuse, why the city’s police force has only two black officers and does not seem to understand the majority of its citizens.

Ferguson’s police seem to have been utterly out of their depth throughout the last week, and have decided to try to bridge their gap in competence by attacking those it is paid to protect. Shame on them.

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