Opinion: Race, protest and police overreaction in Ferguson

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It happens from time to time — people protest. Workers demonstrate for their rights, environmentalists oppose new construction, citizens complain about controversial new laws, the list goes on.

But recent events in Ferguson were no ordinary protest.

At noon on Aug. 9, Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, was killed by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Wilson shot Brown six times, and the youth died in the street. The local community was outraged, holding a vigil for Brown’s death that eventually devolved into a night of looting. Protests against the Ferguson police force began the next morning, and the police responded as if it were an act of war — SWAT forces arrived on the scene in armored vehicles, carrying M4 military-grade assault rifles.

In addition to Brown’s shooting, the police response in Ferguson deserves its own outrage, as it poses a threat to the civil rights of ethnic minorities and to the constitutional rights of all American citizens.

Where did police overstep the line?

Police showed up on the first morning of protests riding in MRAPs, or Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles, wearing body armor, gas masks and visors — more protective gear than some soldiers wear in actual war zones. On the third day of protests they also brought LRADs, or Long Range Acoustic Devices, on top of their trucks. Best explained as “sound cannons,” LRADs fire bursts of sound at 149 decibels, which cause severe pains and even hearing loss if sustained for more than a short burst. Ferguson police also used rubber bullets and tear gas, illegal for use in actual war, in attempts to suppress protestors.

It seems likely Ferguson police knew their response was inappropriate; they arrested two journalists at the scene and even instructed protesters to turn off their cameras via loudspeaker (it’s perfectly legal to film a police officer).

Does this make you feel safe?

As a young male in America with brown skin, I am infuriated and alarmed to see the disparity in the way police treat people based on race. It becomes a safety issue — and a civil rights issue — when activities that may be tolerated when done by white Americans don’t get the same response when a black American does the same thing.

More than that, it affects all Americans when our police stop “protecting and serving” us and instead treat us as their enemy. One officer threatened to kill a protester at gunpoint, while another was suspended for racially charged and threatening comments about the protestors he made on the Internet.

If police can antagonize us and threaten us with unwarranted force, it puts our constitutional rights to free speech and assembly at stake. When protesters get tear-gassed and journalists get arrested for doing their jobs, we may no longer truly live in a free country.

How can things change?

For one thing, we can stop arming our police with heavy-duty war gear. The Federal Defense Department’s Excess Propriety Program, known as the 1033 Program, allows the military to give away surplus equipment to America’s police forces. The Justice and Homeland Security departments also fund billions of dollars to police, which further contributes to the problem.

No matter how police acquire military equipment, the federal government can easily shut down programs that allow them to, and states can ban military equipment outright. Programs like 1033 started alongside a post-9/11 fear that police might have to fight terrorists one day, but the protestors in Ferguson were not terrorists. And even the rowdiest protest does not warrant military force by police that results only in further violence. Police are supposed to protect us and keep the peace. Let’s make sure they stay true to that mission.

Contact CU Independent Assistant Opinion Editor Ellis Arnold at ellis.arnold@colorado.edu.

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