Forty-six years ago, at the height of the U.S. presidential election season, the Democratic Party met in the Windy City to nominate their candidate for the nation’s highest office. As any student of history knows, America was a divided place then: Vietnam was in flames; the Democratic Party was splintering under the weight of a hopeless war led by Lyndon Johnson; and new demands from below for social equality were upending the country’s sense of self. For the average person sitting at home watching TV, it was chaos.
Perhaps nothing better symbolized this utterly shambolic point in our nation’s history than the riot that erupted in Chicago during that hot August when the Democrats met at their convention. As the party’s dull apparatchiks wheeled and dealed on the floor of the International Amphitheatre, protesters gathered from around the country to make plain their discontent and to make a mockery of the proceedings inside. Marches were planned, sit-ins organized, street lectures prepared — you name it. It was the original Occupy Movement.
Despite whatever it had meant to be, however, it ended up turning into the opposite as protesters and marchers — all unarmed — confronted a police force itching for a fight and a city government, led by the infamous Richard J. Daley, ready to let them have one. Unfortunately for the police, it all ended up on television when the networks captured the searing brutality of a modern urban police force unleashed on a civilian population. In the report issued afterward that tried to come to grips with what happened that night as police batons, water cannons and dogs were set upon peaceful demonstrators, a new, grim phrase entered the American lexicon: “the police riot.”
For a public shocked by Vietnam, the assassinations of high-level public officials and now suddenly this chaotic free-for-all in the streets of Chicago, it was too much. Casting about for someone to blame, the citizenry chose the Democrats and, in their despair and fury, voted for Richard M. Nixon for president that November. America, it might be argued, has been in a downward trajectory ever since. It may even be argued that the roots of our current political dysfunction can be traced back to that point in time when a Chicago policeman’s truncheon first bashed in the head of a peaceful demonstrator on live TV.
Police riots, then and now
Still, whatever you might say about the cops who beat up the peaceniks and hippies in 1968 Chicago, they were still identifiably police officers. They were dressed in blue uniforms made of cloth, not Kevlar, and their helmets and shields were relatively benign-looking globs of molded blue plastic. They were exactly what they looked like: beat cops with an axe to grind who might not look out of place when out of uniform on the factory floor or the local bowling alley. For better or worse, the working-class cops who policed Chicago looked like — with obvious exceptions when it came to minority communities — the people they served. They were Chicago, and Chicago was them.
Not so, however, when you fast-forward to the police riot that took place in the small town of Ferguson, Missouri, this past week. Looking past the immediate events that caused the violence there — an unarmed young black man was shot by police, whose actions currently appear to be completely unjustifiable — the response of the local and county police to the tragedy has been horrific. Instead of immediately moving to calm community anger and question any and all who might have seen or heard the incident, the blue wall sprang up at once to protect the officer involved. Instead of reaching out to the community, they seem to have stonewalled. And when people who were justifiably angry — this was but the latest incident in a long line of similar incidents, both locally and nationally — erupted into a small civil disturbance, the cops came down like a ton of bricks.
When things had calmed and the cops were facing unarmed, peaceful demonstrators instead of a small-scale riot, the police came out in full-body armor, bearing rifles and driving armored cars. Rifles were aimed at American citizens peacefully demonstrating and reporters camped out at a local fast food restaurant were rousted out like bums and placed under arrest — as if the police were state security goons in some developing world despotism rather than American public servants. Al-Jazeera reporters were tear-gassed, and the area over Ferguson was even declared a no-fly zone so, it would seem, airborne news cameras could not see what was about to take place.
Then the real action started. Again, all while facing no threats whatsoever, as evening wore on the police promptly ordered everyone to disperse — though there was no discernible legal reason they had to do so. They followed that order up with more tear gas and rubber bullets — not only against people demonstrating on the streets, mind you, but on folks on the sidewalks and even on private property. A state senator representing that area of Missouri in the Legislature was caught in the tear gas and a St. Louis city alderman who had come to the suburb to see first-hand what was going on was arrested.
One must ask how we have gone from police officers — even rioting ones — still being discernibly police officers as they were in Chicago in 1968, to looking like something very different in Ferguson, Missouri, less than 50 years later. The Chicago police in 1968 may have acted like inexcusable thugs, but the presence of a major national political meeting and the inundation of the city by hordes of outsider protesters may have led Daley to step up the goon squad pressure. Chicago’s police riot was in some sense externally made.
In Ferguson, on the other hand, there was no external pressure being applied — just locals reacting to a crime committed upon one of their own by a member of an organization meant to protect them. Instead of being part of the community in Ferguson, the cops somehow became the entity that occupied it using overwhelming force. What’s more, it’s pretty clear this occupying force has been acting in an arbitrary, high-handed and indeed racist manner for some time, as statistics gathered by the state of Missouri clearly show.
As reported by the Los Angeles Times, the people of Ferguson have almost no control over those in authority who rule over them. Ferguson’s police chief and mayor are white, and of the six City Council members, one is black. The local school board has six white members and one Latino. Of the 53 commissioned officers on the police force, three are black. Blacks in Ferguson are twice as likely to be stopped by police as whites, and last year 93 percent of arrests following car stops in Ferguson were of blacks, while 92 percent of searches and 80 percent of car stops involved blacks. All this, it should be noted, in a community that is majority black and with people seemingly no more or less disposed to crime than any other place.
Yet, something like this could have happened anywhere as police forces now commonly use overwhelming force at the drop of a hat. SWAT teams — once a rarity only wielded by big-city department — have become so common that every other Mayberry seems to have one. Indeed, they are used wherever and whenever and have repeatedly led to tragedies such as a baby being put into a coma by a flash-bang grenade used by police on a botched drug raid in Georgia. There are also the innumerable police killings even by non-SWAT police, like the one in New York in which a man allegedly selling illegal cigarettes on a street corner — no high crime or misdemeanor, to be sure — was choked to death by cops who tried to place him under arrest.
More disturbing still, time and again we see that incidents like this are usually perpetrated on minorities, the poor and the disenfranchised. Consider, for instance, the response of the police in Ferguson with another standoff — only this one in Nevada, where federal officials aiming to confiscate cattle that had repeatedly wandered on to federal land were held off by a mass of armed, right-wing gunmen. Instead of bringing in more firepower, like they did in Ferguson, the Feds and the cops backed down and allowed the protesters in Nevada to have their way.
Should the lesson be that if the good people of Ferguson had been armed to the teeth and threatening law enforcement with weapons, then somehow the police riot in that small St. Louis suburb might have been avoided? The very idea is ludicrous, as there can be no doubt that instead of backing down as the Feds did in Nevada, the jack-booted thugs in uniform policing Ferguson would have simply opened fire with live rounds. Why? Because everywhere we turn we see how middle-class-looking whites are treated far, far differently than blacks, Hispanics and the poor.
This is perhaps best demonstrated not by what happened in Ferguson over the past week, but by a small but telling incident in Seattle in which a white, pro-Israel agitator at the mall was using racial slurs and angrily confronting a group of demonstrators out in support of Palestine amid the recent conflict in Gaza. Mall security showed up, and instead of confronting the fellow who was causing the problem, the rent-a-cop turned his mace on a seemingly random black bystander because… well… for no other reason than that he was dark-skinned.
This land isn’t made for you and me
All these are separate incidents but they add up to a reality for much of America today that police, policing and law enforcement treat you very differently if you are of a certain economic class, racial or ethnic category or political orientation. In short, in far too many places across America the police are not there to protect and serve everyone — they are there to preserve and defend a certain kind of socio-political order that elevates some and keeps others below. Individual officers do not do this deliberately, of course. There are no marching orders given by some conspiratorial elites sitting in some smoke-filled back room, but this is the outcome when institutions systematically privilege some and disenfranchise others.
What happened in Ferguson is thus the result of rigged processes and unequal playing fields playing out over decades and generations. For many, this starts at birth and the crunch of a police truncheon or smack of a rubber bullet is only something to confirm it later. What it signals is that America — or at least the part of it where the cops are acting like an occupying army — is not, was never and is likely never going to be for you or people like you. The system is telling you in every way to leave, post haste, or suffer the consequences. This is a frightening thought in the extreme, for, if America, land of the free and home of the brave, is not for them, where should they go?
The answer is nowhere, and from that hopeless fact more terrible things will come unless something is done. For this is planet Earth of 2014, not 1492 — those who have lost out due to the way our system is structured and run cannot simply move somewhere else. The planet is full and borders so increasingly closed that not even poor and desperate children who are fleeing murderers and rapists are deemed welcome. We’ve seen abroad what happens when hopeless and desperate people run up against political system and cultures too brittle to change. Those in power here forget that we were once a product of just such a system and how easily we could become one again.