Americans since 9/11 have been urged by their federal and local governments to maintain a fear of terrorism and be sure to remember, “If you see something, say something.”
Well, a lot of people are seeing and saying something about Ferguson, Mo.
Not the least of these is the governor of Missouri, Jay Nixon.
"All of us were thunderstruck by the pictures we saw, I mean, the over-militarization, the MRAPs rolling in, the guns pointed at kids in the street," the governor said on ABC News this weekend. (MRAPs are "mine-resistant, ambush-protected" military armored trucks.) The governor said the military-style show of force "instead of ratcheting down, brought emotion up."
The incident that sparked the protests, the shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer, is still being sorted out, but it is clear even to police that the man was not armed.
What’s not in question for millions of Americans now is that we have turned our local police forces across the nation into military combat units. Police always have been paramilitary organizations, but you can drop "para" now.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, quoted in The New York Times, said: "At a time we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message."
National conservatives like former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and many others are raising questions about the militarization. The left and right both seem appalled.
Erich Pratt, spokesperson for the conservative Gun Owners of America, was quoted on the website The Moderate Voice as asking, "Why are those guns available to the police? We don’t technically have the military operating within our borders, but they’re being given the gear to basically operate in that capacity."
The website also reported, "Gun Owners of America and the ACLU are both backing a forthcoming bill from Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) that would curtail the sale of [U.S. Defense Department] weapons to local police departments."
A detailed full accounting is not available to tell us how much military equipment has been transferred to local and state governments by the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security grants, often for pennies on the dollar.
But various groups say we are well into the tens of billions of dollars. The military-industrial complex has discovered your local police as another marketing opportunity. Newsweek magazine — yes, it’s still in business — details the militarization online here.
On NBC’s "Meet the Press," Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said it would be "very unusual" for her city’s police to use military equipment "against [our] own citizens." Rawlings-Blake cited the restrained reaction to Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, saying units were intent on being "judicious in the use of force."
All that money, all that fearmongering, all that hyper-preparedness certainly offers no similarity to the folks who used to be our first line of defense, the local guy we once knew as "Officer Friendly." Police who really are part of the community don’t need to arm themselves as an invading force. If they do, they’ve already lost the battle.
As one article put it, when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
■ Media under attack. The news media is not the most-liked profession in the country, with most everyone having a say about its shortcomings, prejudices and personalities.
But it’s still unusual for reporters to face the kind of police resistance they have encountered in Ferguson. A Washington Post reporter and others were rousted and arrested as they sat peacefully in a McDonald’s, filing reports and charging their phones and other electronic gear.
The Post reporter, Wesley Lowery, said he really got worried when one officer said, "OK, let’s take him."
There have been a variety of reports that police ordered some reporters to turn off cameras, and fired smoke bombs toward media crews as well as protesters.
In disturbance situations, it’s not always clear who is right or wrong, and certainly members of the media don’t always comport with reasonable requests to remain out of the way of police officers.
Your Notebook has had his own standoffs with police officers, but we’re always conscious of the difficulty of police work.
Public safety and First Amendment rights aren’t in conflict; they have to coexist. It’s part of police training, and riot or near-riot situations are no time for renegade reporters or cowboy cops.
Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.