By C. J. Oakes
The Issue: The verdict in the Michael Brown shooting threatens to engulf the city and region in violence. What could have been done to prevent such violence and what can be done to stop it? In this critical analysis of the situation unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri, these questions and more will be answered.
On August 9, 2014, events began to unfold which have led to the burning of Ferguson, Missouri starting the evening of November 2, 2014. What led to this conflagration and could it have been avoided? How could it have been avoided? What can be done to stop it? Will it spread to other cities?
A Brief Time Line of Events in the Michael Brown Shooting
Michael Brown allegedly robbed a store and was walking through the middle of the street when Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson asked him to walk on the sidewalk. Brown became mouthy, Wilson responded, and the two scuffled. Brown punched Wilson, Wilson shot Brown in the hand—he left the scene. Wilson pursued and ordering him to stop, Brown turned and charged the officer. Brown was then shot and killed.
First Note: This is the clearest story of the events on August 9, 2014 which has yet emerged from the altercation which resulted in Michael Brown’s death. This is not to say that this is EXACTLY what happened, only that this is the clearest picture we have at this moment in time, November 25, 2014 (Lieb & Zaiger, 15Aug2014; Lopez, 15Aug2014; Ferguson PD, 15Aug2014).
In the ensuing days, the United States Department of Justice under Attorney General Eric Holder entered the picture to help unravel what happened. During the days after the shooting, there were minor skirmishes with police in both Ferguson and St Louis, MO, as well as some looting and vandalism blamed on the event, though most protests were peaceful. Multiple conflicting stories emerged and the national media covered the event continually, at times in an inflammatory manner.
Two days after, on August 11, 2014, police used rubber bullets and tear gas on protesters (Fantz, Howell, and Shoichet, 11Aug2014), though one peaceful protester, Mya Aaten-White was shot in the head by police. Her wound was not fatal (Lussenhop, 24Sept2014).
By August 13, 2014, protests became more violent, with Molotov cocktails used and the St Charles SWAT Team brought in. President Barak Obama criticized the police for use of excessive force with the initial peaceful protesters, world news agencies began to take note, and at this point, the DOJ entered the picture on August 20, 2014. A statement by United States Senator from Missouri, Claire McCaskill well-summed the situation. She stated,
“Militarization of the police escalated the protester’s response.” (Staff, 14AUG2014)
An important event occurred on August 23, 2014. Police held their own rally in support of Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, who by now was under investigation by the Department of Justice, the Ferguson Police Department, and a Grand Jury. With a banner reading, “I am Darren Wilson,” about 70 persons rallied, most of whom were police officers. This show of solidarity is perhaps one of the key turning points in this entire event which continues to engulf the community of Ferguson, Missouri today.
Another, closely related, is that on September 23, a Michael Brown memorial which had been erected was burned (Haoues & Chuck, 23Sept2014). Police Chief Thomas Jackson apologized to the family via a released video (Bruton & Duchon, 29Sept2014) and three days later, the Department of Justice recommended that police in Ferguson cease wearing bracelets reading, “I am Darren Wilson” and additionally wear name badges. This request was made by the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ and reflects the reason the Department of Justice was called to the city to start with. (Haoues & Chuck, 26Sept2014). The situation in Ferguson, MO is more than simply a matter of police abuse, but there have been underlying racial tensions in the city and St Louis Metro for some time, as will be examined shortly.
Moving into October 2014, protests continued, mostly peaceful, but both the Missouri State Highway Patrol and St Louis County Police made arrests, including one freelance journalist named Mary Moore. Moore, who has contributed to CNN was among those arrested for minor violations including noise ordinance violations, resisting arrest, and failure to comply with police (Stewart & Reilly, 3Oct2014; Samuels 3Oct2014).
For the most part, from then until November 24, 2014, when the Grand Jury finally presented their verdict in the case against Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, there continued to be clashes with police and protesters, some violent, some peaceful. However, the only difference between the two were the protesters themselves. Police seemed to handle each protest the same way and this is perhaps the biggest reason anyone should have seen the burning of Ferguson coming. In fact, the Governor of Missouri, Jay Nixon, did see it coming and anticipating the Grand Jury decision, he declared a state of emergency (Swaine, 17Nov2014). However, such a move sent a message, one which the Governor likely did not want.
This is sufficient to lay a foundation for the remainder of this paper. As will be shown, there was much which could have been done differently to avoid the events which are unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri as of November 25, 2014.
Preceding Events Related to the St Louis/Ferguson, MO Burning
The beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991 led to riots in that city in 1992, after the police officers were acquitted of wrongdoing. This sent a chilling effect throughout the nation because it sent a message to police around the nation that they could act with extreme force when so inclined with impunity. It also sent a message to the Black community that they were powerless against police from a legal standpoint. This event laid the foundation for the events taking place in Ferguson, Missouri on November 25, 2014 (Bach, 2014).
As the nation throughout the 1980s and 1990s became more adversarial towards the public, largely the African American public, the public has been responding in kind. Entering the new millennium, YouTube has become a place where anyone with a smart phone could record and upload instantly, images of police continuing a practice of brutality begun at that time (Oakes, 2013).
This is not to say that ALL police forces are taking such repressive measures. The vast majority of police and police departments in the nation do an excellent job and interact with their communities well. But as the adage goes, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Thus, those police and police departments which fail in their mission to protect and serve the public get the headlines, making all police look bad.
Thus, in such situations as occurred in the days leading up to the burning of Ferguson, Missouri, there is much the police there COULD have done different, but because they were already in a mode of acting contrary to the principles which may have prevented the killing of Michael Brown in the first place, they were already conditioned to act wrongly.
Why is Ferguson, MO Burning Today?
When people feel powerless over their destiny, they act in a way as to regain some sense of power. In 2012, C. J. Oakes proposed a theory of human behavior which has a foundation not only in known facts of psychology and history, but also reflects the principles which were developed by Sir Robert Peel for police in 1829. This theory simply points out that all humans have needs and we seek to meet these needs based on our values and circumstances.
Throughout history, when governments have become oppressive, people have revolted. Americans are very familiar with this concept, having risen from the American Revolution. The reason is very simple: One fundamental need we all have is the need to feel in control of our lives. Remove that control and eventually people will fight back, most often in kind. Thus, the adage, “Violence begets violence,” is true. People who are oppressed violently will respond violently. It is really that simple. We all know the story of the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s but we often miss the lesson that violent acts only result in more violence.
Thus, Police in Ferguson, Missouri, continuing to use oppressive and punitive measures against the peaceful protesters only further inflamed the public against them. The verdict by the Grand Jury was merely the spark needed to inflame the public to the point of explosion.
All of this could have been avoided.
How Could the Burning of Ferguson been Avoided?
The way to avoid such situations is to apply the principles of Sir Robert Peel, who established the London Metropolitan Police in 1829. The reason he convinced Parliament to let him start the LMP was because of similar events in London at that time. Indeed, even in the Declaration of Independence we see an indication that something less oppressive had to be done. The United Stated Declaration of Independence listed as one of the grievances against King George’s repressive government,
“For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
“For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States”
Sound familiar? The events which began with Rodney King in 1991 and continued to Michael Brown in 2014 are just like what King George was reaping upon the American Colonists. This is not to say that Darren Wilson should have been indicted, for he may well be innocent of wrong-doing, but after a history of such abuses, the public cannot tell the difference and eventually fights back—in kind—violence begets violence.
By applying the principles of Sir Robert Peel, this situation could have been avoided, but sadly, in Ferguson, MO, rather than befriending the public, police have taken an adversarial position—the public has responded in kind. This is reflected in the wearing of the bracelets, not wearing name badges, and generally reacting with violence to non-violent protesters. The police in Ferguson brought this on themselves slowly over time, years.
When Sir Robert Peel established the LMP, he did so because there had been a number of protests in London which had been brutally suppressed by the English military, which at that time was responsible for controlling the public. His concept was different. He saw what happened with the American Revolution and he understood history. Peel knew that historically, military forces react to situations with toughness, treating the pubic like an enemy to be defeated. But the public is NOT an enemy. Peel thus wisely understood that police need the cooperation of the public to be effective and when he developed the first modern police force, he implemented principles to guide their actions such that they would gain public trust. Clearly, the police force in Ferguson, Missouri has failed to maintain public trust.
However, if we trace the matter further, we also come to the conclusion that the Drug War is largely responsible for the “us versus them” attitude which exists between police and the public today. Politicians continue to support the Drug War; Police continue to enforce it; and the public largely disagrees with it. Thus, the adversarial stage has been set for decades.
Further, the Drug War is largely responsible for the racial disparities occurring in the criminal justice system. Indeed, because so many in the African American community are adversely affected by the Drug War and police are the enforcers of that war, the adversarial attitude is a natural reaction by that community. Add to this poor economic conditions, which push many into illegal activities, and the situation becomes worse.
In Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St Louis, which has suffered considerably after the housing bubble burst in 2008, unemployment is high. Not surprising, in line with all studies demonstrating that poor economic conditions fuel substance abuse and illegal means of obtaining a living, police are fighting a losing battle. The police, feeling pressure to control the community which is largely out of control, become more oppressive unless they are trained differently. Clearly, the leadership in Ferguson, MO has failed both the community and the police force.
This is simply the “Cliff’s Note’s” version of what could have been done. To understand more, read
Will it Spread to Other Cities in the Nation?
One thing which concerns most regarding the burning of Ferguson, MO is spread. Fires tend to spread. A few years ago in England, a similar situation led to riots and burnings throughout the country. In 2013, Stockholm, Sweden met with a similar situation. The way police handled that situation and quickly contained the spread is telling and will be discussed next.
However, there is a very real concern that if police react poorly and the media further inflames the situation, which many media outlets are quite good at doing, the situation could bleed into other cities in the nation.
This is because throughout the nation, many areas have been hit hard economically. All of the nation has experienced the worst of police forces at some point because of the Drug War. African Americans in most inner cities have faced more than their share of brutality at the hands of police from Cincinnati, L.A., NYC, Detroit, Chicago, Albuquerque, and more. These cities are only those which consistently make headlines for unnecessary violence against the public, most notably the African American public.
Adding to the matter is the Grand Jury and how the public views that system. For instance, in Houston, Texas, the Grand Jury system has come under strong fire from many advocating a different approach. In Houston, Texas, what is referred as the “Key Man” method of selecting Grand Juries is coming under fire today (Falkenberg, 2014). The system ensures that friends of police and prosecutors are used on the Grand Jury, effectively stacking the deck against defendants and in fact, since 2008, not a single police officer has been indicted in a shooting (Rahman, 2014). Clearly, Houston is one region which is ripe for such spillover. However, the economy is strong in the city, so that could mitigate such events. Time will tell.
Still, it would not take any stretch of the imagination to believe that this situation could grow to other cities because nationwide, people, especially people of color, are becoming increasingly antagonistic to police and the criminal justice system, which to be fair, is largely failing them.
Hopefully, the burning of Ferguson, MO will not spill over and next we consider what can be done to prevent it from so doing.
How can the Rioting be Stopped?
The simple reality is that perhaps nothing can be done to stop the spread of rioting and burning taking place in Ferguson, Missouri. However, one thing is for certain—more violence by police is certainly NOT the solution.
This was the position that police in Stockholm, Sweden took when faced with similar events. Rather than go into the area, guns blazing, seeking to force the rioters to stop, they took a very different, an approach which would seem counter to “common sense.” They did nothing…or at least, as little as possible. Rather than further inflame the rioters and make headlines for their actions, they stepped back and let the rioters get it out of their system and the situation died out.
Indeed, part of the Theory of Human Behavior discussed on this website explains that people react with an “us versus them” response when there is a clear enemy. If there is no “enemy” there is no one to fight against. Thus, just as “violence begets violence,” non-violence results in non-violence. Someone has to stop the cycle. Sweden demonstrated that this approach works.
If the United States DOJ and Ferguson Police Department figure this out, the fires will die out for lack of fuel. If they do not and instead send in a strong show of force, they may quell the fires for now, but they will flame back later. They may even spread to other cities. Like a game of chess, it is now the move of the Police which will determine the next move of the rioters.
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- Ferguson PD (August 15, 2014). Police report in the Michael Brown case. Los Angeles Times.
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