The citizens of Ferguson, Mo., in suburban St. Louis, are not Taliban fighters or al-Qaeda hijackers. Nor are they narco-criminals. But you wouldn’t know that by looking at photos of the police force that faced them after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, on Aug. 9. In those chilling pictures, law enforcement officers faced demonstrators — that is, citizens — in full military regalia, in mine-resistant armored vehicles with rifles pointed at people’s chests. In the words of one observer: “That’s not controlling the crowd, that’s intimidating them.”
Fifty years after Freedom Summer, when Americans of goodwill were knocking down the walls of segregation and racism, the message from Ferguson is that not all that much has changed — at least not everywhere, and not always. Minorities and African-Americans are still disproportionately victims of police excess. Whatever Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson was thinking, the force he sent out to face the mostly African-American crowd looked less like public-safety officers and more like an occupying army. That show of overwhelming force added to the tension rather than calming it.
Much has been made in recent days of the militarization of local police forces and the adaption by civilian forces of the equipment and mind-set of the military. Born during the War on Drugs and expanded during the War on Terror, the program makes billions of dollars in leftover military equipment available to local police. And they use it. The national reaction to the images of excess power in Ferguson could lead to efforts to close the spigot of weapons of war to local police, where they aren’t really needed.
President Obama said on Monday that a review of the program would be “useful,” because, among other reasons, maintaining a “distinction between our military and domestic law enforcement … helps preserve our civil liberties.” We agree.
We are hopeful that a demilitarization of local police will help change a mind-set that contributes to what the president called “a gulf of mistrust” between local residents and law enforcement. And as part of that change, we hope that law enforcement will embrace the idea that most of the angry, frustrated, initially nonviolent people they face in most demonstrations are not enemies, but neighbors.