Are the police in Ferguson violating the US Constitution? Using tear gas, rubber bullets, sonic canons, smoke bombs and other devices to defuse a highly volatile situation, Philadelphia Daily News columnist Will Bunch said “boneheaded policing” was “systematically shredding the US Constitution.
The tear gas was essentially still in the air in the fall of 1968 when the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence – yes, that was a thing – formed a working group to probe the civil disorder that had just occurred at that year’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
It was there, some will recall, that police in baby-blue helmets clubbed and dragged bloodied war protesters through the streets, while TV viewers looked on and crowds chanted, “The whole world is watching.” To describe the incomprehensible scenes, the so-called Walker Commission coined a new term. They called it a “police riot.”
There has been no police riot in Ferguson, Mo. – not yet, anyway (and hopefully never). But what was happening last night in the working-class suburb of St. Louis was, in some ways, far worse. A tense situation in the aftermath of Saturday’s fatal shooting by a police officer of an unarmed, college-bound 18-year-old named Mike Brown has been made worse, night after night, by brutal, boneheaded policing that makes one wonder if Birmingham’s Bull Connor has been reanimated.
I thought I was losing my capacity to be shocked – but events in Missouri late yesterday crossed a frightening line, one that makes me pray that this assault on fundamental American values is just the aberration of one rudderless Heartland community, and not the first symptoms of a nation gone mad with high-tech weaponry to keep its own citizens in line.
The people in charge of a large American community were systematically shredding the U.S. Constitution last night. It was nothing less than a police coup.
The Bill of Rights guarantees that all citizens have the right to assemble peacefully. And yet residents of Ferguson who gathered to protest under the bright August sun were met with a midsize army of militarized cops, ordered off the public right-of-way, and ordered to go home, under the glare of a rifle mounted on a tripod. In a move that even George Orwell would not have believed, cops with loudspeakers insisted to the crowd: “You have the right to peacefully assemble – from 25 feet away.”
The Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of speech – but over these successive nights, citizens who’ve tried to speak out have been hit with tear gas (in at least one case, at a private citizen on his own lawn), then rubber bullets, as well as wooden pellets fired from guns.
The Bill of Rights protects the right of a free press – but apparently not in Ferguson, Mo., not yesterday. Reporters from the Huffington Post and the Washington Post were arrested by cops inside a McDonald’s (!) as they were trying to file their reports; the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery, an African-American, was slammed into a soda fountain. They eventually were released (one small step for mankind), and when Lowery was asked if he was more scared of the protesters or the cops, he answered: “Easy answer: I’m a black man – the police.”
Other reporters, including two who happened to be black, said they were denied access to a news conference. Trymaine Lee, a former Daily News intern who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, said on Twitter: “I’ve been told to disperse and go to my residence . . . ”