On the ground, they permitted the local police free reign to extinguish non-violent protest. The mechanism was very simple. The police cordoned off the area and certain locations within to inhibit mobility. They prevented people from assembling on a street they had blocked off, instead compelling them to keep moving. They raided a church that had served as an operational support to the demonstrators and confiscated supplies like milk, to treat victims of tear gas. They even raided the home of somebody making T-shirts sympathetic to the action. They would periodically send lines of thuggish county police to scatter groups of innocent people. They applied liberal, indiscriminate doses of tear gas, concussion grenades, and rubber bullets.
The inability to assemble is key. That’s how the authorities busted up the Occupy sites, once again to the indifference of the White House. The legal issue is explicated here.
The other channel was political. It was Rev Al Sharpton to the not-rescue, reportedly the Administration’s man on the ground. What is the opposite of agitator? There was a movie called “The Cooler” starring Bill Macy. As a casino employee, his gift was showing up at a table where a gambler was on a hot streak; his mystical powers would cause the winning streak to blow up in failure. Al was the cooler, taking control of the Brown family’s message, telling everyone what they should and shouldn’t be concerned about, failing to defend against the blatant denial of constitutional rights.
The civil rights groups failed in similar fashion. So did local African-American politicians. How do I know this? It’s very simple. None of them at any point said, people, we have a right to assemble. I’m going to stand in the goddamn street and challenge the police to arrest me. If you can stand getting arrested, why not come along? Nobody did that. It was the key to promoting continuing mobilization. Nobody did it. We did hear them talk about voter registration, and bully for them. There are parallels in the latter respect to the dissolution of the actions in the Wisconsin state capital a few years ago (in response to which Obama was also mute).
In the same vein, aside from initial comment that the police ought not to arrest journalists — subsequently ignored by police — the president and attorney-general limited their remarks to perverse digressions about wayward black youth and promises to investigate the shooting. (The capacity of Federal prosecutors to do anything about the shooting is quite limited.)
It is of course true that the Administration cannot command local police to do this or that. They cannot micro-manage local police. But they can issue remarks on lapses that I think could have had a powerful effect. It would have meant calling out bad actors. Perhaps — I’m not a lawyer, so this is speculative — they could have supported the ACLU suit to defend the right to assemble and freedom of the press. More was called for besides showing up and hugging the folks.
Then we have the media on site. One obnoxious narrative was the twinning of “violence” (meaning looting and throwing water bottles; as far as I could tell, the use of Molotov cocktails was much more limited) with peaceful protest. Of course, most of the violence was coming from the cops, and the priority should be defending basic rights of protesters. Notwithstanding that simple principle, we had the absurd adulation of good Captain Ron, beneficiary of softball interviews punctuating his direction of police violence and the arrest of journalists. Journalists against journalism, indeed.
I did see some signs of life on the Melissa Harris-Perry show and in Michael Eric Dyson’s column. They are both sensitive to the wayward black youth dodge, but not so much to the real-time demobilization tactics of the local authorities and the parallel indifference of the Administration.
A few types of distractions have become more clear in the wake of this event. One is that the demilitarization of the police, something for which I had a good word myself, is pretty superficial. You have a disenfranchised, impoverished community being preyed on by local elites and beat on by racist, not-even-professional cops. That they have tanks is beside the point. Michael Brown did not fall victim to a tank.
The other distraction is the default objections to violence and the obligation of the police to do something about it. There will always be anti-social elements at any agitated, mass gathering. The job of the police is to let people do what is legal and arrest people who do things that are illegal. This does not imply mass punishment in the form of tear gas assaults on undifferentiated crowds of people. Not letting people assemble is illegal. Pointing guns at people is illegal. Shoving them around for non-violent assembly is assault; it’s illegal. The police ran riot. They didn’t prevent disorder, they preserved disorder.
Unfair? Inaccurate? Feel free to weigh in.