There are certain words and phrases that simply don't have a good history. I mentioned last week that some observers felt that Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon was being unnecessarily provocative when he used the term "uprising" -- a loaded word, as it was popularized during the era of slavery -- in an effort to warn off violence in Ferguson. The town is already on pins and needles this week awaiting word from a grand jury in the police-shooting of Mike Brown, an unarmed teenager.
The track record for the phrase "state of emergency" is also not particularly good. It's an extraordinary measure -- calling up troops and granting sweeping powers to a chief executive -- intended for extraordinary times. And such times certainly come -- natural disasters like a Hurricane Katrina or a Superstorm Sandy, for example. Politically, however, a "state of emergency" tends not to be good. Before today, the most recent "state of emergency" in the news was in the African nation of Burkina Faso, where a dictator invoked it in a desperate (and unsuccessful) bid to cling to the power he'd held for 27 years. It was a "state of emergency" panel that tried to oust Russia's Mikhail Gorbachev in an anti-reform coup as the USSR collapsed in 1991. Historically, a "state of emergency" is when civil liberties get tossed out the window.
Today, Missouri's Nixon declared a "state of emergency" in Missouri -- a move that allows him to press the state's National Guard soldiers into duty, immediately. This, despite the fact that there's currently no unrest or violence in or around Ferguson or greater St. Louis, and there's not even official word on when the jury will decide the legal fate of Officer Darren Wilson, who shot Brown on Aug. 9. At first blush, his order seems a little less Sandy and a little more Burkina Faso.
In one sense, you can appreciate the bind that Nixon is in. There's no reason to doubt that the governor sincerely wants to avoid violence in his state. And he does need to be proactive rather than reactive -- mindful of the fact that there was some sporadic violence, including looting and a fire that burned down a convenience store, amid the overwhelmingly peaceful protests after Brown was killed. But if preventing violence is indeed his goal, is seems like -- so far, anyway -- he's doing it all wrong.
Police officers in Missouri have undergone extensive training, focusing on conflict and, presumably, how to de-escalate situations. Maybe Nixon should have gotten that training, too, because his grim message, his ill-advised language and his insistence that a social problem in his state demands a military solution are adding up to make tensions a lot worse. The social network of activists erupted after Nixon's untimely declaration today -- and that should have been no surprise.
The state senator who represents Ferguson, Maria Chappelle-Nadal, wrote President Obama tonight urging him to assume control of the deployment from Nixon, writing that she was worried over the "potential for an incident similar to Kent State." A lawyer for Mike Brown's family, Anthony Gray, said the governor is "preparing for war and not necessarily for peace."
The outrage here is more than merited. The people of Ferguson, and people all over the world, are still talking about social injustice. Nixon is talking military deployment. What we have here may be the ultimate failure to communicate.
What Nixon really doesn't seem to get is that the people of Ferguson and other struggling communities in Missouri are living in a real state of emergency -- of crappy schools and police harassment and limited opportunity -- and not his contrived one. A militarized response isn't the answer to what people are fighting against -- it IS what they're fighting against. Whatever the solution is in Ferguson, it won't be a repeat of the guns of August -- the high-powered weaponry that was pointed at American citizens.