The tear gas was practically 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 anti-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's been no police riot in Ferguson, Mo. -- not yet anyway (and hopefully never). But what is happening in the working class suburb just outside of St. Louis is, 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 much more tense, night after night, by brutal, bone-headed policing that makes one wonder if Birmingham's brutal Bull Connor has been re-animated.
I thought I was losing my capacity to be shocked -- but events in Missouri over just the last couple of hours have 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 nation gone mad with high-tech weaponry to keep its own citizens in line.
This afternoon, several hundred citizens who gathered on a public street, in broad daylight, to air their grievances over Brown's killing were met with a massive SWAT team, an armored personnel carrier, and men in camouflage pointing heavy artillery at the crowd. Two prominent credentialed journalists who tried to report on the event were arrested for a time, and there was a report that a state senator who questioned authorities about tear gas earlier was also in custody. All this as authorities continue to cover up the most basic information about what happened on the night Mike Brown was murdered.
The people in charge of a large American community are systematically shredding the United States Constitution tonight. It is 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 mid-sized 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 of have had tear gas fired at them (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 tonight. 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 Post's Wesley Lowery, an African-American, was slammed into a soda fountain. They were eventually released (one small step for mankind) and when Lowery was asked, is 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, the former Daily News intern who went on to become a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, said on Twitter: "I've been told to disperse and go to my residence..."
America's political traditions insist that the public has a right to know what its government is doing. This, too, has been ripped into a thousand pieces in Ferguson, Mo. The name of the officer who shot Mike Brown has been shielded from the public, and so have most basic facts of what occurred last weekend. A report from the medical examiner was censored to keep the public from even knowing how many times Brown was shot. What is Ferguson covering up?
There is a lot to talk about in the days and weeks ahead. For starters, authorities -- not just in Missouri but around the nation -- are going to need to explain the obscene (and obscenely expensive) over-militarization of American police departments, weaponry now aimed at the communities that these officers had sworn to protect and serve. Americans should not have to turn on their TV sets to see news that looks like it's coming from ISIS-held territory in Iraq or Kandahar, until we see the McDonald's arches in the background and realize that we are just 15 minutes from Busch Stadium. And there will need to be a massive conversation about community policing -- especially in Ferguson, a majority black community where 94 percent of officers are white -- but also anywhere where cops are seeing as suppressing communities instead of protecting them. And there must -- and one cannot emphasize this enough -- be real justice and accountability for the murder of Mike Brown.