Civil Liberties Under Assault in Ferguson As Police Attack Peaceful Protesters
Attorney Jessica Lee describes witnessing police launch unprovoked attacks on peaceful protesters and Glen Ford explains why discord in Ferguson is about more than the killing of Mike Brown
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
On Monday, protesters filled the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, after nightfall to demonstrate against the killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. At least 31 people were arrested and two were shot. This came after Missouri Governor Jay Nixon lifted a curfew in the area. But in an attempt to push the crowds back, police deployed noisemakers and armored vehicles while police officers fired tear gas and flash grenades at the crowd.
We reached Jessica Lee, who is an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, since she traveled to Ferguson as a human rights observer. She said she witnessed police attacking peaceful protesters.
JESSICA LEE, ATTORNEY, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: They were here to ensure peace and security. They did the exact opposite. What I saw was a line of police all the way up and down Florissant Street, which is one of the main thoroughfares in Ferguson and has been sort of an impromptu rallying space for people.
Now, the Street had been blocked off, as it has been for many nights, for people to protest. And people were just marching. There were families out. I was marching along with several hundred others. But I was in a mix with a group [who were there for a (?)] family reunion. They brought the kids down to participate in a protest. And it really was a peaceful. People were in high spirits, people were talking with one another, but this entire time were just surrounded by a swarm of police. And it quickly turned into absolute chaos and attacks on families.
It’s incredibly concerning for the right to assemble and the right to free speech. You know, there’s just no guarantee of safety here anymore. You can’t even walk down the street with a quiet crowd three hours before curfew. So you can’t do that. We don’t have any communication right now from the police to the crowds. And we weren’t warned at any point this was going to happen. And the consensus of the people who I spoke to while we were there was that because this was before curfew, and because the street was blocked off for this sort of activity, people thought they were safe. And since you don’t have that sense of safety anymore, there’s a real chilling effect on protests, which I think is violative of the right to assembly and the right to free speech.
And, of course, there’s other concerns that this press zone was hit by tear gas. The mainstream media is definitely going to be chilled in reporting. They’re going to step back, and there are going to be stories which simply aren’t being told because the press are also afraid for their safety.
The people here are doing really an incredible, incredible job at organizing themselves. I think on the outside everyone has a perception that there is looting and rioting. And the absolute vast majority of people are just everyday citizens expressing their frustration with what seems to have been a very, very long history of intense brutality by the police here. And they have organized at every level. I mean, there’s people who direct traffic around the areas of protests. There are peacekeepers who keep the crowds peaceful and happy and calm with one another. It’s just really at every level people are organizing themselves to stay safe, but also organizing to get the message out that there needs to be justice for Mike Brown’s death. And so I hope that story gets out, because it’s not what you see on the regular news. There are people working very, very hard who love their community and want to see it thrive.
DESVARIEUX: But the protesters in Ferguson say they are not going anywhere until there is justice for Michael Brown. A preliminary private autopsy of Michael Brown showed that he was shot at least six times, including twice in the head. His family’s lawyer said that the report supports eyewitness statements that he was trying to surrender.
Now joining us to get his take on these recent developments is our guest, Glen Ford. He is the cofounder and executive editor of the Black Agenda Report, and he’s a regular contributor to The Real News.
Thanks for being with us, Glen.
GLEN FORD, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, BLACK AGENDA REPORT: Oh, thank you for allowing me to be here.
DESVARIEUX: So, Glen, let’s start off by discussing the situation on the ground between the police and protesters. You heard what Jessica Lee observed on the ground. What do you think is important for our viewers to consider when they see images of these police clashes between protesters?
FORD: Well, there’s been a lot of made in the corporate media–and I suppose it’s a good thing that folks are talking about the militarization of the police, that the scenes that we see in Ferguson look like they might be in Gaza or in occupied Iraq when the U.S. troops were there. But they look like Gaza and they look like Iraq and they look like occupation because that is in fact what the police presence is in Ferguson and in black population centers across the United States and has been that way for generations. So there’s nothing strange about the police behaving and dressing like an occupation force. That in fact is their job.
We also get, I think, too much into the legalities of what happened to Mr. Brown. What happened to Mr. Brown was a direct consequence of the policing and incarceration policies of the United States. That’s why it happens two or three or four hundred times a year. That’s why the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s call for the Justice Department to do an investigation every time the police shoot an unarmed black man doesn’t take into consideration what the Justice Department’s capacity is. It would have to actually revamp the entire agency to respond to every shooting of unarmed black people, they are so numerous, and it would have to engage in a legal battle that would be constant with virtually every police department in the United States.
We’re talking about something that usually we call systemic, but we don’t explain what that system is. It is a system to contain and to act as an intake valve for mass black incarceration. And with regularity, that results in not just thousands of black folks going into prison per week, but a certain number of them get killed along the way.
DESVARIEUX: But, Glen, I want to go back to my original question about these clashes, because you’re going to have those that are saying that, you know, look at these classes, there are some people who are actually turning these protests as an opportunity to really loot stores and businesses and things of that nature. And you have folks like Al Sharpton, who has has been really calling for calm and told protesters to stop the violence and the looting, saying that such actions strengthened a smear campaign against Michael Brown. Doesn’t he have a point?
FORD: No, he doesn’t have a point, and calm hasn’t gotten us anywhere in the last 45 years. Yeah, we have to pick up a conversation that was interrupted in the late ’60s when this militarization of the police began, when black folks made or trusted in the newly emerging class of black politicians to somehow solve the problem of the conflicts with police, who were acting back then as an occupying army. Well, it doesn’t work that way. It hasn’t worked that way. Calm does not beget solutions. We don’t have unjust laws like back in the ’60s; we have an unjust order. And to shake up the order, folks have to break things sometimes.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. Alright. Let’s talk about something that happened over the weekend. The governor of Missouri, Jay Nixon, he actually was heckled at a press conference, and someone came out and said, excuse me, Governor, you need to charge that police with murder; that would bring peace. What is your reaction to that? Should that bring peace in your eyes?
FORD: No, it is an unjust order. Of course the policeman should be charged with murder. But what does that do? Does it stop it from happening the next time? Are we saying that the policeman who killed Michael Brown was some kind of rogue and that kind of rogue police behavior can be curtailed by making an example out of that policeman? Actually, that policeman’s behavior was right in tune with the behavior of police all across the country. They get impunity because it is sanctioned behavior. They are not rogue cops. If they were rogue cops, we could cull the herd. But they’re not. The whole herd knows what its job is, and that job is to bring pressure day-to-day against black populations.
And also, if we think that all this is about one killing, then that means that we’re making the assumption that as soon as this killing in this little town is solved, that the institutional problem goes away. It does not. We need to use this opportunity to take a long and hard and very painful look at the black community’s relationship with the larger society and its instruments of control, which are the police.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah. And these instruments of control, you say, the police and the relationship with the black community, now Amnesty International, the story just broke today, is sending a delegation of observers and organizers who–first of its kind to actually be deployed in the United States. What’s your reaction to that, Glen?
FORD: Well, that reminds me of the kind of embarrassment that the United States found itself subjected to in the ’50s and the ’60s as internationally it was trying to package itself as the fountain of democracy in the Cold War with Soviet Union and didn’t want to be embarrassed by revelations about its actual treatment of black folks. Well, we see that 50 years hence they still are and should be embarrassed at the way they treat black folks. And even Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch feel that they should get involved.
DESVARIEUX: So, as this story is developing, Glen, what should people really be demanding in your eyes? Can we speak to some specific things that people should be calling for?
FORD: Well, there are a whole host of demands that should be made, because we’re talking about an institution that goes to the heart of what the society is about. Certainly people will demand that there be more black police. But that’s no panacea. That’s no cure. We have large numbers of black police, certainly larger numbers than in previous decades, in cities around the country, and that does not stop the violence against black people. People will call for community review boards of police, and that is a righteous demand, and everyone should support that. But there are a number of cities that have community review boards of one kind or another, and that has not stopped the police from committing these kinds of atrocities on a regular basis. So reforms like this, just like the demand for swift prosecution of the particular officer in Ferguson, should always be supported, but there should be no illusions that that goes to the heart of the problem and that the problem will continue unless there is a wholesale reevaluation and reordering of the relationship between police and the community. And that’s very, very different than review boards and more diversity.
You know, in New Orleans, which now has a heavily black police department–not as black as it should be, but black policemen have been implicated in many assassinations and injustices against the black community. That’s no cure as long as the police, the black police, are under the same pressures, the same assignment, really, as the white police, which is to keep young black men in check by any legal means necessary.
DESVARIEUX: When you say “reordering”, what do you mean?
FORD: Well, one of the first demands should be that police must live in the community that they are supposed to be serving. But we see that goal, as righteous as it is, having been thwarted in most of the cities in the country; that is, you can’t mandate in most places that police even live in the jurisdiction that pays their salaries, much less in the neighborhoods where they do much of their work–or their dirty work.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Glen Ford, joining us from New York City.
Thank you so much for being with us.
FORD: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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