The Corner

The Grossly Exaggerated Militarization-of-Police Critique of Ferguson

It was ridiculous and wrong for police snipers to train their weapons on peaceful protestors in Ferguson. But, when you get right down to it, the militarization of police has had basically nothing to do with events there, even though the Left and parts of the Right have wanted to make that the main issue.

When Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, the officer was presumably wearing a typical police uniform and driving a typical police car. He either acted in entirely justifiable self-defense, made a catastrophic misjudgment after an altercation, or (in the extreme version of the protestors) shot Brown because he wanted to execute a black teenager. None of these possibilities have anything to do with the militarization of police one way or the other.

We’ve seen some witless heavy-handedness on the part of the cops, for instance the arrests of a couple of reporters at the McDonald’s last week. But some perspective: Cops were perfectly capable of being heavy-handed long before anyone gave them surplus military equipment. The scenario in that McDonald’s would probably have been exactly the same whether or not there were armored vehicles outside on the street or not.

Finally, there’s the argument that the militarized police were inciting the crowd. This wasn’t entirely implausible, although it seemed unlikely because it should be possible for lawful, well-intentioned people to restrain themselves from throwing things at cops whose uniforms and vehicles they don’t like. Sure enough, after a night of calm in the wake of the “demilitarization” of the police response and the insertion of Captain Ron Johnson, the lawlessness started right up again.

That led to the imposition of a curfew, which is the application of more state power, not less. Even it hasn’t been enough. You got a flavor of it last night from our Ryan Lovelace who is there on the ground. Here is how the L.A. Times summarizes it:

At least two people were shot Sunday night, and police were fired upon in street protests that have escalated since the Aug. 9 shooting of Brown by a white police officer in this largely black St. Louis suburb.

Police said there were signs of a pre-planned and coordinated attempt to disrupt the city and launch an advance on the police command post not far from the scene of the shooting.

“There were shootings, vandalism and other acts of violence that clearly appear not to have been spontaneous but premeditated criminal acts,” Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson told reporters early Monday.

“The catalyst was not civil disobedience, but pre-planned agitation,” he said.

At one point, a McDonald’s restaurant that has been near the center of the street agitation in recent days was overrun by unruly protesters, forcing employees to lock themselves in a storage room, Johnson said.

Not far away, police fired tear gas at a large crowd as protesters swept toward the main police command post, hurtling bottles and bottle rockets, he said. Authorities received reports of at least two people shot during the evening, though police were not involved in either incident. The extent of their injuries was not known.

“Based on these conditions, I had no alternative but to elevate the level of our response,” Johnson said.

So now Governor Nixon is calling in the National Guard, or in other words, “militarizing” the response. What Ferguson needs is the restoration of basic order, and the absence of it has never been the fault of the police, but of a small, lawless fringe of protestors bent on mayhem.

Rich Lowry — Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: 

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