Ferguson: Where Little Boys Get Big Guns

Police in riot gear watch protesters in Ferguson, Mo. on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. On Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, a white police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in the St. Louis suburb.
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

National headlines for the past several days have focused on the quiet suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, and its police force is under intense scrutiny for its actions this week.

This has prompted Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to remove Ferguson police from command of the situation and give control of the crowds to Missouri State Troopers in a statement this afternoon.

It started Sunday evening, when Ferguson police shot dead an unarmed 18-year-old African American man named Michael Brown in a confrontation with police.

Little is known about the death of Brown, due in no small part to the lack of transparency by authorities in Ferguson and St. Louis county. What we do know is that he was unarmed and only 18 years old. Police have yet to release the identity of the officer who shot him, which should be public information. They won’t even release crucial details from the autopsy report, like how many bullets struck him, which should also be public information. Reports state that authorities have been slow to interview key witnesses and slow to meet with Brown’s family.

The outrage over Brown’s death sparked protests and riots, laying bare longstanding tensions between the predominantly black community and a police force with a remarkable lack of diversity.

Indeed, in a community that is 68% black, the mayor and police chief are white, and more than 94% of the city’s police force is white.

According to data from the Missouri attorney general’s office, although blacks comprise less than 70% of the population, they made up of 86% of all individuals stopped by the police, 92% of all people searched by the police, and 93% of all arrests.

This disparity reflects deep racial division between a population and its police force that is tough to stomach in 2014. But beyond the startling examples of racial tensions in modern America lies a story of the danger that exists when small-town cops get their hands on big-time military gear.

As Business Insider’s Paul Szoldra points out in this great write-up, the response of Ferguson’s police force to the unrest in the streets shows the stunning militarization of America’s police.

Police are rolling in war gear with heavy-duty weapons, armor, tear gas, gas masks, and more ammunition than they would ever need in an American community.

Here’s Iraq veteran and Obama administration official Brandon Friedman on Twitter:

One thing that makes these cops in their war gear tough to take seriously is their uniformity. In actual war, guys know what they like on their gear when they go out. Some strip down their rifles completely, some go with a broomstick handle, some use a bipod. Few guys in the military wear two knee pads. When you kneel, you only usually put down your dominant knee. Why would you ever need to go down on two knees? And for that matter, why would Ferguson police need to kneel at all?

The cops don’t know what they’re doing. They’re playing dress up, but with real bullets and with real lives.

Recent images have even shown police aiming weapons indiscriminately at the crowd.

A member of the St. Louis County Police Department points his weapon in the direction of a group of protesters in Ferguson, Mo. on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. On Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, a white police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in the St. Louis suburb.AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

Images also show police driving in up-armored mine resistant vehicles, designed to sustain heavy AK-47 fire and roadside bombs. When asked why, Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson said, "People are using bombs now, pipe bombs and so forth." So forth was presumably a reference to Molotov cocktails. But of all the images we've seen in Ferguson --- images of police in riot gear and tear gas canisters, posted by journalists from top news outlets or just citizens with a camera --- I haven't seen one image of a Molotov cocktail or pipebomb.

And even if those images did exist, police began their efforts with the armored vehicles and full military gear from the outset, it was not a reaction to anything.

Last night, watching the news coverage unfold, I traded tweets with Don Gomez, a Task & Purpose contributor who is in the midst of a combat pump to Afghanistan as a U.S. Army infantry officer.

“What's it like for you to watch this unfold from Afghanistan?” I asked him.

He replied with a quote from the film Full Metal Jacket.

“These are great days we’re living, bros. We are jolly green giants, walking the Earth, with guns. These people we wasted here today are the finest human beings we will ever know. After we rotate back to the world, we’re gonna miss not having anyone around that’s worth shooting.”

But in the world that awaits Gomez’ rotation back home, the world in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, police don’t have people around who are worth shooting, either. But that’s not stopping them.

There are reports of police telling journalists, "You guys are in the middle of a war zone."

But it’s not a warzone, it’s middle America in 2014.

There is also a CNN video that captured a Ferguson police officer yelling at the crowd,"Bring it, all you fucking animals! Bring it!"

The ironic thing is that if these guys were real soldiers, in a real warzone, in the modern military trained to conduct counterinsurgency operations, they wouldn’t do any of this shit.

As Szoldra notes, “If there's one thing I learned in Afghanistan, it's this: You can't win a person's heart and mind when you are pointing a rifle at his or her chest.”

Journalist Anil Dash tweeted a great summation of what police in Ferguson are doing wrong:

Brian Adam Jones is editor-in-chief of Task & Purpose. A U.S. Marine and Afghanistan veteran, Brian served as a combat journalist in the Marine Corps from 2009-2013. He lives in Harlem and studies political science at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter @bjones.

U.S. Army Astronaut Lt. Col. Anne McClain is captured in this photo during a media opportunity while serving as backup crew for NASA Expedition 56 to the International Space Station May, 2018, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. (NASA photo)

NASA is reportedly investigating one of its astronauts in a case that appears to involve the first allegations of criminal activity from space.

Read More Show Less
New York National Guard Soldiers and Airmen of the 24th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team (CST) and 106th Rescue Wing prepare to identify and classify several hazardous chemical and biological materials during a collective training event at the Plum Island Animal Disease Research Facility, New York, May 2, 2018. (U.S. Army/Sgt. Harley Jelis)

The Department of Homeland Security stored sensitive data from the nation's bioterrorism defense program on an insecure website where it was vulnerable to attacks by hackers for over a decade, according to government documents reviewed by The Los Angeles Times.

The data included the locations of at least some BioWatch air samplers, which are installed at subway stations and other public locations in more than 30 U.S. cities and are designed to detect anthrax or other airborne biological weapons, Homeland Security officials confirmed. It also included the results of tests for possible pathogens, a list of biological agents that could be detected and response plans that would be put in place in the event of an attack.

The information — housed on a dot-org website run by a private contractor — has been moved behind a secure federal government firewall, and the website was shut down in May. But Homeland Security officials acknowledge they do not know whether hackers ever gained access to the data.

Read More Show Less
A U.S. Marine with Task Force Southwest observes Afghan National Army (ANA) 215th Corps soldiers move to the rally point to begin their training during a live-fire range at Camp Shorabak. (U.S. Marine Corps/Sgt. Luke Hoogendam)

By law, the United States is required to promote "human rights and fundamental freedoms" when it trains foreign militaries. So it makes sense that if the U.S. government is going to spend billions on foreign security assistance every year, it should probably systematically track whether that human rights training is actually having an impact or not, right?

Apparently not. According to a new audit from the Government Accountability Office, both the Departments of Defense and State "have not assessed the effectiveness of human rights training for foreign security forces" — and while the Pentagon agreed to establish a process to do so, State simply can't be bothered.

Read More Show Less
The Topeka Veterans Affairs Medical Center (Public domain)

The Kansas City VA Medical Center is still dealing with the fallout of a violent confrontation last year between one of its police officers and a patient, with the Kansas City Police Department launching a homicide investigation.

And now Topeka's VA hospital is dealing with an internal dispute between leaders of its Veterans Affairs police force that raises new questions about how the agency nationwide treats patients — and the officers who report misconduct by colleagues.

Read More Show Less
Jeannine Willard (Valencia County Detention Center)

A New Mexico woman was charged Friday in the robbery and homicide of a Marine Corps veteran from Belen late last month after allegedly watching her boyfriend kill the man and torch his car to hide evidence.

Read More Show Less