Hot summer in the heartland

Any decent American who has been paying attention has to be wondering what in the holy fuck just happened in Ferguson over the last couple of weeks.

No, not what mainstream media reports keep referring to as the “rioting,” which was in fact angry but overwhelmingly peaceful protests interspersed with a few outbreaks of moderate vandalism and looting. Anybody  familiar with the recent history of rioting in Western countries knows that the damage caused by hooligans in Ferguson this month was quite limited in scope and quite vigorously challenged by other private citizens, to the extent of vigilantes forming human chains in front of businesses targeted by looters. There were no fatalities and practically no arson damage. There were a couple of shootings, but the victims were promptly hospitalized. Some journalists had camera equipment stolen by opportunistic thieves, but that happens easily enough to journalists covering midnight basketball programs in Kansas City. There was no Reginald Denny redux. It seems that nobody’s car got torched by hooligans, so if I’m doing the math right, Ferguson is still verging on a hundred cars shy of a proper French riot, and that’s just for the year. The United States has seen plenty of more destructive riots with much less community pushback over collegiate athletic upsets. In Huntington Beach last year, a horde of flatbiller yobs knocked over portapotties during a surfing competition just because.

The problem in Ferguson was with the police. The overbearing, disproportionate, and frankly out-of-control nature of the police response to the protests was quickly recognized by pundits and political leaders from a wide swath of the political spectrum. At this point, the only people who won’t concede that there were problems with the police response are frankly the indecent. There isn’t even a consensus on the authoritarian “human biodiversity” racist right wing in support of what the cops did in Ferguson. If anything, the consensus among that claque of bigots is against the police, if tepidly so. But to argue that the police have unfortunately been debased and coarsened into violent security services because they’re forced to deal with a feral black criminal underclass is to concede that their military aggression is not admirable.

The people who are left defending the aggression of the riot police in Ferguson? We’ve seen them before. Some of them are other cops, jailers, law enforcement union officials, spouses, and sycophantic hangers-on, people whose morality is no different than that of gangland partisans cheering on the violence of the Bloods, the Surenos, Whitey Bulger’s crowd in Boston, concrete boot Italians, whatever. Others are paranoid racists with reactionary political affiliations: lie back and think of Apartheid South Africa, or of Birmingham and Selma, if you wish. Regardless of their personal hobbyhorses, most are bog-standard authoritarians of the sort who always end up on the morally wrong side of any fight between brute governmental force and its victims: the Tsarist secret police, the mukhabarat (if they can stomach the Islamic durka durka Mohammed jihad of it all), the Mossad, the CIA, the FBI at its worst, Jon Burge, Nancy Grace, Customs and Border Protection (but only when it’s being nasty to immigrants), the Cheka, any of the (preferably non-Communist) African tinpot dictators, the Gestapo, the Stasi, Erich Honecker’s crack riot troops during Kid Rock’s beloved summer of ’89. These people are obviously irrational, disordered, and twisted to support such overbearing state violence on behalf of thievish and meddlesome officials, but they do exactly that: parachute them into any dictatorship or junta, acculturate them to prevailing official bigotries, and they’ll reliably parrot the party line about killing Walesa, Pinochet, Snowden, the longhairs, the Tutsis, Emmanuel Goldstein, you name it.

It’s no wonder that they support the large part of the police response in Ferguson that was a batshit crazy hot mess. Mind you, I’m referring to a fairly small percentage of Americans; many US military veterans, for example, are gobsmacked by the lack of discipline and broken chain of command that were on display. But when an evil regime falls, there is always a rear guard of hardcore status quo ante partisans who make it through to the other side, into a discomfiting freedom. If their lost cause is the Honecker regime, they’ll probably keep their mouths shut out of embarrassment; if it’s the Lost Cause, the one with Davis and Lee and all the crackers, probably not so much. It helps to either be operating on a sunk cost fallacy (Why the hell did I send my fiance off to fight the damn Yankees? Billy, don’t be a hero, don’t be a fool for your life) or to have a direct financial stake in the continuation of the old regime (Ja, Wilhelm, es ist gut money in der DDR client state unter Herr Brezhnev; alternately, no, Mrs. O’Hara, I don’t suppose you do fancy chopping cotton). A little of both doesn’t hurt, i.e., a desire not to lose the readily plundered political order to which one has so far devoted one’s life.

In the Ferguson mess, these constituencies manifest themselves mainly in two forms: cop shop beneficiaries and paranoid racists who see race relations in the United States as a cold war about to go hot any minute. These are not mutually exclusive categories. Depending on one’s sensibilities, the financial gain available from hanging around the cop shop may be a pleasant cover for one’s own racial prejudice or outright bigotry, or alternately, Klan-grade law-and-order rhetoric may be a pleasant cover for one’s own desire to be a featherbedding apparatchik instead of making an honest living. For that matter, there’s no reason that each motivation might not cover for the other: highminded conceits about “public service,” “public safety,” “family values,” and sending one’s children to “good schools” in “safe neighborhoods” (the scare quotes aren’t entirely merited, but they’re merited enough) make for better self-esteem than admitting that one’s goal in life is in fact to live in St. Charles County while getting paid an above-market salary to tax-farm black neighborhoods in St. Louis County at gunpoint.

No one with a shred of decency can fully admit to benefiting financially from a job that at times involves gassing residential neighborhoods because the residents are fed up with their municipal government. That’s stone cold unto Dennis Rader. In a way, it’s worse: D. Lynn Rader admits that he gruesomely killed a bunch of people for shits and giggles. He isn’t living in Vaclav Havel’s idea of truth, but he’s a lot closer than many cops working in St. Louis County today.

Let’s be very clear. These protests are about a lot more than a local eighteen-year-old, hoodlum or not, getting shot dead by a municipal cop. Mike Brown’s killing was merely the last straw for a local citizenry at its wit’s end over chronic highway robbery by their city’s police force and chronic thievery by their city’s courts, all of it done on behalf of their city’s general fund in lieu of lawfully assessed and collected taxes. They were sick of a police force whose relationship to them was one of endless, often violent parasitism. They were sick of municipal cops using gratuitous allegations of jaywalking on side streets with minimal traffic as pretexts to bleed harmless private citizens of their scant to nonexistent savings. When one of these armed revenuers ended up shooting a jaywalker dead without obvious cause, of course they were angry; any sane neighbors would be. And of course they’d be pissed off about the same officer’s boss, the municipal police chief, waiting until almost a week after the fact to release a dubious surveillance video purporting to show the victim of the shooting stealing a pack of cigars from a convenience store and shoving a clerk, especially when the release of this video coincided with the naming of the officer who fatally shot this purported thief and was followed up by contradictory tales about whether or not the officer was aware of the shoplifting and battery report at the time of the shooting. Of course they’d be livid about this officer pacing back and forth in front of a man’s uncovered body in the middle of the street, barring a nurse living in the neighborhood from attempting CPR, and belatedly filing an almost blank incident report about the shooting, obstructing internal and external investigations on advice from his union.

By some accounts, this wasn’t even Darren Wilson’s first act of violence under color of authority, or his worst. Ferguson residents described him as a malicious busybody who enjoyed driving down practically deserted side streets, yelling at kids to get back on the sidewalk. A woman who said that Wilson maced her in the course of breaking up a fight told Don Lemon a much more disturbing story:

Woman: I was maced and I had come up to QuickTrip because they said I could use their sink. So I was trying to clean out my eyes with some water and one of the employees told me to go get some milk, because that would help. So as I was pouring milk in my eyes, the officers had come in and told me to get out.

Lemon: When was this?

Woman: This was like a month ago. I came outside and I was trying to pour milk in my eyes and Wilson told me if I poured milk in my eyes, I was going to be arrested. And I was trying to tell him that my eyes were burning because I was maced, but he told me to ‘Shut the F up.’ So, another man told me to get in my car and turn the air and put my face in front of the vents, so that’s what I did.

Lemon: So were you arrested? What happened?

Woman: No, I wasn’t arrested. When I got in my car and turned the air on and put my face in front of the vent. Wilson made me get out of the car and sit on the concrete and he took all my information and ran my name. And I was still trying to pour the milk in my eyes because I couldn’t see, and he’s telling me to ‘shut the F up’ and ‘sit the f down’ and I was looking at his name tag and I was telling myself that I would never forget who he was and what he did to me. And I prayed on it and I asked God to get revenge on him and I’m sorry this is the way it happened, but what’s done in the dark always come to the light, and I saw the news this morning—

Lemon: But you’re OK? Everything is OK?

Woman: I’m OK now. And I saw the news this morning when they released his name. I knew exactly who he was and I know who he is right now.

If her story is truthful, Wilson is an outright sadist. There is no excuse whatsoever for doing any of that to a person who is at that moment incapacitated by pepper spray and attempting to administer herself first aid. This woman posed no danger to Wilson or anyone else. If he was genuinely worried about what she’d do after flushing her eyes, he could have kept an eye on her. Upon her sworn testimony alone an arrest warrant could be issued against Wilson for stalking, uttering criminal threats, false arrest, and torture under color of authority. These are extremely serious allegations. They’re much less ambiguous than the allegations against Wilson in the Brown shooting.

This is a man described by his chief, Thomas Jackson, as a “gentle officer.” Chief Jackson, in turn, reports to a mayor, James Knowles III, who, in television interviews, has made the facially ridiculous claim that his city has no significant racial problems. Those two seem to live in a strange bubble. It’s telling that the now-famous Ferguson incident commander, Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, has publicly admitted to having strong and cordial working relationships with St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson and St. Louis County Police Chief John Belmar but a much poorer relationship with Jackson. Say what you will about problems with Johnson’s leadership or personality, about his being one to unnecessarily lock horns with colleagues and critics in the media, perhaps, but the problem here isn’t with him; it’s with the townie chief. Granted, Dotson looks constitutionally incapable of repaying a colleague’s ill will, but Belmar has a bit of an edge, arguably more than Jackson on first glance. The obvious inference here is that the one guy out of three whose character the captain has to diplomatically euphemize in public comments is a dog’s ass. The mayor, for his part, pinged my creep radar from the start in a way that Jackson didn’t quite achieve. No reasonable person of goodwill whose black constituents are up in arms over a white cop shooting a black kid goes on national television to say that his town doesn’t have a race problem. Some politicians saying such a thing would be batshit crazy; Knowles, by being slimy, dishonest, and evasive in a time of unprecedented crisis in his city, is worse.

Ferguson is a textbook rotten borough. A lot of outsiders looking in on its government this month have been baffled by the tenure of a majority-white city council, overwhelmingly white police force, shifty white police chief, and shifty Ross Douthat-like mayor in a two-thirds black city. Some have figured that it’s just civic inertia in a time of demographic transition. This is too charitable an explanation. There’s no way to issue three warrants per household in a single year without creating and intimidating a local fugitive underclass. These warrants inevitably end up falling disproportionately on black residents because blacks are disproportionately too indigent to pay fines and court fees. This environment of near-universal criminality among the local poor discourages voter registration and turnout. It inevitably breeds a popular feeling of servility and impotent rage. There’s no fundamental reason why a white guy couldn’t be elected mayor of a majority-black city of 22,000 by hitting the pavement and winning over black residents block by block. It would be hard but by no means impossible. But that’s not exactly how Knowles stays in power. It’s a stretch to say that he rules with the consent of the governed.

This would be equally true if he were black. Remember Bell, California, the Gateway Cities industrial shithole (but I repeat myself) with all the crooked elected officials who got caught paying themselves salaries in the mid-six figures and shipped off to jail? Remember its squat little mayor, Robert Rizzo, a guy not so much rotund as circular, who had to quit his job as a parking lot attendant at the International Surf Museum in Huntington Beach in order to serve successive state and federal prison terms? It turns out that Bell’s model of municipal crookedness scales up quite nicely in the crazy quilt of St. Louis County. The details are different but the morality isn’t so much. It’s no coincidence that this kind of official thievery so often takes root in postage-stamp cities and not in core cities like St. Louis or Los Angeles or even Tacoma. Tacoma’s backwaters include two notorious municipal speed trap rackets, Steilacoom and Roy, the former a territorial capital that hasn’t grown much since, the latter barely a village. The cobbled-together patchwork of bullshit local governments making up the Gateway Cities, stretching along the rail lines radiating out of the industrial southeast side of Los Angeles, includes not only Bell, a middling city by local standards, but also Vernon, a cluster of factories with its own rotten and vicious municipal government, one notorious regionally for intimidating dissident residents and playing games with residency requirements in order to design its own custom electorate of under 200. The Bell tradition of Italians and Latinos screwing over Latinos and probably some Italians and other Anglos didn’t raise any racial hackles; it was just appallingly shitty, rapacious government. Nor, I suspect, was the design of the Ferguson city government to screw over its black constituents; they just happened to be most of the vulnerable poor living under a municipal tax-farming racket, and so the racket took on nasty racial tones. It started out as a campaign to screw over the poor but ended up screwing over Cliven Bundy’s good friend and Whitey’s brother by another mother, the Negro.

And look at the brute force that three levels of government deployed in the face of mostly peaceful protests with incidental looting and violence in this rotten borough. Look at the lengths to which they went to corral the press. Major media outlets filmed police shoving and arresting journalists, cursing journalists out, pointing loaded assault rifles at peaceable journalists and private citizens on numerous occasions, going on patrol with their name tags removed, unlawfully shutting down a McDonald’s in the mid-afternoon, threatening journalists for filming them, corralling journalists in small holding pens, firing tear gas, ordering protesters to go home while blockading the routes from protest zones to their residences and then telling them to find alternate ways home that didn’t exist, expelling observers from Amnesty International, and mounting snipers atop armored personnel carriers with their fingers on the trigger. Private citizens and journalists working away from the press pen documented late-night tear gas attacks on residential neighborhoods, door-to-door raids, violent gunpoint detentions by police, and Jersey barriers blockading cul-de-sacs. By day, they witnessed Captain Johnson ordering and threatening the arrests of journalists and CNN support staff outing non-credentialed journalists to police. Some witnesses claim that cell phones were jammed and streetlights were turned off overnight. No proof has been furnished of the repeated police claims that Molotov cocktails were possessed, let alone used, by demonstrators. It’s a matter of public record that the FAA closed airspace over Ferguson to all non-law enforcement air traffic.

The very civil and decorous interludes in which Captain Johnson and his staff marched with protesters and talked with them as equals are only mitigating factors for the repeated outbreaks of police violence. They do not excuse what the police, including Johnson and subordinates in the Highway Patrol, did to protestors. Nor do they explain the truly bizarre press conference in which Johnson had a St. Louis County Police chaplain open with an invocation in Jesus’ name over a table of seized handguns.

If the last two weeks of police wilding had been reported out of North Korea, the United Nations would investigate. Damn the permanent veto, the United States deserves no less. My fellow citizens and I as Americans deserve no less.

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