Optics in Ferguson: does committing violent crimes on protesters under color of authority make us look bad?

Uh, yeah. It does.

That gift is about to keep on giving. Governor Jay Nixon has already preemptively declared a state of emergency for the announcement of the St. Louis County grand jury decision re: Darren Wilson. The assumption, and a prudent one at that, is that shit will hit the fan if he’s no-billed. The thrust of the “no justice, no peace” chants is a demand that Wilson be indicted for homicide, and I doubt that the county grand jury will indict him. The Ferguson Police have done almost nothing right since Wilson shot Michael Brown, but the facts of the shooting itself are really muddled.

The Ferguson protests, of course, are about a lot more than Michael Brown, even if the other grievances expressed tend to be inchoate. Ferguson is a criminally misgoverned city, its government little more than a municipal tax-farming racket. This is true of many, perhaps most, other cities in St. Louis County as well. The Brown shooting is peripheral to the local political situation, but it’s relevant. Many people assume that Darren Wilson was a trigger-happy thug, a contention that has not been disproved by the facts of the case. It is, however, a matter of videotaped public record that after the shooting Darren Wilson paced back and forth around Brown’s body while it lay in the middle of a residential street and that he and other officers conferred extensively at the scene without removing the body. It’s a matter of public record that Brown’s body was left on Canfield Drive for four hours after the shooting. Meanwhile, the same police department whose officer fatally shot him is notorious for running a municipal citation and bench warrant racket and failing to respond promptly or seriously to citizens’ calls for assistance. So in a way, Michael Brown is just a proximate object lesson in what could happen to anyone in Ferguson who upsets the wrong cop, especially anyone who is black.

The violent police response to the protests did a lot to confirm residents’ belief that they were dealing with a brutal, racist police force. The first few days were a raging clusterfuck. Things settled down for a few days after Ron Johnson was appointed incident commander, to the point that it often looked like an inflection point leading to real dialog and civility had been reached, but then the police resumed most of the brutal martial law tactics that they had initially used and added a “static assembly ban,” and it became sadly clear that Johnson was unwilling to enforce proper command discipline on his cops. Worse, it became clear that he was an active part of the problem. He was observed pointing at journalists and ordering their arrests. He chided journalists at a press conference for sneaking out of the press pen to report on what his officers were doing in parts of town from which the press had been banned. Within two weeks of his appointment to public incident command, he was showing himself to be a rising dictator.

One local woman being interviewed about Johnson’s performance as incident commander and community-police liaison made a comment about “Uncle Tom-ass brothers.” She was right, but only obliquely right. The Ron Johnson Show was about race, but it was really about caste.

First of all, Whitey’s less well-connected constituents have a lot to fear from a police force that comports itself like the police in St. Louis County do. We have less to fear than blacks, maybe a lot less, but even for a white person without connections, dealing with ill-disciplined, predatory cops is no joke.

Really, though, the key thing to understand about Ron Johnson is that he’s a cop. When Governor Nixon publicly named him as incident commander, people immediately started stumbling over each other to pass him off as something transcendent. He was touted as a Ferguson kid from the neighborhood done good, even though he wasn’t really raised in Ferguson. It was assumed that, as a black man, he’d understand the problems facing Ferguson’s mostly black residents. This was reasonable, up to a point, but he had long before moved to a wealthier, whiter part of North County, and even his own childhood and early adulthood, as the college-educated son of a solidly middle-class couple, were stable and prosperous beyond the hopes of many people living in Canfield Green. Johnson and his wife were bougies who had made the North County society pages.

None of this is to say that Johnson’s background made him constitutionally unable to relate to poors living on Section 8 vouchers in the banlieue. To his credit, he had some genuine successes in liaising with private citizens and community members, and from time to time he managed to maintain proper discipline over his wild multiagency police force.

That said, he was never what he was made out to be. At the moment of his appointment, Ferguson was blown at warp speed through a wormhole into the Land of the Magical Negro. Few people were willing to stand up and say, look, he’s just the local statie commander, sure, maybe he’s up to the job, and he looks pretty savvy, but all he is is the commanding officer of a Highway Patrol troop. Instead, the consensus was amen, brother Moses, lead us into the Promised Land. This is never a wise way to deal with the cops.

Being politically savvy, Johnson played right into this meme. When he and his officers had taken criticism from the media for reverting from standard dress uniforms to combat gear, Johnson guilt-tripped reporters with a story about going home the previous night to a stone silent wife who proceeded to castigate him for endangering himself by not wearing his bullet-proof vest. Here was a city on the verge of civil war with its police, and the incident commander was devoting press conference time to a sob story about how his wife had put him in the doghouse and it was the media’s fault.

Wow Much martyrs Such christlike Very passionplay. But the hubbub surrounding Johnson’s appointment was a setup for exactly such a manipulative guilt trip. Investing so much prestige and such high expectations into any one person sets the stage for blind authority worship, and authorities who are blindly worshiped quickly go bad on those they lead. The Ferguson mess should never have been about Ron Johnson. He was one police commander who had a duty to keep the peace and force his cops to get a grip on their behavior. For what he did right he deserved praise, and for what he did wrong he deserved criticism. Maybe the criticism for resorting to paramilitary defensive gear was wrongheaded, but his wife had nothing to do with it. Ferguson incident command duties involve Captain Johnson the police commander, not Mr. Johnson from down the street whose wife is upset with him over some shit. Nobody dragooned him into commanding a Highway Patrol troop. If he doesn’t like journalists asking him impertinent questions, he can always retrain to be a truck driver or inquire about franchising opportunities at Dunkin’ Donuts. After all, he already knows the customer base.

****

Here’s where it gets really weird. Johnson’s command has been fraught with all this meaning having to do with race and self-determination and community and local vs. state control of the police, but it’s unclear that his particular status as incident commander ever had any real meaning.

This is the kind of police story that only Rod Serling could properly tell. There’s a weird aura of Johnson, Sam Dotson, and Jon Belmar not being individual police commanders so much as avatars of the same police god. They seem to occasionally emerge from or recede back into the same hydra. They look different, they talk differently, they act differently, but a look at what they’ve actually been doing gives them the eerie appearance of being interchangeable parts of the same supraorganism. I first started wondering about this shortly after Johnson’s appointment, when Belmar and the St. Louis County Police were said to have been sidelined by the Johnson and the Highway Patrol on the governor’s orders because they’d screwed the pooch, but they kept reappearing. Later on, Dotson, normally a refreshingly straight shooter at press conferences, plunged into weaselly police Newspeak about outsiders showing up to protests to interfere with free speech by voicing illegitimate grievances. He seemed to think that there was some kind of binding police-activist consensus legally dictating what was permissible and impermissible to say at protests, but I couldn’t say for sure that he wasn’t making an incoherent reference to hoodlums or criminal provocateurs. Whatever he was trying to say, it was kind of disturbing.

Then there’s the continued presence of Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson in this awful fray. Johnson has gone on the record diplomatically indicating that he doesn’t get along with the guy, and I doubt that anyone on his command staff has any use for Jackson and his mewling and treachery. Jackson, you may recall, is the one who released the video purportedly showing Michael Brown robbing a convenience store at the same time that he released Darren Wilson’s name. More recently, he made comments prior to a planned march alongside protestors about the latter being a “lynch mob.” This is a guy who has lost the trust of the citizens he’s sworn to serve and will never be able to get it back. He’s a worse-than-useless mini-Ceaucescu working for a rotten borough whose law enforcement duties have been substantially usurped by county and state police due to pervasive municipal dysfunction.

Yet he abides. Johnson, no shrinking violet himself, doesn’t have the guts to forthrightly order the chief to stand down, shut up, and stop provoking Ferguson’s citizens by making inflammatory public statements during a period of civil unrest. One of Jackson’s obvious purposes in releasing the convenience store video was to cause trouble for Johnson and his command staff at a time when they were making concerted efforts to liaise with aggrieved citizens. Johnson had no compelling reason not to tell Jackson that he was no more welcome around the protest areas than Ray Albers. This is basic command discipline. Jackson and the Ferguson Police Department had been stripped of their normal authority by gubernatorial order and placed under the command of the Highway Patrol. Functionally, this meant that Jackson was Johnson’s subordinate for the duration of the state of emergency. For the command structure to work properly, Johnson needed the latitude to reassign or remove from duty any officer who was insubordinate and disruptive.  He quickly recognized that Jackson was deliberately causing trouble for him and his officers by making public comments that were likely to provoke breaches of the peace. He appeared to want Jackson completely out of the picture until the protests calmed down.

In a functional command regime, Johnson should have been able to get Dotson, Belmar, Colonel Replogle, and Governor Nixon together for a conference call and laid out an argument for taking emergency disciplinary action against Jackson. As I’ve said, he had a strong case for immediately forcing Jackson out of the fray. This might have required dissolving or suspending the Ferguson Police Department, but keep in mind that Ferguson was already under a state of emergency on account of mass protests against its police.

I have to surmise that Chief Jackson is another head of the same hydra. This is a guy who can allow his police department to go feral and then stir shit up when the governor sends other agencies into town to clean house without getting his ass kicked to the sidelines.

****

About the hydra: In preparation for the post-grand jury protests, Johnson, Dotson, and Belmar have been appointed to lead a “Unified Command” responsible for riot control in St. Louis City and St. Louis County. Think of it as a trinity, if you like. Belmar, it turns out, is back in charge of riot control in Ferguson and looks secure in this position for the time being. Dotson, who over the summer had the honor of commanding one police department and cleaning up after two others, has riot control command duties around the sites of two separate police shootings in St. Louis: Kajieme Powell’s suicide by cop on the north side and the shooting of VonDerrit Myers Jr. by an off-duty cop moonlighting on a private security detail on the south side. Johnson’s role in the Unified Command is more diffuse, but it seems to involve integrating Highway Patrol officers from around the state into the riot control operation. Ironically, this will probably be the safest police duty that these staties will have ever had. Otherwise, they’d be driving all over hell in a season when snow and black ice are again starting to hit their state’s dangerous highway system.

I swear, you can pop these guys in and out of the command structure, even though at first blush they look nothing like each other. One of them is an unabashedly black guy who gets along perfectly well with white people. Another is an unabashedly white guy of Napoleonic stature, probably the whitest motherfucker in the city, who looks damn near at ease when explaining to a crowd of jacked-up black guys a foot taller than himself why his cops just fatally shot one of the neighborhood crazies. The racial angle here is important. Neither of these guys looks at other people as ciphers or gets awfully worked up about racial identity politics. This is precisely why they’re able to get along with people of other races and cultures.

Belmar is a bit harder to explain, especially for those who haven’t spent much time around the military, law enforcement, or the Boy Scouts. But if you’re familiar with the type, like Potter Stewart, you’ll know it when you see it. Speaking of obscenity:

[The officers] also agreed that the KKK is not a violent group that should concern the public or protestors, despite violent threats from someone purporting to represent the Klan.

“Let me handle this one,” Belmar said, when asked about those threats. “The only problem we’ll have if the KKK comes in is the hotels changing the bed sheets. They’re the biggest bunch of bed-wetters. Those guys are a bunch of punks.”

It pays to be wary of people who talk like that, especially when they have that rough Irish bearing. They’re mostly fit for polite society, but not entirely and not always. They’re just a bit too eager to degrade their enemies. Explicitly fantasizing on the record about hotel maids having to change the urine-soaked bedsheets (Klan reference much?) of cosplay racists, and he’s in charge of a major county police force? Mercy. These are people who are comforting to have on one’s side until they suddenly become scary to have on either side because, frankly, they have temper problems.

You’ve probably seen characters like Jon Belmar on Law and Order. It’s not that they’re necessarily bad people; it’s more that they seem a bit troubled. And Belmar isn’t some kind of intractable fuckup. He took a hard line on “self-deployment,” in which individual officers (including Lt. Albers, of point-blank go-fuck-yourself fame) go freelance beyond the purview of incident command. He made a very savvy comment about riot control backup: “If things went really bad, Kansas City Police is the closest we’d want. We wouldn’t want a hodge-podge.” What’s savvy about this is that Kansas City is arguably the only other city in Missouri whose officers have experience dealing with the black urban poor. Bringing in cops from small agencies in rural white areas could cause needless trouble. Larger agencies also tend to vet their officers more thoroughly and train them better.

****

The key thing to remember about all of these guys is that they’re members of the same caste. Jackson, too. They’re members of the warrior caste. They have a hard time turning on fellow warriors, and a much easier time turning on members of other castes.

As I said, this isn’t very much about race. It’s important to keep in mind that Michael Brown wasn’t a warrior by caste, but closer to a serf. Kajieme Powell had fallen into the realm of the untouchables. The Ferguson protestors? They’re mostly serfs, tradesmen, and merchants, going head to head with angry warriors. It looks deceptively meritocratic because these castes are not formally hereditary, but castes is what they are, or at least it’s what they’re becoming. Municipal police in St. Louis County are the latter-day heirs to medieval knights who rode through peasant fields and villages stealing crops, torching houses, murdering men, and raping women. Their outward purpose is different and they’re a lot more restrained, but they aren’t as different as they look. They have what it took to serve in the British imperial service at its most rapacious and brutal.

And they have backup from their colleagues. They have the support, maybe physical, maybe moral, from better cops working for better agencies. The wagons are circled. It is because they’re warriors. It’s their caste.

The rest of us already pay their salaries. Our support, however, is something that they should have to earn anew every day.

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