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Enough is enough in Ferguson

How they're doing police work in Ferguson, Missouri these days.
How they're doing police work in Ferguson, Missouri these days.
Scott Olson

Anyone familiar with the history of race and policing in the United States had to suspect from the beginning that the shooting of Michael Brown was not just a tragedy, but a crime. Yet presumption of innocence prevails and sober minds know both the need to wait for an investigation and the reality that we may never really know what happened that fateful Saturday in Ferguson, Missouri. But watching events unfold Wednesday night in the St. Louis suburb, there can be no doubt that what happened on August 13 was an outrage.

The local authorities clearly have no idea what they're doing, and higher powers from the state or federal government need to intervene before things get even worse.

The arrest of two reporters, Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post, with whom many of us in Washington, DC, are acquainted was neither the beginning nor the most important part of the outrage, but it drives home in a visceral way the extent to which the situation is being monumentally mishandled.

Police officers, for some unfathomable reason, were pointing guns at unarmed civilians at twilight.

Crowd control is a normal complement to any modern protest. And as I remember well from the late-Giuliani days in New York, crowd control sometimes gets heavy-handed when relationships between the police and the community are strained. But you do crowd control with horses, batons, and shields, not rifles. You point guns at dangerous, violent criminals, not people out for a march.

A number of wags have gotten mileage over the past few days out of joking that it's hard to tell if you're looking at photos of Missouri or Baghdad. But military veterans say the display of force from the cops last night went beyond any sound wartime practice.

Of course cops, like soldiers, must be prepared to use serious weapons from time to time. But there was no rioting last night in Ferguson. No looting. And it's difficult to imagine any scenario that would call for police officers to be dressed in the kind of military-style camo fatigues that are visible in many pictures from last night.

Lowery and Reilly were released soon after being detained, and the Ferguson police chief told Matt Pearce from the LA Times that the arrestor was "probably somebody who didn't know better."

That sounds about right. There were an awful lot of somebodies who didn't know better out on the streets of Ferguson last night wielding an awful lot of deadly equipment. Quite a few people have been injured over the past few days by rubber bullets and rough handling (although in a Wednesday press conference, a police spokesperson insisted that no one had been injured during the protests).

Wednesday night's outing ended for many protestors in a cloud of tear gas. In my experience, these "nonviolent" crowd-control tactics are a good deal more painful than people who've never been at the receiving end appreciate. There's no real reason they should be inflicted on demonstrators who weren't hurting anyone or even damaging property. We are lucky, to be honest, that nobody's been killed yet. But somebody who does know better needs to take charge. And soon.

The state's governor, Democrat Jay Nixon, spent the early evening tweeting about an education policy dispute in the state legislature, and was MIA on the issue at hand as events unfolded.

A bit after midnight local time he finally released a tepid statement, saying "I ask that members of the community demonstrate patience and calm while the investigation continues, and I urge law enforcement agencies to keep the peace and respect the rights of residents and the press during this difficult time."

But it is clear at this point that local officials in the town of Ferguson and St. Louis County don't know what they are doing. Of course people will not be calm while police officers charged with protecting them trample their rights.

The governor needs to either step in and ensure — not urge — that law enforcement do its job properly, or else to appeal to the federal government to come in and take charge. Obama and his team are, with good reason, reluctant to see the president involved in highly racialized controversies. But what happened last night on the streets of Missouri was a national disgrace.