It was a relatively peaceful Tuesday night in Ferguson, Missouri, even as protests over the shooting of Michael Brown continued into their second week. Protesters engaged in peaceful chanting and displays, including some fairly playful demonstrations on a train. Police mostly watched on in silence.
But that all changed when a protester threw a water bottle at police, and officers called in the armored trucks.
Water bottle thrown. Chaos ensues. Not many protesters (more media than them). The few protesters left are just adamant and angry. #Ferguson— Ray Downs (@RayDowns) August 20, 2014
Riot police went after a few ppl hard after getting hit with water. Wasted no time Brought the armored trucks in. #Ferguson— Ray Downs (@RayDowns) August 20, 2014
The de facto leaders of the protesters, for their part, attempted to defuse the situation. They stood in a line between demonstrators and the police.
Police kept pushing. They aimed guns at protesters and media. They shot rubber bullets. They ordered people to go home. They made multiple arrests as protesters failed to disperse. Police told the media to leave. A photographer and other media personnel were arrested.
The good news is tear gas wasn't deployed, making it the first night without chemical weapons on the ground since the protests began. But, by several accounts, that was despite police action, not because of it. It seems, in fact, protesters did more to tame the situation through some self-policing of agitators.
Earlier in the night, reporters and activists were praising both sides for their restraint. Police, for instance, didn't line up in a confrontational military-like formation as they did in previous nights. Protesters who labeled themselves "peacekeepers" actively worked to prevent any agitation of the crowd, allowing people to march without confrontations with police.
All it took to break a wholly peaceful night was one water bottle.
Whoever threw that water bottle was in the wrong. With tensions high in Ferguson, everyone familiar with the situation knows that just one water bottle can lead to chaos. The Los Angeles Times's Matt Pearce noted as much earlier in the night.
There's been a couple moments tonight where a thrown water bottle could have escalated things.— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce) August 20, 2014
Some of that shows just how tense the situation is in Ferguson. After nights of violent outbreaks and tear gas, both sides are, with reason, on high alert.
But the fact a single water bottle can cause law enforcement to escalate the situation also speaks to what's been a persistent criticism of the police in Ferguson: that police are often turning themselves into the problem, not the solution.
Slate's Jamelle Bouie noted the trend on Monday night, when tensions again flared up as police, standing in an intimidating military formation, overreacted to a couple people throwing objects.
This has been the consistent pattern. Unilateral police escalation prompts minor response from more volatile elements, justifying crackdown.— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) August 19, 2014
This hasn't been the case every night. A small group of protesters, who are widely condemned by community leaders in Ferguson, have some nights engaged in violent behavior, including gunfire, throwing Molotov cocktails, and looting. But at least in the protest area, this wasn't the case for most of the night on Monday or Tuesday. The demonstrators in the protest area were overwhelmingly peaceful for both nights, yet police stood armed and ready.
On Monday, the scene was so ridiculous it sent CNN's Jake Tapper into an on-air rant. "So if people wonder why the people of Ferguson, Missouri are so upset, this is part of the reason," he said. "What is this? This doesn't make any sense."
That, of course, didn't stop police from charging in when one little thing went wrong.
These are police officers with body armor, semi-automatic rifles, and chemical weapons, backed by mine-resistant trucks. What harm can a water bottle really do?