By Eapen Thampy, originally published at thegrimeygatsby.com
On the evening of Aug. 9, 2014, I came to Ferguson, Missouri, to stay with a friend who lived no more than three blocks away from the Ferguson Police Headquarters. We had plans to go into St. Louis that night, but with news of Michael Brown’s death our plans changed; we instead went down to the Canfield Green Apartment complex to join the community prayer vigil that we had heard was taking place.
I have been a student of America’s militaristic and repressive law enforcement policies for over a decade. I’ve seen paramilitary SWAT raids, riot teams violently dispersing crowds, and even the National Guard with their helicopters assisting on marijuana busts. Yet as we walked into the Canfield Green Apartment complex that night the scale of the law enforcement response was at least an order of magnitude greater than anything I had seen before.
As we entered Canfield Green, law enforcement swarmed the area with dozens of armored vehicles and police cars; the only thing you could hear above the police sirens was the rat-tat-tat of a helicopter above. The police drove over the street memorial that had formed around the site of Michael Brown’s last moments and began patrolling with heavy guns and aggressive dogs. It was a barbaric and utterly uncivilized way for a government to respond to a grieving family and a distraught community.
But we have been here before! To my black friends in St. Louis, the only thing that is different about Ferguson in 2014 from Birmingham in 1963 was the advanced technologies now wielded by law enforcement (and yes, also the citizenry).
But even racism is not enough to explain these evils; I do not reckon that racial hatred exists in the same way as it did in the 1960’s. We know that evil festers in the shadows, and the shade cast by Jim Crow’s specter was enough to birth Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs, which is where domestic law enforcement became detached from traditional notions of democratic, representative, and accountable governance.
This is an important point, and we have seen it demonstrated in so many ways since that fateful day: when it mattered the most, every level of government failed to do the right thing, partially because every level of government was complicit in this terrorism.
We know a path forward, however.
While they were not very representative of the country America was or has become, the insights of the Founding Fathers provide a template for individual rights as the cornerstone of our society, and this offers us some direction as we find our way forward. As America turned away from the world of Jim Crow, we forgot that the colorblind, bureaucratic expansion of government under every president from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama made the government terrorism in Ferguson inevitable.
It is not enough to enumerate the individual rights or liberties of all Americans in the US Constitution; we must actively seek to limit the size, power, and modalities of American government, from the federal to the local.
Federalism, that is to say the division of power between various levels of government, is important; we cannot allow our local governments to either run away from the federal law or to be commandeered by it. We cannot allow Congress to militarize our police departments, we cannot permit our law enforcers to answer to a federal master before they answer to the community which they serve, we must not abdicate our first duty as citizens of voting when we can and protesting what we must.
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