Preparing for War, Not for Safety

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Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a “state of emergency” through an executive order on Monday, which comes 100 days after Ferguson officer Darren Wilson killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. Since Brown’s death, his family members, their supporters and Ferguson residents have organized for months, demanding accountability for Brown’s killing.

The declaration, which allows Gov. Nixon to mobilize Missouri’s national guard for 30 days, was made in anticipation of the public response to the state’s pending grand jury decision whether to indict officer Wilson.

Gov. Nixon asserted that the order was necessary “to ensure the safety and welfare of [Missouri’s] citizens,” but if mobilizing the state’s military force — an act that, by definition, anticipates war — is supposed to “protect civil rights and ensure public safety,” then we have to believe Missouri’s governor has a perverted sense of safety.

Gov. Nixon added: “I’m not preparing for war. I’m preparing for peace. I’m preparing for order and peace.” Peace, Gov. Nixon, is not imposed by the threat of hostile force. Mobilization reinforces the perception that the state is ill-equipped to mediate issues of racial prejudice and reactionary police practices.

A sliver of hope lies in the state’s recently appointed Ferguson Commission, comprised of 16 members of the Ferguson community and co-chaired by Rev. Starsky Wilson, a black minister active in the protests since Brown’s killing.

Assembled by Gov. Nixon, the commission will act as an independent body that will research the social and economic issues that led to the killing of Michael Brown and the reactions since. While the creation of the commission signals a desire to repair the relationship between law enforcement and the community of Ferguson, Gov. Nixon’s decision to mobilize the state’s national guard undermines the commission’s goals.

An article published by The Guardian revealed that, since August, the St. Louis Police Department has stockpiled more than $172,000 worth of riot gear, including tear gas, flash grenades, pepper balls and plastic handcuffs.

Arming for conflict does not send a message of reconciliation, nor does the action suggest a desire to mend the damage inflicted upon Ferguson. Rather, it perpetuates the awful irony of law enforcement using force to suppress a community’s anger over the police’s excessive use of force.

In response to public outcry, some Ferguson officers are now being asked to wear body cameras to keep police accountable for their actions, but the decision actually perpetuates the perception that police officers, unless monitored, are not to be trusted.

Racial profiling, which was likely a factor in officer Darren Wilson’s shooting and killing of Michael Brown, is an issue that cannot be resolved by a body camera. Though it will monitor action, the camera won’t reveal an individual’s insidious beliefs or prevent racially discriminatory laws and policies.

Mobilization, armament and surveillance are not the actions of a state and law enforcement committed to ensuring safety and upholding civil rights. These are the actions of a government operating through fear, but what does Missouri law enforcement have to fear?

Hands Up United, a community-initiated organization in Ferguson committed to ending state-sponsored violence, mass incarceration and the criminalization of black and brown people, has proposed that Missouri state officials provide 48 hours of advance notice before the grand jury makes its decision in its “Proposed Rules of Engagement.” The organization has also requested that Ferguson law enforcement, as a rule, not use specialized riot gear, armored vehicles, rubber bullets, rifles and tear gas, but no official agreement has been provided by the state.

Like Gov. Nixon, Hands Up United anticipates the possibility of violent unrest following the grand jury’s decision, but unlike Nixon, its first priority is the preservation of human life, not the imposition of order by military force.

Arguably the most disturbing aspect of what has transpired since Brown’s death is the complete and utter lack of accountability on behalf of Ferguson’s law enforcement.

In an Atlantic article titled “Reparations for Ferguson,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote: “the destroyers of your body will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.” In the case of black and brown bodies, Coates is correct — consider the recent cases of Oscar Grant, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin.

Let us hope, in this case, that he is wrong.