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The Authoritarian Divide: Reflections on Ferguson

“I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me.” says Sunil Dutta, a 17 year veteran of the Los Angeles police department. Having weighed in on the recent protests taking place in Ferguson, Missouri, Sunil responded to the controversy by authoring a column published Tuesday in the Washington Post; the position of Sunil’s article effectively being that disagreeing with an officer instantly puts you in the wrong and that any subsequent violence becomes the fault of the civilian. Michael Brown, the 18 year old black youth that was shot down in Ferguson last month, has become the catalyst for both an intense series of protests as well as a seemingly endless rally of criticisms and defence- an national conversation in which Officer Dutta has become the most recent participant. As the evidence continues to pour in, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Brown was a victim of police brutality in the highest degree. Eye witness accounts, and now an autopsy report, both conclude that Brown was most likely in the process of surrendering when he was shot 6 to 8 times- twice in the head. Regardless of the events which may have transpired beforehand (which eyewitness accounts are continuing to describe as an act of aggression on behalf of the police officer), shooting a suspect when they are trying to surrender amounts to murder.

I do not believe that this is a case of racially motivated murder, as some have portrayed it. It would be too simple to describe this problem as a consequence of racism. Instead, I think that this is revealing of a deeper problem that continues to plague society- that of the increasing divide between police and the rest of the public. Instead of protecting and serving, police forces everywhere have become focused on enforcing and subduing (a mentality that is being encouraged from the highest levels of power). When was the last time you spoke to an officer who wasn’t in the process of reprimanding you for one thing or another? While I’m sure that many would say they’ve had pleasant interactions with police, there are many more (more so in lower income communities) whose only interactions involve some form of confrontation.

Consider the equipment that police forces utilize. Since 2011, the Pentagon has offered to provide military grade hardware to police forces throughout the country. Protesters who may once have faced riot shields and blare horns now find themselves squaring off against tanks, military grade assault rifles, and in some cases drones. When I first saw pictures of the police response to the protests in Ferguson, I thought I had mistakenly fallen upon photos from Iraq or Afghanistan. What effect does this have on the balance of power between the authorities and the rest of society?

A free and democratic society should maintain a balance between those in power and average citizens. This balance exists so that corruption and abuse can be minimized, and change can be brought about without bloodshed or violence. However as police continue to acquire more sophisticated methods of disruption and elimination, what chance does society have to confront those in power when they act against their interests? I support a drone strike against a terrorist insurgent who threatens to murder innocent civilians but I cannot condone tanks and other heavy machinery being used against protesters who are merely exercising their legal rights.

Perhaps most concerning is that this isn’t a problem caused by any one person. This is a product of a system that has become paranoid from perceived threats and has become obsessed with the idea of security. As a result, the police are now viewed as an outside force that exists only to intimidate and be feared. An overwhelming number of writers describe the events as a clash between to opposing and entirely separate forces- the police, facing off against the residents of Ferguson. The reality is that many of these officers live in Ferguson or nearby communities. However a culture of alienation has so distorted our perceptions that we can only see them as the menacing storm troopers that have been so often described in science fiction.

Regardless of what may have transpired beforehand, Michael Brown was an 18 year old kid who didn’t deserve to die. This conversation has evolved beyond the actions of one officer who displayed poor judgement, but rather involves an entire community that feels cheated and abused by the very people who are supposed to protect it.

– Alex Regimbald

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