Ferguson and protesting police

Unfortunately, there’s not much new about protests in reaction to overly eager policing, and there are many tragic, maybe criminal, endings that don’t generate protests as well.  In Ferguson, a small suburb of St. Louis, the police have clearly been ill-prepared to deal with mostly peaceful protests and scattered night rioting.  Above, protesters approach with their hands up, pleading for the police not to shoot them. This all follows a police officer’s shooting and killing an unarmed 18 year old African-American man, Michael Brown, on Saturday.

More generally, police overreaction, always in riot gear, has spurred more protest and additional national attention, affording opportunistic politicians who have never been near Ferguson to weigh in with their own favorite political points.  As if things weren’t bad enough anyway, local police dug even deeper, tear gassing a television news crew and arresting reporters.

Over the past fifty years or so, police in larger cities have gradually learned how to exercise control, sometimes vigorously and violently, without projecting an image unambiguously worse than those they are policing.  The images from Ferguson evoke comparisons to suppression of democracy movements in authoritarian countries, with the additional twist of a racial bias and inequality that is distinctly American.  Two-thirds of the 21,000 city residents are African-American, just like only 3 of the 53 police offices, and one of the six city councilors.

Concern about racial inequities is nothing new in Ferguson, but effective organization and advocacy may be.


So, what will come of all this?  How do protests about violent actually translate into policy changes?  Hint: usually, they don’t.  Remember, Trayvon Martin’s killing isn’t all that long ago.  That generated nation-wide protests of all sorts, the legal intervention of state government, and the trial (and acquittal) of the shooter.  If changes in gun laws or  community watch groups have followed, we certainly haven’t seen it.

At the moment, protesters are focusing on the City’s refusal to release the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown, pending an investigation and criminal charges.  But Ferguson residents–and others [including Anonymous]–already know the name, or at least they say they do.  But the name is not going to be what matters for very long.  If the shooter were a rogue in the department, protests of this volume and vigor could not have emerged.  Locals see Michael Brown’s death as a casualty of something larger, and national figures have followed that vision.

Protest about police policies leads to reform only when political mobilization follows.  In Los Angeles, the 1992 riots that followed the acquittal of the police who beat Rodney King, ultimately led to the retirement of longtime police chief Daryl Gates, a parade of new chiefs, a series of commissions, and a number of reforms.  Political figures intervened when they could because the sheer disruption of the riots made it difficult not to.  In New York City, the controversial stop and frisk policy lingered for decades.  Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio used opposition to the policy to mobilize voters, and delivered on his campaign promise to end it.

In Ferguson, the peaceful protests–and the riots–work if they force the issue of police conduct, and if they agitate or inspire locals to engage in other kinds of politics.  Getting the name released has to be part of a longer, more difficult process, to provoke meaningful change.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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