Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Ferguson's Outsiders Protest Too Much

Listening to news reports is one thing.

Being an eyewitness is another.

So last night, at around 10:15, I was checking the news online, and saw a banner teaser with live video from Ferguson, Missouri.  And like a fly to a light bulb, I clicked on it, to see what was going on.

The clear, digitally-vivid feed was being provided by KSDK, the local NBC affiliate in St. Louis.  At the scene, brightly lit by street lamps, television camera lights, and police spotlights, from the comfort of my air-conditioned bedroom, I saw a full line of police officers stretching across five lanes of West Florissant Avenue, the street that has become Ground Zero for demonstrations against police brutality in suburban St. Louis following the death of Michael Brown.

As the news crew's camera panned around to show the crowd of protesters, I heard one of the reporters estimate their numbers at no more than a couple of dozen.  Several reporters commented that there appeared to be more media personnel at their location than demonstrators.

It all made for boring viewing, and I was thankful to find that things were so quiet in Ferguson.  I was wondering what kind of impact all of these demonstrations were having on the local businesses, and the residents who lived on the side streets.  Having police helicopters overhead night after night couldn't be helpful for getting a good night's rest.  Unpredictable patches of violence couldn't be conducive for encouraging shoppers and diners to patronize the many businesses lining West Florissant Avenue, either.

During the course of the evening, as if they were reading my mind, I heard the reporters for KSDK commenting on how an estimated two dozen businesses had been looted over the past week or so, while several other businesses had boarded up their intact windows to try and prevent being a victim of the same fate.  KSDK's reporters also commiserated about a growing chorus of complaints from neighborhood residents, who have reportedly become increasingly vocal about being either trapped in their neighborhoods, or prevented from getting home, because of the haphazard nature of the demonstrations.

Okay, so that answered that!

I was about to leave KSDK's live video feed when, suddenly, a group of police officers, who'd been standing pretty much at attention in their line across West Florissant Avenue, suddenly lunged towards the camera.  Theirs was like a precise surgical strike, snatching somebody - one of the demonstrators - and then quickly folding back into the line, returning to their straight, somber formation.

"What was that?" KSDK's anchors back in the news studio were asking their reporters on the scene.  "What happened?"

Nobody seemed to know.  But the demonstrators who were left didn't act particularly upset.  They must have agreed that the police action was justified.

A few minutes later, the same thing suddenly happened again, and this time a bystander told a reporter that somebody had thrown something at the line of police officers.  Unprovoked.  So that helped to explain why that group of officers surged forward from their line of formation, enveloping their suspect, and quickly retreating back into formation.

By this time, several black men who'd been pacing back and forth in front of the demonstrators appeared to realize that it was in their best interests to try and call it a night before things escalated any further.  One of the men, identified by reporters as a local minister, tried to encourage the demonstrators to follow him away from the police line, ostensibly on to their homes.  But nobody followed him.  It must have been pretty embarrassing for that courageous minister.  I wondered to myself what it must be like to announce in front of a gaggle of television cameras that we were leaving, but nobody followed.

Another black man, an older one, with thin ropes of chains around his neck, appeared, and was identified by a reporter as a longtime civil rights activist in the neighborhood.  He talked with a reporter, and assured him that he'd been negotiating with the cops, and there would be no violence tonight.

Isn't it doubtful that these folks would have been in front of the media's staging area, and would have presumed to wield influence over this crowd, if they knew they didn't?  They acted as though they represented the protesters, and presumed that the demonstrators knew who they are, and would respect their posture of significance.

Strictly judging from appearances, the crowd itself was an eclectic mix of blacks and whites; the blacks were of assorted ages and body styles, but the whites were almost all young and fit, sporting an affinity for grunge-looking apparel.  Almost all of the cops, meanwhile, were white - I saw one young black officer - and many of them appeared to be on the pudgy side.  But then again, their bland, grayscale-colored polyester uniforms weren't exactly projecting a crisp profile for any of them.

As a KSDK camera placidly panned the line of policemen stretched across West Florissant Avenue, it became obvious that most of the officers had begun to focus their gaze on something taking place off in the distance, down the avenue.  The camera operator noticed it too, and turned to see what was catching the attention of the police.  There was smoke rising in the distance.

Almost as if on cue, the camera panned back to the line of policemen, and there, front and center, was a tall, distinctive officer, Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol.  His face was fixed towards the smoke rising down Florissant Avenue, and he appeared to be giving some rapid-fire instructions to some other officers who, once he'd said something, would individually peel back, through the line of officers, ostensibly on their way to perform whatever task Johnson had just given them.

Before too long, the unbroken line of police officers parted, and SWAT trucks and about a half-dozen white Suburban police vehicles charged through the line, and raced down the avenue towards the smoke.

KSDK reporters could see at least one small fire burning on some pavement down the block, and a trickle of people who'd apparently been demonstrating in the region of the smoke began to make their way up the avenue.  They were running, stumbling, their eyes watery, a telltale sign of tear gas.  Soon, the cops at the line back at the media area began putting on their gas masks, and two reporters had to flee to their cars to escape the gas being blown up the avenue by the breeze.

Eventually, reporters deduced from a variety of their sources that shots had been fired further down the avenue, some private property had caught on fire, and that tear gas had been used to disperse a crowd of demonstrators down there.  One of KSDK's cameras caught the scene as a pickup truck full of young people - mostly white, but a few blacks - was pulled over by the police, and everybody on board - the pickup's bed was full of young people - was arrested.  Police could clearly be seen removing from the truck some sort of metallic canister of something.  Nobody from the pickup resisted their arrest.

Today, we've learned that 78 people were arrested late last night and early this morning in Ferguson, which is proof that somewhere, at some point, a lot more people joined the demonstrations than were at the original staging area being monitored by KSDK.  And of those 78 arrests, only four people were Ferguson residents.  Eighteen of those arrested were from out-of-state.  Most of the arrests were of people who lived someplace within the St. Louis metropolitan area, but not Ferguson.

That was another trend being discussed by KSDK reporters, even while events were unfolding last night.  Some neighborhood activists who live in Ferguson had begun to suspect that much of the protracted disturbances afflicting their hometown were being perpetrated not by locals, but by activists and agitators from beyond Ferguson who were just out for kicks.

For Ferguson residents who believe they have a legitimate complaint about police aggression, doesn't such infiltration by non-locals seem like a mockery of what Ferguson's blacks want to see changed?

Judging by the video of Ferguson's "finest" firing tear gas at the Al Jazeera news crew last week, it certainly seems like there's a legitimate dialog that needs to take place regarding how the city's police do their job and interact within their community.  But if you don't live in Ferguson - shucks, if you don't even live in Missouri - what claims do you have against Ferguson's police department?

You believe in civil rights?  Well, plenty of civil rights activists are pleading for calm in Ferguson.  It appears likely that a grand jury will hear the evidence against the police officer who killed the young Michael Brown.  The world is aware of what's been going on in Ferguson, a respected black law enforcement professional is in charge of keeping the peace in Ferguson, the President of the United States is appealing for calm, and apparently, protesters are being trucked in... to do what?  Exploit the opportunity to flirt with irresponsibility in front of a restless group of reporters and live-feed cameras?

From what I saw last night, this is no longer a black versus white situation.  Many of the demonstrators no longer want justice.  They seem to want anarchy.

Yeah, like that will help fix anything.

Hey, Ferguson's outsiders:  Thou dost protest too much.

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