Merlene Davis: Weapons aimed at Ferguson Mo., protesters reminded me of the 1960s

Herald-Leader columnistAugust 16, 2014 

What a difference a day makes.

Thursday morning I came to work complaining about the paucity of public appearances by Missouri's politicians representing the people of Ferguson, Mo.

On TV the night before, I had seen police dressed in combat attire, with automatic firearms trained on a crowd of demonstrators in broad daylight.

I saw armored personnel carriers with an officer on top swiveling a scary rifle at marchers protesting the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who had been killed by a police officer who may or may not have seen him as a robbery suspect.

The police were set to quell any riotous activities in the small city outside St. Louis with force similar to that used to eliminate al Qaida or the Taliban.

It was difficult to imagine that Missouri was still a part of the United States of America.

Had the disturbance happened in Lexington, Mayor Jim Gray would have been out in the thick of things, waving his arms and demanding everyone take a deep breath. At least I hope he would have been.

The evening ended with a few arrests, a lot of burning eyes from the tear gas, and a growing gap in the relationship between the demonstrators and police.

By the next morning, when I told co-workers how that scene brought back memories of black people in the Deep South being washed down city streets by blasts from fire hoses or bitten by dogs sicced on them by police during the 1960s, sanity seemed to have crept back into the situation.

The president called for calm; the governor replaced the battle-ready city and county police with highway patrol officers; and the local police chief agreed to bring a little more transparency to the shooting investigation, including releasing the name of the officer involved.

The scene in Ferguson on Thursday night was of peaceful demonstrations and only a small police presence.

That doesn't mean that community isn't still angry about Brown's death. They are. We all should be.

You cannot tell U.S. citizens they live in a country that allows dissent and demonstrations and then use military intimidation to force them to give up that right.

You can't have witnesses, on the one hand, saying a young black man was shot while his hands were in the air, and the authorities saying they don't have to share any facts.

You can't fire rubber bullets and tear gas at folks wanting answers while giving the shooter protection that goes against rules set in the law.

Haven't we learned that yet?

I don't understand why we are still treating black people differently. The young people of the Occupy Wall Street movement took over a New York City park in 2011 for several weeks.

There were hundreds of arrests and there were demonstrations that required a large police presence, prompting claims of brutality. In one case, several protesters were pepper-sprayed by an officer who was later docked 10 vacation days and transferred.

Tanks were nowhere to be seen, and police had to be close to demonstrators for pepper spray to be effective. The closer you get, the more you have to interact. The more you interact, the more you see one another as fellow human beings.

You don't have to do any of that if you can hurl tear gas from afar or you are sitting atop a tank. You can continue to operate under the idea that you are controlling an animal or something that is not equal to you or worthy of your compassion.

There was no compassion, no sense of shared humanity between police and residents of Ferguson before Thursday.

On Thursday, highway patrol officers walked side by side with demonstrators. There were no sightings of the armored vehicles or machine guns. The officers treated the demonstrators with respect, and that respect was returned.

"All they did was look at us and shoot tear gas," Pedro Smith of Ferguson said of police early in the week. "This is totally different. Now we're being treated with respect."

Didn't we learn that from the 1960s?

I can't imagine a volatile situation being handled more ineptly than the one in Ferguson. The situation was exacerbated Friday when police released more information about Brown than they did the officer who shot him.

Brown is suspected of taking a $50 box of cigars and roughing up a clerk. If he did, he should have been arrested and charged, not shot a few times with his hands up. That's what witness accounts said. Petty criminals don't deserve that.

No matter what happened, the residents of Ferguson should have the right to march and demonstrate peacefully without being treated like animals or terrorists. We all should be upset by that before the same happens to us.

It reminds me of the quote from the German theologian Martin Niemoller: "First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me."

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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