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What’s Happening in Ferguson?

by Steve Lenox

For much of the last week we have watched as law enforcement officials and the residents of Ferguson have literally stood against each other in a tense showdown, brought on not just by the tragic death of a teenager, but by what many feel is years, or decades, of divisiveness and will will. Perhaps what is most heartbreaking of all is that deep down the majority of both sides want the same thing, a stronger community where peace, justice, and equal rights for all prevails.

What we have seen unfold has raised several questions that need to be answered, including what type of weaponry and equipment does a local police department require to maintain safe streets and how willing are we to allow even the perception that individual rights have been violated in the name of crime fighting. These questions need to be answered not just for the sake of Ferguson but for the sake of the future of this country. Will we continue to be the home of the free or will we come either a police state, or on the other side of the spectrum, a lawless society?

As I write this, more than a week from the shooting of Michael Brown, there seems to be no end in sight to the struggle, brought on perhaps by a sense that with no justice there can be no peace. That feeling begs another question, is more violence ever an answer to violence? My family background and upbringing is a far cry from that of Michael Brown, and in no way can I even begin to understand what life is like in a place like Ferguson, so vastly different, economically, culturally, racially to my own New Jersey community. What I do know however, is that in communities across this country an intricate balance exists between community and law enforcement, government and citizenry, policymakers and those affected by how policy is enforced.

To my first question, how heavily armed and equipped does law enforcement really need to be? At the very least, it is clear that the manner in which police and equipment have been deployed in Ferguson has been aggressive. But, as the days have gone on, and some in the community have chosen to use premeditated violence in response to the enforcement of curfews, law enforcement has been forced to continue using offensive tactics in efforts to maintain some semblance of order.

In defending his decision to order the firing of teargas to disperse a crowd, Captain Ron Johnson, himself a son of Ferguson, a figure who was earlier hailed for his compassion and understanding of the situation, said that “based on conditions, I had no alternative but to elevate the level of response.” And now we wake up to news that Governor Nixon has ordered in the National Guard. This situation has gone way beyond sticks and stones may break bones, and now stands dangerously close to erupting into one of the most violent clashes between law enforcement and community the US has ever witnessed.

But, it’s too easy for us to sit back in the comfort of our living room, playing armchair security specialist and make statements that denigrate the expertise of those making the tactical decisions in Ferguson. Would a lessoned response by law enforcement have brought about a more civil discourse to get to the bottom of the situation that led to the death of Michael Brown? Or instead would those taking advantage of the situation through violence have been emboldened to do more harm to their community?

This isn’t a question just for Ferguson, Missouri. Right here in New Jersey there has been debate about the appropriateness of the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office’s decision to obtain two Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles via the government’s military surplus scheme. More commonly known as MRAPs, these vehicles have been used on the battlefields to protect military troops in hostile environments, but do they have a place on the streets of Anytown, USA? It seems with a few modifications they do! In response to natural disasters they serve the very practical purpose of saving people trapped in their homes, able to go where no other vehicle can go. And how about in response to the next hostage situation when it is believed that the “bad guy” might be prepared to detonate explosives? Shouldn’t those responding have every advantage available to them to keep safe?

Now considering the response in Ferguson from the perspective of protection of some of the basic American rights we all learn from our earliest civics classes in grade school. Freedom to assemble peacefully and freedom of the press have been brought to the forefront over the past week. Have the police trampled on these rights or have they taken necessary steps to bring about peace? It certainly seems in the instance of the detention of several reporters attempting to cover the story the response was a bit heavy handed. Was this an intentional trampling of their rights or was it a tense situation spiraling out of control? Only the police involved know for sure.

On its surface it seems that firing tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators is a fierce way to respond to some who rightly deserve the opportunity to keep control of their own community without the intrusion of heavily armed police. But when some of those same protestors come to the forefront with violence on their minds it is necessary for law enforcement to act swiftly to protect law abiding citizens. Freedom of Assembly cannot and should not be extended to lawless crowds, those bent of doing harm as opposed to delivering a message, no matter what that message may be, in a way that is respectful of the law.

We saw a similar issue recently play out in the wake of the brutal murder of Jersey City Policeman Melvin Santiago when Mayor Steven Fulop acted swiftly and decisively to remove a memorial that had been erected in honor of the slain officer’s murderer. Was this a violation of the First Amendment rights of those who chose to mourn the death of someone they cared about or a move to squash further violence by denying a violent murderer the opportunity to be celebrated for his actions which took the life of a young hero who grew up wanting to serve his community?

Perhaps this piece raises more questions than answers. I don’t claim to have the answers, only opinions painted by my own view of the world and those around me. What I do know is that the events in Ferguson are part of a debate much larger than a suburb of a Midwest city. We would do well to use this situation as an opportunity to discuss these issues in our own communities, large and small, across New Jersey, and across the US. It is only through a deeper understanding and appreciation of what sparks such contempt, discord and violence that we can ever hope to truly bring about true peace and a “more perfect union”.

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