The scaremongers go to work

November 19, 2014

With tensions rising every day there is no word from a St. Louis grand jury, the media have turned the issue of violence in Ferguson on its head, writes Danny Katch.

AS THE world waits to see if a St. Louis County grand jury will indict the Ferguson, Missouri, cop who killed Mike Brown in August, the authorities and the media are sending a message, loud and clear.

The message has two parts: First, let the justice system decide the fate of Officer Darren Wilson. But second, find anyone who wants justice for Mike Brown guilty in advance of committing violent protest.

On Monday, Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency in Ferguson because of "the possibility of expanded unrest." If Nixon is anticipating a repeat of what happened this past August, after Mike Brown was shot down in the middle of the street, he ought to be instructing the National Guard to take positions around the town's police station. That was the real source of the violence during the nightly confrontations that followed--not to mention the murder that caused sustained mass protests.

That's not what Nixon means, of course. The politicians' scaremongering, cranked up to fever pitch in the corporate media, is focused on the violence that demonstrators will commit if Wilson isn't indicted.

Police clad in riot gear move down West Florissant in Ferguson, Mo.
Police clad in riot gear move on demonstrators in Ferguson

The next day, the FBI even sent a warning to law enforcement agencies across the country that the "announcement of the grand jury's decision...will likely be exploited by some individuals to justify threats and attacks against law enforcement and critical infrastructure."

The memo went on to express concern that a "violent element" would pose "a threat to those civilians engaged in lawful or otherwise constitutionally protected activities." But this "concern" is really meant to justify more extensive repression--in the name of protecting the "lawful" protesters from the fiendish enemies within.

It's a tried-and-true tactic: Talk about the extremists hiding among ordinary Muslims or the criminal elements within the population of undocumented immigrants, and you demonize both populations in their entirety.

ABC News managed one of the strangest contortions in an article helpfully headlined "Answers to questions about the Ferguson grand jury." Police, according to the report, "have undergone training pertaining to protesters' constitutional rights and have purchased more equipment, such as shields, helmets, smoke canisters and rubber bullets."

But the most absurd example of the Missouri authorities' claims was the magic tear gas that St. Louis police chief Jon Belmar claims his officers used. Belmar told reporters that tear gas and smoke grenades weren't fired at "peaceful protesters" during the demonstrations after Brown's murder. "We used that on unfortunate criminal activity that span out of protests," Belmar said.

For those of us who trust the physics of how tear gas spreads more than your typical police chief, it's ominous that St. Louis police have spent over $170,000 since August stockpiling more tear gas--as well as smoke grenades, rubber bullets and riot gear--no doubt in preparation of future chances to "protect constitutionally protected activities."

To most people who experienced or watched the police reaction to the demonstrations after Mike Brown's killing, it's obvious that Belmar and the police look at a protester and see a criminal--all the more so if they are Black.

WITH THE grand jury decision on Darren Wilson looming, the entire discussion about violence in Ferguson has been twisted out of recognition.

The demonstrations in Ferguson, whether daytime or nighttime, were a protest movement against the violence of police against people of color. The people involved used nonviolent tactics throughout the months since Brown's murder. Even the exceptions--some instances of property damage and looting--don't truly constitute violence, certainly not comparable to the violence inflicted by police on demonstrators.

When the politicians and media talk about violence on the part of protesters, they really mean their resistance. The "extremist element" they demonize are generally those who refuse to stay in designated "free speech zones" or follow orders of a police department that they are protesting in the first place.

When these protesters refuse to recognize the authority of the police, they aren't committing violence, but deciding to brave retribution by the police in order to take a stand. And when they're tear-gassed and beaten, the violence they suffer is portrayed in the media as the violence of their protests.

Nothing captures the media's upside-down logic better than a New York Times article that, ironically, was probably intended to be sympathetic to protesters:

Organizers are outlining "rules of engagement" for dealing with the police, circulating long lists of equipment, including bandages and shatterproof goggles, and establishing "safe spaces" where protesters can escape the cold--or the tear gas. Yet the most important part of the planning may also be the hardest: how to prevent demonstrations from turning violent.

Meanwhile, the Ku Klux Klan has threatened actual violence against protesters--and thanks to the hacker collective Anonymous, there is now proof that some of their members are police officers in the area.

Put another way: it's a documented fact that the police have violent extremist elements among them that are looking to exploit the grand jury decision.

This poses a sobering question for anyone who ever faced police violence: Who do you call for help when the criminals are the police?

In theory, the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney's office is supposed to prosecute police officers as they would anyone else accused of breaking the law. But in practice, the prosecutor, Robert P. McCulloch, is doing everything he can to signal that he doesn't want an indictment from the grand jury deliberating on the Mike Brown case. He even decided against recommending a specific charge, which is basically unprecedented.

The grand jury process, which doesn't even allow the accused to be represented by a defense attorney, is designed to make it almost automatic for prosecutors to get an indictment--if they want one. But because prosecutors normally work hand in hand with police, they suddenly turn passive when it's a cop facing indictment.

There's an old saying that a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich if the district attorney told them to. But prosecutors never seem to get indictments against the animals that ham comes from.

OUR MOVEMENT can't rely on a criminal justice system that's stacked against us at every turn.

If the grand jury returns an indictment for murder against Darrin Wilson, we can celebrate one small step toward justice, while understanding that there is a longer fight ahead, both for Michael Brown and all victims of police violence.

But if the grand jury votes against an indictment, as most people are expecting--or if it decides on a lesser charge that falls short of the crime Wilson committed--we should be out in the streets in anger.

There's a lot of fear-mongering in the media about the violence of protesters in response to the grand jury's decision. But if there is no indictment, what we should really fear is the violence from police departments across the country.

Because if Darren Wilson isn't held to account for the murder of Mike Brown, it will be one more signal to law enforcement that they can be as violent as they want--and never face any consequences.

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