Two years ago today, Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson gunned down unarmed teen Michael Brown and sparked an explosion of controversy over police use of force that cleaved a vast gulf, forever polarizing the country on opposite sides of authority’s Blue Line.
August 9, 2014, transformed the dialogue about American policing — first in the still-contested shooting of Brown, then through images of an occupying army rolling down the streets of Small Town U.S.A. to do battle with protesters and journalists in subsequent demonstrations.
In August two years ago, the country awoke from its halcyon delusions about neighborhood policing into the nightmare revelation that, somehow — while hypnotized by politicians’ constant tirade against terrorism — we had allowed the military to invade our own communities. Somehow, the tactics and intimidation of the terrorism we thought we’d been fighting abroad had instead inundated even the smallest police departments around the country.
In the equally contentious acquittal of Wilson, freshly divided America also discovered its militarized police might just be able to get away with murder.
Now, those two-year-old revelations brought by images of tear gas-tossing, militarily-clad police — who, in slightly more peaceful times, kill civilians with startling impunity — constitute standard law enforcement modus operandi.
While police brutality might have been a burgeoning issue before lethal force was employed against the black teen in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, the international outrage brought by his death forced the country to confront its uncomfortable reality head on.
Focusing on minute details of Brown’s killing and the months-long militarized crackdown and arrests of hundreds of protesters still seemed, at the time, somehow unique — as if Wilson’s shots implored dramatic shifts in policing in the United States — and could not possibly be representative of a pattern.
Tragically, that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Two years and well over a thousand Michael Browns later, it’s clear the teen’s killing was not an aberration by a small-town rogue officer, but a litmus test of our tolerance for authority.
Though coverage of the fatal shooting of Mike Brown dotted headlines for months, the epidemic of police violence — characterized in the deaths by law enforcement of 100 people in June, alone — has since desensitized an entire nation to the value of individual lives.
Where a group of three protesters in Ferguson in August 2014 were easily able to display a banner bearing the pictures of police victims, two years later, such a banner would require a platoon of activists to support it.
To a degree, we were all complicit in the killing of Michael Brown — and those killed by police before and since.
Paralyzed by propagandized fear following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans utterly failed to keep the State in check as it incrementally vanished our rights in the name of peace of mind and security. In the name of the War on Terror — a tactic, a concept — we gladly accepted the broadening of police powers and the gifting of surplus military equipment to local departments.
Perhaps this happened under the insidious false premise that a police state couldn’t happen here. Fascist authority under the badge and gun couldn’t happen in America because … freedom.
Police in every other Western nation manage not to kill their civilians as standard operating procedure — and certainly not with the level of impunity they do here — but we now live in a police state, arguably of our own making.
Unfortunately, no amount of blame will bring back the dead. Worse, though national attention stays transfixed on the issue of law enforcement brutality, this sadistic genie won’t be stuffed back in its bottle anytime soon — if ever.
Activists, experts, advocates, and even the occasional politician, have proposed reforms which seem to hold the promise of convincing American police to quit killing the civilians who live under the laws they’re tasked with upholding — but the calls for reform have fallen on deaf, or perhaps unwilling, ears.
De-escalation techniques, in which police don’t reflexively grab their firearms every time someone acts suspiciously, haven’t made a dent.
Calls for mandatory liability insurance to be carried by officers — which would not only take the burden of excessive force payouts off taxpayers’ backs, but could conceivably force police reluctance to use firearms and violence — haven’t picked up any steam.
Until literally yesterday, when it was announced the Department of Justice would begin tallying fatal police incidents, no national reporting standards dictated when, or under what circumstances, departments should report such occurrences.
Civilians now film police action in record numbers — but grand juries, prosecutors, and judges let even egregious misconduct slide.
We are, in other words, stuck.
In fact, instead of legislating us out of this mess, politicians failed everyone — civilians and police alike — in not predicting the obvious repercussions of an unchecked police brutality epidemic.
Five Dallas police officers and three in Baton Rouge have now been murdered in the inevitable backlash at the hands of civilians fed up with theconstant news yet another officer killed yet another unarmed person somewhere in the U.S. on any given day.
Despite cautions from activists and journalists alike that continued violence by police would beget violence against police, legislators did nothing, law enforcement, indeed, did nothing to force reforms that would prevent rage from boiling over.
So, on the two-year anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown we are, again, having a dialogue about police brutality; but two years hence, perhaps it’s time we stop discussing and bemoaning the epidemic — and force imperative reforms of American policing before another two years prove how much worse the problem will get.
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