The still summer evening was suddenly ripped apart by the heavy THWUP!-THWUP!-THWUP! of helicopters. In this part of St Paul copters are common enough as small emergencies across the state hurry themselves to nearby United Hospital. But this sound was different. It was heavy, immediate, and amplified by three of them flying low enough to sneak up on the otherwise placid city.
Then there was the shape. Medivac copters are small and light, but these were large and olive drab. Several low passes later they were joined by another sound, a gentle whoosh that might have been less disturbing had I not had the knowledge that this is what a Blackhawk sounds like.
Last Tuesday St Paul was the host to an unannounced training mission in urban warfare that included Navy Seals. Why? No one has been told why they did it here. Before, after, and during we all know essentially nothing. Our cities are being militarized and shown tremendous force behind a cloak of secrecy that is inappropriate – and naturally falls on the most vulnerable citizens of our community. But Ferguson, Missouri is hardly alone.
The reports from Ferguson are utterly appalling. Autopsy reports confirm what three eyewitnesses said – that unarmed Michael Brown was shot six times with his hands in the air. One shot went straight into his forehead, killing him instantly.
Why did he die? It’s easy to concentrate on one important feature of Brown – that he as an African-American. Given that the town had a history of racial tension it is easy to see how it boiled over into a killing by the police, who apparently felt under siege as tensions mounted. The subsequent release by the police department of a video that reportedly showed Brown stealing cigars – carefully editing out the part where he paid for them – demonstrates that racism likely does play a part. I do not think they’d ever do that to a white boy like me.
During the aftermath of Ferguson nearby St Louis had another shooting, this one of Kajieme Powell. It was captured in its entirety on video, and it is graphic. There is no reason why our police do not have less lethal means to contain the situation than what is shown here. This was murder and nothing less. There is no excuse for this behavior, and I don’t care what kind of non-lethal weapons or training or prison time is necessary to stop it.
But aside from the obvious fact that Black Americans take the brunt of this excessive police force, the main point is that there is simply too much force in the hands of police in America today. We saw that in Ferguson when the military vehicles came out in force. In many ways, it’s the same problem we have with our military overseas – it’s nearly impossible to have all those weapons and not feel a need to use them.
They should not have advanced weapons, period. They should not have armored personnel carriers. They must be equipped and trained with non-lethal tools, and when a big riot breaks out they should not be asked to be the ones who die because the policy makers have screwed things up in the community and left people with no hope. The situation is perfectly analogous with our military, which has to do the jobs of nation-building and peace making that diplomats and treasury officials are far too lazy to do.
We, as a people, have to stop relying on force. The first step is to remove force as an option. Yes, force naturally falls on the most vulnerable the hardest. But there is no reason to believe that it stops there. What does it mean to be “law abiding” these days? Who is not affected by SWAT raids on people suspected of nothing more than marijuana possession, especially when they hit the wrong house? Ask little Bounkham Phonesavah, who had a flash-bang grenade tossed into his crib in a no-knock raid that turned up nothing at all.
This simply cannot be allowed to happen in what we would otherwise want to call a “Free Country”. The force must stop, it must not be an option. There is a principle in our justice system that we must prove beyond “the shadow of a doubt” before conviction because it is better to let a few guilty people free than to convict one innocent person. We should apply that to all of our policing operations – no innocent people should EVER be hurt.
The helicopters are gone now from St Paul, but the anger they generated remains. Perhaps the display was just outrageous enough that we all realize how vulnerable we are, black and white alike, when there is too much force ready to bear on us.