For one man who happened to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time on a Sunday night in St. Louis, it had to be a moment of sheer terror — and total bewilderment. The unnamed individual had been merely watching a large protest over the not-guilty verdict that cleared a St, Louis police officer in the controversial 2011 killing of a black narcotics suspect when riot cops demanded that he show his hands — an order the man did not instantly comply with. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch described what happened next:
“When he refused, they knocked him down and hit him at least three times and zip tied his hands behind his back,” the newspaper reported. “When he stood up, his mouth was bloodied, the sources said.” It would not be until the next day that sheepish officers admitted to their higher-ups that in their violent zeal they’d made a horrible mistake — that the man they’d beaten was an undercover police officer, a colleague.
The mistaken-identity caper would almost be comical, except that a) violence isn’t funny and b) it was just one sorry story on a night when the police went wild in a major American city, responding to sporadic incidents of bottle-throwing or window-breaking with a massive show of force that, in making 120 arrests, swept up innocent bystanders, journalists trying to report what was happening, and scores of peacefully protesting citizens who were trapped in a police “kettle” and carted to jail because they could not leave the scene.
One of the folks busted was a 27-year-old Air Force officer from nearby Scott Air Force Base, Lt. Alex Nelson, who was merely walking in his home neighborhood with his wife when police closed in and made it impossible to leave. Nelson, according to the Post-Dispatch, was “kicked in the face, blinded by pepper spray, and dragged away.” Another of those arrested was a Post-Dispatch reporter, Mike Faulk, who was one of dozens cornered with no way out by police who then refused to acknowledge Faulk was a reporter, despite him wearing his press credentials around his neck:
Instead, he was arrested with “unneeded and inappropriate force” that caused injury to both legs, his back and wrist. Faulk was “forcefully pushed to the ground by police officers and a police officer’s boot was placed on his head.” After his wrists were bound with zip ties, a police officer “deliberately sprayed him in the face with pepper spray, mace or some other stinging substance.” At some point, an officer reviewed the contents of Faulk’s phone.
We live in a nation that has always given broad leeway to law enforcement, and I have no doubt that many people reading this — perhaps the majority — will insist that the overzealous police response was nonetheless necessitated by the handful of folks among the crowd who did, most regrettably, commit acts or vandalism or violence. But that attitude overlooks the bigger and most alarming reality of what actually has been happening in St. Louis: A police force determined to go well beyond its public-safety responsibilities to assert an intimidating level of social control, to show who runs public spaces in “their” city — them, and not its citizens — while crushing any dissent targeting its own sordid history of misconduct, including a record of white officers killing black civilians at a rate unmatched by other large cities.
Lest there be any doubt of this last Sunday night, as scores of people were carted away, deprived of liberty, officers marched in formation through the pacified thoroughfares of St Louis, stunning the remaining journalists and onlookers by chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” — both echoing and mocking the protesters in greater St. Louis who have been marching for social justice since the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson. A short time later, the city’s acting police chief bragged that “we owned the night.” Left unanswered was the question of whether a community where police own the streets and own the night is, by definition, a police state.
What happened in St. Louis was, to borrow a phrase made famous in the wake of cops clobbering hippies at the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, a “police riot” — the kind of law-enforcement rampage that shouldn’t be happening in a civilized democracy in the 21st century. But it is happening, and so this is a conversation that America needs to be having right now, because it’s about a lot more than just the governance of one large city in the nation’s heartland.
In the Era of Donald Trump, there is a campaign raging right now, at the highest levels, to silence those who dare to voice dissent, right at the very moment — and this is hardly a coincidence — that American society is moving toward a new brand of authoritarianism that demands that decent people stand up and raise their voices. It exploded this weekend when Trump — deflecting attention from his myriad policy failures and whipping up his base on the extreme right — lashed out at pro football players who silently and non-violently protest police brutality and other social injustices by kneeling during the National Anthem as “sons of bitches” who ought to be fired by the NFL’s billionaire owners for daring to take a stand. That’s an appalling statement, even from a president who has displayed open contempt for a free press, free assembly, and other tenets of the Bill of Rights from the moment he launched his candidacy.
But the Trump administration is also moving aggressively to make oppressive military-style policing a matter of federal policy — reversing an Obama-era ban on sending surplus weapons such as armored personnel carriers and grenade launchers to local departments while the Jeff Sessions-led Justice Department has reversed course on measures intended to improve police-community relations and reduce police-involved shootings. Meanwhile, here in Pennsylvania, the so-called “Blue Lives Matter” movement holds sway in Harrisburg, stripping your right to know the identity of officers in police-involved shootings. And there’s a broader movement afoot to harass and intimidate those who take part in protests or even dare to gently criticize police power or oppressive tactics — something that also happened in St. Louis.
After last weekend’s unrest, the owner of a downtown business, Pi Pizzeria, dared to criticize the police tactics, in sharp terms, first on Twitter and later on Facebook, where he called the sweep by law enforcement “terrorizing” and questioned the use of tear gas and rubber bullets, The businessman, Chris Sommers, had long given out free water to cops on the beat and enjoyed good relations with them, but now the response was chilling. A publication called Blue Lives Matter essentially urged people to stop doing business with Pi Pizzaria while the St. Louis Police Organization told folks to call and complain, sparking a wave of harassment. In the spirit of President Trump — who was endorsed by many police unions — the message is that we will shut you down if you exercise your freedom of speech against cops.
If you’re reading this in Philadelphia and it sounds familiar, it should.
Just this summer, our city’s Fraternal Order of Police chief, John McNesby, did his best to dehumanize citizens calling for the firing (which later happened) and prosecution of a white officer who shot a fleeing back man, calling them “a pack of rabid animals.” In many ways, Philadelphia is not St. Louis; its use of bicycle cops, and not heavily shielded “Robocops,” to police protests has de-escalated tensions and won deserved praise. But McNesby’s comments and the support for “Blue Lives Matter” legislation at the expense of civil liberties shows the dangers here of giving too much sway to authority — a point also driven home this week in a lengthy Buzzfeed expose on Philadelphia’s inability to deal with a cop who seems to sport pro-Nazi tattoos, with one commanding officer stating, anonymously: “The racism in this department is real … I’m seeing this department go backwards.’
We can’t allow that to happen, or let the police-state leanings of Trump and the FOP take root in America. Actions like McNesby’s outburst here or the St. Louis cops chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” drew mild condemnations from the cities’ respective mayors, but we need to do much, much more. The American Civil Liberties Union, sounding the alarm this weekend over both the police chanting in St. Louis and the underlying tone of contempt, called for sweeping reforms that would include community policing, a renewed focus on de-escalating tensions, an end to military-occupation-style tactics of disproportionately arresting black men for low-level crimes, stronger civilian review boards on police conduct, and new legal standards to deal with “lawful but awful” police-involved shootings.
But it all starts with a fundamental understanding of who actually owns the streets in this country. Lt. Nelson, the Air Force officer who was kettled, roughed-up, and pepper-sprayed said it better than I can, having just experienced this abusive state power first-hand. “It’s our street,” he told the Post-Dispatch. “I hear the police say it was their street, but it’s literally my street. I have coffee on that street, and I own property on that street. We were not active protesters. We were looking into the neighborhood to observe events that were unfolding.”
When Nelson voiced those concerns to the cops who arrested him and told them he was an active-duty military officer, one said: “Shut up. Stop. I don’t care.”
We have to care. If anything is fundamental to freedom in America, it is the notion that the streets — and free expression, including dissent — belong to the people, not to a militarized police force. And it’s become increasingly clear — from the asphalt of St. Louis to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — that Americans are going to have to fight to keep it that way.