It is impossible to make a definitive judgment about what went on in Ferguson, Missouri, overnight based on the live video and reports from the scene. However, there are some things that appear to be obvious if one has been a veteran observer of demonstrations and riots (as I have, here and in Europe).
If there is a follow up investigation by the news media or some sort of appointed citizen’s committee, here are some points that should be considered:
1. We heard for days about the police making preparations to deal with the reaction to the grand jury decision, but they appeared to be all but completely not ready to deal with the response. There appeared to be no coordinated response with various police units reacting on their own. The main coordination appeared to be pulling officers out of areas deemed too dangerous by their commanders, which left the streets wide open and the fires in full fury.
2. Was there any planned and approved in advance plan for demonstrators to respond? If there was (the answer seems to be yes), the police quickly cut off the ability to peacefully respond by putting up barricades. When one reporter asked them why they were doing that, they said it was to contain the demonstration. This event, however, might have been the key one that set off a night of rioting that spun out of control as those intent on lawless action saw their opportunity.
3. Why did the police withdraw completely from the situation around where buildings were burning? Why did they not provide protection to fire fighters to stop those fires? Why were buildings left burning for what appeared to be hours?
4. There were reports on CNN and elsewhere of gunfire near where the fires were being set. Yet, the explosions heard through the video did not sound like gunfire, they sounded like items exploding inside the burning buildings (gunfire generally has a sharp crack to the sound, what was heard on television had a muffled. The gunfire was given as the reason police withdrew, but media cameras were able to stay on the scene of these fires. Why?
5. Just as with the Los Angeles riots of 1992, dozens of police cars, police SUVs and special vehicles were seen leaving the rioting and gathering in a police staging area. Why were they ordered out? Did this allow the rioting to get further out of hand? Did the police abandon the streets of Ferguson for hours on end?
Once the situation got out of hand, for whatever reason, the police did not seem to have any plan to get it back under control. They appeared to be completely overwhelmed and it appeared that the commanders pulled their officers out and let the rioting happen without much of any response. The result is that dozens of businesses were pillaged and many set on fire, burning to the ground. Here’s what it looks like: when the commanding officers heard gunfire or got reports of it, they decided to withdraw their officers “for safety”, leaving the city to burn with no apparent plan as to how they would regain control.
The initial eruption seems to have been caused by the police themselves, just as the case has been in since the Michael Brown shooting in August and, in fact, as occurs again and again in demonstrations here and around the world. The pattern is that police attempt to assert control, the crowd reacts, the police react and rioting follows. Of course, these are not easy situations, but it would be wrong to conclude that a night of looting and burning was a planned result on the part of those upset by the grand jury verdict. How can the police strike a balance between control and allowing people to gather “for the redress of grievances” and to just vent as well? As throughout this long running problem in Missouri, it appears the police have little idea how to strike that balance and that they are governed both by the desire to “crackdown” and stop the demonstrations by violating basic rights (as they did during the summer if the “five second rule” that any demonstrator would be arrested if he or she stopped on a sidewalk for more than five seconds).
The governor of Missouri, the county police of St. Louis count and everyone else who is trying to limit and contain the damage appears to be completely outrun by events with little capacity to deal with the evolving situation. They are in way over their heads.
And the demonstrators and rioters? Clearly, there were many people set on criminal intentions last night who took advantage of the situation and others, less inclined, followed their lead. We don’t know how many people participated in setting fires and looting out of the people on the streets. We do know that some people tried to stop them.
While nothing written here should be taken as an excuse for burning down buildings (ultimately, everyone loses in that situation and it takes years to recover, if recovery comes at all), there are many who say that the only way you can really get heard in America, especially if you are in a minority group, is to scream as loud as possible by causing disruption and financial loss. If this is true, we need to ask ourselves why.
One of the base problems is that police officers in our country can shoot and kill anyone if the officer “feels threatened”. Apart from the situation with Michael Brown’s death, the killing of citizens goes on all the time and it is very rare when a police officer faces charges. What police say happened, happened, in most cases and, don’t forget, they control most or all of the evidence after a police shooting.
Last night, someone got the FAA to order a ban on aircraft flying over the rioting area lower than 3,000 ft. The media helicopters were able to operate by staying above that level, but this is typical of what happens these days because cameras are everywhere, including in the skies. The police and civil authorities try to control what we know about what happens by placing restrictions wherever they can (this includes marking off crime scenes a block or more away, so that the media can’t record any of the visible evidence of an event.) Above all else, the police look out for themselves and each other in any kind of violent response situation and, most of the time, we don’t have any way of learning what really happened.
The Ferguson situation is unusual in that so many people have been involved in protests over a months long period. In most cases, even when there is evident outrage, people forget about it over time and go about their business. Last night’s rioting, however, had the appearance of being the last round. There likely will be a massive police and National Guard presence on the streets of Ferguson in the coming nights and, unless they are suddenly withdrawn or face gunfire directed at them, it seems likely that matters with go forward much more quietly.