What you can do right now about Ferguson

An American city has been effectively under a military occupation by its local police force this week. Take a moment to consider what that means, and your options to raise awareness about it. This is worth interrupting business as usual for.

The Situation

I woke up this morning upset that the situation in Ferguson, Missouri had continued escalating after I went to bed last night.

Why wasn’t the television news providing 24/7 coverage of an American city under a military occupation by its police force!? And why? Because white cops had killed an unarmed 18 year old black man, so the black people were demonstrating, and the cops didn’t like it.

This has been well covered on Twitter, where damning photos show police dressed as paramilitary troops teargassing TV crews and dismantling their gear. Others show them pointing assault rifles at apparently peaceful protesters. Journalists are being arrested. Military vets chimed in that the police appear more heavily armed than our patrols in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Palestinians in Gaza were tweeting advice for dealing with tear gas to Ferguson residents.

For goodness’ sakes.

This should upset you, no matter who you are. The last few days, Ferguson has been a police state.

Feeling helpless?

I’m most upset because this police behavior deeply offends my values, but I feel too busy to do anything about it. I woke up this morning, checked Twitter, and despaired that I had to go to work. I can’t afford to be out on a street corner in solidarity, holding up a sign imploring my neighbors to pay attention, because I’m too busy. That’s not good for the soul.

A lot of bad things happen in America (like NSA surveillance, civil asset forfeiture epidemic, and our failed drug war) not because we don’t care, but because we’re too busy to act.

We’re fully occupied trying to make our families thrive in an economy that doesn’t afford us the time to invest in our civic values. Justice, accountability, equality, free speech, and the public good don’t tend to themselves. Institutions become distracted by their own interests and can’t be left alone to defend them. It takes individuals investing their time discussing, planning, organizing, and volunteering.

When was the last time you felt you did something productive and meaningful to advance those values for the greater good? Was it enough to satisfy you? Did it feel like you made a net impact?

Me, neither. So some of our best social assets slip away…

You can make a difference. Here’s how.

We don’t often think about what’s really in our power to do. This morning I thought, “Damn, I’m too busy to march, and what good would that do anyway?” I nearly stopped there. But in my outrage, I realized there’s one very important thing I could do.

You can do it, too — every single one of us — and it doesn’t need to take more than 5 minutes — or 30 seconds.

You can tell people you’re concerned, and that you can’t stand it. That we should demand change.

Tell who? Anyone. Who are you talking to right now? Who are you sitting next to? Who are you writing to?

At this moment, a lot of people haven’t even heard of Ferguson yet. Let them know, and they’ll begin to be outraged, too. The more people who are outraged, the more political will we create for peace, justice, and accountability.

Be Bold and Brave

I’m writing this on my company’s blog. This has taken a bit of bravery, because it is so off topic. You’re (hopefully) here to learn about who we are and what we do, not our thoughts on politics. There are people — and voices in my head — who would tell me not to do this. It might drive you away, or give you the wrong idea about us…

Well, screw that. This issue is more important than staying on message. When society unravels, political neutrality serves no one.

For those of us who work on the Internet and help make it, we are part of the media. We can use it to communicate. We’ve done it before, for example during the SOPA Internet Blackout. When we witness a problem, we have a power to demand accountability that previous generations couldn’t dream of. We should use it more often.

Whether you help make the Internet or not, you have the power to take productive, positive actions in times like these. Look for opportunities to interrupt routine. Tell whomever’s listening that this situation isn’t okay, and that you’re upset. Use your creativity. Don’t wait for permission. Give it to yourself!

We need more than just “peace and calm”

After four days, this situation is finally getting prime-time attention. This is only a start.

President Obama made a statement this morning and said, “Now is the time for healing. Now’s the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson. Now’s the time for open and transparent process to see that justice is done.”

Okay, that’s fair. De-escalating the situation in Ferguson is urgent. But then we need to address root causes, which include our over-militarized police forces.

Giving a peaceful community’s police force guns and gear they don’t need invites them to find opportunities to use them, as Jason Fritz, an analyst of police in conflict zones, told Vox.com.

The places where you’ll see this used are the kinds of countries where they can get away with it. Countries that are known as oppressive states and there’s no media to report on the situation.
Police forces usually fall into one of two categories, though there some grey situations between the two. You either protect the rule of law and the population, or you’re the type of police force that’s there to protect the regime. What’s happening in Ferguson is what regime protection forces do, not what rule of law police do.
They have the toys, and they just want to play with them, to put it bluntly. They look like guys playing army. Like the militia members in Eastern Ukraine, they like looking cool and looking like badasses.

And regarding arresting journalists:

Look, if there’s no one there to record it, or to watch it, then it didn’t happen. If the word doesn’t get out about how awful things are, then it doesn’t get out. The arrests last night were a blatant run at trying to quiet this thing up.

We created this situation by arming our local police forces with military gear in the wake of 9/11. The Department of Homeland Security did this even though we already have a military that’s quite good at protecting us from foreign threats. Militarizing the police was a huge mistake, and a problem we need to correct.

If you live in the United States, chances are good that your local police forces are a lot like Ferguson’s. Ferguson isn’t unusual. This might happen anywhere now.

Recommended Reading

Anil Dash’s essay Mike Brown was a Man is a good opinion piece that sets more of the context and links to horrifying examples of excessive police force from around the country.

The Wire and Vox.com (more my style) have good coverage of the Michael Brown shooting and unfolding situation.

Update: The Rise of the Warrior Cop on Amazon (via @ryancduff)

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