Violence in Ferguson
Weapons Priming and the Role of Militarization
It would be an understatement to say that tensions are elevated in Ferguson, Mo. After the shooting death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer on Saturday, Aug. 9, there was immediate community unrest. Peaceful protests began the next day, but somewhere between heavily armed SWAT officers and a candlelight vigil, the otherwise passive protests gave way to vandalism and looting. Tactical police forces responded quickly with dispersal tactics, including the use of tear gas and rubber bullets.
Over the next few days the police force outfitted themselves with military grade weaponry, namely assault rifles, high-powered rifles, full body armor, and armored vehicles. While these efforts were originally intended to curb acts of violence and theft, the militarized police were often on the frontlines of the peaceful protests. On Aug. 24, KARG Argus Radio released a video stream that showed officers pointing rifles at a crowd of peaceful protestors in the middle of the afternoon. Later that night, and for many nights afterwards, tear gas and rubber bullets were used against groups of peaceful protestors.
But you've already heard about the acts of violence in Ferguson by now. It's been on the news. Your friends have tweeted about it. Your relatives are vehement about it on Facebook and somewhere, somebody is making a distasteful joke about it. But this particular situation is not wholly unique to Ferguson. In fact, the militarization of the police is not all that uncommon across the entire country. As a result of the Department of Defense's 1033 program, surplus and leftover military arms and armaments were made available to the police in an effort to fight back against gang and drug related violence.
However, the program has shifted radically from its well-intentioned beginnings in the 1980s. Taken directly from their website: "The 1033 Program provides surplus DoD military equipment to state and local civilian law enforcement agencies for use in counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism operations, and to enhance officer safety". While initially for the purpose of dealing with immediately-threatening events—think hostage situations or active gun violence—these weapons are now being used to respond to what could be otherwise manageable situations. Again, we are looking at the events in Ferguson.
But maybe the police that responded to the protests in Ferguson felt threatened by the crowds. There were, after all, instances of looting and acts of violence from the protestors. The city saw the potential threat of the protests and responded by trying to contain that threat. Hoping to stop the violent acts that were being committed, the police had to respond with the tools they had. The presence of militarized police was supposed to bring peace.
Clearly, however, it has not. There is an established psychological concept known as the "weapons effect" or "weapons priming effect" that states that the mere presence of a weapon will elicit a more aggressive response out of people. The study has its roots in an experiment conducted in 1967 by Berkowitz and LePage that established a link between being shown a gun or weapon and a more aggressive response to an antagonistic situation. The weapons act as what are called "primers" and cause people to think about the things they know about weapons. We know that a gun is meant to be shot, and, according to these studies, this will cause us to react more violently. In short, a person surrounded by weapons is more likely to lash out when provoked than a person surrounded by anything else.
With this idea in mind, it is easy to see the possible link between violent looting and the militarization of the police in Ferguson. The violence that rocked the community primed police officers to respond with tactical weapons. The violent primers of these weapons caused the protestors to react violently. I don't mean to lift the entirety of the blame off the shoulders of those involved in the looting of stores, though; both the family of Michael Brown and many of the protest leaders called for the end of violence and looting. If the social revolution of the 60s taught us anything it's that peaceful protests are the best means of collective civilian action in America. But this need not only apply to those supporting Brown. Violence begets violence and anyone involved in the endless circle is partially responsible.
A line must be drawn somewhere to break the cycle of violence. Protestors must maintain the peace. Police must limit their violent presence. Nobody takes kindly to a group of civilians throwing Molotov cocktails, just as nobody takes kindly to have a gun pointed at them. We can hope that the civilian population will maintain the peace of their own accord but that hope is not enough. If the police in Ferguson wish to end the violence, they must be aware of what is creating it. Instead of bringing order to the protests, the militarization of the police has primarily had the effect of creating an atmosphere of violence. Demilitarization is the first step towards bringing peace back to Ferguson.
Questions? Comments? Concerns? Chris Sexauer can be contacted at csexaur@ErieReader.com