Killing the Unarmed

We have become blasé about fearsome media images. One such image is police in SWAT gear, assault weapons trained on peaceful demonstrators, and huge armored vehicles with gun turrets at the ready, pointed toward activists. In tiny Ferguson, Missouri, peaceful citizens reacting to the alleged killing of a young, unarmed black teenager by a local police officer, are the enemies, the apparent target of militarized weapons.

What is the outgrowth of such scenes? Most likely, further polarization and thick tension among citizens.

Such warlike demonstrations seem to mock the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law … abridging … the right of the people to peaceably to assemble …”

Drones, Armored Vehicles with High Power Weapons, Tanks, and Battlefield Helicopters (militarized equipment) – the federal government is using your tax dollars to militarize police forces throughout the country. And they are being used against average citizens, or even worse against citizens who demonstrate against oppressors or citizens who cite injustices. In the 1970s it was the National Guard used against students at Kent State, demonstrating against the Viet Nam War, resulting in the death of several students. More recently militarized police have been seen against the peaceful nationwide movement, Occupy Wall Street, in effect, acting as agents of plutocrats. Currently it’s against demonstrators in tiny Ferguson, MO?

In other words, First Amendment rights seem to stop in public places.

News people in Ferguson were arrested for not vacating McDonalds fast enough, and there were unconfirmed reports of breaking up crowds of people even in their own back yards. The two newsmen were released without charges.

Osama bin Laden’s legacy seems to be still paying dividends in an American society where the 9/11 attacks were used – by the Bush administration — to divide and polarize Americans. With the formation of a new Department of Homeland Security (DHS), state and local police departments were federalized through “terrorist grants.” Federal grants of money for military weapons, supposedly to fight terrorism, included the smallest principality, even rural areas not subject to terrorism.

No worry. Weapons, even tanks can be used against the people, including imagined criminals. Such a display of military force can add to the very terror DHS proposes to fight, among citizens. It contributes to an “us or them” debacle at the local level now, something that seems to augment the division described by a Rodney King study some twenty years ago.

If you want to see if police killings, let alone shootings of unarmed civilians, involve an upward swing over generations of incidents, you are out of luck. The U.S. government does not collect statistics on police-involved shootings. Furthermore, individual studies are limited and often sketchy. Most lists do not deal with unarmed killings. In past Southern history, such happenings seemed to have a singular racist character, but not usually involving law-enforcement officials.

Unconfirmed sources like “” report that since 9/11 about 5,000 Americans have been killed by U.S. police officers (many from no-knock raids which have risen 4000% since the 1980s). This kind of reporting contributes very little to understanding. And it doesn’t help that individual police departments are not required to submit information either, regarding the use of deadly force, though a few do.

Unfortunately, suspicion is aroused when police departments fail to cite officers responsible or are tight-lipped about details of shootings or details about criminal proceedings tied to shootings. Furthermore, no-knock raids are quite troublesome when battering rams and SWAT teams disturb suspected drug offenders in the middle of the night, sometimes for marijuana violations and sometimes based on questionable tips. Legal confiscation of property is great motivation for underfunded police departments.

After Rodney King was severely beaten by Los Angeles police officers in 1991, a panel looked into excessive use of force by the LAPD. It found that officers operated under “an organizational culture that emphasizes crime control over crime prevention and that isolates the police from the communities and the people they serve.” In essence, the panel reported that this culture teaches “to command and confront, not to communicate.”

By all signs since then, little seems to have changed. Videos showed a mentally-ill woman was pummeled by a CHP officer on the freeway last month and an unarmed young black man was shot by an LA police officer just a few days ago.

It would make sense for the federal Department of Justice to lead an effort to study police officer shootings of all kinds, categorizing them for possible legislative remedies. Without statistics on killing incidents, there is great difficulty in dealing with any issue under the purview of federal law. However, it is doubtful that a do-nothing Congress could deal with any need, however deadly.

We just witnessed members of Congress going on a month-long vacation without acting on standing issues of critical legislation, while the desires of the people are given the proverbial finger by members of the Republican Party. Their primary activity remains: raising money for the next election and entreating rich people with deep pockets to re-purchase their seats in Congress. Of course, Democratic are making the same entreaties for election and re-election.

Should we resign ourselves to continued bloodshed on our streets? Will they be ignored by a Congress, especially Republicans, who excel in ignoring problems of whatever scope?

Hope came yesterday, as the world watched Ferguson citizens moving freely in protest through its streets. Apparently embarrassed, if not humiliated, by the world watching, what appeared like a war zone, Missouri officials withdrew their militarized force on Ferguson streets.

James Hoover is a recently retired systems engineer. He has advanced degrees in Economics and English. Prior to his aerospace career, he taught high school, and he has also taught college courses. He recently published a science fiction novel called Extraordinary Visitors and writes political columns on several websites. Read other articles by James.