Excessive Force: What Happens when Police Safety Trumps Public Safety

For the past several nights, I have been watching the feeds from Ferguson, increasingly horrified as the combined police forces rolled down the streets in armored personnel carriers or marched down the streets carrying M-16s, deploying sonic weapons, repeatedly gassing the crowds, firing rubber bullets from guns. They were distinguishable from an army only in that there were red and blue flashing lights on the vehicles and POLICE on the shields.

When the governor of Missouri declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard, I was cautiously supportive. I naively thought that he was calling in the National Guard to protect citizens from the local police forces that had obviously gone rogue.

To the contrary, it appears that the National Guard came in to protect police headquarters, so that the combined police forces (Ferguson PD, St Louis PD, Missouri State Highway Patrol, and a fourth one I don’t remember) could continue their unbelievably militarized assault.

National Guard troops, called in by Gov. Jay Nixon Monday, protected the police command center.
ABC news

Since the state of emergency has been declared, officers of these police forces have been operating in public without nametags or badges, refusing to answer reporters’ questions about their names or even what unit they are from. They have arrested 11 journalists during the protests so far. They have threatened reporters during live broadcasts. If police in Ferguson treat journalists like this, imagine how they treat residents.

The police have stated that they need to use these tactics because they have had weapons fired at them, rocks and bottles thrown at them. As proof, Captain Johnson showed a few guns that had been confiscated during Monday night’s arrests.

Incidents from a “tiny minority of lawbreakers” prompted the police response, including shots fired and Molotov cocktails thrown, Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson said, speaking at an early-morning news conference. –ABC news

But in the midst of it we cannot — in the midst of it, and in the midst of chaos, and trying to move people on — we HAVE to be safe. We have to be safe.
— Transcript, Capt. Ron Johnson, press conference, 2:21am, 2014-08-19

You need this kind of all-out, crowd-suppressing assault to go after a tiny minority of lawbreakers?

Since when?

It sounds rather as if the police have decided that if their own safety is potentially threatened, they have the right to use any degree of force. And it’s not just showing up in the streets of Ferguson, as the armored vehicles roll out: it’s showing up in one-on-one interactions as well.
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Ferguson, Intersectionality, and Occam’s Big Paisley Tie

Last week, I found myself in a conversation with some white friends that briefly heated up over the question of what had really happened in the police shooting of Mike Brown. First of all, a major reason that I don’t believe the police account is the way the police acted afterwards, even considering only the publicly visible actions. Not calling an ambulance? Leaving his body on the ground for hours? Refusing to allow his mother close enough to even identify him? And then showing up with a massive police presence designed to intimidate? Bringing dogs out against black protesters?

These are not the actions of a police department that was involved in a regrettable but necessary shooting. These immediately marked them as untrustworthy actors in my mind.

But as I reflected further on the conversation, I realized that it reminded me of what Melissa McEwan calls Occam’s Big Paisley Tie: Continue reading

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(Few) Catholic Voices on #Ferguson

Since becoming aware of the Catholic Media Fail on Ferguson, I’ve been asking around and checking for related stories in the Catholic media and blogs that I’m aware of. This is all I’ve found. Did I miss anything? Please let me know.

I realize there is other big important Catholic news that has been going on this week, but this is embarrassing.

Visible Friday, 8/15:

Situating Ferguson in a larger conversation: What is Violence? Continuing the Conversation from New Wineskins to Ferguson to Gaza by Thomas Bushlack at Catholic Moral Theology

Primarily, but not exclusively, discussing the ethics of policing: Time for another paradigm shift in policing’ by Tobias Winright, SLU ethicist with previous experience in law enforcement, at The Christian Century. (HT @CatholicClimate for both these links)

— Updated to add a recommendation of Winright’s article from a Ferguson local:

Statement from PAX CHRISTI USA.

Sr. Mary Ann McGivern writes about the morning rally and evening NAACP meeting she attended, in Looking for answers in the shooting death of Michael Brown at the National Catholic Reporter.

US Catholic has a brief discussion in their Weekly roundup: Robin Williams, Ferguson, and Ebola | USCatholic.org.

Collection of existing Catholic resources on racism, presented in response to Ferguson, by the Ignatian Solidarity Network Resources for Ferguson: Racism Today is the Ultimate Evil in Our World. (HT Emily Edmondson)

Updated to add: A guest column posted on the Archdiocese of St. Louis website, dated 8/14.

Visible Saturday, 8/16:
@NCRonline reports on Across America, silent vigils in Michael Brown’s memory.

Monday, 8/18:
The Archbishop of St. Louis issues a letter urging prayer for peace and noting some resources available through Catholic Relief Services. (I cannot help but observe that if Archbishop Carlson had issued this letter over the weekend, it might have been read in churches on Sunday.)

Commonweal has a blog post on Ferguson & the Social Sin of Racism

USCatholic has a piece on the Aug 17 church rally and runs the same RNS piece on the nationwide vigils carried by NCR.

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Painted Screens and Painted Stations: a Secular and Sacred Art Report

Last Sunday afternoon, I spent a couple hours at the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center, one of the two interfaith centers in which my parish has a presence. The building has a central area resembling a courtyard, with plenty of natural light, opening out to various worship spaces and meeting rooms around the perimeter, and the walls of this courtyard-like space are used as an art gallery. Sunday was the final day of an exhibition called Picture Windows: The Painted Screens of Baltimore.

I’ve been intrigued by painted screens since I first learned about this Baltimore folk art form, but this was the first time I’d seen them. Like many domestic arts, it was intended to be both practical and pretty. In the days before air conditioning, the row houses of Baltimore would get pretty sweltering in the summer, and folks wanted all the windows and solid doors open to get as much ventilation as possible, with no curtains in the way to obstruct the air flow. But then what do you do about privacy, especially in an urban environment with folks walking right past your windows?

Well, it turns out, if you paint a picture on the front of the window or door screens, then that effectively blocks the viewers’ gaze through the screen. Your eyes focus on the picture, instead of looking through the screen; at least, if the area behind the screen is not illuminated. What a clever way to solve the problem! And what an opportunity it creates for beautifying a city street. Time was, most houses in some areas of Baltimore had painted screens on the windows and doors, so walking down the street was much like walking past a gallery of paintings.

The exhibit included screens that had been painted by traditional screen painters near the end of the era when the art was flourishing, and contemporary screens (for sale!) by currently practicing screen painters, some of whom had been trained by traditional painters. There was a little biography of each painter mounted among their works. The sizes ranged from small screens that might cover a ventilation window, to medium/large screens that would fill a normal sized window or the top of a screen door, to full door-sized screens (in some cases, mounted in the door frame, into which the painting extended).

What struck me at first inspection of these pieces Continue reading

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A Mimetic Reading of the Ferguson Events

I’m a hugely text-oriented person, but so much of what happened in Ferguson this week was captured in truly compelling tweeted images that this post will be full of embedded tweets, mostly including images.

Some of those compelling images were side-by-side photos showing photos from the civil rights protests in the 60s:

I was so shocked when I heard the police had brought out dogs that very first day: the imitation of police tactics from the 60s reads to me as a deliberate invocation of the police violence against black protesters then. If the online image made a white woman like me flinch, I can’t imagine the potent effect it must have had on the black people who were there.

See the mirroring, in the postures of the two lines of men? That’s a classic dynamic in mimetic theory, occurring as rivalry escalates. (Frighteningly, the men in the Ferguson picture look more escalated than in the older picture, which seems to have some degree of engagement in the body language going on. The men in the Ferguson picture look like they’re being walls: rigid and immovable.)

The intensive police presence that showed up right away may have been intended to intimidate by an overwhelming show of force, but I read it as designed (consciously or not) to provoke an equally intense response.
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Ferguson, Missouri

Today, it’s finally made the mainstream media. But terrible things have been happening in Ferguson, Missouri — a small municipality in St. Louis County — since Saturday afternoon, when 18yo Mike Brown was shot and killed by police. According to multiple witnesses, he was shot multiple times despite being unarmed and having his hands in the air; and the interaction was police-initiated, who aggressively confronted Michael and his friend because they were walking down the middle of the street instead of walking on the sidewalk.

His body was left lying in the street for hours, while police kept everyone, including the youth’s mother, at a distance.

Trudy tweeted:


[TW] After a lynching, the body left on tree for a while. 3 reasons. To make images of it. To entertain Whites. Psych warfare on Black ppl.


And this reason, this context, this history, and this power, *directly* connects to Michael Brown’s execution and his body left in street.

Please note that Brown’s family has requested that pictures of his body be taken down from the web and not further shared.

In response to the resulting peaceful protest that afternoon, and the peaceful prayer vigil that evening, police responded with a show of force: bringing out dogs (dogs!! police bringing dogs in response to black protesters!!), showing up in riot gear, huge numbers of police cars converging on the area, presenting an extremely aggressive posture that I could only read as deliberately provocative. Later that night, there was some property destruction against local businesses, including a fire at a local gas station. Police responded, and the next day there was some minimal coverage in the media focused on the “looting” (scare quotes because really, it only seems to be called looting when black people do it) rather than the original issue of police killing an unarmed black teen.

Sunday the police finally held a press conference, but still didn’t release the name of the officer involved in the shooting, which they had previously said they would do then. They did, however, describe a scenario that was at odds with witness accounts.

Sunday, Monday, Tuesday: I’ve lost track of the detailed progression, but basically: there were more protests. The protesters’ slogan became “Hands up – don’t shoot.” Police showed up with military equipment, lobbing tear gas, blocking off streets, aggressively pointing M-16s at unarmed protestors who had their hands up. Who in some cases were kneeling with their hands up.

Last night it got even more unbelievable. One source described what’s happening in Ferguson as a police coup. While not a literal coup, it seems a reasonable description of what was happening on the ground.

And today, it finally hit the news.

I became aware on Saturday, and have been following the story since, because #BlackTwitter users that I follow have been tweeting about it. Folks on the ground in Ferguson have been tweeting text, photos, video, and their tweets have been retweeted.

The local perspective matters, and the black perspective matters, because Michael Brown’s shooting was only the most recent in an ongoing drumbeat of unarmed black people being killed by police. (I say was, because since Saturday, another unarmed black man was killed by police, this time in LA.) That’s one reason I have not commented before now, other than selected retweets for amplification on twitter: as a white woman from the East Coast, this is not my story to tell, and I feared getting it wrong.

But I realized last night that, while there was at least some minor mention of Ferguson in the news here and there, I was seeing zero in the Catholic press I follow. OK, yes, we have a lot of Catholic news going on this week, what with the Pope’s trip to Korea and the LCWR meeting, but really: nothing? No mention at all, in the daily briefings or even the blogs? Even at Pax Christi? Even in the pro-life sites? Catholic media can write about Robin Williams’ suicide, but not mention this? I did see one superficial mention by Catholic News Services, but it wasn’t picked up anywhere else I’ve seen.

This is a bigtime Catholic Media Fail.

And it makes me think that the writers or at least the editorial boards of the Catholic press must be overwhelmingly white. Because I don’t think this is a story that black people would miss. I’d like to see these organizations publish their workforce diversity data, as tech companies have recently been pressured to do in response to similar fails.

Meanwhile, here is a collection of links where you can read up on what’s been going on. I pulled them together yesterday, so they don’t include coverage of last night’s events, but they may give some background that is missing from mainstream stories that only focus on last night.

And a few specific actions you can take:
– Consider participating in the National Moment of Silence for victims of police brutality at 7pm EDT tonight, organized by @FeministaJones
– Consider signing this petition with specific proposals to rein in police brutality, organized by @ShaunKing
– And more generally, if you’d like to use twitter to broaden your perspective on this and other issues, I recommend the social justice list put together by @Kronda.

Overviews:

Understanding What’s Happening in Ferguson

The death of Michael Brown and the Search for Justice in Black America

America Is Not For Black People

John Crawford: Killed Holding a ‘Gun’ in an Open Carry State

[UPDATED TO ADD:] Net neutrality matters: The term mostly shows up in tech conversations, but What Happens in #Ferguson Affects Ferguson, as the difference between Twitter timeline and Facebook feed shows.

More specifically:
Local alderman Antonio French has been present at the protests and tweeting photos and short Vine videos since things started. Last night he was arrested, apparently for unlawful assembly. This morning he was released. He received no charging documents.

Washington Post Interview with Ferguson police chief

[UPDATED TO ADD] The multiple jurisdictions providing police presence in Ferguson without any overall coordination means that there is little accountability. Responsibility is being rotated among jurisdictions every night: which may shed some light on why the police have not acted in accordance with statements made earlier in the day by government officials. It also means that four different people independently made a decision to fire tear gas at peaceful protestors. Think about that.

Police militarization:
Police Militarization In Ferguson – Business Insider.

Failing in Ferguson:
How the police are doing everything wrong and why it’s dangerous for everyone

UPDATED TO ADD: But don’t let the militarization of the police dominate the narrative: Michael Brown was killed in an incident involving an ordinary cop car with an ordinary gun.

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So Much Internet: Women’s Bodies Edition

Read about the past, present, and possible future of women in pants: Wearing the Pants: a Brief Western History of Pants.

Words you don’t normally think of together, especially in the Middle Ages: Sex and the Single Saint: Physicality in Anglo-Saxon female saints’ lives.

The Smile Bitch Training Camp: a satirical response to the policing of women’s facial expressions by men.

The images at the Body Hair Project aim to “initiate a discussion around body hair and what it means to each of us.” (HT Molly Rose)

Problematic images in posters intended as part of an anti-rape campaign: Rape Culture in Real Life: Poster Edition. (Content note: images portraying violated women, discussion of rape and victim blaming.)

“Women are strong . . . but don’t worry! They’re still attractive”: Excellent intersectional feminist analysis of the gender differences in the presentation of athletes’ bodies in the ESPN Body Issue from 2012 and 2014. (Content note: photographs of naked people.)

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Pride, Ecumenism, Contraception, and Divorce

There is often a disturbing element of ecclesial pride, even arrogance, in magisterial discussions of the moral and ethical (and usually gender, sexual, and reproductive) issues over which the Roman Catholic church increasingly finds itself differing from other Christian traditions. As I quoted from Häring’s essay on Humanae Vitae,

I frequently heard from the man who worked on Humanae Vitae the argument that it was impossible the Anglicans could be right. [They had approved "the responsible use of means to regulate births" at the Lambeth Conference in 1930.] That would dishonor the Catholic Church.

This probably sounded less startling in the sixties, but to my ears — conditioned by the achievements of the modern ecumenical movement, the participation of the Roman Catholic Church in the WCC Faith and Order discussions, and dozens of bilateral and multilateral dialogues — the intense othering of the Anglicans stopped me in my tracks. They can’t possibly be right, because that would dishonor us? What’s that about? That’s some serious institutional narcissism going on there.

We see the same dynamic expressed less blatantly in Cardinal Mueller’s dismissal of Orthodox practice with respect to marriage and divorce, as David Cruz-Uribe comments and quotes in his post on Two Vexing Questions:
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“Not even an ecumenical council”? Unpopular Church Teachings and the Appeal to Impotence

David Cruz-Uribe quotes Cardinal Mueller in his piece on Two Perspectives on Two Vexing Questions over at Vox Nova. I’m not engaging with his piece here, which is well worth a read; but this quotation leapt out at me:

Not even an ecumenical council can change the doctrine of the Church, because its founder, Jesus Christ, has entrusted the faithful custody of his teachings and his doctrine to the apostles and their successors.

Erm, isn’t an ecumenical council precisely a gathering of the successors of the apostles, to whom Christ entrusted the faithful custody of his teachings? Isn’t it therefore implicit in the concept of an ecumenical council that it can change the doctrine of the church, if and when the council discerns that the doctrine of the church has departed from, or could be made more faithful to, the teachings and doctrine of Christ? Isn’t that, in fact, what ecumenical councils are for?

And that’s not even invoking the power to bind and loose.

I’m increasingly losing patience with the argument that “the Church has no authority to…” do whatever it is, whether it’s to ordain women priests or revise the doctrine of marriage. Yes, the church does have that authority, because Christ gave it to us: that’s part of the remarkable foolish risk that our God takes in entrusting the work of the kingdom to our fallible human hands.

The church has no authority to change truth: but doctrine and truth are not the same thing. Doctrine is an inevitably inadequate attempt to express the truth of the faith: an attempt, moreover, that is invariably and inescapably historically conditioned. Sometimes we get it wrong; and by the grace of the Holy Spirit, sometimes we realize we got it wrong and we change it.

It is a historical fact that church teaching has changed over time. Roman Catholic church doctrine was not dictated to Peter by Jesus. The ahistorical paradigm insisted on by Trent was rejected by Vatican II, when that ecumenical council accepted that historical fact and the human and ecclesiological truth that it revealed.

The church has the authority. It’s time to stop hiding behind this appeal to impotence: if prelates oppose this change or that change, they should man up (and I use the phrase advisedly) and make their case.

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Thoughts on the Sign of Peace and the Sacrifice (and Supper) of the Mass

When I was in college, I often went to daily mass — it was easy, because the chapel faced the quad where many of my classes were. There were usually 5-10 of us there, including both chaplains. In those days, it was acceptable to celebrate mass for a small group while seated around a conference table, which is what we did. And at the sign of peace, we would all get up and progress around the table, so that everyone exchanged the sign of peace with everyone else.

Many of us exchanged hugs with the people we knew well, or with whom we were friends, instead of shaking hands. I liked that: I hadn’t grown up in a very affectionate household, and I appreciated that kind of affection. So I hugged folks, too. And of course, there was a regular crowd, so most of us knew each other.

One day, during the sign of peace, I was very surprised when one of those regulars who was a friend of mine, a fellow named Dan Shedd, shook my hand instead of hugging me. I was very taken aback, and felt a little hurt. Had I done something wrong? Was he mad at me?

He made a point of talking with me after mass was over, and explained. He’d decided to stop hugging his friends at the sign of peace, he said, because that made it more about his friendship with that person than about the peace of Christ, which we were all meant to be sharing together. Hugging some people and not others was a counter-sign, contrary to the purpose of the liturgical rite.
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That was 34 years ago, and I still remember the lesson I learned that day. Thank you, Dan, wherever you are.

This is the first thing that came to mind when I heard about the latest Vatican pronouncement on the sign of peace. I haven’t read the story, yet, but it’s all over my twitter feed, retweeted with indignant commentary by folks who are distressed that displays of emotion or affection have been deemed inappropriate for the sign of peace.

The second thing that came to mind, though, is that this seems to be grounded in a particular culturally-conditioned understanding of reverence Continue reading

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