DISPATCHES | The United States of Ferguson

08/18/14 | By | More

We are extremely lucky, here in San Miguel County, to live in a place where the American justice and police systems function the way they should. Lucky because, in vast parts of our country, citizens are under the constant threat of harassment and violence at the hands of poorly trained, ill-disciplined law enforcement personnel, with a court system that consistently fails to protect their rights. This situation has grown dramatically worse over the past few decades, due to a wide variety of factors: a court system that tilts toward the rich and powerful; a cynical, profit-obsessed media that terrifies the public with hyped-up “news” stories of non-existent “crime waves” and “drug epidemics,” inspiring cowardly legislators into rushing into law obscenely unjust (and un-American) programs like the “War on Drugs;” and the militarization of what were once called “peace officers,” leading to the spectacle of gutless, nutless Barney Fifes like those in Ferguson, riding through American streets in APCs like Blitzkrieg-ing Panzers, brandishing automatic weapons and taunting citizens with racial slurs.  (Point of info: if any American military unit I was with in Iraq or Afghanistan had behaved like that their officers would have been reduced in rank and shipped stateside to Camp Bilko to spend the rest of their careers touching up the white paint on the 101,000 stones lining the roads and sidewalks…“And when you’re through, go back to the beginning and start over again.”)

In Ferguson, the current travesty of massive police misconduct and top-to-bottom incompetence by the officials supposedly overseeing them was touched off by institutionalized racism, but in many similar cases poverty, not color, is the villain.  Ever watch that nauseating television series Cops?   In episode after episode, police terrorized the residents of lower-income neighborhoods, regardless of skin color.  I remember one in which a young white woman motorist was stopped on some specious pretense. “Do you know why I pulled you over?” the officer asked. “Because you’re driving through a known ‘drug neighborhood’ at two in the morning.  You’re not one of these dirtbag drug users, are you?” leading quickly to “Mind if I look through your purse?  If you’re innocent, you’ve got nothing to hide, and if you refuse I can always call in and get a warrant.”

Confused and frightened, the woman handed over her purse, and, voila!  the cop triumphantly held up a vial containing a minute amount of white powder.  Ah, another triumph for “law and order.”

The fact that so many Americans actually liked to watch this kind of voyeuristic trash opened the door to ever-worse material like no-knock searches conducted on households full of screaming “suspects,” with officers “establishing control over the scene” by holding guns to the heads of unarmed grandmothers, screaming “Don’t move, or I’ll kill you!” while children sobbed and babies wailed…. And then the sanctimonious words on the screen, “All suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.”

And now we have the ultimate, the inevitable: “documentaries” on life inside jails and prisons, with the prisoners treated like animals in a human zoo:  “Come gawk at these enemies of society!”

Hey, how about a documentary series on the arrest of billionaire Wall Street swindlers, who sabotaged our entire economy and ruined the lives of millions of innocent homeowners?  Oops, sorry, never happen.

The other day someone said to me, “Now that Americans have watched what’s going down in Ferguson, things will change.” I don’t think so: not with privatized prisons making fortunes for their stockholders, and defense contractors unloading billions of dollars in military hardware to local police forces…as long as there’s meat to be picked from the carcass of the corpse of “the Land of the Free, and the Home of the Brave,” we are all living in Ferguson, except for the 1 percent holed up behind the fortress walls of their gated communities.

Good luck to the rest of us, because we’re going to need it.

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Category: Commentary, Dispatches, Opinion

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