When you hear that there was no tear gas in Ferguson last night, no rubber bullets, you might be tempted to relax about the situation. Don’t do that.
Police in Ferguson may not have been indiscriminately shooting tear gas at everyone they saw on the street, but what happened last night was still seventeen flavors of fucked up. That it was an improvement over the night before is a measure of the previous night’s depravity, not an indication of competent police peacekeeping.
As on previous nights, most of the protesters were both angry and peaceful. Leaders trying to keep the peace were doing the job that a police force invested in the community would have done. When someone’s feelings got the best of them, and they started yelling at the police, those leaders came in, spoke to the upset person, and calmed the situation.
The police, meanwhile, tended to rush forward en masse. In an improvement over previous nights, they returned to their positions when the immediate situation was handled. Still, every time they moved, people in the crowd wondered whether that was the moment all would go to hell and the entire town would be gassed again. The police also had dogs with them and brought them out into the crowd, in a move as racially tone deaf as that of the CNN anchor who wondered why police weren’t using water cannons on the protests.
Several community organizers and volunteers were out handing out water, masks, and supplies for dealing with tear gas. A couple of them were rousted by officers who said they’d received reports that there were guns present. Another was hit with pepper spray late in the evening for reasons that are currently unclear.
There continued to be reports from protesters and media of outsiders, often but not always white, trying to ramp up the confrontation by taunting police or throwing water bottles, rocks, or bricks at them. It was in arresting these people that the police in Ferguson continued to demonstrate that they are out of control. They gave conflicting orders, then threatened to shoot people who didn’t or couldn’t follow them. In one case, an officer, with finger on the trigger, threatened to shoot someone lying on the ground who tried to move into a position in which he could breathe. This was not one of the people they’d moved in to arrest (for throwing a water bottle, to all appearances). Another threatened to kill a reporter.
At a press conference, Captain Johnson defended aggressive policing methods as ensuring that police not be injured. Everyone else I saw tweeting from the area described a police force that was continually physically escalating the situation and pushing protesters into situations in which both they and the police were effectively trapped. The fact that they de-escalated much of the time did not change the fact that protesters and media were not willing to follow directions they thought would enable police violence or able to follow directions that were unclear and contradictory.
Police continued to work without identification. One officer told a reporter with Al Jazeera that they were operating this way by order of superiors. An officer who had pointed a gun at a group of people tried to demand his picture not be taken.
Amnesty International continues to observe.
The county prosecutor, who has close family ties to local police, convenes a grand jury this morning. It is reported that Darren Wilson will be allowed to testify before the grand jury. There is no word whether any of the five eyewitnesses to the original shooting will be called.