Since August 9 crowds have assembled in Ferguson, Missouri to protest the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer. But questions about whether the shooting of an unarmed 18-year old was justified have been set aside in the face of what many people call heavy-handed attempts to maintain order.
Protesters have complained that their free speech and assembly rights have been violated by heavy-handed tactics. Some have likened the policing to a military occupation, pointing to raised weapons and the use of tear gas and smoke bombs to disperse crowds.
Law enforcement officials insist that their first priority is public safety. With bottles and Molotov cocktails flying at police, and the occasional gunshot fired in crowded spaces, maintaining order is necessary.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon imposed a brief curfew, saying, "If we're going to achieve justice, we first must have and maintain peace."
One question that is being debated is how much a large number of heavily armed law enforcement may tend to provoke a citizenry on edge. Where trust of authority is weak, how can order be maintained without inviting more violence?
The Occupation of Boston
Suspicions of a military presence among civilians were familiar to American colonists of the 18th century. They particularly feared that soldiers lacking a war to fight would create havoc in their towns.
When Great Britain decided to clamp down on colonists’ misbehavior in the 1760s, they accomplished it by sending soldiers to Boston in October 1768.
It was one of the most oppressive measures in the years preceding the Revolutionary War. In April 1769, the Massachusetts Council complained to the British secretary of state for the American colonies about being treated “as if in an Enemy’s Country.”
Tensions came to a head in March 1770, when an angry mob confronted the British near the Custom House on King Street. The Boston Massacre left five Bostonians dead, including an escaped slave named Crispus Attucks.
One of the first historians of the Revolution, Mercy Otis Warren, wrote in 1805 that the Revolution could be traced to the moment in 1768 when “several regiments were landed, and marched sword in hand through the principal streets” of Boston.
However much it contributed to revolution, the presence of soldiers in Boston escalated tensions.
Is that part of what happened in Ferguson? Since 9/11, billions of dollars of surplus military equipment has been transferred to local law enforcement agencies, partly as an anti-terrorism strategy and partly because the military no longer needs a lot of what was used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Critics argue local police have neither the training nor the need for the equipment, and that using it makes violence more likely.
The United States is a nation of laws. We depend on the police for our safety and protection, and for the fair enforcement of the law. We want them to stop the looting and destruction of property.
But Americans also demand justice. And we depend on our First Amendment rights—to free speech, and assembly, and petition—to achieve that justice.
How should we strike a balance? Is it possible to achieve the justice Ferguson’s protesters are demanding while keeping the peace?