When Did it Become the Norm for Police to Crush Americans' Rights?
The militarized police force unleashed in Ferguson, Missouri over the past two weeks has crushed the civil liberties of black residents angry over the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown. That law enforcement has shown utter disregard for the rights of protesters and the press is no surprise to many, especially black people, who have had to contend with pervasive surveillance and harassment in varied forms for much of American history. Yet what makes the situation in Ferguson look especially scary and dystopic are the militarized weapons being used to crush constitutional rights.
The first civil liberty to be trampled on by cops was the right to protest, or as the Constitution puts it, “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” Protests have occurred almost daily since August 9, the day Brown was killed by Ferguson officer Darren Wilson. When demonstrations broke out over the shooting, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets and used vehicles that produce piercing sounds to disperse the crowd.
In the wake of these scenes, groups like Human Rights Watch have charged that the methods law enforcement used have intimidated peaceful demonstrators. “Ferguson police are compounding problems with threats and the use of unnecessary force against people peacefully protesting the police killing of Michael Brown,” Human Rights Watch’s U.S. researcher Alba Morales said in a statement. “They should be upholding basic rights to peaceful assembly and free speech, not undermining them.”
Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick, and Daria Roithmayr, a law professor, argue that excessive tear gas and rubber bullets also violate the constitutional right to due process. “The due process clause bans the police from using excessive force even when they are within their rights to control a crowd or arrest a suspect,” they write.
Despite this criticism, the police in Ferguson have not changed their tactics.
When citizens with camera phones and journalists have tried to document police tactics, officers have sought to prevent them from doing so. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of a journalist who was told by police to stop recording with his camera. On August 15, the police and the ACLU reached an agreement that would allow the videotaping of police officers as long as officers are able to do their jobs.
The crackdown on dissent escalated on August 16, when Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon imposed a midnight curfew on the city. Nixon's justification was that the curfew would prevent looting, which was taking place sporadically in the city. But many residents feared that the curfew would lead to police violence and clashes with residents, which is what happened.
After the curfew imposition, three groups—American Civil Liberties Union, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund—issued a statement outlining how the order was unconstitutional. The order “suspends the constitutional right to assemble by punishing the misdeeds of the few through the theft of constitutionally protected rights of the many,” the statement said. “The suspension of constitutional rights in Ferguson does much more than suppress speech. It subjects an entire community to imprisonment in their homes—a lockdown on the residents of Ferguson who have done no wrong and seek nothing more than justice.”
The curfew was lifted two days after Nixon imposed it.
The civil liberties violations that have received the most attention are the attacks on journalists. Some argue that Ferguson only became a national story because police in riot gear went into a McDonald’s and arrested two journalists: Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly and the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery. Police told the journalists to stop recording what they were doing and assaulted them both.
President Barack Obama condemned the violations of press freedom the next day. There’s “no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights,” the President said. But the police kept on targeting reporters. Law enforcement officers in Ferguson have threatened journalists, tear-gassed them, shot them with rubber bullets and arrested them. In total, 17 journalists have been arrested while on the job in Ferguson, according to a count kept by the Freedom of the Press Foundation.
The trashing of core civil liberties has become a frequent occurrence at major protests. In 2004, the New York Police Department arrested 1,800 protesters, passersby and journalists during demonstrations centered around the Republican National Convention. The city eventually agreed to pay $18 million to settle the lawsuits stemm from the mass arrests. The New York police also cracked down on protests and the press when Occupy Wall Street started in 2011.
Ferguson is no anomaly. There will be plenty of lawsuits filed against the police for violating constitutional rights. But the trampling of civil liberties points to a systemic problem that individual court orders and settlements won’t fix. The police in America have decided that when it suits them, the Constitution doesn’t matter one bit. The residents of Ferguson likely knew this before the killing of Michael Brown led to mass protests. But for many Americans captivated by the scenes in Missouri, it’s a new reality.