“Just do what I tell you”

I have refrained from commenting too much on the situation in Ferguson, mostly because there are so many people actually on the scene there who are doing a far better job. The mainstream news has been awful in covering all of this – it’s being treated as your classic “urban unrest” story even if it’s anything but – but each morning I look back at my Twitter feed at the reports of journalists and citizens on the scene in Ferguson from the night before and I’m heartbroken.

Heartbroken that a kid is dead for apparently no reason. Heartbroken that no one seems all that eager to hold the kid’s killer to account. Heartbroken that, in response to wholly understandable protests about all of this, the police have chosen to escalate, perpetrate and incite violence and to arrest people who have the temerity to exercise their First Amendment rights. How can this not break your heart?

But while I can’t comment with much insight about what is happening in Ferguson, some of what has spun out of this has infuriated me. Stuff like politicians calling voter registration drives in Ferguson “disgusting.” We all must, apparently, remain silent while democracy breaks down around us, but an effort to involve people in democracy is “disgusting?” Do people not hear themselves? Is the political playbook so inviolate and the game plan which demands that “the other side” be allowed no perceived advantage so locked in that the patent absurdity of such statements eludes them?

Or how about this op-ed from a police officer/security professor in the Washington Post which seeks to tell people what it’s really like to be a cop:

Even though it might sound harsh and impolitic, here is the bottom line: if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long?

I’m sure a lot of people who consider themselves pro-law and order will nod along with that, taking comfort in his confident matter-of-fact tone. People love that stuff, actually. It makes them feel that they’re privy to the no-nonsense world of Men Who Get Things Done. There are entire industries built around that impulse.

But the thing is: almost none of the behaviors he cites actually justifies a use of force. Indeed, you can quite legally call a cop any name you’d like or tell him anything you’d like short of a physical threat and, under the law, not expect to be shot, tased or beaten. Perhaps that’s crazy, but it is 100% true.

But not to this police officer. A police officer who purports to speak for other police officers. Who, if this man is to be believed, think it’s totally OK to use force, not just to protect themselves or others, but to shut people up or to summarily punish them for voicing their objections.

And we wonder how things like Ferguson can happen.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.

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