Ferguson History Repeated Around the World: the Lesson for National Security Civil Servants
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” - George Santayana
Michael Brown’s death last year at the hands of Police Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri became a focal point for both community outrage and a renewed civil liberties movement across the Country. Unfortunately, the anniversary was marked by the same violence that plagued the town for months following the tragedy. Where protestors demonstrated to remind the world that little has changed for blacks and other minorities in communities like Ferguson, violent interlopers used the event to justify vandalism and attacks on police. Clearly, the lessons of Ferguson need reviewed while the lessons can be applied throughout the world.
Looking at the violent relationship between Ukraine and Russia, as well as the contentious relationship of Russia with the West, the unhealthy dynamics surrounding the Ferguson shooting are shared by many conflicts that persist and periodically escalate into violent outbursts. The violent relationship of the Palestinians with the Israelis, as well the uneasy relationship of Israel with the Muslim world, serves as another example. Considering crises like the South Sea Chinese conflict, Arab Spring Revolutions, the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, and so many more, there is no shortage of parallels to social conflicts like those in Ferguson and those seen elsewhere in the world.
The reluctance of Ferguson police to engage the public in a transparent, sensitive manner as they investigated the killing of the black teenager, who was reportedly shot while his hands were in the air, pushed residents to demand justice. Coupled with overly aggressive police interventions, which included the use of military equipment during ongoing protests, the sense of injustice for the poor and minority community ruled by whites resonates across the International Community. Unfortunately, it also brought outsiders into the community who simply wanted a platform to unleash a wave of violence. In turn, this violence fed a reoccurring cycle of greater resentment, violence, and a failure to the legitimate grievances of the community.
What people expect the police to do, or any security force for that matter, is to protect them from threats, but people also need to feel as though the police are not a threat themselves. Otherwise, the police are just armed gangs in the eyes of those who feel marginalized. Without trust and respect, an authority figure is nothing but a criminal empowered by the government and protected by the Law. For a police department to fulfill these two requirements and garner the cooperation of a population, they need to have a working relationship built on mutual trust and respect.
In other words, security forces, which include armies and national security officials such as those in the CIA or NSA, need to demonstrate they have respect for the people living in the communities they operate within while building trust by reaching out to those who do not see the police as a constructive part of their community and lives. For the sake of their safety and the safety of the public, there are times when the police must be authoritative in their approach, but they must also continually demonstrate they are only doing so when it is necessary.
Seeing the police run a red light at an empty intersection or arrogantly harassing known criminals, instead of trying to re-socialize them, breeds distrust and a lack of credibility that undermines the ability of the police to be an effective security force. The police are employed by a community to serve them. A failure to serve creates a situation where the community is divided by the immunity of the police to seemingly act as they please and the brute force they can legally use against citizens, who would be punished for defending themselves from the far more powerful police.
One of the many topics raised throughout the discussion of the Ferguson shooting has been the lack of black police officers on the local police force, even after efforts to recruit blacks into law enforcement. Clearly, blacks in the community feel the mostly white police force presumes blacks to be guilty before innocent, which is a perception reinforced by statistics revealing the disparity in how the American justice system treats blacks. Although recruiting more blacks into a police force could help dispel such a notion on the local level and curb potential racial behavior of white officers, the driving force behind the problem is actually the failure of the police to build a proper relationship with black members of the community.
Building on the lack of trust and community outreach, the much discussed “militarization” of police forces throughout America following the September 11th terrorist attacks has helped transform the police officer from a public servant and valued member of the community into a big, scary storm trooper ready for combat. In essence, armor can be a wall when it comes to engaging members of the community. The use of riot gear and armored vehicles, even if they are repurposed military equipment, is a necessary safety precaution in certain situations, but the militarization of a police force also involves a shift in thinking.
A person with a gun is more likely to use that weapon, because he has a gun and the psychological impact of having the gun makes the individual more likely to view a situation as threatening enough to justify the use of the gun. Similarly, heavily armed police can only be expected to view potential threats as far more serious than what they are. Where innate racial perceptions drive the mistreatment of blacks by the police, the militarization of the police creates a situation where innocent blacks are more likely to be viewed as lethal threats and become the victims of the police.
With that in mind, Ferguson exemplifies for the American People how events like the Ukraine Crisis, the Hamas-Israeli war, and the Islamic State-Shiite conflict in Iraq can lead to perpetual cycles of escalating violence. In all these situations, there is, at least, one weaker party that feels victimized by another stronger party whose actions to address their own interests threatens the weaker party. The Ukrainians, Palestinians, and Sunnis feel as though they are victims of stronger ethnicities just as blacks often feel disenfranchised by whites. In turn, Russia, Israel, and the Shiite majority of Iraq react in heavy-handed ways, because they feel threatened just as the police often feel threatened by the violence of the communities they serve.
Furthermore, the West, the Muslim world, and Iraqi security forces, as even more powerful outside entities like the Missouri Gubernatorial Administration and the Obama Administration, recognize the inappropriate overreaction of these insecure parties and chastise their extreme behavior, which sometimes leads to their own heavy-handed responses. The driving force behind this type of escalating dynamic is, in fact, the lack of working relationships that could turn perceived threats, rooted in insecurities, into allies against real threats. Building healthy relationships, as all security forces need to do, is a means of addressing security interests without creating additional threats by leaving weaker groups feeling vulnerable.
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