One way events in Ferguson, Missouri have affected English usage is by promoting the second sense of “disperse” as a transitive verb. To disperse as an intransitive verb, of course, is to stop demonstrating and go back to your homes. The most common sense of “disperse” as a transitive verb, with an object, is “to distribute or spread over a wide area.” That is precisely what the Missouri National Guard, the state Highway Patrol, and dozens of police with military equipment hope not to do with protests in Ferguson. When they disperse protesters—with tear gas or simply by making it illegal to stand in one place—they do it in the second, less common sense: to “cause to go in different directions.” The protest does not disperse; it gets dispersed, but the word retains a savor of consent.
Now is a good time to think about the consent of the governed in Ferguson, if for no other reason than that everyone else seems narrowly focused on governing. Law enforcers of all stripes have announced that they are there to protect property and prevent violence, a strategy that seems to coincide with dispersing protests an awful lot.
They declared a curfew, then lifted it, then outlawed protesting at night. Yesterday, authorities banned stationary protests, literally telling Jesse Jackson to keep walking. I don’t doubt that a stationary protest is more likely to erupt into violence than a march. But in America, government is for more than preventing eruptions—especially during times of unrest.
The first priority of law enforcement in Ferguson has been to take charge of the situation generally. Here’s possibly-misspelled resident Antione Watson:
It almost seems like they can’t decide what to do, and like law enforcement is fighting over who’s got the power. First they do this, then there’s that, and now who can even tell what their plan is? They can try all of this, but I don’t see an end to this until there are charges against the cop.
In this time of civil unrest, it does seem that the factions governing Ferguson have tried everything but giving the public what it wants. To put it more coarsely, everyone who decides what’s happening in Ferguson is holding a gun, and everyone without a gun gets dispersed.
Probably some authority is negotiating with community and protest leaders, and the news is only covering tear gas. But I have read little about plans to discipline Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown, or to address the seemingly accurate perception that a white minority runs Ferguson at the expense of blacks. Instead, various law enforcement agencies are taking turns to see what might make everyone stop protesting—or just make protest impossible.
Footage of police in body armor gassing protestors suggests that the authorities are less concerned with the carrot than the stick. They might give demonstrators what they want later, but they have to stop demonstrating for it now. Government and media seem to agree that preventing violence and looting should be the top priority in Ferguson, but given the occasion, I’m not sure that’s true.
Obviously, violence is bad. We do not conduct our civic lives by throwing trash cans through windows. But the violence is already a term of the equation in Ferguson. The police put it there, and they have used it against the public systematically and consistently ever since.
Officer Wilson used violence to enforce police control—maybe lawful, maybe not—when he shot an unarmed 18 year-old. The Missouri Highway Patrol and now the Guard use violence when they fire tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds of demonstrators. It is true that a large crowd of angry people has a propensity for violence, but the police have made violence real at every turn. Their response to public protest has insisted that violence decide all the major questions in Ferguson this week.
It so happens they enjoy a monopoly on violence. Some protestors have molotov cocktails and handguns—seized weapons for which Highway Patrol Captain Ronald Johnson chastised the public yesterday, flouting irony. “We can’t have this,” he said, evidently unaware that his team had deployed automatic weapons and military vehicles. Perhaps he meant to say “you can’t have this.”
Violence is forbidden in civil discourse. The protestors of Ferguson are trying to discourse at the most fundamental civic level, and the violence with which they have been dispersed far outweighs the violence they have committed. Ferguson residents aren’t allowed to wield violence, but they aren’t allowed to demonstrate in the streets, either. The government has demanded that negotiations begin with the governed shutting up and going home. It has its soldiers in the streets, so it isn’t exactly asking.