Jay Nixon declares state of emergency “to protect civil rights”

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon carefully holds two contradictory ideas in his head.

Yesterday, Governor Jay Nixon issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency in Missouri “to protect civil rights” ahead of a grand jury’s decision on whether to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. You may remember Wilson from August, when he shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown and touched off protests followed by riots in the largely black suburb of St. Louis. You may also remember the term doublethink from George Orwell’s novel 1984. I quote Gov. Nixon’s executive order:

I further direct the Missouri State Highway Patrol together with the St. Louis County Police Department and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department to operate as a Unified Command to protect civil rights and ensure public safety in the City of Ferguson and the St. Louis region. I further order that the St. Louis County Police Department shall have command and operational control over security in the City of Ferguson relating to areas of protests, acts of civil disobedience and conduct otherwise arising from such activities.

If there’s one thing guaranteed to protect civil rights, it’s the Highway Patrol, city and county police departments acting as a unified command over areas of protest. If there are two things that do that, it’s a unified police command with plenty of tear gas.

There’s not much reason to believe the Wilson grand jury will announce its decision soon. It’s expected to decide whether to indict in mid- to late November, so we’re talking about the possibility of a negative public response to one of two possible decisions that could possibly be announced in the next two weeks.

But law enforcement is taking no chances. On Friday, the FBI issued a bulletin warning local police departments that:

“The announcement of the grand jury’s decision…will likely be exploited by some individuals to justify threats and attacks against law enforcement and critical infrastructure. This also poses a threat to those civilians engaged in lawful or otherwise constitutionally protected activities.”

It’s nice that the FBI is keeping an eye out, nationally, for unpopular state actions that might trigger the need for law enforcement to quell public demonstrations. They’re not suggesting that police disperse legal protests, of course. But the likelihood that a bad element will “exploit” the grand jury decision threatens lawful protestors, so they might need to be sent home for their own safety.

To recap: the governor of Missouri has declared a state of emergency because he anticipates the people of Ferguson being very angry at a decision that hasn’t been made yet, and the FBI has told police departments to be on the lookout for widespread public dissent. Both of these measures were taken to protect civil rights.

Meanwhile, supporters of Officer Wilson launched a successful crowdfunding campaign to put a billboard over Ferguson that reads #PantsUpDon’tLoot. It’s funny because (A) it lampoons the protest chant “hands up, don’t shoot” and (B) it’s racist. Frankly, I don’t see why we haven’t put billboards in every black neighborhood that say “pull up your pants and don’t steal.” That would protect the hell out of civil rights.

If you heard that a cop shot an unarmed black teenager and decided that was right, you can buy a billboard to taunt a whole town. But if you heard a cop in your town shot an unarmed black teenager and decided that was wrong, your governor will declare a state of emergency on the off chance you get mad later.

Nothing excuses the use of force, though, or resistance to force. I again quote the FBI bulletin:

“The FBI assesses those infiltrating and exploiting otherwise legitimate public demonstrations with the intent to incite and engage in violence could be armed with bladed weapons or firearms, equipped with tactical gear/gas masks, or bulletproof vests to mitigate law enforcement measures.”

In the history of euphemism, has there ever been a phrase more inspiring than “bulletproof vests to mitigate law enforcement measures?” Ahead of possible protests in response to a possible grand jury decision, the FBI has warned police across America that shooting us might not be enough.

I recognize that these are the actions of only a few individuals. One of them is a governor, though, and another is our national domestic law enforcement agency. Police, the FBI and the State of Missouri have come together to shut down public protests that haven’t happened yet, and they’re doing it all in the name of civil rights. Of course you have the right to protest. This is America. But you have no right to put on that bulletproof vest.

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  1. I must be getting old because I just don’t see tyranny like I used to.

    Since I do not know what credible threats have been leveled at Ferguson police or related to the grand jury outcome, I have to evaluate the Governor’s declaration of emergency solely in terms of realpolitik. And it seems pretty obvious he’s taking the stick from local Ferguson police and passing it to more competent and less hated forces in a higher jurisdiction. Seems as likely an olive branch to communities of color as a strategic decision, to me on the outside.

    The police are inextricably linked to force. We call them “police forces” whether in passing or to emphasize their fascist nature. Everyone agrees. So can we stop acting surprised when they operate squarely in a force-based context? As a skilled writer once noted about the incongruous disdain for the IRS:

    “First of all, can we stop referring to the IRS as if it were not part of the federal government we all voted for and to whose laws we willingly submit? It’s not like we start stories with “a mugger defied the police department by punching an old lady.””

    In this piece you have noted with sarcasm that unified command over an area of protest is tactical rather than oriented toward ensuring civil rights. That would be like mocking the report filed about the old lady’s attack for including a description of the mugger.

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