In 1970, we had a Riot; Ferguson Looks Like War


The news from Ferguson, Missouri, has brought back unpleasant memories from the long-ago riots in Asbury Park, New Jersey. It was the summer of 1970, and I was a young teenager close enough to the action to be appropriately frightened.

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The riots I remember were also fueled by racial grievances, and there were similar issues with white officers and black rioters. And, just like the sad story unfolding in Missouri, a reporter was arrested in the Asbury Park riots. The claim is that he was “interfering with the police.” There were other similarities as well, especially the confusion and competing storylines. An AP story said, “State police admitted firing warning shots but offered no explanation for the wounds.” Some defended the police while others said they were part of the problem.

We put a brave front on the news for family and friends back home and joked about “counting the gun shots to fall asleep at night.” But we really didn’t sleep very well. Sadly, many days of shooting were followed with reports of dozens wounded.

Despite the similarities, there is a huge and horrible difference.

In the Asbury Park riots, the police used Billy clubs and shotguns. The rioters responded with rocks, bottles and some homemade bombs. It was unpleasant and dangerous, but it was a riot.

In Ferguson, there are armored vehicles and it looks more like a war, with one side unarmed. There were officers in military camouflage gear, and the federal government declared the skies above a no-fly zone. This was an occupying force not appropriate for a free country. As Mary Katherine Hamm noted, “We ask more of police in a free society than creating militarized zones out of tough situations.”

The driving force behind this militarization of the police has been the federal government. For two decades, a federal program has been giving out military grade weaponry and vehicles to local police departments. Talking Points Memo reports that “The Ferguson and St. Louis County police departments have both received equipment from the U.S. military” through that program.

This creates an unstable and difficult situation for our nation.

On the one hand, technology is empowering individuals and giving us more freedom than ever before. “The devices and connectivity so essential to modern life put unprecedented power in the hands of every individual,” according to Harvard’s Nicco Mele. What this means is that middle-class and lower-income Americans are on the verge of being empowered as never before.

This is “a radical redistribution of power that our traditional institutions don’t and perhaps can’t understand.” Mele’s book “The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath” gives a sense of what’s coming and why it should terrify defenders of the status quo. “Radical connectivity is toxic to traditional power structures.”

On the other hand, government agencies worried about losing control are resorting to ever more forceful means of keeping the public in line.

The digital revolution should open a golden era for empowering individuals. Let’s hope that it’s not stopped by the militarization of our police forces.

And, while we’re worrying about the future of our nation, let’s also remember to say a prayer for everyone in Ferguson.

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