The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV) is closely watching the situation in Ferguson, Missouri and we are deeply disturbed by what we see unfolding there. Our hearts go out to the family of Michael Brown, Jr. as they deal with an unimaginable loss.
Part of the basic social contract created by our Constitution is that government be transparent and accountable to the people. That is clearly not happening in Ferguson at this time. The Ferguson Police Department has yet to release the name of the officer who shot and killed teenager Michael Brown, who was unarmed. They have assaulted, arrested and held journalists who were exercising their First Amendment rights without filing charges or completing any paperwork. They have responded to largely peaceful protests with a heavily militarized force (approximately 70 SWAT members and an armored vehicle) and trained loaded weapons on Ferguson residents, including children. They have deployed tear gas and bean bag rounds against protesters and news media. This state of affairs is unthinkable in the United States of America.
For years, we have differed with the pro-gun movement over the use of coercive force in a democratic society. It is our contention that states with unregulated private militias are rarely, if ever, functional. That said, the government’s “monopoly on force” must be subject to civilian control, and it comes with tremendous responsibility to adhere to democratic principles of good governance. The Ferguson Police Department has breached their responsibility under any test.
For this reason, we are pleased to see that the Department of Justice and FBI have launched their own investigations into the killing of Michael Brown. Oversight of this nature is critical in ensuring transparency. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon must also step forward and address a dangerous and escalating situation. There must be accountability for Ferguson police officers who are engaging in excesses. If they cannot discharge their duties in a professional manner, they need to be replaced, immediately.
The situation in Ferguson should also be cause for reflection on the continuing arms race between civilians and law enforcement in our country. We must recognize that Ferguson is not the norm. The overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers are good men and women who are legitimately concerned about the type of firepower they are now being confronted with on America’s streets. This arms race is making our neighborhoods more dangerous and benefitting only one party: the gun industry, which sees continuing escalation as a business opportunity. We must all come together—civilians and law enforcement alike—to curb the proliferation of military-style firepower in our society.
To their credit, the family of Michael Brown, Jr. is calling for a different solution to the profound divide in their community. “Michael would have wanted no violence,” said Michael Brown, Sr. “We need justice for our son.” We urge all residents of Ferguson—and concerned citizens across America—to heed the Brown family’s request. As we express our outrage to these tragic events, let us recall, too, the words of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
Finally, we acknowledge the comparisons that many are drawing between what is happening in Ferguson and the armed standoff that took place at the Bundy ranch this past April. The dramatic differences in law enforcement response to the two events are difficult to ignore. Why are white pro-gun activists able to point loaded firearms at law enforcement and avoid accountability under the law altogether while unarmed, peaceful African-American citizens are met with a militarized police force and mass arrests? The most important idea in American political philosophy is that of equality. That principle has been sorely tested by these events, and must ultimately be vindicated by the rule of law.