By Mina Shah
Two weeks ago, before the announcement of the disappointing and yet expected verdict on Darren Wilson’s (non-)indictment, Missouri governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency in Ferguson to prepare for the grand jury’s decision and its announcement. Nixon justified signing the executive order by citing the “possibility of expanded unrest” that could ensue.
While Nixon was trying to keep the interests of the people at heart and prevent the sort of violence that negatively impacted the image of peaceful protests in Ferguson, the decision to enact the state of emergency was premature. Moreover, it increased tensions, priming the city, state and nation for a more violent response than would have necessarily ensued without the paramilitary and National Guard presence.
States of emergency are generally not issued without concrete evidence of necessity. They are declared “by proclamation of the governor…upon the actual occurrence of a natural or man-made disaster.” This calls into question whether it was even permissible for the governor to enact a state of emergency as he did. There had been no large-scale disaster in Ferguson: no terrorism, bioterrorism, wild fire, wind, flood, earthquake, or other natural or man made disaster. Furthermore, the law states that a state of emergency can be declared “upon the actual occurrence” of said disaster. When Governor Nixon issued the order, none of the protests had been anything but peaceful.
Further, bringing armed soldiers into the city prior to any actual violence or action sends a clear signal to the public: that the government believes that arms will be necessary to keep the protests under control. This can be viewed as a gaping lack of trust on the part of the state government towards the protesting citizens in Ferguson, which will not make angry protesters less likely to react with force. In fact, it would probably make them even angrier and more likely to react in non-peaceful ways. A state of emergency also indicates a lack of respect toward Ferguson’s protesters, as if they are incapable of protesting without having a host of babysitters.
The governor’s call for the presence of armed National Guard members was especially foolish, considering the history of race relations in this nation. Immediately, we are reminded of the 1992 Los Angeles riots and various protests quashed during the Civil Rights Movement. This is because they all share the common thread of race relations and police presence in protests. Police force in all of these conflicts was used to control protests, resulting in many injuries. We need not to look far into our historical memory to draw connections to the 1992 riots. This ought to be particularly disconcerting, since so much destruction followed the uprisings. If people began to believe that the protests in Missouri could unravel into something of the magnitude of what happened in Los Angeles, they might be more likely to take up arms, even if just for the sole purpose of self-defense.
Furthermore, uneven possession of arms and an assumption of guilt caused this whole situation in the first place. Mainly white enforcers are controlling a largely black population. Reinforcing the popular notion of white officers with weapons and black civilians without them seems like deja vu. We’ve seen this before: armed white cop and unarmed black civilian. It ends up looking like the initial conditions of the Mike Brown shooting, but on a larger scale. This sort of correlation will not diffuse any sort of tension and would probably increase it.
The presence of weapons in any situation automatically makes it more dangerous and raises the level of fear in the people involved. Fear is a powerful motivator of irrational decision-making and that might lead to the escalation of violence. Gun sales in Ferguson rose dramatically in anticipation of the verdict, likely a result of a fearful desire for self-defense.
Besides not effectively serving its function, introducing a state of emergency in Ferguson was also a poor decision because of its appearance to the nation. With all the nation’s eyes on Ferguson, Governor Nixon’s executive order demonstrates that he does not have the requisite relationship with his people to manage protests without the use of force. This looks like oppression and restriction, not like a protection of the Constitutional right to peaceably assemble.
Generally, raising tensions around an already possibly volatile situation is probably the worst way to address that situation. This idea still holds true to the state of affairs in Ferguson. And if the people are willing to get together for the sake of what they believe to be justice, maybe Missouri should listen more closely to the people.
Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.