THE BLOG
08/29/2014 09:54 pm ET | Updated Oct 29, 2014

Police Tactics Again Under the Spotlight in Racially Charged Demonstrations: When Will They Ever Learn?

Scott Olson via Getty Images

The events in Ferguson demonstrate once again the unsurprising results of a recent empirical study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, that found that "[p]olice tactics often provoke protesters." They also remind us how little we retain of lessons that should be learned from past experience.

It is extraordinarily troubling that Missouri, St. Louis County and Ferguson government and police officials were so utterly clueless about the fundamentals of dealing with super-heated situations where excessive force and aggressive tactics can turn peaceful mass demonstrations into riots.

We have been here before. As Pete Seeger wrote as American embroilment escalated in Vietnam, "When will they ever learn?"

The Berkeley study referenced above summarizes some of the key lessons we have had over time based on the tragic consequences of bull-headed police tactics. To put it bluntly, the authorities were so clueless and clumsy in Ferguson that they did not know they had to act promptly and consistently; be compassionate to the victim's family; and keep themselves and their police from escalating into inflammatory rhetoric and gross misstatement. They acted in ignorance of basic principles: the need to set up and follow a clear and unified command structure; give clear and consistent orders to their forces; coordinate and keep control over all their forces; keep their forces from using no more force or show of force than necessary to contain and control each situation; and keep their forces from provoking or starting violent confrontations with peaceful demonstrators. Instead they deployed uncoordinated police from departments throughout St. Louis County, unnecessarily armed with military weapons and equipment designed for use in war or extreme domestic situations. Their troops arrived in bomb-hardened military vehicles, brandished automatic rifles, and overused tear gas to disperse citizens.

The Missouri, St. Louis and Ferguson authorities demonstrated once again that, at least in some parts of America, memories remain far too short about events of the last 50 years, and lessons learned from those events.

The Consequences of Excessive Force

Here is where we should have learned about what not to do, from events over the last 50 years alone that were mishandled by politicians, police and National Guard -- painful lessons that were ignored or overlooked by the authorities in Missouri, St. Louis County and Ferguson:

Watts, 1965: In August 1965 riots flamed through Los Angeles' African-American Watts neighborhood. Watts became like a war zone. Before calm was restored, 3,900 National Guardsmen, more than 900 LAPD and more than 700 Los Angeles County officers were deployed. More than 30 people were killed, more than 1,000 were injured, and nearly 3,500 were arrested before the riots were quelled. All this was triggered by an inept and unduly forceful police arrest of several African Americans, then fueled by race issues and rumor, and not contained soon enough due to lack of police and government preparation, planning and prompt, measured action.

Detroit, 1967: Less than two years later a police raid of an unlicensed bar in Detroit on July 23, 1967, triggered five days of riots in which more than 40 people were killed, more than 1,100 injured, and more than 7,000 arrested. Many of the killed and injured were shot unnecessarily by undisciplined National Guardsmen firing military weapons, often at bystanders. Discipline was imposed and the riots ended only after federal troops were deployed and the National Guard was federalized.

Kent State, 1970: In April 1970 anti-war demonstrations and student strikes broke out on many U.S. college campuses in protest of President Richard Nixon's order to bomb of Cambodia during the Vietnam war. Following a riot through the town of Kent, Ohio, and the burning of the ROTC building on the Kent State University campus, Ohio Gov. James Rhodes ordered units of the Ohio National Guard to Kent State. The demonstrations morphed into protests both of the war and of the presence of the National Guard on the campus. On May 3 Gov. Rhodes ramped up the rhetoric, exclaiming at a press conference in Kent:

We've seen here, at the city of Kent especially, probably the most vicious form of campus-oriented violence yet perpetrated by dissident groups. They make definite plans of burning, destroying, and throwing rocks at police, and at the National Guard and the Highway Patrol. This is when we're going to use every part of the law-enforcement agency of Ohio to drive them out of Kent. We are going to eradicate the problem. We're not going to treat the symptoms. And these people just move from one campus to the other and terrorize the community. They're worse than the Brownshirts and the communist element and also the Night Riders and the vigilantes.

Shortly after noon on May 4, the Guard's commanders ordered the Guardsmen to disperse a crowd of demonstrators and other students who were just going to or from class. The Guardsmen had scant training in controlling civil disorders and were armed with military weapons, with a killing range of over a mile, which they had been ordered to "lock and load." They started by dispersing the crowd by marching menacingly at civilians with fixed bayonets and firing tear gas at them. Without warning a unit of the troops fired 67 rounds of ammunition over 13 seconds, most just in the general direction of students and some aimed at particular students. The Guardsmen killed four and wounded nine students.

Los Angeles, 1992: On March 3, 1991, LAPD officers were caught on video brutally beating Rodney King after King, an African American, led police on a high-speed chase through Los Angeles County. On April 29, 1992, four white LAPD officers who were involved in beating King were acquitted of violating state law by a jury in police-friendly Simi Valley. Los Angeles and state authorities had no contingency plans to control what happened next. In response to the acquittals, riots started in predominantly African-American South Central Los Angeles. They quickly spread well beyond that neighborhood. Before the riots ended many days later nearly 10,000 National Guard and federal troops were patrolling the streets of Los Angeles; more than 50 people were killed and over 2,000 were injured.

The Results of Taking Appropriate Action

Here is what happens when the authorities take (mostly) proper action to quell riots or control mass demonstrations:

Detroit, 1967: In 1965 the first order given by Regular Army General John L. Throckmorton when he took command over all forces in Detroit was "to have all Guardsmen unload their weapons and put the ammunition in their pockets." The troops also were ordered to reload their weapons only on orders of an officer, and to stop firing their weapons at looters. The wanton killings and wounding by Guardsman gunfire stopped after that.

Martin Luther King assassination, 1968: Riots broke out in many American cities following the April 4, 1968, assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. In some cities riots were once again suppressed with undue use of deadly force by ill-trained and supervised police and National Guard troops. Unconstitutional mass arrests occurred in many cities. In some cities, however, where politicians were forthright in engaging their African-American communities, or where planning, coordination and proper command-structure controls were employed, riots were avoided or quickly quelled with minimal police or National Guard violence. In several cities riot control worked best when the National Guard was federalized and put under the command of seasoned regular Army generals.

Jackson State, 1970: In May 1970 the adjutant general of the Mississippi National Guard kept a tight rein on his troops sent to control demonstrations at Jackson State College that followed the Kent State shootings. Two people were killed and several were wounded, likely by Jackson or Mississippi State Police. None of the Mississippi National Guardsmen shot a civilian.

Kent State, 1970: After the Kent State shootings the Department of Defense and its National Guard Bureau took measures to assure that National Guard Troops that are deployed to control civil disorder or demonstrations are properly trained and properly controlled by their officers, and that they do not wantonly fire military weapons at unarmed civilians.

Seattle WTO Meeting, 1999: Massive demonstrations that sometimes involved violence by demonstrators were quelled with no loss of life by police gunfire, due to prompt and coordinated action by local and state police and National Guard. Even so, just as in the response in some cities to the 1968 riots following the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination, unconstitutional mass arrests were employed.

Many cities, 2011 and 2012: During the Occupy demonstrations in 2011 and 2012, no civilian was killed by police. When police engaged in egregious conduct against civilians, they were swiftly disciplined.

What Went Wrong in Ferguson 2014

No demonstrator was killed by police in Ferguson (though there were breathtakingly close calls). That seems to have been just plain lucky, given everything that was done wrong by the authorities and police. They appear to have shown no early compassion to Michael Brown's family; they tried ineptly to control the flow of information to the public, including by prematurely pushing out untested versions of the events that led to Michael Brown's killing and by arresting and harassing reporters; they deployed police from many departments throughout St. Louis County without imposing a clear command structure and coordination; they deployed military weapons and equipment prematurely and inappropriately; they did not distinguish between peaceful demonstrations exercising their First Amendment rights and rioters and looters, suppressing both with equal vigor. As in the Watts riots, the government and police department of the City of Ferguson in particular were unprepared for dealing with issues of race that were at large in their community. They failed to recognize or respond to the African-American outrage that resulted in part from the rapid change in the racial demography of Ferguson unmatched by any significant changes in its police department.

What Happens Next?

Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the federal government increasingly provided local police with military weapons and equipment unsuited to use in controlling demonstrations and civil disorder. There were shocking images of improper use of such equipment by the police in Ferguson. Why, we have to ask, were the police pointing their military semiautomatic rifles at demonstrators? Why did they even have such weapons so visible? The images of police in Ferguson with too much firepower and too little control and coordination are causing serious reconsideration of this program by conservatives and liberals alike and the federal government. Both Congress and the Obama administration are weighing and reevaluating the situation.

Of equal importance, the national conversation about the continued importance of race in America is refocusing on what needs to be done to get us into a post-racial era, which we have not yet reached despite our having an African-American president and an African-American attorney general.

For those who may think that Barack Obama's election has moved America into a post-racial era, I say "nonsense." Only the politically tone-deaf can believe that much of the hardened opposition to President Obama and his administration is unrelated to his race; only the politically tone-deaf can believe that the hardened opposition to immigration reform is unrelated to race; only the politically tone-deaf can believe that the great divide within the GOP between the old-guard establishment and the nearly lily-white tea-party fringe is unrelated to race; only the politically tone-deaf can believe that use of excessive force by police is unrelated to race; only the politically tone-deaf can believe that the overcrowding of our prisons and jails is unrelated to race; only the politically tone-deaf can believe that continued widespread poverty and the increasing divide between the super-rich and the working poor and middle class in America are unrelated to race.

Let's get real, America. Only by acknowledging and dealing with the continued importance of race as a principal underlying cause of our deficiencies can we ever hope to deal with and resolve those defects in our nation.