BY J.J. MESSNER
It is easy to view the unfolding events in Ferguson, Missouri as an inherently domestic issue. Much of the domestic analysis so far has characterized this violence as reminiscent of decades past – or lands far away. In the words of Governor Jay Nixon of Missouri, “The eyes of the world are watching.” Governor Nixon was right to say so – but maybe not in the way he intended.
As a peace and security NGO based in Washington, D.C., the nature of our work leads us to look outwards to the rest of the world. Certainly, we will from time-to-time use our position and location to take a role in attempting to help shape U.S. policy as it pertains to other countries. And once a year, we analyze the United States as part of our annual Fragile States Index. Yet it is rare that an organization like ours would look inwardly towards specific goings-on in our “home” country. Indeed, it is a sad occasion when the need arises for us to do so.
There are many reasons why the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri are shocking, and many commentators have gone to great lengths to highlight these (though perhaps none better than comedian John Oliver). But these events also go quite a way in undermining the perception of the U.S. having got its act together. Because, as the actions of the public security forces in Missouri have demonstrated, it isn’t always the case.
Like many in the United States, those of us at FFP have rolled our eyes at the manner in which some foreign news agencies have seemingly gleefully latched upon the opportunity to turn the tables on America, characterizing the events in Ferguson in much the same way that American media will describe unrest in strife-torn countries. But unfortunately, beyond the hyperbole, they kind of have a point.
The response by the security forces in Ferguson has been nothing short of disastrous. The National Guard has not been called in because the protests became a little out of hand – rather, their intervention is necessary because the local police’s response to protesters and reporters allowed the situation to escalate. It does not take a genius to recognize that police parading around town as Rambo-wannabes, pointing firearms at unarmed civilians, is going to raise tensions. Or that outside criminal elements will then take advantage of the unrest, inciting peaceful protesters as a means to create opportunities for looting. This represents a failure of leadership, training, and protocols, combined with militarization of resources — a dangerous and potentially fatal combination.
The militarization of police has been a subject that has gained limited coverage and attention in recent times. However, the police response in Ferguson has suddenly brought this issue into stark relief. On some occasions, heavily-armed police may be necessary, perhaps to answer heavily-armed criminals, an armed siege situation, or a terrorist attack. But the advent of armored personnel carriers, assault weapons, and battle fatigues as being more commonplace for even small-town police forces is alarming, particularly when such a trend emerges without the accompanying training and understanding of responsibility. The mere acquisition of such equipment without clear and reasonable justifications for its future use is a critical breakdown of risk assessment. The deployment of such equipment without training and use of force protocols catching up may well cost lives.
One initiative that goes a long way in addressing gaps in training and use of force protocols is the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, or “the VPs.” FFP is a founding NGO of this international initiative that sets forth good practice for security in and around mining sites and oil installations. The United States Government is a signatory to the VPs, as are a number of American oil and mining companies, as well as U.S.-based international NGOs. One aspect upon which the VPs focus is relations with public security forces, specifically identifying what makes for good practice by military and police forces in keeping security and general order. American leadership in the VPs and the participation of American NGOs and multinational companies should underscore a deeper understanding of how very damaging an event like Ferguson can be to a country, domestically and internationally.
The events in Ferguson could undermine America’s credibility when it comes to setting forth what makes good security practice. As the U.S. Government will lecture foreign governments on human rights abuses, one only needs to look at the streets of Missouri to understand how hollow that advocacy can quickly become. As organizations such as FFP work with foreign security forces on helping them develop training programs and use of force protocols that seek to protect and respect the human rights of civilian populations, our collective expertise could begin to look a little less credible if we didn’t recognize the issues in our own backyard.
When America’s own police forces roll around town in up-armored vehicles better suited for the Battle of Fallujah; when those police pretend to be a military force, especially when it is without the training or discipline to match; when those police dehumanize civilian protesters as “animals” and in so doing mentally excuse any violent actions that may come; when lapses of leadership, training, and planning spark unnecessary escalations of violence – then America’s credibility, whether it be as a government or as civil society, to help improve the behavior of other countries’ security forces, can be called into question.
We will collectively look back on the events in Ferguson as a critical moment in domestic race relations. But we will also need to be intensely conscious of how the militarization of local police forces has spiraled out of control – and how America’s image, and ability to bring positive change to the security and human rights situations in other countries – may be tarnished.