The constitutional crisis that has developed in Ferguson, Missouri, begins as is so often the case with a human tragedy. Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager has lost his life, following an incident—now under investigation not just by local authorities but by the US Department of Justice—in which a witness tells CNN, “I saw the police chase him…down the street and shoot him down.”
When circumstances spin out of control, as they clearly have in Ferguson, it is essential always to remember the human element at the heart of the matter. In another time and another place, the singer Peter Gabriel nailed this with the gripping refrain of “Biko,” his anti-apartheid anthem that steadily reminded the world, “A man is dead, a man is dead.”
What has evolved since the death of Michael Brown, however, illustrates the challenges that arise when law-enforcement officials fail to fully recognize and embrace their dual responsibility: to maintain public safety while at the same time guaranteeing the rights of Americans to speak, to practice journalism, to assemble for the purpose of making demands on those in power.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, a former state attorney general, seems to recognize that something had gone badly awry. After another turbulent night in Ferguson, the governor finally canceled appearances in other parts of the state on Thursday and announced he was going to the community where heavily armed police have confronted, arrested and detained protesters and journalists.
“The worsening situation in Ferguson is deeply troubling, and does not represent who we are as Missourians or as Americans,” declared Nixon, a Democrat who on Thursday afternoon announced plans for an “operational shift” and a “different tone” in the policing of Ferguson. “While we all respect the solemn responsibility of our law enforcement officers to protect the public, we must also safeguard the rights of Missourians to peaceably assemble and the rights of the press to report on matters of public concern.”
Missouri’s Senator Claire McCaskill was blunt : “We need to demilitarize this situation—this kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution. I obviously respect law enforcement’s work to provide public safety, but my constituents are allowed to have peaceful protests, and the police need to respect that right and protect that right.”
When President Obama spoke about Ferguson on Thursday, he too highlighted constitutional concerns. While the president said there was “never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism and looting,” he emphasized that there is “no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights. And here in the United States of America, police should not be arresting or bullying journalists who are just trying to do their jobs.”