Experts on policing say there’s simply no refuting
Maintaining law and order shouldn’t call for so much shooting.
And then there’s something else on which our policy’s derided:
Those mine-resistant armored trucks the DHS provided. 

            The fatal shooting of a young black man, Michael Brown, by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, set off a chain of events reminiscent of the turmoil in Watts and other cities in the 1960s. Demonstrations, riots, looting, heavy-handed efforts at containment by the police, the calling out of the National Guard, and the massive media coverage, provided an eerily similar reprise to the earlier conflagrations.

            And, as before, satirists provided their caustic commentaries. An Oliphant cartoon draws a black mother telling her son to work hard at school, “make something of yourself. You got a great future”, to which he replies “Yes, momma.” Finally: “And don’t look suspicious, or the police gone shoot you.” “Yes, momma.” Bennet, referring to the black community’s symbolic raising of their arms in a “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”” sardonic gesture shows a police car stopping at a bus stop, where a white man and woman sit unconcerned but a young black man stands and raises his arms. Both Sack and Jon Kudelka, an Australian, show a black man pleading with the police “Don’t shoot”, while the policeman says the same to a media cameraman. Onion magazine suggests “tips for being an unarmed black teen” including “Avoid swaggering or any confident behavior that suggests you are not completely subjugated”; “Try to see it from a police officer’s point of view. You may be unarmed, but you’re also black”; “Be as polite and straightforward as possible when police officers are kicking the shit out of you.”

            Conservative satirists saw it all very differently. They could not see how blacks hoped to improve their lot by rioting and looting. Heller has two black men. One, wearing a shirt with a “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot ” logo, says to the other ”You’re not helping, you know”. The other wears a shirt saying “Hand’s Up, Just Loot” as he holds up a TV set. Lisa Benson has a young black man carrying a Molotov cocktail while a crowd of “outsiders” hold up matches and shouts: “Light”? Ramirez draws a black man from Ferguson with a hat saying “Loot”, holding a gun to his own head and saying “Back off or the community gets it.”

            But it was a Gary McCoy syndicated cartoon in the Columbia Daily Tribune that stirred up a storm of protest on Twitter and elsewhere. In the cartoon a black man gleefully steals a TV set while demonstrators carry placards saying “Steal to Honor Michael,” and “‘No 60 Inch Plasma TV, No Peace!’, while Ferguson burns in the background. The editor who had given final approval to run this cartoon insisted that the paper was not racist and that it provided a forum for all points of view. However, had he known it would have caused such an uproar he would have pulled the cartoon. “Even though I don’t necessarily agree that it had no value, it’s not worth the trouble it has caused. There is no journalistic principle involved here. You’d rather not piss people off.”

            Yet if all these reactions could as easily have been said of Watts as of Ferguson, the 21st century brought a new element into the situation. The growing concern about terrorism in America provoked a trend toward the militarization of local police forces. DOD had started a process of supplying police departments with heavy weapons. After 9/11 the newly created Department of Home Security carried the process further, making available an array of war-fighting materiel including MRAPs (mine resistant protected vehicles) and grenade launchers. Under the program UC Berkeley police bought an “armored response counter-attack truck” designed for battle-field use. The campus chancellor cancelled the order; undeterred the Ohio State campus police ordered one. The state of Missouri and the city of Ferguson also took advantage of this federal largesse, as was demonstrated by media pictures of the armored response by local police and the National Guard.

            Cartoons were biting. Rick McKee shows the Ferguson police as Keystone Cops falling out of their armored car. Schorr suggests it was a mistake to call the Ferguson police as they arrive with an armored tank to get a cat out of a tree. Jeff Darcy has a couple watching Obama with his hands up: “What’s he doing now?” “Throwing up his hands and deploying the Ferguson police to Iraq.” David Horsey portrays the casual, hands-in-pocket “Mayberry Police 1964” alongside their gas-masked, body-armored, machine-gun-pointing equivalent in 2014. Taylor Jones draws a tiny black boy offering a flower to the advancing armored Ferguson army – a poignant reminder of the young Chinese man holding up the tanks in Tiananmen square. The U.S. army’s satirical DuffelBlog enjoyed mocking the National Guard, quoting a Ferguson officer: “I think it’s great they’re here. I sure as hell don’t know how to maintain all these surplus tanks and flamethrowers we bought from the military with our end of the year funds.” 

            One cartoon aroused the ire of the conservatives. Tom Toles presented a TV news report: “Militarized white police shoot unarmed black man”, with a viewer responding: “I’m sure the NRA has an interesting solution for this.” To the  National Review this was outrageous, an example of “the usual vice of editorial cartooning – cheap and half-baked premises; … unfunny gags; barnacle-encrusted clichés; a totally predictable point of view….” In addition to which Tom Toles’ conclusions are “bizarrely out of touch.”

            What caused this furious onslaught? Why, Toles had taken aim at “an organization that lobbies for the right of private citizens to bear arms”, a right “which is extraordinarily popular in the United States.” True, the NRA was not the prime mover in supplying local police forces with heavy armory. But it seems a little excessive to react with such over-the-top outrage to any suggestion that there might be a logical, if not causal, connection between the excessive use of weapons in law enforcement and the remarkable American devotion to guns promoted with such extreme, pitiless rigidity by the NRA. Fortunately there’s no indication that the Washington Post editor who approved publication of the Toles cartoon agreed with the Columbia Daily Tribune editor in the case of the allegedly racist McCoy cartoon that he’d “rather not piss people off.” Pissing people off is a very common reaction to editorial cartoons, which, on the whole, despite the National Review assessment, are a necessary component of a healthy democracy.                   


Posted on Monday, August 25, 2014 (Archive on Sunday, May 21, 2017)



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