Events in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere subsequent to the publication of this posting in no way alter my conviction that what we saw there during the days immediately following the shooting of Mike Brown was the result of a system that has become paranoid. The mainstream media are giving the racist aspects of this story the attention they deserve, but are still weak on the paranoia that was so clearly visible.
Perhaps because it’s now only a few days until I return to Europe that the events of the last bad days in Ferguson, Missouri have made such a deep impression upon me and the sudden turnaround in the situation there seems like reason for real hope. Like many other people both in America and around the world I was shocked by the shooting of an unarmed African-American youth, Mike Brown, by a policemen. Then came the demonstrations in Ferguson by the African-American community, the looting, and an extreme police response that included the liberal use of tear gas, rubber bullets and the arresting of journalists who’s only “crime” was being in McDonalds.
I know that some of my readers are annoyed when I turn my attention to stuff like this, because they feel it lies “outside” my subject. They would prefer me to focus solely on wine, that is to “stick” narrowly to my subject. Of course, one reason some people try to focus exclusively on wine is status; they use it to make themselves feel more important than others, or even to demonstrate that they’re more important. I don’t think many of my readers have that mind, though. However, some of you do seem to want wine to be like an island of good, fine, authentic, unsullied or noble things in the high seas of trouble and strife, or at least of banality and boredom. “Ein Fels in der Brandung,” or a cliff in the swell that withstands it, is a German expression which describes this perfectly. I ask you to bear with me, for I will return to wine before the end of this posting.
The problem with this narrow focusing upon the contents of the glass is that wine never was or is disconnected from the rest of the world. It never was or is only a “natural” product, although in certain situations (for example, fancy restaurants) it is made to look as pristine and inevitable as a luxury handbag in a designer store. In fact, it is shaped by economic, social and cultural forces, just like everything else in the world. In common with other journalists reporting on what’s going on in this world, work under conditions that both limit and shape the results that I can achieve. I am no more a “Fels in der Brandung” than any bottle of wine is! A good journalist wants to understand the situation they find themselves in, because, as Nietzsche wrote, “the context is the facts”.
Those ugly events in Ferguson interest me not only for themselves, but because they seem to be part of a much larger ugly pattern. With good reason Senator Rand Paul (Rep. KY) has written a piece on TIME.com attacking the militarization of law enforcement in the US. ‘The New York Times’ has revealed that since 2006 state and local police forces in the US acquired 435 armored vehicles, 533 military aircraft and 93,763 machine guns. The use of SWAT teams by the police seems to have increased by a staggering 1400% since 1998. It’s important to find all this grisly stuff out, and much other reporting on this issue by mainstream US media (congrats to ‘The Washington Post’!) has been great, but they have failed to say one thing which seems so obvious to me that it stick out like dog balls. Hence, this posting.
The photographs by Whitney Curtis published in ‘The New York Times’, some of which were also all over the social media, document what happened in Ferguson with startling clarity. For example, on the cover of yesterday’s issue (online and printed version, Thursday, August 14th) there’s an image of a row of police officers in combat gear totting high-powered M4 rifles in front of an armored vehicle of the kind used in Afghanistan, on the roof of which is another policeman with a similar weapon with a telescopic sight mounted on it. He is clearly a sniper aiming at demonstrators outside the picture. Other photographs by Whitney Curtis show police officers in both firing of tear gas and rubber bullets at unarmed demonstrators and threatening them at almost point blank range with those high-powered rifles. On Wednesday several journalists got caught up in all this and were arrested (Wesley Lowery of ‘The Washington Post’, Ryan Reilly of ‘The Huffington Post’ and local reporter Antonio French) or fired upon (the ‘Al Jazeera America’ TV team), because they dared to do their jobs. The armed police applied the same policy of violent intimidation to them as they did to everyone else in town!
President Obama was right to harshly criticize this, saying, “Here in the United States of America the police should not be bullying and arresting journalists who are just doing their job.” He also correctly saw a constitutional problem with the police action, “There is no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protestors in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.”
In the light of this it was gruesome reading local police chief, Thomas Jackson’s assertion that his had been a measured response to events, although the only people killed in Ferguson were shot by the police. Criticism of his actions goes right across the US political spectrum, which is very encouraging. However, no politician or journalist has so far seriously asked the question why the police wanted to turn Ferguson into a war zone, much less answered it. The abrupt change of policing policy there, and the way it has defused much of the tensions is great news, but that question needs to be posed. How could it happen?
The brutally simple answer to that question is official paranoia, and anyone familiar with the Cold War ought to be familiar with the harm paranoia has wrought on our world within living memory. What Thomas Jackson doesn’t seem to realize is that his reaction to the protests and unrest following Mike Brown’s shooting was effectively to suspended the Constitution in Ferguson and replaced it with martial law. He moved in that direction although on paper he lacked anything like the authority necessary for his actions. He clearly never questioned whether he was right, indeed was utterly convinced that he and his officers were the , “good guys with guns”, and the other side (as we’ve seen the police lumped everyone else together) was dangerous in the way terrorists and insurgents are.
Paranoia has been building in America, and the West as a whole, since the “War on Terror” began back in 2001, and although under President Obama the rhetoric of that conflict has changed, in essence it has continued to this day. Looked at coolly though, the external terrorist threat to the US since 9/11 has turned out to be way smaller than was feared. Domestic terrorists (for example, Boston) caused more deaths than foreign ones, but they still don’t begin to compare with the carnage wrought by lone crazed shooters (for example in Newtown, Denver and Santa Barbara). However, it is in the nature of paranoia that sufferers ignores the facts and projects threats upon the world around them, even if it is calm and benign. Paranoid people know that behind those friendly faces evil is lurking and wait anxiously for it to show itself.
The fantasy melodrama of good facing evil in a final showdown allied to this paranoia is the stuff of comic books and Hollywood action movies. In recent years it has docked onto the imagery of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that filled the news, and it was this dangerous cocktail which the police pushed onto the streets of Ferguson when they got an excuse to do so. If something doesn’t change it will also be coming to a neighborhood near you soon. Of course, another product of official paranoid is already there in the form of NSA surveillance…
Those readers who focus on the enjoyment wine are right. Sharing the enjoyment of wine with friends is the very opposite of all this paranoia. It’s all about conviviality, which is built upon the foundations of mutual respect. At its best it also helps us relate to distant places and feel something for the people who live there, making us appreciate their tending of the soil, vines, grapes and the wine made from them. Even when it is geeky the activity is entirely harmless. That remains the positive focus of this blog.