Watching Ferguson: Violence Erupts in the Stream

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Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Violence.

On your television, on your desktop, on your phone: Violence and the threat of violence. Not fictional violence: the real thing. Ritualized, mechanized chaos, repeating night after night in Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death, some caused by looters but the overwhelming majority inflicted by police using weapons of war — tear gas, rubber bullets, earsplitting noise — against protesters putting their arms up and chanting, "Hands up, don’t shoot."

It's the ultimate summer reality TV show, broadcast through live-streamed images and Twitter ticker-tape reportage.  Once you’ve committed to following the ghastliness of Ferguson, it’s hard to think about anything else, watch anything else, read about anything else. If you’re on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or any social media platform, the coexistence of Ferguson reportage alongside the usual chatter about tennis and baseball and superhero movie-casting rumors and cat photos makes anything that’s not about Ferguson seem like a kind of evasion or denial.

FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 17: A woman has her face doused with milk after suffering the effects of tear gas used by police at a protest of the death of Michael Brown August 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Tensions still run high in the Ferguson community after 18 -year-old Michael Brown was killed by a Ferguson police officer August 9 on Canfield Drive. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images) Photo: Joshua Lott/2014 Getty Images

What’s happening in Missouri is seismic. It’s as if great historic rage, tamped down by triviality and distraction, has erupted into the national forebrain. Hey, look, here’s a sketch of Han Solo’s costume from the new Star Wars movie; and look, right below that, a Getty Images photo of a tear gassed African-American woman having milk poured into her eyes by workers at a McDonald’s. Right below the latest funny-dumb meme, you might find news that Amnesty International is dispatching investigators to Ferguson, or that overseas news outlets are sending war reporters there. “THE THIRD WORLD CIVIL RIGHTS VIOLATIONS ARE COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE,” tweeted naxuu last night. You know things are grim when people start looking to horror films for levity.

There were two spectacularly ugly confrontations this weekend, on Saturday and Sunday, each timed to a government-mandated curfew that was theoretically meant to keep the peace but which seems to have inflamed it. Sunday’s protest was intertwined in social media with reports that an autopsy of Brown by former New York City medical examiner Michael Baden had concluded that Brown had been shot six times at medium distance: two bullets in the head, four in his right arm. Hands up, don’t shoot.

As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes — one of the few cable-news journalists who added anything substantive to the internet reportage of Vox and I Am Mike Brown and Argus Radio and their ilk — put it last night, “You end up expecting drama from these situations, because everything is always heading toward a heightening point.” Al Jazeera America’s David M. Perry described the clashes between police and citizens in Ferguson as an example of “the cult of compliance” that has normalized state violence against unarmed U.S. citizens. “The significance of the events in Missouri extends beyond the very real and terrible pattern of police killings of African-American men. It is an intensification of years of cultural shift in which law enforcement and other authority figures have increasingly treated noncompliance as a reason to initiate violence.”

Noncompliance can mean anything from a young man resisting a policeman’s order to move from the street to the sidewalk — the inciting incident that, we’re told, might have ended in the shooting death of Michael Brown — to a reporter understandably chafing at police edicts to stay penned into a particular area or turn off his lights and cameras. The cult of compliance was on display during the Occupy protests — remember the UC Davis pepper-spray incident? — but there’s something singularly unsettling about watching it rumble through the flat streets of a small Missouri town, its streetlights and signage blurred by tear gas.

All at once, a spoiled culture that thinks a website’s refusal to approve a snotty comment constitutes a First Amendment violation is learning what censorship is. "An officer put his weapon in my face and threatened to shoot me if I didn’t quote-unquote get the fuck out of here," an unseen reporter was overheard telling the operator of a Livestream feed camera in Ferguson last night. MSNBC’s Hayes, filing a live audio report from the same location, held up his cell phone so that viewers could hear a police officer tell him, "Do not pass. You’re getting maced the next time you pass us."

The shepherding of mainstream media reporters into Green Zones and behind barricades is dispiriting, but the harsh reality of Ferguson is still getting out thanks to iPhone cameras and digital audio recorders the size of candy bars. The famous chant of antiwar protestors at the 1968 Democratic Convention is truer now than it was then: The whole world is watching. Still.