Cliven Bundy vs. Ferguson's peaceful demonstrators: A tale of two protests

Bundy engaged in armed resistance to avoid paying fees. Compare that to peaceful protests responding to a lost life

Published August 18, 2014 9:05PM (EDT)

Protesters in Ferguson, Mo., Cliven Bundy                    (Reuters/Lucas Jackson/Jim Urquhart/Photo montage by Salon)
Protesters in Ferguson, Mo., Cliven Bundy (Reuters/Lucas Jackson/Jim Urquhart/Photo montage by Salon)

An earlier version of this article was originally published at The BRAD BLOG.

Last Wednesday night, I had snarked on Twitter about the lack of so-called "Tea Party" "patriots" -- like those brave boys and girls who, earlier this year, pointed their big assault-rifles at federal officials to protect the "right" of a scofflaw rancher in Nevada to illegally graze his cattle for free on land that he did not own -- failing to show up to protect the actual rights and freedoms of so many being denied them by actual Big Government Tyranny in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri.

Some right-wingers, like libertarian Justin Raimondo of shot back at me (figuratively) on Twitter, arguing that "The Bundy patriots didn't take BS from the cops. They stood and fought," adding that the Ferguson protesters were facing the "same fight" and, had those protesters only brought guns with them, the police would have backed down. Or something.

"Would the cops be murdering blacks in #Ferguson if the people were armed? No," Raimondo told me, as if he just arrived in the U.S. from some other planet. "Armed resistance tends to discourage aggression," he insisted, between some silly ad hominem bluster in which he charged me with "worship[ing]" the government, and "lov[ing] the state that murders blacks" (also of being a "loser" with a "fat ass" or some such, but that's even easier to laugh at).

And then something changed on the streets of Ferguson Thursday night, if only momentarily, which made Raimondo's comments seem even more transparently silly.

After the fully-militarized police were pulled away, ordered by the Missouri Governor to be replaced by grown-ups who marched with the protesters, calm and even jubilance returned to the previously tear gas-filled streets of Ferguson, MO. The contrast on Thursday night from the days prior couldn't have been more stark, according to virtually everyone on the ground there. It was the police, not the protesters, who had exacerbated roiling racial tensions, arrested reporters and needlessly filled the streets with panic and tear gas in the days prior, just as assuredly as it was a Ferguson cop, finally named as Darren Wilson, who killed Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teen who was supposedly stopped for nothing more than alleged jay-walking.

It was peaceful citizens, with their empty hands in the air -- not pretend "patriots" aiming long guns at the buffoonish, intimidating, embarrassing, jungle-camouflaged-in-exurban-streets cops -- who may ultimately be seen as the ones who helped begin a national rollback of the absurd militarization, perhaps better described as "Hollywoodization," of our nation's law enforcement organizations.

It was not armed resistance, but peaceful resistance last week that brought about real, if tenuous, change in Ferguson, and maybe even the rest of the country.

"Hundreds of young people march in their streets tonight free of intimidation in #Ferguson," tweeted St. Louis Alderman-turned-citizen journalist Antonio French on Thursday night. "The young men with 'masks' on their faces who last night were returning tear gas drums to police, tonight are directing traffic in #Ferguson," he reported, adding "No standoffs. No violence. In fact, it's been quite beautiful out here tonight in #Ferguson."

"I am completely, incomparably stunned," the Riverfront Times' Danny Wicentowski noted in amazement. "At this time last night I was hiding behind a dumpster and choking on tear gas."

"It's the 1st night I've felt safe," a protester named Eddie told KMOV's Craig Cheatham, adding that Eddie had "protested every night in #Ferguson [and] brought his family tonight."

"It feels like we won the Super Bowl tonight in #Ferguson! Cars honking, music playing, running into family members," Brittany Packnett, the Executive Director of the St. Louis chapter of Teach for America declared on the social media service, adding the hashtag "#DontShoot".

The Washington Post's Wesley Lowery, who had been arrested the night before for not leaving a McDonald's fast enough at the insistence of camo-clad cops, said: "I do not recognize the Ferguson I am in currently."

So what had changed from Wednesday's riots to Thursday's night calm and jubilation? The militarized police of Ferguson and St. Louis County had been replaced by new leadership from the State Police Highway Patrol and the City of St. Louis.

"I've been here since Monday afternoon. At no point have officers mixed/mingled/chatted with protesters - until tonight," Lowery observed, before adding: "Can't overstate change in tone."

The new police leadership, including State Police Captain Robert Johnson, who grew up in the area, instructed "all police assigned to this detail to take their gas masks off," Lowery reported.

Johnson said, as he marched along with the protesters and even handed out hugs and took selfies with them, that while he would not tolerate looting, he also would not tolerate "citizens not having [the] ability to speak their minds, having...rights violated."

"Hundreds peacefully protesting," Lowery reported before the sun set again on the pained city after the previous evening's all-night turbulence. He quoted one of the leaders of the protests declaring: "they respect us, let's respect them."

"Protests still going strong," tweeted USA Today's Yamiche Alcindor after night fell. "Haven't seen any violence tonight."

"I have not seen a policeman in an hour in #Ferguson," Wall Street Journal's Ben Kesling reported as the night wore on. "The last one I saw, in patrol uniform, was hugging someone."

"The presence and leadership of Captain Johnson from the MO Highway Patrol and Major Ron Robinson from #STL City has made a major impact," Alderman French tweeted. "9:00 has come and gone. No standoffs. No violence. In fact, it's been quite beautiful out here tonight in #Ferguson," he said.

"Same protesters, different policing tactics, different results. Not to hard to figure who was to blame for unrest in #Ferguson," blogger David Goldstein of observed.

It was a stunning turnaround. Where I previously wrote that I was embarrassed for my home town (I grew up in St. Louis County), I am now very proud of those courageous citizens who stood up to do the right thing, and of the elected and law enforcement officials who eventually did the same.

The jubilation was short-lived. The next day and over the weekend, tensions flared up again after initial calm under the command of Captain Ron Johnson. A bit of a behind-the-scenes power struggle seems to continue to roil, with Ferguson's Police Chief Thomas Jackson asserting that he was "still in the County-being-in-charge mode" on Friday, despite the State and City police having been assigned by the Governor to take over command in Ferguson.

Despite requests from the Governor, as well as from the DoJ -- Jackson also released a video purporting to show Michael Brown shoplifting some cigars from a convenience store just before his killing. Later, the Ferguson Police Chief admitted the alleged robbery had nothing to do with the killing. Wilson, the cop eventually named as the one who shot Brown, at least six times according to reports of the unreleased autopsy, was said to have been unaware of the alleged robbery at the time he attempted to detain Brown before killing him.

Spotty violence and some looting (much of which was tamped down by local protesters themselves) flared over the weekend after Governor Jay Nixon declared that First Amendment rights would not be available to Ferguson protesters between Midnight and 5am local time during, so far, several nights of curfews. He has now ordered the Missouri National Guard to the area.

Still, it was the stark, almost cartoonish fire power of the militarized local County and Ferguson police which seems to have horrified the nation as much or more than anything else since the killing of Michael Brown. That outrageously military-like response to generally peaceful, if justifiably angry protests has, to date, left an indelible question mark on just what the hell our nation has become.

There remain many challenges for the community between now and real accountability for the police shooting death of Brown. But, for the moment anyway, something substantive seems to have occurred in Ferguson. The police were nationally shamed for their ridiculous, over-aggressive and unnecessarily hostile tactics.

Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul were led to condemn their militarization, describing it as a "systemic problem with today’s law enforcement." The DoJ stepped in to instruct local law enforcement how to scale back the militarized police presence. Georgia's Democratic Congressman Hank Johnson unveiled the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act [PDF] to "prevent the transfer of certain military-grade equipment from the Department of Defense to local law enforcement agencies."

To be sure, similarly over-aggressive, over-militarized, over-"Hollywoodized" police actions occurred against peaceful protesters in cities across the country during the brutal armed crackdowns on Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in late 2011 and early 2012. We condemned it then, we condemn it now. For whatever reasons, peaceful resistance at the time, unlike this time around, did not lead to calls for change from public officials. Perhaps after Occupy and the sight of the Boston Police turning into a full-fledged army in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, and now this, we've reached a tipping point. We'll see.

In any case, for now, a recognition of the need for substantive change, at least in regard to this kind of over-aggressive policing, at least in this town, at least for this moment, seems to have occurred. And much of it appears to have occurred in response to simple embarrassment of what our police forces have become in the face of largely peaceful protests, none of which, at the time, ever posed any real threat to the lives of police or anybody least until the police themselves exacerbated existing tensions.

Contrast that to what happened following the use of assault rifles pointed at the heads of local, state and federal officials by so-called "patriotic" "Tea Party" protesters during the Bundy Ranch standoff earlier this year. Yes, in that case, law enforcement officials also, ultimately, "backed down." But they backed down to avoid what was a hair-trigger's pull away from unspeakable violence. They would ultimately go on to use different means to work towards holding the scofflaw rancher accountable for unpaid debts, and the militarized protesters in this case, would hang out in the area for months, parading their guns about, frightening local residents, and bickering with each other until, eventually, most of them seem to have moved on -- back to their survival gardens or storm shelters, or whatever. They certainly didn't show up to protect freedom and liberty and the blatant trampling of actual Constitutional Rights in Missouri.

Where the Ferguson demonstrations made the police look silly and dangerous, the armed-up protesters in Nevada made themselves look silly. More importantly, they actually provided, ironically, a twisted form of support to the notion that law enforcement needs to arm itself up, if only in self-defense.

In any event, little changed after the dangerous armed stand-off in the Nevada desert. Real change may come about, eventually, thanks to the peaceful -- and very brave -- resistance of the unarmed protesters in Ferguson.

If's Raimondo, or anybody else, still believes the answer to a militarized police state is the militarization of the people, they are certainly welcome to that opinion. Had triggers been pulled at the Bundy standoff, however, as they have been before in similar cases, I suspect the government's guns and ammo would have lasted much longer than the armed "patriots" of the "Tea Party." It was a battle to be either lost by those citizens, or drawn to the temporary stalemate we ultimately saw, one most likely to occur again.

In the meantime, the resilient Americans of Ferguson seem to be working to demonstrate, at least for now, that there is a much better, much safer, more courageous, much more peaceful, and ultimately much more substantive way to take on the over-aggressive militarized powers of this country's post-9/11 police state. But perhaps the real patriots of Ferguson have more experience battling real enemies of freedom.

By Brad Friedman

Investigative journalist and broadcaster Brad Friedman is the creator and publisher of The BRAD Blog. He has contributed to Mother Jones, The Guardian, Truthout, Huffington Post, The Trial Lawyer magazine and Editor & Publisher.

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