After nearly two weeks of military fatigued gunmen, heavily armored tanks, clashes between political protesters and the state, smoke bombs, tear gas, sniper rifles, (alleged) Molotov cocktails, skirmishes and (reported) gunfire, Missouri congressman Emanuel Cleaver expressed his frustration about the events transpiring in Ferguson, Missouri. In an interview with MSNBC, the Kansas City-area Democrat likened the situation in Ferguson to Iraq: “Ferguson resembles Fallujah more than it does Ferguson,” Rep. Cleaver said.
The congressman's words come a day after President Barack Obama announced that he was sending Attorney General Eric Holder to Ferguson to continue his Department of Justice investigation in-person into the death of Michael Brown, an African-American teenager and aspiring musician, who was killed by a white Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson. Tensions in the community -- between protesters, police and members of the press -- have swelled.
Yesterday, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency, calling in reinforcements to deescalate what has become a nine-day period of marching, protesting and unrest in the wake of Brown's death.
Over the weekend, Rep. Cleaver visited St. Louis to survey the scene, concluding that the entire police department in Ferguson seemed “monumentally inept” at dealing with the situation. The congressman also condemned the militarized police force.
“Having military style weaponry moving down the main street of a middle-American town is as un-American as a coup d’état rather than an election,” said Mr. Cleaver. “I think that is obscene. And we’ve got to stop it because the police chief in Ferguson himself said we haven’t had training on this equipment, and yet, the world saw police officers with military helmets sitting in front of machine guns, pointing them at the crowd."
Some have called for President Obama to travel to Ferguson to pacify some of the angst. But Mr. Cleaver cautioned against that.
“I don’t think the president needs to come to Ferguson,” Mr. Cleaver said. “It adds another distortion. We don’t need that now. We don’t need any more people coming into Ferguson to help the poor people out during this time of trouble. What we need is a sense of calm and anything other than that is going to be dangerous.”
Last night, a reported 31 people were arrested, including a few members of the press who were escorted away in handcuffs and thrown in the back of armored police trucks. In his two speeches addressing Ferguson, President Obama condemned such actions by authorities, maintaining “Police should not be bullying or arresting journalists just trying to do their jobs.”
Many concerns have arisen in the aftermath of Brown's killing regarding police suppression of First Amendment rights guaranteeing freedom of the press. And some journalists have questioned whether the administration stands behind its words.
Speaking to his colleague Maureen Dowd, New York Times reporter James Risen, who currently faces jail time for protecting his sources and refusing to testify against a former CIA agent accused of leaking secrets, recently called President Barack Obama “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.” Last year, the president came under fire for what the Associated Press called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" when the Justice Department secretly obtained approximately two months of telephone records of reporters and editors from the news collective.
In Ferguson, police clashed with reporters on numerous occasions. Last week, the Washington Post's Wesley Lowery and the Huffington Post's Ryan J. Reilly were both arrested, handcuffed and assaulted by police clearing out a nearby McDonald's. Six more journalists were arrested by officers last night. Other journalists, like Mustafa Hussein, of KARG Argus Radio, who has been live-streaming the protests all week, alleged that an officer threatened him by pointing a gun in his face and yelling, "Get the fuck out of here or I will shoot you with this."
Rep. Cleaver seemed deeply troubled by these reports of alleged police misconduct.
“Arresting members of the U.S. press is what we expect in Afghanistan or in Russia,” the congressman said, inferring that such incidents were also negatively affecting the investigation into Brown's death.
“We won’t be able to have a further investigation by the Justice Department and the FBI until we can create a climate for that investigation,” Cleaver said. And what’s happening now is damaging, or interfering with what needs to be done.”