I've been jacked up by law-enforcement officers three times in my career as a reporter.
The first time was in 2000, when, as an intern for ABC News, I inadvertently walked from the safety of the Democratic National Convention into a protest zone outside the Staples Center and was grazed by a rubber bullet fired by an LAPD officer. Later that night, after we went off the air, another officer shoved me onto the sidewalk. The second time came about three years later. I took a photograph of the motorcade of the secretary of state and was physically accosted by two Diplomatic Security special agents who had seen me. The third time was in New Hampshire, in 2008, when a beleaguered Secret Service agent pushed me into a wall because I — well, I don't remember exactly what I did.
Each time this happened, I was angry — apoplectic, even — and it took a few weeks, or months, before for my visceral fear and loathing toward the burst of state coercive power abated. In my favor, I knew that I was not randomly targeted; I was in their way by design, as a journalist.
The first time a white person like me experiences something like this, our sense of the nobility and sanctity of police work inevitably changes. It's human nature, as much as I don't like to use that phrase; getting jacked up by the police for something you know you did not do, or for doing nothing illegal, is traumatizing.
Now imagine, if you're white, that you're no longer white. Imagine you are black, and you, and your friends, and your family, are regularly stopped, delayed, accosted by the police, simply because of your proximity to something else; imagine having to fear being stopped by police on the street where you live. Feel what that must be like. Don't try to rationalize it. Just feel it for a moment.
Now you might understand what Ferguson is really about, and why, even as you take the side of police in these types of American tragedies, you might want to sympathize with those who are protesting. They're not protesting the fact of policing; they very much want the police to briefly militarize their neighborhood if their friend gets robbed. But what they really want is to be able to trust the police. And they can't, because their first and continuing experiences with law enforcement are often brutal, beyond proportion.
On MSNBC last night, a young reporter was describing how a group of young people in a van were surrounded by police with guns drawn, ordered out of the car, frisked, and pulled down to the sidewalk. I take it that this reporter has not seen this before, because what she described was a routine felony stop, something that happens in Los Angeles about 25 times a day. In this instance, the police believed (it seems — we don't really know) — that the people in the car were responsible for throwing a water bottle at them. There was nothing particularly violent about the felony stop, but they are jarring to watch. The felony here, by the way, would be the attempted assault of a police officer.
Reasonably, when police pursue felons or people who they believe to be suspects in serious crimes, they're going to assume the worst until they can control the situation. This is a police tactic that helps ensure the safety of arresting officers.
The point of the Ferguson protests is that police tactics like this are commonly experienced by too many innocent black Americans, and not very much at all by white Americans. The point is that they are applied disproportionately to black Americans. The point is that the police instinctively profile young black men, and it's not at all surprising that young black men reciprocate with anger and mistrust. The point is that a rush to militarize the local police in Ferguson looks to so many like they instinctively anticipated violence, which of course, given the fact that they look, dress, and act like the military, might create the environment where violence by a few can corrupt the peaceful intent of the many.
If you are sympathetic to the police here, if you know that they have a real job to do, if you believe that they are brave and heroic, then you must also recognize the historical reality that underlies the protests.