Police, Protests & Rights
The shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson sparked a series of protests in the town. Not surprisingly, these protests led to additional incidents involving conflicts between the citizens and the police. Initially, the local police met the protestors like an invading army: many of the officers were in military grade combat gear and backed up by armored vehicles. As noted in my previous essay, this sort of approach is based on a common philosophy of order held by authorities. This philosophy of order is that perceived threats to the existing order are to be met with physical force—even when the perceived threat consists of citizens acting within their rights. One reason for this is practical—the state generally has an advantage over the citizens in terms of force. As Thoreau notes, “…the state never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior with or honesty, but with superior physical strength.” Another reason for this is conceptual—authorities are often similar to bullies in that their view of how to address problems mainly involves coercion rather than persuasion and reason. There is also a philosophical element—those in authority often seem to have a philosophical view about the rights of citizens that rather differs from that of the founders they so often praise when running for re-election.
As this is being written, it is not yet know if Brown rights were violated. As noted in the previous essay, the officer might have used force legitimately. However, the response to the protests has been the systematic and repeated violation of rights.
To begin with the most obvious violations of constitutional rights, the rights of free speech and assemble have been routinely violated by the police. The curfew is the most obvious example of these violations. The harassment and arrests of journalists also seem to be clear violations of the freedom of the press.
Section 1 of the 14th amendment has also been relentlessly violated since citizens have been “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” and citizens have been denied “the equal protection of the laws.” The violations of the 14th amendment are not limited just to the treatment of the protestors—the policing of Ferguson’s disproportionality clearly illustrates systematic violation of this amendment. Obviously, this is also a nationwide problem.
There are also clear violations of internationally established human rights: the protestors are being shot with rubber bullets (admittedly this is better than being shot with metal bullets) and tear gas has been used.
Those who accept natural rights, such as John Locke, would certainly agree that these rights are being violated in Ferguson. The most obvious being the right of liberty. As such, the violations are not just a matter of violations of human law but also violations of natural rights (assuming there are such things). For those who prefer a more utilitarian approach to liberty, Mill’s utilitarian arguments would certainly support the claim that the state is violating the rights of the protestors in Ferguson.
The conflict in Ferguson can thus be seen as having a significant connection to past struggles for liberty and rights. The most obvious link is that the protests are a continuation of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. This struggle can, of course, be traced back to the development of the very notions of liberty and rights. As such, Ferguson is a recent battleground in the struggle for justice, rights and liberty.
One obvious counter to this view is the claim that the police are justified because of the nature of the situation. People are looting, shooting and destroying property and the police are acting to protect the rights of life, liberty and property. This, of course, does require the use of force and it might appear that some rights are being violated in the keeping of order.
This counter does have considerable underlying merit. The state does have an obligation to prevent protestors from violating the rights of other people. Being a protestor does not grant a person special rights to violate the rights of others, so a protestor who engages in unwarranted violence or other misdeeds can be justly stopped or arrested.
There is also the obvious concern with people who use protests as an excuse to engage in or as cover for misdeeds such as looting. If the police arrest someone who has come to “protest” by stealing from local homes, they have not violated that person’s rights—he has no moral right to steal even if he claims that he is doing so as an act of protest.
The easy reply to this counter is that the legitimate need to prevent the violation of rights does not justify violating those same rights. So, while the police have an obligation to keep protestors from committing crimes against life, liberty and property the police also have an obligation to not violate the rights of the protestors. I will freely admit that this can be challenging in practice since opportunists and criminals often mix in with actual protestors. However, if our society is supposed to respect rights, effort must be taken to ensure that these rights are protected—even (and especially) in heated moments. After all, rights are not just for corporations.