Holder’s Agency in Ferguson

Eric Holder just published an op-ed in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, apparently aiming to generate confidence in DOJ’s investigation into Darren Wilson’s killing of Mike Brown.

It starts with 3 sentences describing Brown’s killing — with no mention of Wilson, or even that a cop killed Brown.

Since the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown, the nation and the world have witnessed the unrest that has gripped Ferguson, Mo. At the core of these demonstrations is a demand for answers about the circumstances of this young man’s death and a broader concern about the state of our criminal justice system.

At a time when so much may seem uncertain, the people of Ferguson can have confidence that the Justice Department intends to learn — in a fair and thorough manner — exactly what happened.

A disembodied shooting killed Brown in this telling; violence did not.

Holder then spends several paragraphs discussing both the investigation itself, as well as the actions of the Civil Rights Division before he turns — in the course of one paragraph — to the protests. Here, violence is described as violence.

We understand the need for an independent investigation, and we hope that the independence and thoroughness of our investigation will bring some measure of calm to the tensions in Ferguson. In order to begin the healing process, however, we must first see an end to the acts of violence in the streets of Ferguson. Although these acts have been committed by a very small minority — and, in many cases, by individuals from outside Ferguson — they seriously undermine, rather than advance, the cause of justice. And they interrupt the deeper conversation that the legitimate demonstrators are trying to advance.

The implication, of course, is that the violence comes exclusively from that “very small minority,” not the cops shooting rubber bullets from their tanks.

I find the next paragraph truly remarkable.

The Justice Department will defend the right of protesters to peacefully demonstrate and for the media to cover a story that must be told. But violence cannot be condoned. I urge the citizens of Ferguson who have been peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights to join with law enforcement in condemning the actions of looters, vandals and others seeking to inflame tensions and sow discord.

The Justice Department — the Agency Eric Holder leads, the 40 FBI Agents and Civil Rights prosecutors Holder described — has done nothing visible thus far to defend the First Amendment.

And then, Holder says, “violence cannot be condoned.” A bizarre passive sentence with no agent. By whom? Who cannot condone violence?!?!

And he uses it to urge “the citizens of Ferguson who have been peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights” — many of whom have been arrested, bullied, tear gassed, some of whom have formed chains to protect businesses — to “join with law enforcement,” the same law enforcement  that has been bullying them. Holder asks these citizens — who presumably are the ones he says cannot condone violence — to join the cops who have been engaging in violence to condemn others who have also been engaging in violence. Those “others” inflame tensions and sow discord. The cops don’t, according to this telling.

It takes a good paragraph and a half before Holder says the cops must restore trust. Only unlike the “citizens” of Ferguson, Holder does not urge the cops directly to do … anything. He just describes what should happen, he doesn’t command it to happen.

At the same time, good law enforcement requires forging bonds of trust between the police and the public. This trust is all-important, but it is also fragile. It requires that force be used in appropriate ways. Enforcement priorities and arrest patterns must not lead to disparate treatment under the law, even if such treatment is unintended. And police forces should reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.

Note what else happens? That violence — unmentioned in Mike Brown’s actual shooting, but explicitly described when “those others” did it — here becomes “force.” Something distinct from the violence of looters.

Darren Wilson’s shooting of Mike Brown? Not described as violence — not even described as the act of a known man. The looters’ looting? They’re engaged in “violence.” And finally, the cops, whom Holder doesn’t dare urge to tone things down? They are exercising “force,” not “violence.”

I get there are legal reasons why he did this — notably, this permits him to endorse findings that Wilson used “force” out of fear for his own safety! But the grammar and vocabulary of this op-ed insists on the state’s monopoly on violence that it has been abusing for 10 days.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

54 replies
  1. P J Evans says:

    The law enforcement that’s been arresting members of the press? Who are wearing their press IDs while they’re being arrested? That law enforcement?

    Holder doesn’t live in the same country that most of us do.

  2. Peterr says:

    Beware the passive #^%*@($ voice, especially when used by corporate or governmental officials. It’s a sure sign that someone does not want fingerprints to be noticed, because that might lead to demands for accountability.

    Oh, wait . . .

    Given that folks in Ferguson have already been demanding accountability, the use of the passive voice is a little late.

  3. seedeevee says:

    St. Louis police chief Sam Dotson — “I think officer safety is the number one issue . . .”

    It used to be Public Safety, didn’t it?

  4. Ben Franklin says:

    Whatever happened to “Protect and Serve’. I’ll tell you. Since local law enforcement has recruited from the military there has been a paradigm shift in the quality of recruits. That paradigm was Iraq and Afghanistan. PTSD has been elevated to a virtue rather than contraindication. Psych screening needs a re-boot. We can’t have milspec specifications because they’ve become verklempt. It’s time to re-train and de-militarize our local police even if that means a deficient number of enforcers. There is no reason to treat citizens as insurgents and the suppressed memories of a buddy being blown to pieces should create a red-flag for the screening process. Also the desire to maintain peace at the expense of civil iiberty is also an ancillary benefit of our foreign wars

  5. Peterr says:

    Will Holder and the DOJ investigate the violations of the First Amendment by law enforcement, as police detained, assaulted, and arrested accredited journalists while they were peacefully going about their constitutionally protected work?

    • emptywheel says:

      For all my complaints about DOJ, Civil Rights Division has been great under Obama (though I do miss Thomas Perez there). So I do have faith they will pursue Civil RIghts violations to the extent they can.

      There just has been no visible sign of them doing so thus far.

      • Peterr says:

        The Civil Rights division maybe good, but the overall approach of DOJ in squelching and controlling the media — see investigations of leaks, for instance — tells me that defending the rights of the press is not high on their agenda.

        • Ben Franklin says:

          Agreed. Holder is Obama’s hand-holder. He is tepid and ambivalent. He reminds me of Colon Bowel.

        • emptywheel says:

          Definitely agree with that.

          I’d go further and say the reason Holder can’t call the cops’ violence violence is because it would admit the possibility that other violence, performed with presumed monopoly, may be illegitimate.

          He can’t have that, ever, because he has signed off on far too much illegitimate violence and refused to prosecute even more.

          Which is the real reason I think he has disembodied official violence in this op-ed.

          • earlofhuntingdon says:

            The establishment media has long refused to call state violence “violence”, as they refused to call torture “torture”.

            Given the number of wars, military actions and “targeted killings” (with or without due process) sponsored by this administration, it seems unlikely that Mr. Holder will criticize state violence, or the state’s presumed monopoly on its use. He seems equally unlikely to discuss the obligation that goes along with that, that justice be done and that it be public and be seen to be done according to the Constitution. Not surprising, given the Beltway’s bipartisan consensus that if complying with the Constitution seems too hard, the state can consider compliance optional.

            The citizens of Ferguson appear to be saying that’s part of the problem, not the cure. Mr. Holder should stop with the talk and start walking the walk. Only his walk will tell us what he really means. That’s what the people of Ferguson need. If Holder’s ballyhooed disinterested investigation ends up being long delayed or saying that everything is fine, move along, this will not end soon or well. It shouldn’t.

      • Kitt says:

        100’s of people have been interviewed. How could there be hundreds of people who would all possibly have something of worth to offer? Only a few actually saw what happened. I know that obviously only eye witnesses aren’t the only ones to have some worthy information to offer, but hundreds? Also, last I read some of the main witnesses had not been interviewed.

        • Ben Franklin says:

          “100′s of people have been interviewed. How could there be hundreds of people who would all possibly have something of worth to offer”

          Respectfully, may I say you are missing the point. The victim has many faces throughout the country. His face, though important, has ignited a smoldering resentment which was precipitated by his death. To quote a lyric, ‘they didn’t start the fire, it was always burning’. Whether or not he was a pot-head cigar thief is beside the point. Get it?

  6. Peterr says:

    In order to begin the healing process, however, we must first see an end to the acts of violence in the streets of Ferguson.

    Thus far, the protesters have seen nothing but violence from law enforcement, save for Capt Ron Johnson’s efforts to connect with the community. But every bit of goodwill that Johnson’s efforts earned during the day disappear when the images of tear gas, sound weapons, and military assault vehicles take over. Until someone with authority — and I don’t think Johnson has it in a meaningful way (though he may have it on paper) — changes the tactics of law enforcement, the violence will continue.

    • seedeevee says:

      “But every bit of goodwill that Johnson’s efforts . . .”

      Johnson is on video calling for the indiscriminate arrest and cuffing of innocent citizens.

  7. masaccio says:

    We need healing, says Holder. Bullshit. We need big jail time for the criminals he can’t seem to find, and release from jail for the ones he does find: the pot smokers.

  8. Peterr says:

    According to KSDK (a local St. Louis television station), Ferguson’s police chief is already apparently rather well known at the DOJ, who awarded him the “White House Office of National Drug Control Policy recognition for Outstanding Task Force Commander in 2003.” They also note that before becoming Ferguson’s police chief, he was “the commander of the St. Louis County Drug Task Force, SWAT team supervisor, airplane and helicopter instructor pilot, undercover detective and hostage negotiator.”

    I shudder to think of his approach to hostage negotiations, based on what I’ve seen of him in the last week.

  9. Ben Franklin says:

    THIS is the authoritarian attitude that needs fixing, and it’s a cultural problem. won’t be easy to fix.

    “DON’T ARGUE WITH ME, DON’T CALL ME NAMES, DON’T TELL ME THAT I CAN’T STOP YOU, DON’T SAY I’M A RACIST PIG, DON’T THREATEN THAT YOU’LL SUE ME AND TAKE AWAY MY BADGE. DON’T SCREAM AT ME THAT YOU PAY MY SALARY, AND DON’T EVEN THINK OF AGGRESSIVELY WALKING TOWARDS ME.”

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/08/19/im-a-cop-if-you-dont-want-to-get-hurt-dont-challenge-me/

    • Peterr says:

      Textbook “blame the victim” stuff, cloaked in “here’s how you keep yourself safe” garbage. Rule one for the police: “If you have the authority and the power, then you have the responsibility for using them properly. It’s not the responsibility of the person you pull over, the person you want to question, or the person who is standing nearby. It’s YOUR responsibility.”

    • emptywheel says:

      They did say his face was swollen.

      Though the neighbors interviewed in his neighborhood didn’t say anything about it.

    • P J Evans says:

      I heard that the kind of fracture they’re talking about normally manifests as a black eye. I’d like to know why, if he were injured, he didn’t call for backup and EMTs for himself, even if he wouldn’t do it for Brown.

  10. bloopie2 says:

    Let’s see. Holder is the Number One Federal Cop, right? He says shit like that, and then he says we need to have more trust in the cops? I wouldn’t trust him any more than I would trust the local cop/thug/bully.

  11. bloopie2 says:

    I’m curious. Does anyone know if cops are cops trained in hand to hand combat? Or is the only weapon the force gives them, to defend against unarmed kids, a gun?

    • P J Evans says:

      I don’t know how much hand-to-hand trainign they get (although I’d expect some). They do usually get tasers, though, with the official intent of not using guns as the first resort.

  12. ArizonaBumblebeeper says:

    The first rule I was taught in my undergraduate course in communications was to tailor any communications I wrote to its intended audience. Mr. Holder just flunked that test. The Afro-American community in Ferguson and in the country as a whole is upset because it believes the system doesn’t work for them, that young black men are a frequent target for police misconduct, and that one of their own was gunned down needlessly by a policemen who got “trigger happy”. These people (as do I) probably believe that the “fix” is in, and the policemen will eventually be exonerated. Already, the public is being spoon-fed derogatory information about the victim by the local police. The police say he may have robbed a store and probably smoked pot. They have suggested that the policemen only shot the victim after being “bum rushed” by him. (Never mind that none of these claims by themselves provide justification for killing an unarmed man.) Mr. Holder should have addressed these concerns more directly instead of just focusing on making a plea to the community in Ferguson to remain calm and refrain from violence while his agents investigate the incident.

  13. orionATL says:

    the only matter absolutely certain at this point is that the police and the district attoorney are conducting a major coverup of brown’s killing by daren wilson:

    – a major effort to keep wilson from being seen, even in photos

    – a major effort to keep wison from saying anything about what happened, except for third party spokespeople.

    – no useful information about the crime being provided by police or other local officials.

    in some coup conflicts in under developed countries, leaving a body out in the street for a long time is intended as a message to the dead man’s side.

    as for eric holder, i guarantee you he will condone, if not lead, a coverup of brown’s killing

    • orionATL says:

      continuing:

      the other critical piece of info not released by local officials is the video and audio from the cop’s car (plus any on-body recording device).

      my guess – audio would reveal racial taunting by darren miller to brown.

    • bevin says:

      Don, I recently attended a Coroner’s enquiry into the killing by an Ontario cop of a neighbour. This is in rural Ontario.
      The most surprising testimony came from a man employed to train the police who produced a training film which urges cops, essentially, to adopt an extreme version of Cheney’s 1% rule and shoot to kill at the slightest suspicion that the subject- in this case a mentally challenged man in his late fifties with a bunch of keys in his hand- might prove to be dangerous.

  14. lefty665 says:

    What has happened is horrendous. The racism of Ferguson police and their occupying army are beyond reason.
    .
    But, might want to back up a second folks. Brown’s companion has said they were walking down the middle of the street and refused to move to the sidewalk when directed by the cop. That was not an unreasonable request. Refusal is absolutely not a capital offense, but we don’t really know what happened between that act and Brown’s killing. I’m pretty good sized, but if I was a cop, an aggressive 6′ 4″ 300 pound man refusing a reasonable and lawful request would make me anxious. We really don’t know what happened. Nor does it seem likely at this point that we will.
    .
    What we have seen is the disgraceful conduct of the Ferguson police.
    What we have seen is militarized police using battlefield weapons against US citizens exercising their rights.
    What we have seen is bizarre restrictions of the right to assemble and petition.
    What we have seen is the State police arresting reporters for not staying in a designated press box.
    What we have seen is the arrest of a 90 year old Holocaust survivor and Nuremberg participant.
    What we have seen is a mealy mouthed posting by the Attorney General.
    .
    What we have also seen is a community in a Rosa Parks moment, tired and unwilling to take more abuse.
    What we have also seen are young men, mostly unemployed and without hope ready to fight in protest.
    What we have also seen is racism, inequality and oppression that is in some ways as bad as or worse than it was 50 years ago. Those conditions inspired the Civil Rights movement.
    .
    The citizens of Ferguson are showing us what we as a country have become in 2014. Do we need redress and justice for Mike Brown? Absolutely, but the issues transcend his death.
    .
    We are all, black and white, rich and poor, in a profoundly dangerous place and time.
    The content of our characters, and perhaps survival, lies in how we respond.

  15. cinnamonb says:

    Marcy – thank you for an excellent “deconstruction” of the Holder op-ed.
    The comments are good, too; anything to keep this issue in front of us.

  16. bmaz1 says:

    In fairness (kind of) to Holder, DOJ is much more limited in what they can do that most people envision, and they never take primary on state level crimes like this. He is trying to calm the situation down without inferring that DOJ can or will do anything on the underlying homicide. The one thing he could be hammering though is the freedom of press and assembly, and he was tepid on that.

    • wallace says:

      quote”In fairness (kind of) to Holder, DOJ is much more limited in what they can do that most people envision, and they never take primary on state level crimes like this. He is trying to calm the situation down without inferring that DOJ can or will do anything on the underlying homicide.”unquote

      Fairness? To Holder? The one who refused to offer an apology to the family of FEDERAL Border Patrol Agent Terry when he was killed with one of the thousands of weapons the ATF let “walk” to Mexico ? The one who had to be held in contempt of Congress for lying and withholding documents in the Fast and Furious debacle? The one who couldn’t find anyone on Wallstreet to prosecute..but sure as hell could prosecute Aaron Swartz? The one who told a Senator.. “you better not go there buddy”. The one who upheld his buddys kill list murder program, notwithstanding the memo “authorizing” murdering American citizens by virtue of “due process doesn’t guarantee “judicial process”? THAT ERIC HOLDER??? Fairness? FAIRNESS???

      Please. With all due respect..spare me bmaz.

  17. teri says:

    From Holder’s op-ed: “At the same time, good law enforcement requires forging bonds of trust between the police and the public.”

    Trust? Good law enforcement? These “public servants”, all dressed up in their military gear, pointing their weapons at the public, firing gas bombs into neighborhoods (where presumably there are parents trying to keep their kids within the safety of their own homes – I’d love to see some reporter talk to the people in the neighborhoods to see what the effect the tear gas is having on the families inside the houses), arresting protesters and reporters for dubious cause, have removed their name tags and badges so they cannot be identified. They have refused to give their names and badge numbers to the people they are arresting and/or shouting orders at. I would think this might be a glaring neon signal that there are some very basic problems surrounding the issue of trust and where that trust is supposed to start.

    I’m sure Holder will get right on that. Once he’s done bringing charges against the banking cartel.

    http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/08/19/ferg-a19.html

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/15/ferguson-police-identities_n_5682645.html

    http://www.vox.com/2014/8/19/6043483/ferguson-police-impunity

  18. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Given the pictures of the wonderfully militarized local and state police forces employed at Ferguson, Mr. Holder could do one great thing. He could recommend that the Feds stop using local and state police as paramilitary organizations, supplementing an intentionally undermanned formal military. He could recommend that officers show up with a .45, driving pick-up trucks, instead of automatic assault weapons, armored vehicles and GI Joe body armor. That might go a long way to reducing the barriers between citizens and their neighbors working for the police. It must be hard to consider angry people as friends with a grievance, not the primary enemy, when you only see them through night vision goggles or a 10x scope atop a sniper rifle.

    If adopted nationwide, that would put a dint in federal contracting profits, no doubt, and reduce federalization of state and local police forces. It might even encourage the Feds to legislate for an adequate military or downsize its self-chosen role as global police force-cum-primary foreign policy tool. It could even lead to a reduction in private for-profit armies, a boom industry for over a decade. Until power and restraint become better friends, a most unCheney-like concept, there will be more Fergusons.

    • P J Evans says:

      Over at the Great Orange Satan, Hunter suggested that Holder put some of his people in plain clothes, to walk around and mingle with the crowd at all hours, and see for themselves what the police are doing and how they’re treating people. And any cop who points a gun at one without cause, gets fired within the hour.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        What the Feds are achieving by militarizing local law enforcement is analogous to what they’re doing by using no-holds-barred intelligence tools for domestic, Constitution-ruled policing. Miranda and the Bill of Rights are oh-so-Colt Pythonish in a world of Sig Sauer tactical weapons and restraint-free surveillance tools.

        • P J Evans says:

          I still wouldn’t argue with a guy holding a Colt Python. Or my great-great-grandfather’s squirrel rifle (now a museum piece, literally: pre-Civil War muzzle-loader, and we really don’t know how old it is, but the lock was worn from blow-by).

          • earlofhuntingdon says:

            Agreed. The Python is an elegant piece of machinery. We should ask louder and more often why authorities need, and taxpayers must pay for, greatly increased firepower and surveillance tools in every city, suburb and whistle stop town in America. Because Los Angeles went over top with snipers, SWAT teams and armored cars doesn’t mean every other community should follow suit, even if the Feds pay for it. This “movement” appears to be a contractor-fueled, money-making juggernaut. Its logic, other than to enhance federal control and militarization of domestic property protection generally, seems to be that because some bad guy in the world has all the firepower a billion dollars can buy, then by gosh we need it too.

            • P J Evans says:

              At the very least, they should have had some kind of rules about what could be given to who, and the training required to get and keep the equipment. (No reason I can see for small departments to get MRAPs when an armored car would serve their needs just as well.)

  19. ArizonaBumblebeeper says:

    I just viewed on the CNN site the disturbing video of an Afro-American male in St. Louis (just four miles from Ferguson) who was acting mentally unstable and was shot dead by the police. As far as I’m concerned, this is a video of an extrajudicial execution of a man who did not present an serious, imminent threat to the two policemen on the scene despite what the chief of police is saying. Could this be the new way to employ the death penalty in America while imposing a new form of “Jim Crow justice” on Afro-American males? Dispense with the Bill of Rights and just shoot them down; it saves money and avoids the hassles of the judicial system.

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