Thursday night saw a calm return to the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. It didn’t last long.
Hours after Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri imposed a midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew on Saturday in this small city, a group of protesters defied the order and violence flared briefly on Sunday morning, after a week of demonstrations over the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer.
A clash between the protesters and dozens of police officers in riot gear began less than 30 minutes after the curfew took effect and ended about 45 minutes later with the arrest of seven people, all charged with “failure to disperse.”
The justification was that there were some people engaged in violence:
Protesters tossed at least one bottle rocket, the police said, and at the sound of apparent gunshots from a restaurant down the street, demonstrators scrambled to safety.
So the rights of all were terminated with extreme prejudice.
The protesters had moved toward the line of officers — some of whom rode in armored vehicles — and chanted : “We are Mike Brown! We have the right to assemble peacefully!” invoking the name of the 18-year-old who was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer.
“You are violating the state-imposed curfew,” an officer told the demonstrators as rain, heavy at times, passed through the area.
Governor Jay Nixon figured he had it all under control by bringing in Missouri State Police Capt. Ronald Johnson, who showed the sound judgment to honor the rights of the community by walking with them. As calm returned to Ferguson, the governor apparently thought he had it all under control. He jumped the gun.
Despite an earlier pledge by Capt. Ronald S. Johnson, the state Highway Patrol commander whose is overseeing security in Ferguson, the police eventually began firing both smoke grenades and some tear gas.
And rubber bullets. Not at the people engaged in the purported wrongdoing, unless you consider violating curfew worthy of getting shot.
The initial curfew announcement came in midafternoon on Saturday, when Governor Nixon declared a state of emergency here.
“This is not to silence the people of Ferguson, but to address those who are drowning out the voice of the people with their actions,” Mr. Nixon, a Democrat, told reporters and residents at a Ferguson church Saturday. “We will not allow a handful of looters to endanger the rest of this community. If we’re going to achieve justice, we must first have and maintain peace.”
Except silencing the people of Ferguson was exactly what he was doing. In the name of order, Nixon locked down a community. Gone were the police in regular uniform. Back were the soldiers in camo, MRAPs and heavy armaments. Gone were the rights of the community to protest the killing of Michael Brown by Police Officer Darren Wilson. Back were the warriors to silence them.
Mr. Nixon added: “This is a test. The eyes of the world are watching.”
And indeed, they are. They should be. But the test goes both ways, a point that appears to have eluded Governor Nixon. This is a litmus test of constitutional rights, and to the extent Friday night suggested that the governor of Missouri got it, Saturday night must be graded as a failure.
Some will see the curfew, the shutdown of Ferguson, as a perfectly reasonable exercise of force to silence a community because of the criminal conduct of a few. After all, it could be argued, it’s the duty of the government to restore order, and when confronted with some looters, extreme measures are required. Order above all.
Others will see that the government, through the use of dictates and fiat, has stolen the rights of Ferguson citizens to do as every American is assured by the Constitution. To peaceably assemble. To protest. To express their anger and have their voices heard. They will see this curfew, and the warriors who enforce it, as a subjugating force.
Those of the former ilk will blame the handful of looters. The peaceful protestors shouldn’t blame the police, but those who commit crimes under cover of protest. Of course, there are always some in society who engage in crime, and it’s generally viewed as the nature of policing that they deal with them directly, and not subjugate everyone because of the few.
But there is a bigger, a far more fundamental, issue at stake. Some guy named Nixon decided that respecting the constitutional rights of the citizens of Ferguson is too high a price to pay for the possibility, perhaps the likelihood, of some criminality. Better to suspend the Constitution for all than suffer the crimes of a few.
One side says order must be restored at all costs.
The other side says the Constitution must be honored at all costs.
Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?