What Happened to the Bill of Rights? Through the Lens of Ferguson

Let us consider peaceful protests for a moment. What protections might one expect when assembling in the type of public demonstrations which have become such an instrumental part of political action, particularly for minorities and marginalized groups? Well of course you have your 1st amendment protections to assemble peacefully and express yourself through free speech, provided statements and actions are non-threatening to individuals or the public. Individuals are also protected under the 4th amendment from unlawful search, seizure, and false imprisonment. These rights are to be respected and even enforced by law enforcement, not violated. However, as ever, there are loopholes that the government is well versed in exploiting to subvert your rights. In the case of the unrest in Ferguson, this took the form of a curfew. While the move to declare a State of Emergency and impose the midnight to 5am curfew was within Governor Jay Nixon’s powers of office, it represented a curtailing of the political and civil rights of the protestors. To that point, many of the Ferguson protesters had publically condemned the small faction of young men looting and inciting violence, defending the demonstrations as almost entirely peaceful. However the actions of those few looters prompted the imposition of the curfew, one that affected all of the demonstrators. While many analysts warned this move may be received by protestors as an attempt to silence their voices at a time when race relations with police were already at a breaking point, the curfew was still established. This undercut the demonstrators right to assemble and express themselves, as they were told to disperse at midnight, and subjected to tear gas and arrest when they refused. Do Not Resist contains footage of military style riot trucks and fully militarized swat teams advancing down the streets of Ferguson to break up the demonstrators, firing tear gas and rubber bullets at those who stood their ground. Dahlia Lithwick, an editor for Slate, noted that “tear gas is in a category all its own. Not only is unleashing it into a crowd an unconstitutional exercise of excessive force, but its use is banned by international law.” Amnesty International even sent an investigative team to Ferguson to look into violations related to the use of tear gas.

If you’re a journalist, you might expect your 1st Amendment rights as an agent of the free press to exempt you from the persecution by police officers to which protestors have been increasingly subjected. And yet, you would be sorely disappointed. Reporters too were harassed and arrested for violation of the curfew in Ferguson. By intimidating and forcibly removing the press, coverage of the militarized tactics of the police in Ferguson was impeded and the voice of the movement was weakened. The ACLU and NAACP came together to issue a call to end the curfew imposed during the Ferguson protests as it punished peaceful protesters “through the theft of constitutionally protected rights.” Violations of the 1st, 4th and 14th amendments have become so commonplace during peaceful protests that the American viewing public has begun to become numb to images of police brutality when now, more than ever, every American should be increasingly outraged by violations of civil rights. It is no longer enough to simply ‘know your rights’ because if you decide to join a march or protest, those rights have a real chance of being violated by police. Know your rights, yes, but treat a violation of any Americans civil liberties as a violation of your own. We cannot afford to allow police officers to continue to brutalize their communities through para-military action and excessive force. It’s time for police to protect our rights, not trample them.

 

Works Cited

 

Do Not Resist. Dir. Craig Atkinson. Amazon.com. Laura Hartrick, VANISH Films, 2016. Web.     12 Apr. 2017. <https://www.amazon.com/Do-Not-Resist-Craig-        Atkinson/dp/B01MQN9JZY/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8>.

 

Lithwick, Dahlia, and Daria Roithmayr. “The Trashing of the Constitution in Ferguson,       Missouri.” Slate Magazine. Slate.com, 20 Aug. 2014. Web. 12 Apr. 2017.

 

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