The death of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager who was shot and killed by a police officer on Aug. 9, has sparked widespread civil unrest on the streets of Ferguson, Mo., and public outcry across the country. Among the issues raised by the killing and its aftermath is the excessive use of military tactics and equipment used by local police officers to quell peaceful protests and stop journalists from reporting. Congressman Hank Johnson, D-Georgia, plans to introduce legislation to regulate the way police departments obtain surplus military equipment. State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, a longtime opponent of police militarization in Georgia, tells Creative Loafing readers why police departments must lay down their military weapons and how that should happen.
I am not surprised by the killing of Mike Brown. There is a history of police using their authority in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta to unjustly kill people, particularly unarmed young African-American males. What did surprise me was the militarization of local police in Ferguson. It looked like Iraq or Afghanistan with the tanks, the military vehicles, and the military gear. It looked like Ukraine.
What you have in Ferguson is a police state. Police are not supposed to use military tactics against the citizens they are supposed to protect. They have used tactics like intimidation and brutality to prevent people from exercising their rights. The decision was made that the Ferguson Police were not going to allow peaceful protests. They were not going to allow reporting of their transgressions.
The use of military tactics by local law enforcement is not just something that happens in Ferguson. We've seen this to an extent in Atlanta, where police have taken cameras away during protests. I've seen protests in Atlanta where police have prevented people from filming or arrest people for videotaping. I've seen journalists arrested during Occupy Atlanta protests. Some of the tactics used in Atlanta you're seeing in Ferguson. The shooting death of Mike Brown parallels the Kathryn Johnston killing, especially when people talk about police in African-American neighborhoods.
The worst police state in Georgia, in my opinion, is in Thomaston. For more than a decade there has been a police officer there named Phillip Tobin who has been of accused of knocking out people's eye sockets and breaking arms. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is investigating a June 11 incident in which Tobin allegedly Tased a 25-year-old man for no reason. The Thomaston Police Department is reviewing dozens of past complaints against him. We have also asked the U.S. attorney general to look into whether this officer is operating with impunity under the knowledge of his superiors. The officer is now on paid leave.
The Habersham County Sheriff's Department is probably the best example of police militarization in Georgia with its use of military-style equipment and flash bang grenades. A military-style weapon, along with a no-knock warrant, is a toxic mixture that's very deadly. It was almost deadly for Bounkham "Bou Bou" Phonesavanh. Under a no-knock warrant, police knocked down a house door, threw a flash bang grenade into Bou Bou's crib, and he almost died. He became an example of the brutality and abuse that happens because of police militarization. Charges should now be brought against the officer who threw the stun grenade.
We should not let pass the opportunity to do good following Mike Brown's death. We need to make sure Ferguson doesn't happen again. We should not allow surplus military equipment to be given to police departments. U.S. military soldiers are trained to kill people. We should refrain from giving police that kind of equipment, knowing that it's designed on that premise. Another important things is, when you have heavily African-American populations, the makeup of the police needs to represent the people in the community.
We need to take advantage of the crisis. We need to correct the things that clearly need to be fixed. Reconciliation should happen. But we have to take specific action. Singing "Kumbaya" is not what we have to do. Let's implement changes in Ferguson, in Thomaston, and in Habersham County. What you have in effect are scenarios that could happen again. The question is whether we're going to be able to prevent them.
Things need to be done on every level of government. At the state level, you must move forward with restricting no-knock warrants. In Washington, D.C., you need to consider Congressman Hank Johnson's legislation to prevent military equipment from being distributed to police. Local authorities need to refrain and say, "No, we're not going to accept military equipment."
I think reforms to everything I outlined are possible. No-knock warrant legislation has moved out of the Georgia Senate in the past. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul supports asking for the military to not be able to distribute surplus military equipment. Progressives and conservatives are making common cause on this kind of legislation.
- As told to Max Blau
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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