Photo Credit: CNN

Photo Credit: CNN

I’ll never forget the pain etched in their faces.

I’ll never forget the screams, the haunting pleas of mothers at faceless soldiers.

I’ll never forget the National Guard on rooftops, and Humvee patrols in an American city. The long lines of riot police, the frustration on the faces of young men.

I’ll never forget the resilience of a battle-worn community. I‘ll never forget the prayer circles, hopeful speech, and the unity, democrats and republicans, libertarians and socialists, standing side by side in the face of oppression.

Once a sleepy suburb of St. Louis, and now America’s warzone, Ferguson Missouri jumped into the headlines after protests over the shooting of a teenager sparked a militarized police response. Because over two years ago, I founded PANDA to prevent this very thing from happening, we have specifically banned 7 jurisdictions from being battlefields, and I needed to see if I could put my talents forward to help the community recover, I went to Ferguson. I was there for two weeks, and here are 20 things I learned living on America’s battlefield:

1. It was not about public safety, it was about officer safety.

When the Pentagon’s 1033 program to give surplus Department of Defense Equipment to local police and sheriffs’ departments started, the argument was to protect the public from drugs and terror attacks. In fact, in the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act that birthed the program, it was placed under “Subtitle C–Counter-Drug Activities” and gives preference to “those applications indicating that the transferred property will be used in the counter-drug or counter-terrorism activities of the recipient agency.

Those excuses are notably missing from the law enforcement leadership in Ferguson.

Not only did heavily armed tactical teams point sniper rifles at protesters in a daytime protest, but after a relatively peaceful Tuesday night, the Missouri Highway Patrol, in control since the previous Thursday, made it clear why the police looked like an occupying army.

“Officer safety is number one.”

-MHP Captain Ron Johnson

Officer safety was. Rights were a nice bonus.

2. The “rules” can be changed at will, for whatever reason

When I arrived in the parking lot of a burned out QuikTrip, the epicenter of the Ferguson protests, on August 16th, the 1st amendment was respected. People were allowed to roam freely, and the atmosphere took on a kind of jovial attitude.

Then, at 3pm, MO Gov. Jay Nixon held a press conference announcing a midnight curfew. Within the next couple of hours, people had to make a decision whether or not to stay after midnight, for no other reason than to break the curfew. Protest leaders made the community aware of the cutoff time and the risks. Still, this happened:

The next night was another midnight curfew, yet the police attacked at 930 PM, gassing several women and children who thought the protest was still “legal” at that hour. In fact, since the National Guard had now been moved in, no one was even allowed in the large parking lot near the police command center after an arbitrary hour of night. The day after that, at 1030 AM, police told everyone around the QuikTrip to keep moving or be arrested. You could stay here, you just had to keep moving. Then, they completely shut the Quiktrip parking lot down (with no authorization from the owner), telling us to leave or be arrested, and removing the main protest gathering place. Later in the day, most of the street was shut down.

The next day, police established an “Approve Assembly Area [sic]” toward the opposite end of W. Florissant that the QuikTrip was on. We had to gather there, or be arrested.

Photo Credit: Kelly Owens

Photo Credit: Kelly Owens

Except then it wasn’t, because the next few nights you could walk around the streets of Ferguson, you just had to keep moving. I stopped once to update the livestream on my phone, and was threatened with arrest if I didn’t keep moving because “you’re filming.”

That doesn’t even touch on the checkpoints. Police set up checkpoints at the each end of W. Florissant, where they were checking driver ID’s. If you were not a resident, you didn’t get in (and sometimes, didn’t get out).

3. Just 4 miles away, it was as if nothing had ever happened.

Probably one of the most shocking things to me was just how isolated the violence was, both physically and in the minds of the people who lived nearby. I remember going into a St. Louis pizza shop on August 17th for a local style pizza (St. Louis style is like eating cheese and sauce on a cracker, not something I’d recommend), and talking to the clerk there. Similar to many locals, he described it as if it were happening in another country, instead of his own backyard.

In fact, save for just one city, you would not have known anything different was going on traveling throughout the entire St. Louis area. Life went on, and not even with a change of pace. Only four blocks away, there were no protesters at all. Many locals from surrounding towns even defended the police actions, or didn’t find them to be concerning enough for more than dinner conversation.

It makes me more sure than ever that we cannot force change at a Federal level. It must be in our towns, in our communities, and in our counties, or, odds are, no one would ever notice.

4. The “liberty movement” was almost nonexistent.

For all the lip service given to the militarization of the country, and the prospect of an emerging police state, when it became reality and there was a tangible, workable resistance to it, the liberty movement was nowhere to be found.

The most obvious comparison, as pointed out continuously to me by people on the ground, is the Bundy Ranch situation. There was an over militarized response by Federal law enforcement, with the Obama administration even considering using military force, and liberty groups flocked there to show support, whether online or in person. PANDA even had people in the background, watching the situation closely. So where are they on Ferguson?:

Tea Party Patriots – Not a word.

National Rifle Association, Gun Owners of America, and National Association for Gun Rights – Not a word.

Tea Party Express – published a blog post trivializing the events.

Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association – not so much as a statement. EDIT: I was just informed that there was a CSPOA Board Member on the ground, and they plan on releasing a resolution/statement soon. 

Constitutional “militias” – Though a post on facebook seemed to imply that the Missouri Militia would show up, they did not.

FOX News – Spent hours of programming demonizing the protesters as “looters” and “violent” while defending police tactics.

Liberty News and Eric Odom – Wondered if martial law was okay, no one on the ground.

In short, for whatever reason, when federal officials showed up on a rancher’s property in Nevada, shouts of liberty and a second American revolution were abundant. All arguments were about a police state coming to America, and how we need to stand together when liberty is threatened. In Ferguson, where there has been more than just a standoff, but hundreds of protesters have been injured, that same movement seemed to forget their mission.

5. However, a few consistent liberty people showed up:

While I dare the groups above to look, hard, at their own principles and question why they are not consistent, there were a few liberty movement groups who definitely did show up, and deserve a lot of credit. INFOWARS coverage of the protests was incredible. Copblock and Wecopwatch not only sent people on the ground, but are outfitting over 100 residents with body cameras. The Missouri Oath Keepers not only sent several people on the ground with me, but issued a warning letter to MO Governor Nixon over his tactics. The Patriot Coalition was on the ground as well. Derrick Broze of the Conscious Resistance flew down to report.  Even Ron Paul and Campaign for Liberty, though they had no one on the ground, focused on Ferguson in several statements.

Those who talk, and those who act, were separated in Ferguson. And though those who acted could be fit in a couple of large hotel rooms, we took advantage of the greatest opportunity to spread liberty we have gotten to date. Those who did not, showed their true colors.

6. Everyone pitched in in their own way.

Protests create the greatest spontaneous innovation, as people, without instruction, take their places in the chaos. The first few nights of protests left W. Florissant trashed, so every morning a small group of residents would bring whatever they had, brooms, dustpans, trash bags, and help clean up the area. By Wednesday morning, hundreds of residents had joined in. Dozens of residents and even a few organizations, including St. Louis Food not Bombs and Disciples for Justice, were handing out free food, water, and sign making supplies to protesters. Several protesters kept criminals from looting, even shoving agitators attempting to throw bricks and rocks.

One of the groups of people seemingly forgotten though, were the local business owners. The weeks of protesting on their main street, not to mention the looting and destruction, had hurt them pretty badly So when a friend of mine in the area told me the St. Louis Tea Party would be organizing a “BuyCott,” I said “a what?”

Turns out, a “Buycott” is the opposite of a boycott, when people go to a certain area just to buy things and help them recover. The tea party followed through, and sent nearly 50 members to Ferguson to help the local businesses, and community, recover.

7. Militarized equipment makes officers less safe.

Though the main argument for handing excess militarized equipment to local police was terrorism and the drug war, we have seen it shift to officer safety. An Indiana Sheriff who recently acquired an Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle noted “My job is to make sure my employees go home safe,” and Walton County, FL Sheriff Mike Adkinson echoed that sentiment saying “I know that if somebody was in harm’s way, I wouldn’t let public opinion decide the safety of my deputy,” further noting “Safety is my number one priority.”

Officer safety is the number one reason for this equipment, and yet my experience in Ferguson showed, me at least, that in practice it does just the opposite. Nearly every resident I talked to said there would be peace in that suburb if the police backed off. I witnessed a bit of a confrontation between a major ball star (could not tell where he was from, nor did local news help) who had visited Ferguson and was known by several young men, and one of the young men in the crowd. I’ll paraphrase what I remember:

Ball star: Now, I know you’re angry, but have to be calm. We have to talk to the police, to get that conversation going.

Young man “You say to talk to the police, but it’s a two way street. When they have that mask on, there’s no talking, they ain’t a man. I gotta talk to them man to man, and it’s a two way street.” (walks away, taking crowd with him)

I spoke to another young man with a rose in his hand and a bandanna over his face, and confronted him about that contradiction. I asked him “why both?” He told me the rose was for peace. He wanted peace, and it was up to the police to back down and create that peace. “However,” he told me as he slid the bandanna over his face, “if they want war…we’re prepared for war.”

An M4 makes sense to protect an officer from gunfire, just as an MRAP makes sense to protect them from an IED.  But that equipment is meant for a foreign battlefield. Instead, as I saw personally in Ferguson, this equipment gives officers the mentality of being in a warzone…and they treat their citizens like enemy combatants on that battlefield.

If that’s the country you want, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria are nice this time of year.

In America right now, many people still look to the police as a peaceful, necessary, and helpful force in their community. They don’t want to confront an officer, don’t see them as a threat, and don’t see them as the enemy.

Something changes when the officers look like an occupying army. Something changes when those officers fear their people so much that they act to protect themselves rather than to protect and serve.

As they turn from peacekeepers to occupiers, their people turn from employers to enemies. Instead of keeping the peace, they ignite a resistance, a resistance that makes officers significantly less safe.

When a young man by the name of Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, people were angry, but mourning. There were holding a memorial for one of their own. The protesters that did show up were chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot,” “No justice, no peace,” and “We are Mike Brown.” On that night, according to several witnesses I interviewed, the police brought APCs, K-9 teams, and riot squads. They continued this militarized response, ramping it up to point sniper rifles at daytime protesters, for the next two weeks.

In contrast, when a young man was killed in the city of St. Louis just a week after Michael Brown was shot, I arrived to a crowd chanting “Hands up, Shoot back!” instead of “Hands up, don’t shoot!” The protesters I interviewed there all threatened or agreed with violence, one man even told me “This was now war.” Several young men jumped in the air in a group huddle screaming “Shoot back!” Shoot back!” with fingers in the shape of guns in the air.

The atmosphere was so tense that I was concerned enough for my safety to call a cab out of there. Yet police showed up to speak to the crowd, in their standard uniforms, with name badges and identification. No riot police, armored vehicles, or K-9 units. Even with significantly more violent rhetoric from the crowd, there were no large protests in St. Louis. There were no police officers shot at or killed because of the incident. The St. Louis Police Department, that day, viewed their people, though angry, as people. Not the enemy.

Only the Ferguson approach resulted in officers taking live fire.

When the world is a battlefield, whether it is our military or militarized police enforcing that idea, America is not safer. When our law enforcement view their people as the enemy, and their job as protecting the officer, neither us, nor an officer, is safer. It’s time this equipment, and the mentality that comes with it, is laid to rest.

Stay tuned for Part II.

Dan Johnson is the Founder and National Director of People Against the NDAA. Invite him to speak to your group here: