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In Ferguson, the blurred line between law enforcement and combat

Surviving non-violent protest in the era of the "warrior cop."
A man backs away as law enforcement officials close in on him and eventually detain him during protests over the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager killed by a police officer, in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 11, 2014.
A man backs away as law enforcement officials close in on him and eventually detain him during protests over the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager killed by a police officer, in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 11, 2014.

The photograph shows a man with his hands raised in surrender or protest, and a clutch of police, clad in camouflage and body armor brandishing assault rifles. The patches on their shoulders read "police," but they look like soldiers. Since being published Tuesday by The New York Times, the photo has gone viral -- a shocking symbol of an American town seemingly gone mad.

Ferguson, Missouri has erupted in protests over the slaying of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was unarmed when he was shot by a police officer. Local police claim Brown may have reached for an officer's weapon. It has taken several days for them to interview a witness who says Brown was shot, multiple times, with his hands in the air, begging the officer not to fire.

RELATED: Eyewitness to Michael Brown shooting recounts his friend's death

Brown is not the only unarmed black man to be killed by police in the last month. In July, Eric Garner was choked to death during a scuffle with New York City police who suspected him of illegally selling individual cigarettes. In Los Angeles, Ezell Ford's mother says he was shot in the back by police Tuesday night while lying on the ground.

The manner of Brown's death has inspired a new gesture of protest in Missouri, where residents approach police with their arms raised, chanting, "Hands up! Don't shoot!" Turning a gesture of surrender into one of protest is in keeping with a long tradition of African-American creativity in defiance dating back to slavery. It is as if to say, when mere non-violence is not enough, we will resist even when we appear to capitulate.

“Ever since you’re born, you’re taught that this posture right here,” Phillip Agnew of the Dream Defenders told msnbc host Chris Hayes, raising his hands above his head, “should guarantee you life and liberty in your interaction with the police officer.” We are not in fact, all taught that -- some of us never need to learn it.

These heavily armed men are part of a more recent tradition: the militarization of American police. They are, like domestic surveillance, weapons built to fight a faraway war turned homeward. Hands-up is how black people survive nonviolent protest in the era of what author Radley Balko calls the "warrior cop."

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Department of Defense has transferred $4.3 billion in military equipment to local and state police through the 1033 program, first enacted in 1996 at the height of the so-called War on Drugs. The Department of Justice, according to the ACLU, "plays an important role in the militarization of the police" through its grant programs. It's not that individual police officers are bad people -- it's that shifts in the American culture of policing encourages officers to "think of the people they serve as enemies."

Since 2001, the Department of Homeland Security has encouraged further militarization of police through federal funds for "terrorism prevention." The armored vehicles, assault weapons, and body armor borne by the police in Ferguson are the fruit of turning police into soldiers. Training materials obtained by the ACLU encourage departments to "build the right mind-set in your troops" in order to thwart "terrorist plans to massacre our schoolchildren." It is possible that, since 9/11, police militarization has massacred more American schoolchildren than any al-Qaida terrorist.

The images from Ferguson are shocking because of an unearned triumphalism that affects American conversations about race. Any discussion of lingering racial inequity is laced with grand reiterations of how much has changed from our past, leaving little space to note that which hasn't, or that which may be uniquely abominable about our present. For Republicans to acknowledge this could invite perilous calls for government to meet the challenge. For Democrats, it would diminish their proudest accomplishments and compromise future appeals for government intervention.

When it comes to police brutality, this kind of silence becomes dreadfully literal. The federal government, despite being obligated to do so by statute, does not publish national information on the use of force by police.

National officials in both parties have responded quietly or not at all to events in Ferguson. The armed patriots who rode to deliver Nevada Rancher Cliven Bundy from the tyranny of cattle grazing fees will not be seen attempting to rescue Ferguson residents from "rubber" bullets and wooden pellets, from tear gas cannisters lobbed into the front yards of their homes. On Fox News, the network that made Bundy a folk hero before he waxed nostalgic about slavery, the people protesting the killing of a teenager have been dismissed as "the same people who voted for Obama." The line between heroic resistance to tyranny and frightening lawlessness begins to look rather like the color line. Not a line between right and wrong, a line between us and them. 

As the unwilling avatar of America's racial innocence, the treasured proof that we have overcome, Obama has faced some of his fiercest backlash when acknowledging the persistence of racism. In 2009, when Obama criticized a white Cambridge, Massachusetts police officer who arrested a black man in his own home, he invited both men to the White House for a "beer summit" to quell the uproar. When Obama noted that black parents fear their children may be presumed criminals by stating that his hypothetical son would look like slain teenager Trayvon Martin, the reaction turned an apolitical tragedy into a partisan food fight.  On Tuesday, after the president issued a statement calling Brown's death "heartbreaking," Fox News personality Todd Starnes wondered why Obama had not offered his condolences to the police officer who killed him as he had the parents who lost a son.

Nerves fray when policing comes up precisely because that image of racial innocence is hard to maintain in the face of stark disparities. White men walk into department stores carrying real guns and walk out unmolested, while a black man with a toy gun is shot dead. Without succumbing to darker impulses, the disproportionate impact of American policing on black lives -- from shootings to broken windows to stop and frisk -- becomes impossible to justify.

There are those who squawk on television about armed insurrection and tyranny, and those who face the prospect that each day could be the last they will stare down its barrel. Ferguson has reminded us that these are not the same people, and they are not living under the same rules.