This post was originally published in August, 2014.
Three days ago the Missouri State Police stepped into the middle of a crisis in the name of peace. As they entered the Ferguson city limits, they all but excused the local police from their duties, and offered what some saw as a concession from the state. Friday night seemed to confirm Capt. Ron Johnson and Governor Jay Nixon’s theory that removing the militarized police from the scene would calm the protesters and usher in a new era of police/protester relations. Then Saturday arrived, and any notion of cooperation was left on the side of the road with empty teargas canisters and rubber bullets.
In hindsight, Nixon and Johnson did what they felt was right based on decades of education, leadership, and experience. Their decision was right in line with established methodology when dealing with civil unrest; provide leadership. In the case of Ferguson, Nixon and Johnson decided the local police were no longer able to provide leadership on the streets, therefore a third party, one that had heretofore not been involved to any measurable degree, could step in and fill the void. Had the Ferguson unrest occurred ten, maybe 15 years ago, they might have succeeded. Today however, civil unrest like the type seen in Ferguson cannot be treated this way. It is a movement bereft of leadership, yet led by thousands. It is the ultimate in organized chaos, and it shatters old hierarchical molds. Welcome to the future.
In his book, “The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium” author Martin Gurri argues new social movements no longer need established hierarchies. In fact, modern movements are quickly eroding the authority of established political and special interest groups. They form and dissolve in an almost unpredictable manner and exist just so long as the desire to revolt continues. New movements, like the one in Ferguson, are not motivated by old enticements, rather they are ideologically motivated. This makes them impossible to prevent, and nearly impossible to slow or hinder. Due to their fluid nature, these movements do not require centralized leadership. This is both their primary strength and their ultimate weakness. They exist, as Gurri stated, in a crisis of authority. The crisis is not so much personal, as most within the group do not care for authoritative figureheads, it is deeply internal and inherent in their structure. Thus, once a movement begins to weaken, it will self-decimate rapidly and life will carry on as usual. That is the risk of leaderless resistances.
So, is Ferguson a leaderless resistance and does it suffer from a crisis of authority? To answer that we need to look at who has tried to steer the movement. We already touched on Capt. Johnson and Gov. Nixon. They failed, as seen in the Governor’s August 17th request for National Guard troops. Others include the Nation of Islam, The New Black Panther Party, Rev. Al Sharpton, the Moorish Temple and many others. Other than a few hours of relative calm, none of these groups can control the movement. During the build-up to the Saturday night teargas deployment, numerous protesters and observers were heard begging the crowd to obey the curfew. They were ignored and the mass moved on until there was gas. They were ignored because they represented and existential element, trying to break into dynamic and take control. They were honestly just as effective as riot officers.
Where do we go from here? In terms of law enforcement, strategies will need to be modified. As I stated earlier, these movements are impossible to predict, therefore impossible to stop. They can however be slowed, and occasionally derailed. The methods for this do not involve teargas, per se, rather an intellectual look at the dynamic and good old fashioned risk analysis. For protesters the leaderless movements mean more teargas, more hacktivism, and an unknown future. If the movement’s message resonates with the citizens and power brokers, then social change may occur. If however the movement is seen as nothing more than rampaging malcontents the message will die as the people turn their backs on your plight.