For four nights in a row, local police officers streamed into Ferguson, Mo., wearing camouflage, black helmets and vests with “POLICE” stamped on the back, says the New York Times. They carried assault rifles and ammunition, slender black nightsticks and gas masks. Their adversaries were a ragtag group of mostly unarmed neighborhood residents, hundreds of African-Americans whose fury at the police had sent them pouring onto streets and sidewalks. When protesters refused to retreat, threw firebombs or walked too close to a police officer, the response was swift and unrelenting: tear gas and rubber bullets. “At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community,” said Attorney General Eric Holder, “I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message.” Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Rand Paul (R-KY), voiced similar sentiments.
Such opposition amounts to a sharp change in tone in Washington, where the federal government has spent more than a decade paying for body armor, mine-resistant trucks and other military gear while putting few restrictions on its use. Grant programs that, in the name of fighting terrorism, paid for some of the equipment being used in Ferguson have been popular since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. If there has been any debate at all, it was over which departments deserved the most money. “The focus is terrorism, but it's allowed to do a crossover for other types of responses,” said Nick Gragnani of the St. Louis Area Regional Response System. “It's for any type of civil unrest. We went by the grant guidance. There was no restriction put on that by the federal government.”