Strange how the mind makes connections between apparently unrelated things. This week my thoughts have been occupied by two very different events: the beginning of rehearsals for New Line Theater's “Bonnie and Clyde” and civil unrest and police response following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
Documentaries I've seen suggest that to a significant degree, the success of the Barrow gang stemmed as much from the lack of sophistication and coordination of law enforcement as from the criminals' daring and unorthodox behavior. The prohibition era of the 1920s when Clyde Barrow came of age was a time when automobiles were still replacing horse-drawn transportation. The American population was much more rural than now and travel was much less common. Most country folks stayed pretty close to home and that meant that police work was largely local authorities investigating local residents committing crimes against their neighbors. When the Barrow gang burst into public view, local sheriffs and deputies were faced with an entirely new animal – criminals that were extremely mobile, heavily armed and seemingly fearless. When cornered, they could (and did) shoot their way out. But most often, they could avoid arrest simply by driving across jurisdictional boundaries – state or even county lines, switching license plates as they went. By the time authorities in the next state could be contacted, Clyde and his robbing hoods could be hundreds of miles away.
The short but spectacular career of Bonnie and Clyde and other headline criminals of the day highlighted just how dreadfully unprepared law enforcement was for this new kind of outlaw. Federal authorities began to take notice and provide assistance in apprehending dangerous and far-ranging felons. Information provided by the Justice department bureau (which would soon become the FBI) along with Texas Ranger Frank Hamer's disregard for jurisdictions and the arrival of better arms for the lawmen eventually brought the Barrow gang's days to a bloody close.
Fast forward 80 years to Ferguson and the aftermath of the shooting of teenager Michael Brown. Local residents, angered at what appeared to be an unjustified killing of an unarmed young black man by Ferguson police took to the streets to protest. Within a few days, demonstrators found themselves standing before a large force of heavily armed police in riot gear. Streets were patrolled by an armored car with roof-mounted machine gun – a far cry from the backwoods sheriff and deputies which responded to crimes in the days of Bonnie and Clyde.
How did our police force become so militarized? In response to perceived threats to public safety, most noticeably the “drug wars” of the 1990s and terrorist attacks in the decade following, military surplus was transferred into the hands of local police departments. Last year, the Defense Department gave $450 million to local policing authorities. A Homeland Security Department grant paid for the $360,000 armored car rumbling around Ferguson city streets.
In the era of Bonnie and Clyde, an increase in sophistication and range of law enforcement was necessary to protect US citizens against the gangsters of the 1920s. Innocent people who found themselves staring down the barrel of machine guns wielded by the most brazen of criminals wanted more effective policing. But now, two generations removed, innocent citizens find themselves facing even more frightening firepower in the hands of faceless police officers in riot-gear masks. Has the pendulum swung so far from the days of Bonnie and Clyde as to be nearly off its hinges?
There is always a difficult balance between liberty and security. When we feel threatened as a nation, we find ourselves willing to trade a bit of liberty for safety – witness the Patriot Act, the use of torture in interrogation and the establishment of perpetual detainment in Guantanamo Bay along among other compromises. We must always be debating when we have sacrificed too much liberty for our security, or else we find ourselves feeling neither free nor secure, as Ferguson residents experienced this week.
On the positive side, the deployment of militarized police equipment made international news because (in part) it is rare and not the norm in our nation. Americans are talking about these issues and many are taking to the streets in protest – a very American undertaking. And, as frightening as the police presence has been at times, they still take orders from civil authorities, including Governor Nixon's direction to step down and bring a more measured response.
It's hard to imagine how Bonnie and Clyde might have viewed this week's headlines from Ferguson. It's a very different world. Still, they might take some satisfaction knowing that they are still remembered and that the changes in law enforcement set in motion by their crime sprees are still affecting everyday Americans even in 2014.