U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis signed on to a letter issued last week demanding a hearing on the use of force by local law enforcement officials during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri.
Cohen, and Reps. John Conyers and Robert Scott issued the letter to Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, after Ferguson police broke up a protest last week with "brutal force: confronting demonstrators in riot gear and armored vehicles, arresting journalists, and firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd."
The protests in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, were sparked when local police shot and killed an unarmed African-American teenager, Michael Brown, more than a week ago.
Protests there briefly calmed after the initial show of force by police officers outfitted in riot gear and driving armored vehicles. Security of the protest was handed over to the Missouri state police last week, who shed the riot gear and walked among the protestors. Violence picked up again Sunday and Monday nights as some protesters threw Molotov cocktails at police and several people were shot. The National Guard was called in to Ferguson on Monday. Cohen and others want an investigation into the events "as soon as possible."
"These incidents raise concerns that local law enforcement is out of control, and, instead of protecting the safety and civil liberties of the residents of Ferguson, is employing tactics that violate the rights of the citizens and hinder the ability of the press to report on their actions," the letter reads. "This situation requires immediate congressional scrutiny."
The congressmen want to discuss "what appears to be a pattern of the use of deadly force by police against unarmed African Americans in cities around the nation." They also want an investigation into the arrest of two journalists — Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post and Ryan J. Reilly of The Huffington Post. Finally, Cohen and the others said they want to address the "extensive militarization of state and local police."
"In Ferguson, why do local police dress in military-style uniforms and body armor, carry short-barreled 5.56-mm rifles based on the M4 carbine, and patrol neighborhoods in massive armored vehicles?" the letter reads. "In all likelihood, the decision to adopt a military posture only served to aggravate an already tense situation and to commit the police to a military response."
The protests in Ferguson have sparked action in Memphis. Vigils, gatherings, and marches sprang up all over town last week at parks, major intersections, and the National Civil Rights Museum.
Supporters took to the main intersections along the Poplar corridor on Monday holding signs that read "#handsup" and "#dontshoot," Twitter hashtags inspired by Ferguson protestors. That protest was organized in part by Memphis United, the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, and others.
Memphis United wants to use the energy surrounding the events in Ferguson to push for a slate of changes in Memphis. The group wants body cameras on all local police officers, action on the city's backlog of untested rape kits, and an end of militarization of the Memphis Police Department and private security officers, among other things.
"We are all outraged by the events in Ferguson and around the United States, where we see people of color disproportionately targeted by police violence," says the group's Facebook page. "We should be outraged, and our voices should be heard."