Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ferguson

The Grand Jury System Is Broken

The announcement of the grand jury’s decision in the Ferguson case could hardly have been worse handled. The prosecutor waited until well after nightfall to make the announcement and the governor, having mobilized the national guard to protect persons and property, kept them in their barracks while the rioters ran wild.

Read More

The announcement of the grand jury’s decision in the Ferguson case could hardly have been worse handled. The prosecutor waited until well after nightfall to make the announcement and the governor, having mobilized the national guard to protect persons and property, kept them in their barracks while the rioters ran wild.

But many on the left are blaming the way the prosecuting attorney, Robert McCulloch, presented the case to the grand jury. Dana Milbank in the Washington Post wrote that

What causes the outrage, and the despair, is the joke of a grand-jury proceeding run under the auspices of McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecutor. In September, I wrote that it appeared he wasn’t even trying to get an indictment; he had a long record of protecting police in such cases, and his decision not to recommend a specific charge to the grand jury essentially guaranteed there would be no indictment.

A New York Times editorial argued that

Instead of conducting an investigation and then presenting the case and a recommendation of charges to the grand jury, his office shifted its job to the grand jury. It made no recommendation on whether to indict the officer, Darren Wilson, but left it to the jurors to wade through masses of evidence to determine whether there was probable cause to file charges against Officer Wilson for Mr. Brown’s killing.

Former Chief Judge Sol Wachtler of New York once famously said that a district attorney could get a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich” if that’s what he wanted. Milbank and the Times are essentially arguing that McCulloch should have done exactly that: abuse the grand jury system in order to get an indictment that most people who have looked at the massive amount of evidence he released say would not have resulted in a conviction.

But if grand juries almost always do what the district attorney wants, why do we need grand juries at all? Well, one answer to that question is the 5th Amendment to the Constitution which says that “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, …” And as Andrew McCarthy notes in National Review Online the Founding Fathers regarded the grand jury as a core protection:

It stands as the buffer between the government prosecutor and the citizen-suspect; it safeguards Americans, who are presumed innocent, from being subjected to the anxiety, infamy and expense of a trial unless there is probable cause to believe they have committed a serious offense.

But as Judge Wachtler implied, it no longer serves that function and has become deeply and institutionally corrupt. It has become a means for prosecuting attorneys to further their political ambitions. They are almost always elected officials in this country and many successful politicians have begun their careers that way. Thomas E. Dewey and Rudi Giuliani are two examples of politicians who used their position as prosecuting attorneys to quite deliberately generate publicity for themselves and move on to higher office. It was Dewey who invented the “perp walk” with reporters invited to be in attendance when a person was arrested.

Grand juries no longer exist in any other common law country. In England and Wales they were abandoned more than eighty years ago. Nor are there political district attorneys. Instead police take the evidence of a crime to the Crown Prosecution Service, staffed by bureaucrats not politicians, and the CPS decides if there is strong enough evidence and that justice would be served by holding a trial before a petit jury.

The grand jury system is broken and it either needs to be thoroughly reformed in order to provide the needed protection from an overreaching prosecuting attorney or the 5th Amendment needs to be itself amended.

Read Less

The Media’s Irresponsible Ferguson Coverage

There are many things that can be said about the decision by the grand jury not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and the response to it, including John’s forceful and eloquent post. I would only add that much of the press coverage last night, and throughout this entire episode, was very discouraging.

Read More

There are many things that can be said about the decision by the grand jury not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and the response to it, including John’s forceful and eloquent post. I would only add that much of the press coverage last night, and throughout this entire episode, was very discouraging.

This is one of those stories in which the liberal bias of supposedly “objective” reporters comes gushing out. This was particularly true of CNN. It was painful to watch reporters, with child-like melodrama, pretend they were part of a great civil-rights story. But 2014 isn’t 1965, and Ferguson, Missouri isn’t the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Reporters and commentators tried so hard to turn this story into something it never was: a racially-driven shooting of an innocent black teen by a white police officer.

The evidence presented to the grand jury was voluminous and comprehensive, and the jury concluded Officer Wilson should not be tried. But the left, including much of the media, was determined to superimpose a racial narrative on this story. The facts of the case were not only secondary; they were irrelevant. Liberals had a tale to tell, a stern moral sermon to deliver. What we saw–not among everyone to be sure, but among too many–was post-modern journalism on display. All that matters are the “narrative identities” we create for ourselves. We can all create our own reality. Truth needs to be shaped and re-shaped in order to fit a storyline. So a shooting that was never about race suddenly became a story focused almost solely on race. Think of Anderson Cooper as Jacques Derrida.

It’s of course the case that our experiences shape how we perceive reality. We all interpret events in a somewhat different way and none of us perceives truth perfectly. But that is a world apart from a license to interpret events in a way that’s false.

The effort by the left broadly, and journalists more specifically, to turn the events in Ferguson into a morality play was a shame; and in the end, it probably helped fuel the violence we saw. (“A riot is the language of the unheard,” tweeted MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow, quoting Martin Luther King Jr.) That violence won’t directly hurt you and it won’t directly hurt me. But it has hurt the residents of Ferguson. And rather than help race relations in America, it will set them back.

What we got last night from the grand jury was justice. What we didn’t get was peace.

Read Less

Ham Sandwich Indictments and the Riot

The nation is still reeling this morning from last night’s televised riot in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of the decision of a St. Louis County grand jury not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the death of black teenager Michael Brown. Without offering any opinion either criticizing the grand jury’s decision or supporting it, I do however wonder about one particular trope that was often heard last night on CNN and MSNBC. Namely, that the prosecutor that had presented the evidence on the case had erred by not doing so in a manner that would have dictated an indictment. The consensus on those networks of their panels of “legal experts” was that it was the duty of the prosecutor to play out the “ham sandwich” paradigm of grand jury panels. My question today is to ask why anyone would think such behavior would be a good thing under any circumstance.

Read More

The nation is still reeling this morning from last night’s televised riot in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of the decision of a St. Louis County grand jury not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the death of black teenager Michael Brown. Without offering any opinion either criticizing the grand jury’s decision or supporting it, I do however wonder about one particular trope that was often heard last night on CNN and MSNBC. Namely, that the prosecutor that had presented the evidence on the case had erred by not doing so in a manner that would have dictated an indictment. The consensus on those networks of their panels of “legal experts” was that it was the duty of the prosecutor to play out the “ham sandwich” paradigm of grand jury panels. My question today is to ask why anyone would think such behavior would be a good thing under any circumstance.

It was clear from the start that any vote other than one for a murder indictment would be treated as an act of racist indifference that many African-Americans would never accept. The tragedy that has unfolded in Ferguson is one to which there are no easy answers. Clearly, African Americans approach the issue of police shootings of young black males from the perspective that such incidents are the product of racism and it would be insensitive as well as pointless to claim that they are wrong to see it from this point of view even if the facts of this particular case clearly led the grand jury to treat the shooting as something that did not warrant a murder trial.

Yet I am intrigued by the attacks on St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch for his decision not to attempt to manipulate the grand jury in the style that is usual for district attorneys and which goes under the rubric of “ham sandwich” indictments. It is a cliché, but nonetheless true, that any good district attorney can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. The reason for this is that they control the evidence presented to the grand jury and the witnesses and potential defendants have no say in the forum as to what is heard other than their own testimony.

The presumption of McCulloch’s critics is that by choosing not to focus the grand jury only on those witnesses and evidence that would have inclined them to indict and instead showing them everything he had, including exculpatory material that led them to think Officer Wilson’s behavior did not amount to a crime, he had “failed.” In essence these legal talking heads accused him of tanking the case by “confusing” the grand jury with two sides of the argument rather than just guiding them toward an indictment.

To be fair, those who spoke of McCulloch’s behavior as being unusual are not entirely wrong. Prosecutors on every level of our judicial system generally behave in this manner. Those in the cross-hairs of district attorneys may eventually have their day in court when their case comes to trial, when their evidence is presented and which includes the obligation of juries to not convict anyone if reasonable doubt can be found about their guilt. But grand juries are not places where justice of that sort is always done. Ham sandwich indictments happen every day, and it can be argued that procuring one in this case would have spared Ferguson a riot from angry, violent people who wanted Wilson punished whether or not he is actually guilty of crime.

McCulloch may have acted in this manner because he is, as his local critics claim, predisposed to believe the police rather than the African-American community. Even if that is unfair it seems clear that he doubted that Wilson should be charged or at least felt, probably rightly, that there was little chance of gaining a conviction.

But whatever we may think of McCulloch or the specifics of this case, there is something wrong with a mindset that believes that a prosecutor isn’t doing his job if he is playing fair.

There is an old expression in sports that says, “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” That presupposes a belief that the job of all competitors is to seek every possible advantage, legal or not. And it is one that most district attorneys general take as seriously as any athlete who thinks winning at all costs is the only way to go.

Yet instead of doubling down on this assumption, perhaps it might not be a bad thing if more prosecutors acted as McCulloch did and presented all of the facts to grand juries rather than only those that will get them a desired indictment. Perhaps we might have a more fair system that all citizens—including minorities that have historic grievances and concerns about getting short shrift from the system that can’t be ignored—might benefit from if there were fewer instead of more ham sandwich indictments. Surely our legal system is troubled more by out-of-control prosecutors who run roughshod over the rights of the accused — and sometimes use ham sandwich indictments to blackmail defendants who might not be able to afford trial costs to accept a plea bargain —than by those who are scrupulous about not tipping the scales of justice.

If the worst thing we can say about the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office is that they behaved in the latter fashion, then maybe McCulloch is not quite the villain he had been made out to be. Moreover, those who, whether intentionally or not, egged on the rioters by claiming that McCulloch had performed an act of professional malfeasance should think seriously about the implications of such an unreasonable position.

Read Less

Rudy Giuliani vs. the Ignorant Agitators

There was some controversy over on Meet the Press this weekend when Rudy Giuliani got into a bit of a heated exchange on race, Ferguson, and public safety with Michael Eric Dyson, MSNBC’s Vice President of Accusing Everything That Moves of Being Racist. Dyson claimed, in a comment that should discredit him to anyone still taking him seriously, that Giuliani’s comments about black-on-black crime stemmed from “the defensive mechanism of white supremacy.” This morning on Fox, Giuliani defended his comments: “I probably saved more black lives as mayor of New York City than any mayor in the history of the city, with the possible exception of Mike Bloomberg, who was there for 12 years.” Yet while the argument centered on police action, to understand Giuliani’s contribution to this issue–which is even greater than he says himself–it’s important to take a step back from the policing issue.

Read More

There was some controversy over on Meet the Press this weekend when Rudy Giuliani got into a bit of a heated exchange on race, Ferguson, and public safety with Michael Eric Dyson, MSNBC’s Vice President of Accusing Everything That Moves of Being Racist. Dyson claimed, in a comment that should discredit him to anyone still taking him seriously, that Giuliani’s comments about black-on-black crime stemmed from “the defensive mechanism of white supremacy.” This morning on Fox, Giuliani defended his comments: “I probably saved more black lives as mayor of New York City than any mayor in the history of the city, with the possible exception of Mike Bloomberg, who was there for 12 years.” Yet while the argument centered on police action, to understand Giuliani’s contribution to this issue–which is even greater than he says himself–it’s important to take a step back from the policing issue.

While Giuliani was not anyone’s idea of a traditional social conservative, there were aspects of his public policy of which the ends and the means were more conservative than he’s often given credit for. That’s why it’s worth putting the policing issue aside for the moment and concentrating on something else: his approach to inner city poverty and the role of fatherhood.

In a 2007 piece in City Journal appropriately titled “Yes, Rudy Giuliani Is a Conservative” (a premise many conservatives take issue with but one that is followed by a perfectly coherent case in the article), Steven Malanga goes over Giuliani’s highly successful welfare reform. And after discussing welfare, Malanga offers the following paragraph, which is rarely discussed but seems crucial to understanding Giuliani as a politician:

As part of Giuliani’s quintessentially conservative belief that dysfunctional behavior, not our economic system, lay at the heart of intergenerational poverty, he also spoke out against illegitimacy and the rise of fatherless families. A child born out of wedlock, he observed in one speech, was three times more likely to wind up on welfare than a child from a two-parent family. “Seventy percent of long-term prisoners and 75 percent of adolescents charged with murder grew up without fathers,” Giuliani told the city. He insisted that the city and the nation had to reestablish the “responsibility that accompanies bringing a child into the world,” and to that end he required deadbeat fathers either to find a private-sector job or to work in the city’s workfare program as a way of contributing to their child’s upbringing. But he added that changing society’s attitude toward marriage was more important than anything government could do: “[I]f you wanted a social program that would really save these kids, . . . I guess the social program would be called fatherhood.”

That is, in fact, something cultural conservatives–really anybody, but cultural conservatives in particular–should celebrate. And if offers a clear window into Giuliani’s approach to public policy. Public safety per se wasn’t the foundational principle of Giuliani’s mayoralty; it was a beneficial, and in some cases practically revolutionary, outgrowth of its real foundation: dignity.

There is much that Missouri police have done since the tragic death of Michael Brown that robs members of the Ferguson community of their dignity. So the point is not tough policing uber alles, nor would that have been Giuliani’s choice. Indeed, as I wrote at the time, the hasty militarization of the county police force was a mistake. When you work for the government in some powerful capacity, and you approach a citizen, how you approach that citizen tells him how the government sees him. If you show up on a tank-like vehicle dressed like you’re about to enter a war zone, the message you send to the citizens you are policing is that the government sees them as a warlike population. St. Louis County did not declare war on the Ferguson community, but could you blame them for wondering if they had?

Giuliani took the opposite tack, refusing to behave like an invading general, despite what his dimmest critics might claim. And what was the result? To briefly revisit Malanga:

Giuliani’s policing success was a boon to minority neighborhoods. For instance, in the city’s 34th Precinct, covering the largely Hispanic Washington Heights section of Manhattan, murders dropped from 76 in 1993, Dinkins’s last year, to only seven by Giuliani’s last year, a decline of more than 90 percent. Far from being the racist that activists claimed, Giuliani had delivered to the city’s minority neighborhoods a true form of equal protection under the law.

Those of us who have lived in Washington Heights know this is no joke. Those who like to play expert on MSNBC are usually speaking out of ignorance.

And the key point here is to understand that the belief in the dignity of men, women, and children, of families, infused every decision Giuliani made with regard to improving public safety in minority neighborhoods and the city at large. Accusations of “white supremacist” thinking aren’t merely obscenely stupid, though they are certainly that. They also tend to come from those who have never shown the black community a fraction of the respect or service Giuliani has.

Read Less

Ferguson Can’t Save Senate for Democrats

In a year in which the odds are heavily stacked against the Democrats it is to be expected that the party will try just about anything in their quest to retain control of the Senate. But the notion that President Obama’s party can somehow snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by attempting to exploit African-American sorrow about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last month may be a new low in the long annals of cynical political stunts.

Read More

In a year in which the odds are heavily stacked against the Democrats it is to be expected that the party will try just about anything in their quest to retain control of the Senate. But the notion that President Obama’s party can somehow snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by attempting to exploit African-American sorrow about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last month may be a new low in the long annals of cynical political stunts.

The effort to cash in on the Ferguson tragedy was the conceit of a front-page New York Times feature yesterday that pointed to efforts to increase black turnout as the key to Democratic victory in November. Given that the Democratic base tends not to show up when the presidency is not at stake, the party knows that it must do something to gin up interest in congressional contests. That Democrats have come to rely heavily on minority turnout to win elections is not exactly a secret. The massive successful effort to get blacks as well as other minorities to the polls in 2008 and 2012 was essential to President Obama’s electoral triumphs. Looked at from that perspective, connecting Republicans to the police officer that shot Brown and Democrats to the effort to get justice for the victim makes sense.

But there are a few big problems with this formula that have nothing to do with objections to a strategy that is based on crass partisanship and shameless exploitation of a tragedy.

The first is, contrary to Democrat expectations, although African-Americans are the most reliable of the party’s key constituencies they were probably paying closer attention to the aftermath of the tragedy than most Americans. That means they realized that the most insensitive and most incompetent responses to the tragedy came from Missouri’s Democratic Governor Jay Nixon, not any Republican. Nor were prominent Republicans slow to express sympathy for the slain teenager or guilty of gaffes that could be exploited by the liberal media to create a narrative in which the GOP could somehow be directly tied to the shooting.

So while Ferguson may have angered blacks and made them more likely to engage in political activism, the incident isn’t the sort of thing that can serve as leverage in congressional and Senate elections that are being largely fought on issues that have nothing to do what happened in Missouri.

Second, the attempt to leverage angst about Ferguson into a wave of African-Americans turning out to vote for Democrats en masse requires the party to do some very careful maneuvering.

Rather than Barack Obama’s name being on the ballot this year, politicians that are doing everything in their power to distance themselves from the president will occupy the Democratic line in many places. While African-Americans may believe Democrats are supporters of their interests, it’s not quite so easy to mobilize them to save the political skins of senators who are simultaneously assuring white voters in red states that they disagree with the president on most issues and won’t be reliable supporters of the White House if they are returned to office. If, in the course of wooing African-Americans, senators like Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, or Mark Prior in Arkansas do get closer to the president that might fatally damage them with swing voters they desperately need to win. Indeed, though blacks are the heart of the Democratic Party in the south, their only hope of victory lies in grabbing the political center, not merely playing to the base.

Thus while Democrats may be cynical enough to try to run a pro-Obama campaign in the black community and an anti-Obama effort among whites, the idea that they can do so without either of these constituencies noticing that they are being two-timed if not outright lied to is slim.

Of course, that doesn’t deter race baiters like Al Sharpton, who both Politico and the New York Times recently anointed as President Obama’s go-to person in the African-American community, from trying to turn Ferguson into a political cause. Nor has it stopped other Democrats like Rep. John Lewis from attempting to use the tragedy to revive their glory days in the civil-rights movement. But resentment about police violence isn’t the moral equivalent of Obama’s candidacy, especially when it is obvious that what the establishment protesters are railing at is as much a function of the Democrats as it is the Republicans. If Democrats are going to hold the Senate they are going to have to do better than this tired, cynical racial act.

Read Less

Can Holder and the Feds Fix Ferguson?

Attorney General Eric Holder is scheduled to arrive in Ferguson, Missouri today leading some to hope that his presence will somehow ease tensions as the ongoing conflict stemming from the police shooting of a young black man continues. But the expectation that having Holder parachute into this mess will somehow magically fix the problem or halt the civil unrest there is not merely unrealistic; it reflects a misunderstanding of both the judicial process and what the protestors want.

Read More

Attorney General Eric Holder is scheduled to arrive in Ferguson, Missouri today leading some to hope that his presence will somehow ease tensions as the ongoing conflict stemming from the police shooting of a young black man continues. But the expectation that having Holder parachute into this mess will somehow magically fix the problem or halt the civil unrest there is not merely unrealistic; it reflects a misunderstanding of both the judicial process and what the protestors want.

As the New York Times reports today, there are some on the left that see Holder’s persistent race baiting from the bully pulpit of the Justice Department as a necessary counter-weight to President Obama’s amorphous calls for calm in crises such as the one unfolding in Ferguson. Holder, a man who called Americans a “nation of cowards” on race and who continues to speak as if the Jim Crow era were not a half century in the country’s rearview mirror, seems like just the sort of legal activist who could swoop in the maelstrom of Ferguson and somehow convince protesters to stand down while ensuring that justice is done.

Symbolism plays a not inconsiderable role in this dispute as a town with a population that is heavily African-American but few black police officers turned out to be a tinderbox waiting to burst into flame at the slightest provocation. But the willingness of the national media to frame this story as an example of how racism isn’t dead in America has transformed it from a troubling while complicated legal case in which the facts are a matter of dispute into merely the latest excuse for racial conflict. The demonizing of the police and their response to rioters there has created little room for the legal process to play out in a dispassionate and fair manner.

Despite the agitation from race hucksters like Al Sharpton and others who have also parachuted into the town, there is no evidence that either the country prosecutor or any other responsible legal authority is dragging their feet in the case or behaving improperly. Nor is there a reasonable case to be made that the state and local authorities should be shoved aside to make room for a federal prosecution led by Holder’s department.

The plain fact of the matter is that tensions have now been raised to the point where nothing short of the indictment of the police officer who shot Michael Brown will appease either the peaceful demonstrators in Ferguson or the thugs who have hijacked some of the protests with violence aimed at law enforcement authorities as well as the looting of local businesses.

Since the Grand Jury process is not immune to political pressures, they may well get their wish and, to be fair, it is entirely possible that such a result may be justified. But, as the Times noted in a separate story, the reality of the Brown shooting may not be as cut and dried as the “hands up, don’t shoot” chants of the protesters indicate. The very different accounts of the shooting of Brown by the officer seems to indicate a strong possibility that we may be heading to a replay of last year’s Trayvon Martin shooting trial in which the media’s insistence on imposing a narrative of racism run amok on the story didn’t necessarily reflect the facts of the case. If so, then Holder’s intervention may be deeply mistaken.

There are instances when federal intervention into murder cases is justified. If the justice system in Missouri were so riddled with institutionalized racism that it never prosecuted the killers of blacks, there would be a strong argument for the Justice Department to step in. In cases where prosecutions failed due to negligence or jury nullification of the law (such as often happened in Jim Crow states prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act or when a New York jury acquitted a black man in the murder of Hasidic Jew during the Crown Heights riot, even though he was literally caught red-handed after the murder), the attorney general ought to step in. But in the absence of those circumstances, or at least until the locals have proven to be unfair or incompetent, Holder’s presence in Ferguson must be seen as mere grandstanding and an attempt to complicate or delegitimize the local prosecution, not the cavalry coming to the rescue of the justice system.

Public officials who weigh in on complicated cases merely in order to placate a mob—such as Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s call for a “vigorous prosecution” of the case rather than a vigorous investigation—prior to the evidence being fully revealed do nothing to advance the cause of justice or racial healing.

Holder can’t fix Ferguson. That is not merely because his instincts are so skewed on race issues that he can’t be trusted to behave fairly. It is also because the only thing that will improve the situation is an effort to defend the integrity of the legal system on the part of local and national political leaders who seem to have a vested interest in stirring the racial pot rather than promoting healing and justice.

Read Less

Resisting the Ferguson Temptation

Some news stories are like Rorschach tests in that, irrespective of the facts of the cases, they inspire journalists, pundits, and politicians to ride all of their familiar hobbyhorses to death. That is the reality of the massive media coverage of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by a policeman, and the violent aftermath of that event is so obvious it barely needs to be pointed out. But as cable news stations embrace the story as another, perhaps juicier version of last year’s trial of George Zimmerman for the shooting of Trayvon Martin, it might be better if more public figures embrace the stance enunciated by Rep. Paul Ryan.

Read More

Some news stories are like Rorschach tests in that, irrespective of the facts of the cases, they inspire journalists, pundits, and politicians to ride all of their familiar hobbyhorses to death. That is the reality of the massive media coverage of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by a policeman, and the violent aftermath of that event is so obvious it barely needs to be pointed out. But as cable news stations embrace the story as another, perhaps juicier version of last year’s trial of George Zimmerman for the shooting of Trayvon Martin, it might be better if more public figures embrace the stance enunciated by Rep. Paul Ryan.

Unlike virtually everyone else who has commented on the shooting and the subsequent rioting in Ferguson, Ryan simply asked that those who speak about these events refrain from attempts to exploit what has happened. Not succumbing to the temptation to use the social pathologies on display in Missouri as fodder to promote his new book, Ryan said the following:

“Don’t try to capitalize on this tragedy with your own policy initiatives, don’t try to link some prejudged conclusion on what’s happening on the ground right now,” the Wisconsin Republican said on “Fox and Friends.” “We should take a deep breath, let’s have some sympathy for the family and the community … and let’s let the investigation take its course and hope that justice is served appropriately.”

That’s good advice, and the media figures and so-called racial activists like Al Sharpton, who have descended upon Ferguson like a ravenous flock of vultures, would do well to heed it if they actually cared about the citizens of this troubled town or race relations across the country.

The Brown shooting, like the death of Martin, has become more of an opportunity to rehearse the usual litany of liberal ideological rants in which this heretofore-obscure town has become a symbol of racism. Rather than let the facts of the case—whatever they may be—be uncovered and then let the legal process play out, the impulse to prejudge the case has consistently prevailed. Whether that means an assumption that the police officer is guilty of murder or that the victim was somehow responsible for the incident, neither set of arguments has done much to advance the cause of justice of the peace of that community.

As Fred Siegel correctly noted in City Journal yesterday, most of those who have weighed in with commentary about Ferguson are stuck in the 1960s, a perspective from which all violence is viewed through the lens of the civil-rights movement. Those who play this game rarely stop to reflect that a half century later, an African-American president now governs the same country. Nor do they ponder the fact that solutions to the problems of such communities cannot be found in the playbook employed by those who protested against now vanished Jim Crow laws in an America that no longer exists. Sharpton and the pack of so-called civil-rights leaders who have parachuted into this mess have clearly done more harm than any possible good.

To acknowledge this reality does not oblige anyone to be indifferent to the anger of Ferguson residents about what they perceive as misconduct by the police or the ham-handed response to subsequent protests and riots by the authorities. But if we were to avoid merely repeating the same destructive narrative about racism that did so much damage in the Martin case, then it would behoove those commenting on the issue to refuse to rehearse, as Siegel says, “The grotesque pantomime of repression and redemption, riots and never-quite-achieved rewards, [that] plays out time and again.” As Siegel says, using Brown’s death to pivot into discussions about race, white flight, or urban/suburban jurisdiction disputes is a mistake.

Neither Sharpton nor anyone else talking on television really knows what happened when Brown died. Until we get a better handle on that question, they should stop fomenting the sort of anger that leads to riots and more violence as we have seen the last several nights in Ferguson. The cable news commentariat is as determined not to learn from their mistakes in this case, just as they were during Zimmerman’s trial. They will, instead, repeat the same cant about race and suggest more of the same failed policies that have helped perpetuate these problems rather than fix them. Until we learn to resist this temptation, as Siegel writes, that failure ensures “there will be more Fergusons.”

Read Less

Ferguson and the Right: the Geography of Community Policing

One of the stranger reactions to yesterday’s disturbing standoff between a militarized county police force in Ferguson, Missouri and protesters was for leftist commentators to accuse libertarians and limited-government conservatives of insufficient outrage. Paul Waldman wrote an absolutely ridiculous version of this yesterday at the Washington Post, asking where all the libertarians were. In the process, he revealed that leftists apparently think if libertarians don’t work for Reason magazine, they don’t exist. (Why he missed libertarians who write for the same newspaper he does goes unexplained.)

Read More

One of the stranger reactions to yesterday’s disturbing standoff between a militarized county police force in Ferguson, Missouri and protesters was for leftist commentators to accuse libertarians and limited-government conservatives of insufficient outrage. Paul Waldman wrote an absolutely ridiculous version of this yesterday at the Washington Post, asking where all the libertarians were. In the process, he revealed that leftists apparently think if libertarians don’t work for Reason magazine, they don’t exist. (Why he missed libertarians who write for the same newspaper he does goes unexplained.)

But foolishness aside, it did raise an interesting point: namely, the fact that this issue blurs ideological lines, as well as the fact that libertarians have raised their profile sufficiently to be on speed dial in case of emergency. The issue of heavyhanded policing itself does not divide the left, but it does divide the right. And that is a topic Ben Domenech has covered before and returned to again this morning in the wake of the Ferguson coverage. Domenech writes that attitudes toward the police can be something of a Rorschach test for libertarians and conservatives:

If you want an indication about where someone sits on the dividing line between conservative and libertarian, sometimes it’s as simple as how they answer this question: how do you feel about cops? Do you naturally tend to trust them, viewing them as a necessary and needed hedge acting in defense of law and order? Or are you naturally suspicious of them, believing them to be little more than armed tax collectors and bureaucrats with a tendency to violence and falsehood in service of their whims? Are cops the brave individuals who stand between the law-abiding and those who would rob, rape, and kill, or are they the low-level tyrannical overpaid functionaries of the administrative state, more focused on tax collection in the form of citations, property grabs, and killing the occasional family dog?

This isn’t to say that only libertarians are suspicious of cops. There has always been a strain of conservatism very skeptical of government power, and as police forces have become more interested in seizing assets and ignoring complaint, many conservatives have become openly critical of their behavior. Indeed, Mary Katharine Ham has a great response to what we’re seeing in Ferguson, as does Kevin Williamson. But how you answer that initial question will tell you a lot about your political assumptions regarding authority.

I would say, however, that there’s another dividing line here. How you feel about cops depends on your experience with them, and your experience with them often depends–aside from race, of course–on geography.

Look at the pictures of last night’s standoff in Ferguson. The complaints are not just about arbitrary arrests or a media crackdown. The complaints also have to do with the county police rolling in on military-style vehicles and wearing the kind of body armor and fielding the kinds of weapons–and pointing them at unarmed protesters–we usually associate with a war zone. Ferguson is not a war zone.

But intense and effective policing, even of high-crime areas, doesn’t have to look that way. In fact, a police force that looks the way it did in Ferguson last night is almost certainly an indication of counterproductive policing. (And thus raises questions about whether the police were actually sufficiently trained to use the weaponry they had with them.)

I work in New York City, and until recently lived in Washington Heights in Manhattan. It is a neighborhood with a troubled history. It’s also ethnically diverse and immigrant-heavy, and so it’s normally a model of a stable civil society brimming with energy–strivers with large families just trying give everyone in their world a better life. But it has also been a beneficiary of better policing. In 1987, the New York Times proclaimed it the city’s “murder capital.” Today, along with next-door Inwood, it is safer than all Manhattan neighborhoods except the Upper West Side and Upper East Side.

Having lived in Washington Heights twice a decade apart, I saw the improvement, though it began before I first moved to the neighborhood. The Heights were part of the general decline in New York City crime under the proactive policing efforts begun after David Dinkins’ atrocious term as mayor. And here’s the thing about the Heights: it did this without putting tanks on the streets and snipers on the roofs.

Proactive policing is not synonymous with militarized policing–not by a long shot. I have been amazed time and again by the calm under fire demonstrated by the NYPD. It’s almost exactly the opposite of what we saw in Ferguson. In Ferguson, the police showed up prepared for war; that in itself is an escalation, and it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So conservatives and libertarians may have very different instinctive responses to the police. But controlling for other factors, including race–black New Yorkers gave former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly 63 percent approval last year–it’s impossible to truly understand how a population sees the police without taking into account the geographic distinctions between them. Sometimes the most effective police forces fighting the most sophisticated threats are the ones who make the best argument against militarized law enforcement.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.