Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ferguson

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.)

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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.

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