Commentary Magazine


Topic: police

Obama’s Ferguson Dog and Pony Show

As protests against the decision of a grand jury not to charge Officer Darren Wilson with the murder of Michael Brown continue, the White House is scrambling to catch up with President Obama’s liberal base. With the political left out in the streets and screaming murder on the cable networks, the president felt the need to play catchup today on Ferguson and to speak as if a difficult legal case can be used to justify politicized charges claiming that America’s police are out of control and targeting black youth with impunity. His response, a White House meeting and a raft of meaningless though potentially expensive proposals, may be enough to help him win today’s news cycle. But let no one, least of all the president’s media cheering section, pretend that what we are hearing today is anything more than an illustration of a basic political precept: it’s better to pretend to do something about a marginal problem than to tell those protesting that it is their skewed perceptions that are wrong.

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As protests against the decision of a grand jury not to charge Officer Darren Wilson with the murder of Michael Brown continue, the White House is scrambling to catch up with President Obama’s liberal base. With the political left out in the streets and screaming murder on the cable networks, the president felt the need to play catchup today on Ferguson and to speak as if a difficult legal case can be used to justify politicized charges claiming that America’s police are out of control and targeting black youth with impunity. His response, a White House meeting and a raft of meaningless though potentially expensive proposals, may be enough to help him win today’s news cycle. But let no one, least of all the president’s media cheering section, pretend that what we are hearing today is anything more than an illustration of a basic political precept: it’s better to pretend to do something about a marginal problem than to tell those protesting that it is their skewed perceptions that are wrong.

As I wrote earlier today, after spending so much of the last six years crying wolf about racism and seeking to stoke fears rather than to heal, the president is in no position to reclaim the high ground on the issue that he occupied when he was elected by deliberately eschewing appeals to partisanship and race. Nor does it speak well for the president that he felt the need to, in essence, backtrack from the sagacious stand he took last week when the grand jury in St. Louis County decided no crime had been committed when Wilson shot Brown. Having told Americans to respect a judicial process and to refrain from riots and violence to vent their disappointment in the result of the proceeding, today he reverted to playing the race card, albeit in more measured terms than his fans on the left.

It is true that many African-Americans don’t trust the police and that racism isn’t dead. But by accepting the premise of the Ferguson rioters that somehow the lack of an indictment is proof that the system isn’t working, Obama wasn’t advancing the cause of healing. Even more to the point, by focusing all of his attention on alleged police misbehavior, the president was ignoring the fact that what African-Americans trapped in poor neighborhoods need most is more policing, not less.

As for the president’s suggestions, they speak volumes about how insubstantial the White House’s approach has become. The president said he would seek to impose more restrictions on the transfer of military-style equipment—like the ones deployed in Ferguson when the trouble began this summer—as well as spending money on body cameras for police, presumably to ensure that those wearing the devices would be caught red-handed if they mistreated civilians.

Let’s specify that there is a reasonable discussion that can be heard about the utility of such equipment in most local police problems. There are also arguments to be made in favor of applying the same sort of technology that has brought cameras to many police cars to the bodies of officers. Police may benefit as much from the scrutiny as they will be hurt by it.

But let’s not pretend that this is about better policing or bridging the racial divide. The president could cite no studies pointing to the need for any of his measures nor could he argue credibly that a White House photo op was anything but what he denied it to be: a dog and pony show intended only to demonstrate a faux interest in an issue that would soon be forgotten as soon as the media and left-wing demonstrators move on from Ferguson to whatever the next media feeding frenzy turns out to be.

Nor should we be impressed by the noises about a possible presidential visit to Ferguson or any other measure intended to make it seem as if Obama is doing something about the issue.

The problem here is not just that Obama punted on his chance to be a genuine racial healer years ago as he egged on his supporters to brand his critics as racists rather than just Americans who disagreed with his policies. It’s that by putting forward a faux program intended to make it look as if he is doing something, he has again made the problem worse rather than better.

It is no small irony that the administration run by the first African-American president and staffed by the first African-American attorney general has done so much to stoke racial disharmony and to empower race baiters like Obama ally Al Sharpton. By validating those who are determined to perpetuate the myth that the Ferguson incident was about a vicious white cop who killed an innocent black kid with his hands up—a proposition that the evidence presented to the grand jury appears to debunk—the president has ensured that his time in office will continue to witness a further deterioration of relations between blacks and whites.

President Obama isn’t solely responsible for this. But he could have used his bully pulpit to steer the national conversation in a more rational manner in ways that might have helped more than it hurt. White House dog and pony shows have their uses at times, but today’s version was evidence of how they can also do far more harm than good.

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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.

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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.

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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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