Monday, August 18, 2014

Some thoughts concerning Ferguson

The Police State

From the way people, especially libertarians, are reacting, you'd think MRAPs and cops in body armor and BDUs appeared practically overnight. The emerging meta-narrative is, "One day we woke up and discovered that cops have become paramilitary soldiers."

First, if you really, really think about it, you'll realize that cops have been paramilitary forces for decades. Police academy training is a lot like boot camp, and rookies are trained to march and salute just as is every member of the armed services, including the Coast Guard. They're even part of defense planning in case of an invasion or civil insurrection. Who do you think they modeled police uniforms on — gas station attendants? Bellhops?

(Do you remember the TV series SWAT? The only difference between their uniforms and the BDUs I wore at MCRD San Diego is that they were dyed black. And that was the uniform for the Special Weapons and Tactics teams for many if not most cities that had such a unit; now many have night-pattern camouflage.)

Who or what is driving the meta-narrative?

Kevin D. Williamson tells us, "The different uniforms are meant for different kinds of policing: The traditional blue coat is for the policeman who walks a beat [has anyone seen a cop "walk a beat" in the last fifty years?], and the ridiculous stormtrooper suits are for those who roll through in an MRAP." Williamson kinda-sorta recognizes that there are different kinds of policing, but is too busy snarking to ask if there might be a valid social purpose behind the second type of policing.

We've all seen the picture of the cop on top of the MRAP, wearing grassland camouflage (really? In an urban environment?) and body armor, looking through the scope of his  rifle. That isn't what Ferguson police normally wear, or how they normally arm themselves, because rioting isn't a "normal" state, nor do cops take "normal risks" when people riot. — You do know there was looting and burning going on, don'cha?

Photo credit: AP/Jeff Roberson.

The kinder, gentler cops

So what happened when the "kinder, gentler" State Highway Patrol, under Capt. Ron Johnson, came in wearing "nice cop" uniforms? Well, Rich Lowry reminds us, the knuckleheads of Ferguson still looted and burned; this time, though, the locals were upset because "you still have a job to do now, and now you’re not doing your job," as one looted store owner put it.

Saturday night was calmer: MSHP only had to fire one smoke grenade against 200 protesters violating the curfew. There was still some riot gear and a couple of armored tactical vehicles: Capt. Johnson didn't make the same mistake twice.

The problem wasn't what the cops were wearing; the problem wasn't the scary-looking armaments and equipment. The problem was that the crowd was in "hate the police" mode. As Lowry put it, "This is what happens when you let your policing be dictated by MSNBC."

And because half the nation or more had already decided the cops were to blame in the death of Michael Brown — because we all know white Southern hick cops spend half their careers waiting for an opportunity to shoot young black kids without reprisal — anything the Ferguson cops did to try to bring the rioting under control would simply be proof that they're corrupt, power-crazed monsters. This is what happens when you let people who almost congenitally distrust cops and other Authority Figures drive the meta-narrative.

Do we need to talk about police brutality and excessive use of force? Absolutely. But first we need to look at the whole picture, including the innocent business owners who were victimized by the looting and vandalizing, not just the WaPo reporter who was arrested or the cameramen who were gassed. And we need to remember that our first principle of justice is "innocent until proven guilty" ... even if the accused works for the government.

"Not the question at hand" ... or is it a second question?

Photo credit: AP/Jeff Roberson.
Charles C. W. Cooke is concerned that conservatives won't face the "excessive use of force" issue squarely. As I've indicated above, I don't think it'll be addressed fairly by either side of the spectrum. But more specifically, Cooke believes it's wrong for anyone to point out that the vast majority of black people are killed by other black people.

Whatever its cause, it is indisputably true that the United States has a problem with blacks killing blacks. And yet this has absolutely nothing to do with the question at hand, which is: 'Did a police officer unjustifiably kill an unarmed black man in Missouri?"

However, a black man named "Jonathan" disagrees; he sees the black community's reaction as a symptom of a sickness. In a YouTube rant, Jonathan makes much of the fact that people like Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton show up at deaths like Michael Brown's or Trayvon Martin's, but don't show up when little black girls riding their tricycles get killed by stray bullets from drive-by shootings.

Jonathan's especially frustrated that (in his words) the black community's idea of protest is "acting like Curious George on a can of Red Bull" — i.e., looting and vandalizing the businesses of people who had nothing to do with the injustice. He also thinks that, when compared to the number of black-on-black crimes, the outrage over the relatively few incidents of excessive force is disproportionate; he repeats several times, "We need to change ourselves!" When, he wonders angrily, will the black community get outraged over black-on-black crime?

Nor is he the only black American who refuses to validate the looters. Angela Graham-West, wife of former Rep. Allen B. West (R-FL), has written a post on his blog with the provocative title, "Am I 'acting white' by asking why black people are looting their own neighborhood?"

The race of the officer involved in the shooting has not been disclosed. He has been placed on paid administrative leave. It will solve NOTHING TO TEAR DOWN YOUR OWN HOME. But for those who consider themselves to be victims of "Da Man" anything calls for a riot. Any reason suffices to tear down the walls of society and decency. And this is not just limited to the young — from the videos and pictures of the event, grandma, grandpa, mama and daddy were making off with whatever they could get their hands on.

House and field

It's been some years since I first heard Chris Rock's routine, "N****s vs. Black People". "Everything that white people don't like about black people," Rock quips in his grating tenor squeal, "black people don't like about black people." I'd heard Rock's bifurcation between "black people" and "n****s" before from African-American friends, even before Rock's show was first aired ... but never with the Old Testament thunder of Jonathan.

I've heard the tensions within the black community described as an update between the "field hands" and the "house slaves". But I believe this very model is part of the problem: one hundred fifty years after the 13th Amendment, many black Americans still allow slavery to define themselves and their lives. There shouldn't be a distinction between "field" and "house"; black people should be proud when their own make it out of poverty, especially when they make it into the upper 40%.

Just by asking, "Am I 'acting white' if ...?", or, "Would I be an 'Uncle Tom' if ...?", Graham-West articulates the ostracization she and other black Americans experience from the other side for having the effrontery to succeed in "the white man's world". Ironically, the white world never quite lets people like Graham-West and her husband forget they're black; no matter how hard they work or how much they achieve, some knucklehead has to say only two words to detract from their accomplishments: "affirmative action".

Another YouTube commentator, E. T. Williams, is disgusted by "liberal nonsense":

Black people were once a proud people. They believed in work. They believed in being honest. Now we have a whole culture of blacks who have decided that it's "cool" to kill one another, that it's "cool" to impregnate women and not take care of them, that it's "cool" to walk around with your pants hanging down and not work. [Chris Rock: "(They) want to claim credit for stuff they're supposed to do. 'Man, I takes care of my kids!' S**t, ... you're supposed to do that!"] Who has raised these black men and black women to disrespect themselves?

Not one issue but three

So, pace Cooke, there isn't just one issue to be faced in the wake of the events in Ferguson, but rather three, none of less importance than the other:

  1. Was the use of deadly force against Michael Brown justified or excessive?
  2. What can we do to restore the community's trust in the police that won't impair their ability to control crowds or break up riots? and 
  3. Can the black community learn from the Ferguson experience to break the "house slave/field hand" paradigm once and for all, and become free in spirit as well as free by law?

Some tentative answers:

1) Deadly force against Michael Brown: Overall, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) made a smart move in assigning Capt. Johnson to head up police efforts — not just because Johnson is black but also because he has longstanding ties with the community. However, it's very likely that Darren Wilson, the accused cop, will be sacrificed on the altar of Public Opinion; whether he's innocent or guilty is irrelevant. After all, what's the career and reputation of one man against the peace of a community and the satisfaction of Wise Persons everywhere?

2) Police militarization: I think it's very likely we'll see police departments back away from casual displays of military-grade hardware, and try to consciously return to some semblance of "the cop on the beat". The MRAPs, semiautomatics and BDUs won't go away completely, but will be reserved for critical situations. The proliferation of cellphone video cameras practically insure that naked abuses of power will get caught on camera and create legal and PR embarrassments.

3) Black-on-black crime: While I think that we're talking about it more is a positive sign, I don't think the black community has reached the tipping point yet. If one out of every ten black people started stamping his/her foot and loudly demanding an internal cultural change, within a generation we'd see a renaissance. We've changed the laws, created avenues of redress, and even tried to tilt the field a little in minorities' direction. Now, it's time for black people to stop defining themselves by the past and start creating a dignified, fully free future.