At the outset, let me note right up front that I am opposed to any form of violence that involves the looting, theft, or destruction of innocent third parties. I realize that this is happening right now in Ferguson and I find it inexcusable and indefensible. That having been said, I think it’s high time conservatives re-examined their gut-level reactions to what is going on there.
First of all, as conservatives, we have a habitual preference for order and from that preference we often make an unjustified leap towards instinctual defense of the police as the alleged guardians of that order. While it is doubtless true that there are many good policemen and our society could not function properly without them, that is not an excuse to look past endemic abuses that have cropped up in the system or to throw up our hands and declare that we must accept the bad with the good. And it is definitely not an excuse to forget what we know about human nature in general and leap to the assumption that police must always tell the truth.
Nowadays, as a buttoned-up white guy who lives in the suburbs and commutes to a nice job every day, I get more or less left alone by the police. But as someone who went through a punk rock/skater phase in my younger days, I also am aware of what it is like to be a member of a group that, based on its physical appearance, becomes the target of regular and random police harassment. My experience during this period led me to believe that certain kinds of lying are almost habitual to most police, the most notorious of which are the regular set of lies police tell to establish probable cause to stop and search someone that they have a gut feeling is probably doing something wrong. If you haven’t yet done so, watch the video I included in yesterday’s post about civil asset forfeiture and you will see cops caught on videotape repeatedly making up excuses to pull people over, outright lying about the reason they pulled someone over, or just not even bothering with the excuse.
So while I understand that there is some dispute about the particular facts involving Michael Brown’s case, I’m not as willing to reflexively believe the police side of the story as many seem to be. I begin with the assumption that humans are fallen people and that everyone is equally capable of lying, both police and private citizens. And when there are two conflicting narratives and it is obvious that one of them is being told by a liar (or at least, someone who is very mistaken in their perception), my first instinct is to ask who has to gain the most by lying – the cop who faces a murder sentence for shooting an unarmed kid or the bystanders who gain nothing from a personal standpoint by lying? (As an aside the most salient fact offered in defense of the unnamed cop in question seems like a red herring to me – even if we grant that Michael Brown attempted to grab the cop’s gun which led to his first, non-fatal gunshot wound, the gunshot wound that killed him was unquestionably not fired during the course of those events, but later after Brown had disengaged. Attempting to grab a cop’s gun is definitely ill advised and a good way to get yourself shot; however, even if we grant that it happened, that doesn’t mean that if you fail and run away, the cop gets to follow you and keep shooting you. But I digress.)
So maybe we begin with the perspective that maybe the private citizens who are eyewitnesses are just as likely to be telling the truth as the police, or even more so in this case. And maybe we try to imagine for a minute what it’s like to be a law abiding citizen who is the target of regular police harassment. I can tell you that it’s humiliating and infuriating from personal experience and I guarantee that my personal experience was pretty mild by comparison to some people’s. Am I saying that I think black people get extra scrutiny from cops? Yes I am. And in my case, where I can basically make myself invisible to cops by wearing shirts and ties and not dying my hair ridiculous colors or wearing baggy jeans, people like Michael Brown can never escape it.
But ultimately, whether you believe the cops or the eyewitnesses in this particular case, let’s posit just for the sake of argument that events unfolded in exactly the way the protesters believe that they did – which is to say that the police shot an unarmed teenager several times while he was in the course of fleeing and/or surrendering, and that furthermore the police in this area had been accused of engaging in this behavior before, only to whitewash it. Again, I don’t know that this is actually what occurred and it may well turn out to the contrary. However, whether it is true or not, it is what the rioters genuinely believe, which is relevant to evaluating their actions.
Under this set of facts, shouldn’t the cops have some concern about a riot? Obviously, it’s stupid and indefensible for these people to be burning and looting the property of total strangers. See the disclaimer I included at the top of this post. But shouldn’t the police at least be afraid of unruly and perhaps violent protests directed at them? My own kid is a teenager now and he plays on a baseball team with some kids who are almost the age of the young man who was shot in Ferguson. I try to think what I would do if my local cops shot one of them while unarmed, and then nothing happened to the cop in question. Then if it happened again. I hope I know one thing about myself which is that I wouldn’t lay down for police brutality forever. And it’s definitely fair to say that the wheels of justice should be given a chance to turn but at what point does a community have legitimate despair that they will ever turn fairly against cops, especially given the habitual tendency noted above that some people have to believe that cops are incapable of lying?
I guess the question is, after again remembering that we should never condone the looting or destruction of property of innocent bystanders: Are we really okay with asking people to just accept that cops can gun down a teenager and whitewash the whole incident and take that laying down or just “oh well, that’s life sometimes”? Because I’m not. I think if the cops don’t believe that there’s some line that will cause the public to rise up in arms against them we are in deep trouble.
Let’s remember that for the most part in large municipalities, the notion that police are an arm of a truly representative democracy is outdated and incorrect. While there are doubtless good (and bad) cops on every police force, in the large cities the force is responsible to the union first and the municipal government second, oh and by the way the police unions are the biggest boosters and kingmakers of municipal Democrats who all too often in exchange participate in wink-and-nod oversight over police brutality (even or especially against liberals, as Occupy Wall Street found out the hard way). As Mary Katharine Ham eloquently noted last night, as a free society we have a right to expect more from police even if it does make their job in the interim more difficult. Yes they have a difficult job but part of the consequences of giving someone a badge and a gun and cloaking them with the authority of the state is that we are entitled to expect that they will respect the freedoms and constitutional rights of the citizenry even when it is difficult or dangerous to do so.
I guess in the final analysis I’m fine with the criticisms of the very obvious excesses of the Ferguson riots but I’m not as willing as many are to categorically condemn the impulse. In fact, I’m glad that the impulse still exists within America to say that there’s a point beyond which they won’t be pushed by the authorities even if they do look more like a Marine division than a police force these days. And I understand the anger and frustration and with police brutality that led to this particular situation, even though, again, we can’t say definitively what happened in the Michael Brown situation.
When America dumped a bunch of the Crown’s tea into Boston Harbor the British called us rioters, looters, and worse. What’s happening in Ferguson is maybe not that, but our country was founded on the impulse of being willing to take only so much crap from a disconnected and unresponsive government, and I hope that impulse isn’t gone forever.