Opportunism Impedes Path to Clarity in Ferguson

Posted: Aug 15, 2014 12:01 AM

Call me crazy, but police in riot gear seem a thoroughly appropriate response to actual rioting.

But even that basic logic is being shattered in Ferguson, Missouri, along with various store windows, as lawless opportunists take every advantage of a police shooting that deserves sober, objective review.

If the opportunism of vicious vandals is not enough, add the kerosene of race-baiting showboats arriving on the scene to aggrandize themselves against the basic interests of the community.

So what does that community need? Best to begin with what it does not need.

It does not need the President of the United States once again making clear which side he is on. One portion of Thursday’s Obama statement was measured and appropriate: “There is never an excuse for violence against police, or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting. There is also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their first amendment rights.”

Completely correct. But he just could not let it go at that. “We lost a young man, Michael Brown, in heartbreaking and tragic circumstances,” he continued. “He was 18-years-old. His family will never hold Michael in their arms again. And when something like this happens, the local authorities need to be open and transparent about how they're investigating this kind of a situation.”

The only thing missing was “If I had a son, he’d look like Michael.” Now the President is indeed correct that Michael’s family has suffered a painful loss. But he appears blind to the possibility that Michael may have invited his fate by attacking a policeman. Until we know what happened, no good purpose is served by showing favor to either side.

We have surely been inundated in the imagery of a cop snapping a twig and blasting away at Michael as he raised his arms in apparent surrender. This version plays into the hands of anyone looking for a reason to disparage the police or berate America as a cauldron of 1950s-style racism. If this is what happened, it is an outrage that requires the full force of judicial punishment. But a proper investigation, which may lead to a proper trial, is the method which leads to worthy conclusions— not the antics of Al Sharpton or the snap judgments of locals who may have various axes to grind.

Conversely, no one should leap to conclude that the unnamed officer acted correctly. (And thank God he has remained unnamed so far. People who will set fire to buildings cannot be trusted to handle such information responsibly. At some point we will all have the right to know his name and badge number, whether charges are filed or not. This is not a good week.)

I am inclined to trust and believe police officers. I must remain open, however, to the possibility that this is one of those tragic cases of law enforcement gone horribly wrong.

But I have a feeling I will spend the next few days pushing back against voices cleaving to conclusions that forward favored agendas. That will mean finding fault with people who have walked many honorable miles in pursuit of racial justice.

Congressman John Lewis of Georgia knows what 1950s-style racial strife looks like. He fought against it through the sixties as part of the heroic civil rights struggle of the modern era. But he sometimes seems unaware of the decades that have passed since, and the victories they contained.

“President Obama should use the authority of his office to declare martial law. Federalize the Missouri National Guard to protect people as they protest. And people should come together. If we fail to act, the fires of frustration and discontent will continue to burn, not only in Ferguson, Missouri, but all across America.”

Not helpful. Anyone looking for people to “come together” should restrain themselves from invoking Bull Connor-era urgency.

That said, the Ferguson police have taken some wrong turns that are not helping those looking for reasons to believe in them. They seem unaware that the public has every right to record interactions with police. They also seemed to think it was a good idea to arrest two reporters with cell phone cameras and twitter accounts. Their heavy-handedness was the stuff of legend within minutes.

But to return to one thing that is a good idea, whether it’s the Ferguson police, the Missouri State Troopers or the National Guard in charge— riot gear. Have I mentioned that we had actual rioting?

The last few days of reacting (and overreacting) have contained more than few references to the unseemliness of local police outfitted like troops in Afghanistan, as if it is a bad idea to dissuade violent lawlessness with the prospect of consequences.

Rand Paul, in his continuing campaign to attract college sophomores while alienating real conservatives, crafted an op-ed recoiling at the “militarization” of the police. Well, here’s a deal: When violent criminals stop their occasional habit of destroying neighborhoods, police forces can mothball the riot control equipment.

So presuming the street-level tensions will not last forever, what is a path forward toward healing and clarity in Ferguson?

First, it is worth noting that various sides have worthy points to make.

While they have dwindled to great rarity, there are still examples of racially-based law enforcement misbehavior. It is an appropriate exercise to discover whether it has happened again.

There is also a solid foundation for everyone using this as a moment to highlight cultural decline and the sad tendency of some to resort to violence when the opportunity arises.

Civil libertarians are correct to criticize police interference with journalists and citizens exercising their rights. In case anyone needs reminding, any citizen, journalist or not, has the right to record police interactions and behavior if it does not impede any law enforcement function.

And speaking of cameras, maybe this is the ultimate lesson of Ferguson: we need to shell out the millions necessary to put a camera on every cop. As we venture into the wilderness of competing testimony— did Michael Brown attack the officer or did the officer baselessly overreact?— footage from a standard-issue GoPro might have settled the matter to the satisfaction of all.

As it is, we may have a long wait for the answers to this challenging case. We should encourage every step toward a responsible investigation, and discourage anyone seeking to tilt the scales for cheap political gain.