The situation in Ferguson, Missouri, blew up into a major international story this week, with scenes that could have come out of a war-torn country in the Middle East. Police firing tear gas and explosives at unarmed protesters. Journalists arrested and being gassed. Mine-resistant vehicles prowling the streets. In line with my article from yesterday, I’m calling it “police goonification.”
The nation has been given an up-close look at the transformation of American police departments in the wake of 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which resulted in counterterrorism legislation and weapons surpluses that dumped tons of military equipment in the laps of your local finest. This has raised the prospect of a liberal-libertarian alliance on reforming police practice, which is just the latest example of the two camps coming together on certain issues. Here’s Greg Sargent:
“From time to time, we get fleeting glimpses into the possibility of a left-right alliance on issues where the preoccupations of civil liberties progressives and libertarian conservatives intersect: The surprising bipartisan alliance to defund NSA surveillance; the demand for more transparency into Obama’s drone program; the increasing chatter on drug war and sentencing reform.
“The police killing of Michael Brown potentially offers another area of left-right agreement, as it has focused national attention on the over-militarization of our police forces, particularly in the wake of days of standoffs between protestors and heavily armed police.”
On a congressional level, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wrote a solid op-ed decrying police militarization and bemoaning the justice system’s wildly disproportionate incarceration of black Americans. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) has proposed a bill to discontinue the Pentagon program that hands out heavily subsidized military equipment to local police, even to small towns like Ferguson. Both the Gun Owners of America and the ACLU have expressed support for the bill.
The two sides do not line up perfectly. Rand Paul framed the problem as being one of “big government.” But the police shooting tear gas were local cops. Last night’s protests were by all accounts dramatically calmer, almost celebratory, after Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) stepped in and dismissed local law enforcement, putting Captain Ron Johnson of the state patrol in charge.
It’s also worth remembering that Jim Crow thrived under decentralized authority. State and local governments were the centers of the most entrenched racism, and thus centralized federal power was key to breaking down American apartheid. That’s not to say that the federal government can’t also create racist policy (it definitely can). It is to say that the simplistic “big government = bad” slogan so favored by libertarians and conservatives is hardly the magic decoder ring to preventing police from killing yet another unarmed black kid.
However, there are reasons to be a bit optimistic as well. Since the days of Richard Nixon, conservatives could be relied on to blindly support the police no matter the circumstances. But crime is way, way down from the late ’60s and ’70s, weakening the appeal of “tough-on-crime” macho posturing. And despite some despicable statements from whites in a town neighboring Ferguson, I think it’s fair to say that the political utility of racism is much diminished as well.
As a result, for the first time in decades, rank-and-file conservatives find themselves at odds over police brutality. Even Red State editor Erick Erickson, of all people, wrote today that the police may have gone too far. All of this bodes well for a liberal-libertarian reform effort.
Furthermore, in this particular instance federal policy (the aforementioned Pentagon equipment bonanza) is indeed a major factor behind police goonification, so we can forgive Rand Paul some sloganeering if we can scrap that particular policy.
The biggest question, then, is whether this sort of bipartisan effort will get sucked into the left-right hate vortex. In this respect, President Obama may have been wise to avoid any sort of vigorous comment on reform. His statement on Ferguson yesterday could have been much stronger, but staying out of it may be the right move on a political level. If reform becomes strongly identified with Obama then it will become instantly radioactive on the right, and therefore doomed. (Of course, this all assumes Obama actually supports reform, which he may not.)
So while I’m not getting my hopes up, with a bit of luck there is a real chance for de-goonification policy. Police turning the suburbs into war zones may be too much, even for this country.
Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.
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