Tag Archives: Racism

More on Media Reactions to Ferguson, MO

After waiting a few days, I decided to start looking at media reactions to what’s been going on in Ferguson, Missouri. A lot has happened too: The governor has announced a curfew and the Ferguson police released the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown. The police also, against the wishes of basically everyone involved, released a video clip they claim shows Brown stealing some cigars (or cigarettes – it’s not really clear) prior to the shooting. They admit that the confrontation between Brown and the officer was unrelated, so this is clearly just trying to defame the victim, who of course can’t defend himself. This is reminiscent of the attempts to ruin Trayvon Martin’s reputation prior to the Zimmerman trial – Trayvon Martin smoked weed sometimes and got into a few fights, therefore the shooting must have been reasonable. We have no evidence that this video is relevant (even assuming the video even shows what the police say it shows), and it will clearly serve to inflame the tension between the community and law enforcement. Given that the Ferguson PD is no longer in control, maybe that was the point of releasing the video.

Most of the major news media have continued to cover the story. I won’t link to most of the pages, but you can look for yourself in the opinion pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, online magazines like Slate and the Atlantic. Some of these articles are from before my initial post on the subject but I’m including them anyway. Most of the media is echoing sentiments similar to those I gave in this post. The militarization of law enforcement and the history of violence and oppression aimed against black communities throughout the United States have prominent places in most of the commentary.

Interestingly, while most of the media has come out strongly against the police, the conservative media is split over which side to support (the protesters or the police). Unsurprisingly, Reason (which is not strictly a right-wing magazine) is emphatically opposed to the police. Given the articles right now on the front page, it looks like Drudge is also on the side of the protesters. The Weekly Standard is doing its best to ignore the issue. The American Spectator is on the side of racism, denying the existence of any racial disparities in the justice system – as if historical context doesn’t matter – and blasting Rand Paul for even suggesting that racism could still exist. In a perfect example highlighting a point I made about President Obama, Ben Stein writes an incredible piece on that same website accusing Obama of hating America. While Stein’s piece doesn’t address Ferguson, it does provide a window into how the people at that magazine think. Stein writes that Obama is an “Angry Black Man” (yes, Stein really uses that term) whose hatred of America is evident in his inability to start enough wars to satisfy Stein’s bloodlust. I guess all Obama (Eric Holder too) has to do to be an “Angry Black Man” is to exist since he’s very carefully avoided giving strong public responses on many controversial issues.

The National Review actually shows some diversity of opinion on the topic of Ferguson. Ever-loathsome commentator Michelle Malkin decided that this was a good time to salute the nation’s police officers. She focuses on the fact that being a police officer is not the safest job in the world (though not the most dangerous either), with a number of officers killed every year. In the process, she uncritically lends support to the idea of American cities as “war zones” and police as a military occupation force. She also uses statistics in a highly misleading and unethical manner. It’s bad enough that I think I’ll write a separate post on lying with statistics. The clear implication of her article is that police should be free to murder citizens without restraint because their job can be dangerous. Jonah Goldberg writes an odd but mostly reasonable article calling to reserve judgment until an investigation into the initial shooting is done but also calls for police to be more sensitive and more responsive to the communities they’re supposed to protect. He also criticizes the attempts by some to blame Obama (why people are doing this, I have no idea) for what’s happening.

Kevin Williamson provides one of the laziest arguments possible: The unrest is (of course) the fault of the Democrats and their liberal policies like support for public schools and public transportation. Similarly to the many conservative figures who coincidentally just happened to discover the evils of Big Government on a certain Tuesday night in November, 2008, Williamson is clearly trying to attract libertarians to his decidedly non-libertarian cause (electing Republicans). To Williamson, redlining, white flight, and urban disinvestment are just natural responses to the excesses of Democratic control (many think that these cause many urban problems and lead to near-permanent Democratic control). Police are bad because they’re the government, and the government is axiomatically bad. Only local government policies matter, not state, federal, or non-governmental policies designed to impoverish certain communities (obviously and dangerously untrue). Giuliani saved New York from becoming a hellish dystopia (he didn’t). It’s almost unbelievable that these kinds of sentiments would come from a person writing in a magazine that once explicitly called for the subjugation of non-white people (conservative intellectual hero William F Buckley, at least during and before the Civil Rights era, was an unrepentant white supremacist). I would have at least hoped that the National Review would be more sensitive to the plight of those it fought so hard to keep in (figurative, if not literal) chains. There are many other articles that I won’t discuss here, but you can easily look for more.

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A Few Thoughts on Ferguson, MO

Obviously, what’s been going on in Ferguson, Missouri (here’s a recent article if you haven’t been paying attention) has been one of the biggest news stories of the week.

In short, there was yet another case of an officer in a heavily white department shooting an unarmed young black man in a mostly black community. There are conflicting reports of what exactly happened, but no one disputes this point. (That the police department doesn’t seem to be too eager to release information suggests that the truth may not be on their side but we haven’t seen much evidence yet.) In the wake of the shooting, there was a lot of anger within the community, leading to protests and some rioting/looting/vandalism. The police responded in an absurdly heavy-handed manner, bringing in military surplus equipment, including weaponry, armored vehicles, and camouflage uniforms. The police’s attempts to gain control of the situation – including arresting journalists and even local officials – appear to involve a plethora of constitutional violations. I’ll leave the legal issues to the lawyers, but I think it’s probably safe to say that the lawsuits and investigations will continue for years to come.

Much of the commentary identifies two main issues leading to events like this.

The first is what’s been termed the “militarization” of the police. Many police departments appear to increasingly regard the general population as some kind of enemy force that must be contained. SWAT teams are sent to respond to protests and even to carry out arrests or searches when no violence is expected. Many have pointed to programs such as those where the Pentagon sells surplus or outdated military equipment to police departments as an important cause of this. The hypothesis is that once a department has fancy toys like armored vehicles and heavy (for police) weaponry it will feel compelled to use those toys in order to justify the purchases. I use the word “toys” intentionally because that is exactly what these things are. The vast majority of police departments have absolutely no need for something like an armored vehicle.

In this case, it appears that the police were more interested in playing soldier than actually doing their job. Putting on such a ridiculously militaristic display only serves to intimidate the protesters, who have a constitutional right to protest, as well as the general populace who will feel under siege regardless of whether or not they are involved in the protests. The police department’s response to the initial protests and rioting has clearly only served to inflame the community’s anger.

The proliferation of military hardware in the hands of police does not explain why the community is so enraged. I don’t know the exact situation of Ferguson, Missouri, but it has been reported that there’s been tension between the police and the community for some time. However, this is something that we’ve seen before. Too often we have seen seemingly trigger-happy police unnecessarily fire their weapons and injure or kill someone (innocent or otherwise). Far too often the victim is a young man from a minority group and, in particular, a young black man, as in this case.

While the hostile attitude shown toward the people by some police departments is seen as a symptom of the militarization of law enforcement, I would argue that this isn’t really true. In some sense law enforcement has always been militarized against marginalized communities. When the NYPD stops and frisks an average young black man at least once a year (and Hispanics don’t fare much better) even though that is a wildly inefficient policy, it certainly seems like the police are at war with minority communities. This feeling is only magnified when you consider the shooting of Amadou Diallo, the brutalization of Abner Louima, and the lack of any real consequences for the officers in many such cases. When the Albuquerque Police Department kills as many people as the NYPD (from a city over 10 times as large) or when the Maricopa County police spend their time harassing anyone who maybe isn’t a citizen and investigating the president’s birth certificate instead of prioritizing real crimes it seems like the police in those cities are at war with the people as well. When the LAPD can beat Rodney King half to death on video and get away with it, why would anyone in the black or Hispanic communities (the urban underclass) have any trust in law enforcement or the justice system? What about when the East Haven police sit outside Hispanic/Latino-owned businesses to harass and threaten their patrons? Or when a BART officer shoots a handcuffed Oscar Grant, tries to cover up what he did, and is then only found guilty of involuntary manslaughter? These aren’t incidents from the distant past. These happen all the time throughout the country. The fact is, almost no one from a marginalized group, particularly a marginalized ethnic minority, has any reason to place their trust in the police and the justice system. Too often justice clearly never happens.

Given this context, and given the apparently already simmering tensions between the community and the police in Ferguson, MO, the community has every reason to distrust the police in their handling and investigation of the shooting. Furthermore, the police have an obligation to allow peaceful protests expressing this anger while doing what they can to prevent rioting and vandalism. Imposing a type of quasi martial law on the town only confirms the community’s feelings about those who are supposed to “protect and serve” the people.

So far, this case seems somewhat different. The president has responded, though he can’t be too forceful lest his opponents use that to discredit the very real emotions of the community (and also due to needing to avoid the damaging stereotype of the “angry black man”). The federal government is investigating. The state has relieved the local police of control in an attempt to defuse tensions. People from across the political spectrum, including many that are normally expected to hold rabidly pro-“law-and-order” views, have called for finally rolling back the militarization of the police and for police to do more to earn the trust of those who rightfully question their actions and motives. Hopefully this righteous anger will last and lead to real reforms, but honestly, I expect that things will go back to normal quickly.