The pictures of Ferguson have stunned and outraged people across the political spectrum. Outrage from the Left might have been predicted. However, the images of heavily armed police confronting and intimidating gatherings of concerned but nonviolent citizens have generated criticism from the Right as well, especially from leaders of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. In a recent op-ed for Time, Rand Paul worried aloud about the display of force: “The images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action.” One might expect this to lead to calls for community policing and to renewed efforts to integrate police departments. More likely is that Ferguson will become a platform only for denouncing the federal government for its role in arming police with excessive force, clearly the direction suggested by Rand’s editorial: “The militarization of our law enforcement is due to an unprecedented expansion of government power in this realm. It is one thing for federal officials to work in conjunction with local authorities to reduce or solve crime. It is quite another for them to subsidize it.”
The trouble with such a response is not that the federal government doesn’t share responsibility for Ferguson, it does. The problem is that more specific answers are needed if we are to understand what went wrong in Ferguson, Staten Island, and the countless other places where people of color have died at the hands of police using excessive force. We should resist the usual answers of “big government,” “racism,” and “bad apples.”
If we are to avoid such easy answers, we should begin with the two individuals in question, Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this is not an isolated incident. The killing of Michael Brown is all too familiar.
Two questions stand out: Why was Michael Brown killed and why are police units increasingly militarized so that they resemble soldiers in a war zone more than cops on a beat? The answers to these questions do indeed lead back to government–not simply to “big government,” but to a bureaucracy directed to wage war on a class of its citizens, driven by a political culture that ironically champions law and order. Law and order have a long history, even a theological history dating back to at least Martin Luther in which law and order are prized above pursuit of the good. In the case of American politics, law and order have come to function as a kind of secularized theology, standing in for divine sovereignty. It is the one thing about which we can all seem to agree.
The first, most basic question is why was Michael Brown killed? The immediate context yields one of four answers; 1) Officer Wilson accidentally shot Michael Brown, 2) Officer Wilson is a bad cop who knowingly killed without proper cause, 3) Officer Wilson misjudged Michael Brown to be a threat justifying lethal force, or 4) some combination of 1, 2, and 3.
Answers 1 and 2 calls into question the training process for officers in Ferguson. A professional training procedure should identify incompetent and morally suspect officers and either correct or dismiss them. Indeed a review of the training process and the thorough integration of the police force seem appropriate with any causes, but especially if it turns out that officer Wilson is generally thought of as a good cop who judged Michael Brown to be a lethal threat. Surely this is what many officers in such cases have claimed. But why, why did officer Wilson view Michael Brown as a threat to be eliminated?
Much of the legal debate will boil down to whether officer Wilson acted “reasonably” in the moment, given the circumstances. Jurors are likely to be asked to decide if Michael Brown engaged in conduct that could reasonably be interpreted as constituting a deadly threat. Whatever they decide in this case, it cannot be accepted as reasonable in a democracy like ours to employ soldiers on our streets who regularly kill unarmed women and men.
The question again is why officer Wilson reacted incompetently, cruelly, or, as I suspect, out of fear.
The fear of a mortal threat is something that police officers are trained to handle. But what if police officers come to think of themselves not as police officers patrolling a neighborhood but as soldiers in a war zone, say a war on crime, that threatens to meld into a war on terror? Who is the enemy in this war?
If this is a war zone, one might expect to identify the enemy with the aid of uniforms, but this is an unconventional war, so there aren’t uniforms, at least not official uniforms. However, when one sees the images of Ferguson or the video of Eric Garner being choked it appears that black and male = “suspect” at best and “criminal” at worst. Moreover, this appears to be the view of a troubling number of officers and of a wide swath of the American public. How can I suggest as much? Simply consider the history of police killings of unarmed or lightly armed African-American men. This summer alone has seen the deaths of Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, and Dante Parker, and now Michael Brown. Anyone old enough to remember Rodney King knows this is not an isolated incident.
The equation black = criminal is built into our culture’s deepest sinews. But alongside this, it is important to recognize how much we’ve come to fear violent crime. We have been coached to fear violent crime since at least the 1968 presidential election when Richard Nixon ran on the plank of restoring law and order. When we understand that the Nixon campaign combined a call to law and order with the so-called Southern Strategy, it becomes clear that white sympathies were cultivated and that blacks were made to play the part of the enemy. Nixon’s presidency was a take-no-prisoners form of democracy mixed with demagoguery. Political opponents were seen as enemies. It is Nixon we have to thank for inaugurating the war on crime and drugs. In 1971 he declared drug abuse “public enemy number one.” And so begins the illusion that our streets could be made safe through a concerted effort of the criminal justice system.
With Nixon, Reagan, and Bush the Elder, the “wars” also took the form of moral crusades that targeted not just “criminals” but also those politicians and judges said to be soft on crime. Willie Horton remains the most famous example of this kind of race baiting.
In the 1990s Democrats caught on. White suburbia feared crime and wanted punishment. Democrats fell in line and in some cases led the way. Their support made it possible to pass new mandatory sentencing legislation, such as the “three strikes law” that disproportionately punished African-Americans.
The Global War on Terror, as has been pointed out, brought a new level of weaponry to the wars of law and order, suggesting that police officers are soldiers in a war zone.
All this in the name of protecting law-abiding citizens, but not even tanks and mounted machine guns have proven sufficient. Police armament has been paralleled by a rise in personal gun purchases, neighborhood watches, security firms, and even cop shows. We have become fascinated with crime. We are a nation of good, decent people scared to death of young males, especially young black males. We are so afraid that we’re angry, angry at these young men for threatening us and at the federal government for trying to prevent us from protecting ourselves.
It is time to reconsider our wars of law and order.