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Ferguson: We Can’t Look Away

It’s time once again to bring out the well-worn quote (from Marx) that history repeats itself, “first as tragedy, then as farce.” No one in my home could take their eyes off the television Monday evening, though all that was on was Jake Tapper marching around Ferguson, Missouri tracking down rumors of fresh violence. It all seemed so scripted. The outside world may be blowing up—major crises in Ukraine, the Mideast, and the South China Sea—which if escalated and spread could bring the world to the brink of global war. But we couldn’t turn away from the rinky-dink St. Louis suburb. Outside agitators—were there not such people, one would be want to put this ’60s era retro-phrase in quotation marks—have purportedly come to Ferguson from as far as New York and California.

There was real tragedy in the first round of American inner city riots—provoked in most cases by genuine police brutality. In 1967, the New York Review of Books ran Tom Hayden’s lengthy depiction [1] of the riot there. Hayden, then a well known New Left figure, knew Newark, had been an anti-poverty organizer there. His sympathies were obvious, but Hayden is no fool, and I’m sure most of the facts are correct. One thing which stands out in those days was the way in which law and order views were expressed in forms indistinguishable from race baiting. Can one imagine the Democratic governor of a major state today saying, as New Jersey governor Richard Hughes did, before calling out the National Guard, “The line between the jungle and the law might as well be drawn here as any place in America.” Hughes, recall, was not George Wallace but a major progressive figure.

The costs of the insurrection to Newark were brutal. In Hayden’s summary

In the carrying out of the Governor’s weekend definitions and policies at least twenty Negroes died, nearly all from police shooting, another 1000 were injured and 1000 jailed; more than 100 Negro-owned businesses were attacked by police and troopers; and hundreds of apartments were fired into along the ghetto’s streets.

The outcomes were comparable in Detroit, in both cities the riots sparking an exodus of white population, with its skills and capital. New York, in great part due to the personal courage of John Lindsay, avoided the hot summer. The riots spurred a major national effort to integrate urban police forces, an effort which evidently bypassed the suburb Ferguson.

In those days the precipitating incidents were, in ways that the Ferguson killing does not seem to be, clear cut cases of racist police brutality. No one who saw the video of Michael Brown robbing a convenience store will think it out of the question that the police officer who shot him 15 minutes later feared genuinely for his life. Of course the shooting should not have happened: police officers have to be able to make arrests without using deadly force—and if they can’t, they should in most cases give way—as Brown’s shooter must surely feel today. But it can’t be easy in the heat of confrontation—just as most highly skilled professionals will make errors under duress, so will an average cop.

To read Hayden’s account is to be reminded that though history may in some ways repeat itself, in America race relations are much better, and feel very different. It was reasonable to believe, or at least many did, in the 1960s that America’s very future depended upon solving the problems of racial inequality; and it was quite possible 25 years later to feel that growing crime and disorder threatened the very viability of urban life in America. (This is what the editorial page of the early 1990s New York Post, where I was an editor, believed quite passionately.) But seemingly intractable problems, even if not solved, get diminished. Or transformed. Growing inequality in America is more severe now than in the 1990s and affects poor and working class whites as much as blacks. Whether or not this constitutes improvement is not obvious.

The Ferguson stand-off seems artificial, even theatrical, in comparison to the showdowns of the 1990s, much less the 1960s. The Ferguson police have presented themselves as an occupying army, complete with tanks, machine guns, and body armor. In Los Angeles, in 1992, the police let the crowd riot till the anger burned out. That choice would probably turn out better for all concerned. In the meantime the perennial question of how forceful police can be in the face of perceived threats to public order will smolder on. It’s just less urgent than it once was. As Ross Douthat argues cogently [2] in the Times, law and order concerns are less dominant when crime rates hover near 20-year lows than when they have been spiking for years. Nevertheless if Molotov cocktails are being thrown in middle America, America’s TVs will be on, and people will be watching.

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#1 Comment By Gary Boettner On August 20, 2014 @ 7:24 am

The media publishes statements made by blacks without verifying their validity.

The media talks about over zealous police.

The media talks about racism.

No mention of Brown’s criminal activities, drug use or actions.

Meanwhile, blacks riot, loot and burn down their own neighborhoods, while demanding justice for Brown.

Are we Insane or Stupid?

#2 Comment By icarusr On August 20, 2014 @ 9:44 am

“No one who saw the video of Michael Brown robbing a convenience store will think it out of the question that the police officer who shot him 15 minutes later feared genuinely for his life.”

Really? Well-armed police officer, at a distance? Enough to put six bullets into an unarmed person?

#3 Comment By superdestroyer On August 20, 2014 @ 11:05 am

I doubt if the 53 people who died during the LA Riots or the many more who were injuried really believe that ” let(ting) the crowd riot till the anger burned out” is such a great idea.

#4 Comment By Sands On August 20, 2014 @ 12:46 pm

What jumps out at me is that multiple US cities actually have quite recent experience with these sorts of after-dark stand offs and protests turned violent from the Occupy days and the aftermath. The cultural and political underpinnings might be different, but the situation on the front lines was very similar.

To calm the situation, authorities have to first accept that there are indeed “agitators” in the crowd, both local and visiting, who are there specifically to fight the police. They are craving the drama. They want to chuck the rocks and draw the teargas. Consciously or subconsciously, many want to be roughed up.

These are only a minority among the crowd, but that is all it takes. Once you understand this, you realize that the worst thing you can do is to keep escalating the police presence with numbers and military equipment, etc. Because that is exactly what these people are there for (generally young men, but apparently crazy old “communists” from Chicago as well). They are craving the drama of fighting police. Presenting more, and sterner police, is catnip.

It is counter intuitive, and probably against the personal nature of most police officers, but you have to step back, not forward.

#5 Comment By Clint On August 20, 2014 @ 4:49 pm

The Media seems to once again unprofessionally hype and additionally provoke racial conflict,as in The Duke Lacrosse and Trayvon Martin situations.

#6 Comment By balconesfault On August 21, 2014 @ 11:13 am

Growing inequality in America is more severe now than in the 1990s and affects poor and working class whites as much as blacks.

I think this is a very important point. Parts of Latin America, for example, are not dangerous because of racial tensions. Even if we set aside the massive increase in violence due to narcos – the massive wealth gaps and severe poverty in places like Mexico City and Rio made life for middle class citizens a constant danger (while the wealthy could rely on their armed bodyguards and gated communities to stay safe).

Krugman noted almost 8 years ago: “Today, we’re completely out of line with other advanced countries. The share of income received by the top 0.1 percent of Americans is twice the share received by the corresponding group in Britain, and three times the share in France. These days, to find societies as unequal as the United States you have to look beyond the advanced world, to Latin America. And if that comparison doesn’t frighten you, it should. ”

Meanwhile, political scientist Eric Uslaner, researching the effects of inequality on trust, concluded “Trust is based upon the belief that we are all in this together, part of a ‘moral community.’ It is tough to convince people in a highly stratified society that the rich and the poor share common values, much less a common fate.”

In an economy with such serious structural wealth gaps, I think it becomes natural for the police to see themselves as in the service of the wealthy and powerful … and to see the poor and disadvantaged as a herd to be controlled, rather than as their clientele. And in too many places being black or hispanic is an immediate sign that someone’s likely to be poor and disadvantaged.

#7 Comment By Tarara Boumbier On August 21, 2014 @ 2:14 pm

A police officer who “gives way” to threats will not be a police officer for long.
LEOs are universally trained to take control of a given situation, and keep control – whatever it takes.

#8 Comment By Phillip Logan On August 21, 2014 @ 9:20 pm

After reading Scott McConnell’s article above I think it’s time to change the name of the magazine to The American Liberal. –PL