BLM: An Epidemic of Ideas
Organized crime benefits from the chaos created by civil unrest, and politicians don't seem eager to fight back.
Judge Learned Hand referred to America’s vulnerability to ‘epidemics of ideas’ which sweep the land when sufficient people find a cause to profit by. Black Lives Matter is one such idea. It could have been instigated at any time in the last century and was, in 1968, with few constructive results. It fastens on a handful of cases per year in which African Americans have been fatally victimized by police brutality, a number steadily dropping as the ranks of black mayors, police commissioners and policemen increase.
But ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.’ The spectacle of a smothered victim captured on a cell phone is too good for some people to let go. As long as there are 20 million black men and a million policemen in the United States, there will be more such cases, the fulminations of judges, newspaper editors and street demonstrators notwithstanding. No one has found a perfect antidote to stupidity, or to emotional reactions to violence and fear.
The popular remedies are ‘consent decrees’ and ‘defunding the police.’ The fewer and more intimidated they are, the fewer their collisions with the population.
The question that has not been asked is cui bono—who profits from this particular epidemic of ideas? In Baltimore, since the Freddy Gray episode the number of arrests has dropped by more than half. Many prior arrests were for possession of marijuana or of small dealers in it, who State’s Attorney Mosby has said she will no longer prosecute. A draconian ‘consent decree’ systematically nullifies the techniques used to spectacularly reduce the homicide rate in New York, encumbering ‘stop and question’ policing and enforcement of great swaths of the criminal code.
Our police commissioner and editors congratulate themselves that there have been no recent violent demonstrations here, but that is because the drug gangs have gotten all they want. Yet there is a correlation, like it or not, between the reduction in police proactivity and the massive increase in private homicides. Herbert Asbury, in his famous study of New York’s turn-of-century gangs, concluded that their downfall in the John Purroy Mitchel administration came from the revived use of nightsticks, which previously could be used only in defense of life.
The proliferation of Baltimore’s ‘epidemic of ideas’—and some say its instigation—came from drug gangs, which efficiently looted the city’s pharmacies in the wake of the Freddy Gray affair. Under the consent decree, they effectively rule inner-city street corners, uninterrupted by arrests and frisks for the weapons used to enforce their contracts. The well-intentioned efforts of State’s Attorney Mosby and Judge Bredar have made life easier and more profitable for distributors. Non-prosecution and decriminalization do not alter business as usual in an enormous illegal industry which, as George Shultz and Paul Volcker repeatedly pointed out, must enforce its contracts at the point of a gun.
The gangsterism of the Prohibition era was in no way mitigated by the little-known fact that the 18th Amendment and Volstead Act never prohibited the individual use and possession of alcohol. Reducing individual penalties does not mitigate the competitive struggle among illegal distributors; only legalization and licensing can do that.
Maryland is politically a deep blue state, due in part to many federal workers and large black and immigrant populations. Yet the politicians of inner-city Baltimore, whether out of fear or economic interest, have not been in the vanguard of those seeking recreational marijuana legalization. As with medical marijuana, its progress has been delayed for years by efforts to guarantee minority participation in new legal markets. In the long run, the industry will concentrate, largely foredooming these efforts. But the brutal fact is that inner-city Baltimore and its politicians appear hooked on the illegal drug trade, and until alternative employments and incomes are found for its young men on the model of the New Deal youth jobs programs, that condition will persist, together with the resulting carnage.
George Liebmann, a Baltimore lawyer, is the author of various works on law and history, most recently America’s Political Inventors (Bloomsbury 2019), and the editor of Prohibition in Maryland: A Collection of Documents (Calvert Institute, 2017).