Ferguson

Denounce Ferguson protesters but remember to forgive

“Instinct is something that people have got away from! It belongs to animals! Christian adults don’t want it!” – Amanda Wingfield

Since the days of Aquinas and Dante, the capacity for reason has been the defining feature of man. The leopard acts by instinct. Man is endowed with better capabilities. Christian theology holds that free will and logic are God’s gift to humanity. Without them, we would be left grazing in a field, not striving for better or to achieve oneness back with our Lord.

If using reason to make sense of the world is man acting at his best, what should we make of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and the ensuing “protests” across the country? The killing of unarmed black teeanger Michael Brown by a white police officer has predictably aggravated race relations in the U.S. Rather than focus on the clear-cut evidence of the case — which appears to exonerate officer Darren Wilson of wrongdoing — the shooting is being used to prove a point about police discrimination in America. The means of distribution are simple: destruction of private property and interference with commerce. In other words, brute thuggery and ignominious acts of violence.

From a practical standpoint, the disruption of people’s everyday routine doesn’t accomplish anything outside of ratcheting up annoyance. A casual look at social media reveals that most folks are annoyed rather than sympathetic when a few delinquents shut down a major highway. The random acts of disturbance are doing little to support the cause of equitable punishment.

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What we can learn from the anti-lynching movement about curbing police brutality

In the decades immediately preceding and following the turn of the twentieth century, gleeful crowds of white Southerners numbering in the hundreds frequently gathered to watch the lynchings of black Americans, oftentimes for the petty crime of stealing a hog, or none at all. By the 1960s, public lynchings had largely become a thing of the past and today, people react to photographs of this dark time in our nation’s history with shock and disgust. What brought an end to this era of mob violence?

Arguably, it was the actions of one former slave, Ida B. Wells, who collected and reported comprehensive data on lynchings in the South to prove that African Americans were more often victims than criminals when it came to lynchings, thus transforming public opinion and creating the possibility for political reform.

Tragically, disproportionate violence against African Americans continues today, albeit in a more subtle form. In a recent article for The Guardian, Isabel Wilkerson wrote that according to available data, the rate of police killings of African Americans today is roughly equal to the rate of lynchings in the early decades of the twentieth century. Then, every four days a black person was publicly murdered, often simply for stealing 75 cents or for talking back to a white person. While the rate of police killings of African Americans has fallen 70 percent over the last 40 to 50 years, it is still estimated that in today’s day and age an African American is murdered by a white police officer an astounding twice a week for offenses as egregious as walking up a stairwell.

While there are five times more white Americans, black people are three times more likely than white people to be killed when they encounter the police in the U.S., and black teenagers are far likelier to be killed by police than white teenagers. Additionally, the number of innocent people killed and assaulted by the cops is likely even higher than the data suggests considering that local police departments are not required to report police crime.

While white Southern lynchers in the early 1900s claimed that they were filling in where the legal system failed by serving as arbiters of vigilante justice whereas today murderers are more likely to hide behind police badges, in both cases racism was and is shrouded in promises to serve and protect. Then and now, stereotypes of black inferiority obscure systematic oppression and allow murderers to get away without so much as an inquiry. As Wilkerson wrote, “Last century’s beast and savage have become this century’s gangbanger and thug.”

Given the chilling parallels between the lynchings of the post-Reconstruction South and modern-day state-perpetrated violence against the black community, it is worth taking a closer look at the success of the anti-lynching movement for insights on how we might repair today’s political institutions and race relations.

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Why wasn’t anyone talking about police militarization?

Paul Waldman recently wrote a piece at the Washington Post asking a a reasonable question: where is the libertarian outcry against the overbearing use of police force? At face value, his commentary seems very illuminating: the tragedy in Ferguson shocked all reasonable people into consciousness, and we can’t hear the libertarians doing the same, so they must be unreasonable.

If you talked about police militarization before this tragedy, you would be considered somewhere on the spectrum of paranoid conspiracy nuts molded from the same clay as Alex Jones, especially if you identified as a libertarian. The reason that libertarians didn’t seem to adjust their focus to accommodate for Ferguson is because their focus was already there. Everyone else has since moved into this territory, previously occupied only by those conspiracy mongering weirdos.

Simply by googling “police militarization libertarian” and constraining the search for results from before August 9th to a few years back, we get a treasure trove of now embarrassing snark aimed at ostensibly paranoid and reactionaries. Here’s a great one that spends a majority of the article building the case that a Radley Balko is hopeless reactionary puppet, a racist and not a real journalist. Eventually, there is a payoff to this buildup, when Balko takes the side of a man who defended himself against armed, militarized police engaging in a drug bust. The Alternet writers practically roll their eyes at the assertion that this man may have saved his own life by defending himself, and imply that the libertarian noise surrounding police militarization is just paranoia that is attendant upon Balko’s reactionary beliefs. If this same dismissal of police militarization and the right of a black man to defend himself against such militarization were called into question today, you would be called a racist.

You’d probably be someone who watches Fox News, too. In an odd coincidence, libertarian John Stossel warned against the militarization of police in a piece posted on Fox only two weeks before the Michael Brown’s death-by-cop. He isn’t caught up in his own libertarian headspace, either. Stossel makes the point as diplomatically as possible in the title, earnestly trying to appeal across the political spectrum:

It’s healthy for conservatives, libertarians and liberals alike to worry about the militarization of police. Conservatives worry about a repeat of incidents like the raids on religious radicals at Ruby Ridge and Waco, Texas. Liberals condemn police brutality like the recent asphyxiation death of a suspect at the hands of police in New York….

This is a rare issue where I agree with left-wing TV host Bill Maher. On his TV show last week, Maher ranted about no-knock raids “breaking up poker games, arresting low-level pot dealers.”

Going a little further back to April 22, a Libertarian Party official in Michigan rallies civilians to sign a petition against the local police being supplied with military equipment. As you might have guessed, the petition ended up doing nothing. Libertarians tried to make as much noise as they could, but nobody really heard them. This is something that libertarians are used to, but everyone else seems to have a selective understanding of just how small of a soapbox the libertarians actually have. The signal to noise ratio between those who cared about police militarization pre-Ferguson and the paranoid isn’t very high. Remember when the DHS had practice targets of children? Take a look at the bizarre comments on that article. Whether it’s conspiracy mongers or johnny-come-lately activists, you can count on the libertarian voice being drowned out.

Violence as a matter of scale

It’s interesting what happens when you see two nations, diverse and distinct as they can be, interact. A minor hostile interaction can tend to escalate very quickly if you let it. When all you have is emotions and pure instinct to go by, a slight can become a fistfight very quickly. That goes with people. Communities. Nations.

Conflict takes a lot to inspire these days, but it’s far easier to incite it as the number of people you need to provoke grows ever smaller. It’s made all the more so when you see the other as not just some other person, but as something else. If you think that Other person isn’t respecting you and your space in that moment, what do you do? Are you calm enough to let it slide? Do you run away, as some would argue here? Or do you fight?

It’s admittedly strange to compare violent conflicts of recent, especially because the reasons and methods are so diverse, and because sounds so simplistic. But applying the economics of scale, you become more appreciative of what is happening from a holistic perspective, even you don’t have a complete understanding of things. In two such conflicts, the lack of clarity makes a comparison apt. When you have two distinct groupings, clarity is beyond important when a mistake is made in interaction. Sometimes, that requires patience.

Three teenagers kidnapped and killed. Or maybe they were killed already, and the butchers had made a large mess in the clear-up. Or maybe they were kidnapped and accidentally killed. The killers are (not) state-mandated terrorists. Or they’re (not) militants associated with the government. Or they’re (not) just a bunch of morons with AK-47s and some unabashed sense of righteousness. Or the leadership admitted their (non) role in the situation.

A teenager is shot and killed. Maybe he was (not) a suspect in a robbery. Maybe he was (not) reaching for a cop’s a gun. Maybe he was (not) picking a fight. Maybe he just said (did not say) “fuck off, pig” with his hands up. The cop’s a rookie. The cop’s a veteran. The cop is (not) hiding something. The cop is (not) hiding. There are (no) death threats.

All this information is as much a jumble as the items found in a trash can. Yet we seek to answer this slight as fast we can. Why? Why bother asking? We demand justice, revenge, blood. Screw the first two words, we’ve always wanted blood. It’s one of the few things we yearn for more than sex.

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