Friday, August 15, 2014

We Are All Ferguson, Missouri, Now

P.J. O'Rourke
In my younger, more conservative days, I took most of my political cues from libertarian humorist P.J. O’Rourke. He has a knack for breaking complicated civic issues into bite-sized nuggets, while tagging True Believers’ already existent preconceptions. In this passage from his 1991 classic Parliament of Whores, O’Rourke critiques an anti-drug speech, televised directly from the Oval Office, by then-president George H.W. Bush:
If hysteria is no good, how about racism? Read the following sentences:
Crack is ruining America’s inner cities.

Crack is killing policemen, overburdening courts and filling jails beyond capacity.

Crack is devastating thousands of families.

Crack is putting the lives and well-being of our children at risk.
Now delete the words “crack is” and insert the words “niggers are.” Isn’t this the secret message of the drug-free America campaign?
Many journalists have spilled much ink over crack prohibition’s implicitly racial consequences. African Americans generally prefer crack’s cheap, intense hit, though a crack high lasts only about fifteen minutes. White Americans prefer snorting powdered blow, which costs way more, lasts far longer, and causes flashes of psychosis. But until the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, convictions for crack cocaine received sentences literally 100 times worse than powder cocaine convictions.

Officials in Ferguson, Missouri, have been less than forthcoming about the circumstances leading to Michael Brown’s death on August 9th, 2014. One fact appears clear, however: police initially stopped Brown and his companions for walking in the street. Incident reports haven’t been published, and at this writing, the reporting officer’s name, with other relevant details, remains hidden behind official secrecy. But nobody disputes that police initially busted Brown for… jaywalking.

Ian Haney López
To my middle-class white mentality, the idea that a routine traffic stop could escalate to multiple shots fired, including at least one striking Brown in the back, beggars the imagination. Slightly. Unfortunately, if you follow history and current events, what happened in Ferguson, though appalling, is entirely consistent with America’s unexpressed values. We’ve long found ways to normalize society and protect our status quo, regardless of costs to acceptable casualties.

In his book Dog Whistle Politics, Ian Haney López includes a telling scene. In 1968, Richard Nixon, a noted racial moderate, came within inches of losing the Presidency. Third party candidate and arch-segregationist George Wallace, a former NAACP darling himself before he discovered race-baiting’s electoral payoff, threatened to usurp the entire Solid South. Between Hubert Humphrey’s liberalism and Wallace’s reactionism, Nixon looked too accommodating.

So in October 1968, Nixon began hammering on “law and order,” a seemingly neutral topic voters could embrace across party lines. Squelching crime seems desirable. But Southern segregationists had used “law and order” since the 1950s as a shibboleth redefining civil rights protestors, whose actions were literally illegal, as mere criminals, not justice advocates. Coupled with sudden opposition to “forced busing,” Nixon peeled off enough racist votes to win.

Though rule of law attracts broad bipartisan support, enforcement of law has chilling effects. America’s prison population today equals one percent of our adult population, the largest ratio of imprisoned citizens of any nation anywhere, ever, in recorded history. For African American males of prime working age, that number exceeds ten percent. At an age when white Americans are building careers and connections, black American men are disproportionately, ahem, hardening.

New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani congratulated himself for reducing his city’s legendary crime statistics by instituting a “broken windows” policing policy. This meant dedicating precious police resources to low-level crimes before lawlessness could escalate. But in practice, NYPD heavy-handedly busted blacks in Harlem and Bed-Stuy for fiddling offenses. Giuliani’s handpicked successor, Michael Bloomberg, amplified this with his notorious “stop and frisk” policy that treated brown people as suspects a priori.

Matt Taibbi
Journalist Matt Taibbi writes that laws exist which white Americans largely know nothing about. Thanks to selective enforcement, African Americans can literally go to jail for loitering, poor parallel parking, or falling asleep at bus stops. Courts, Taibbi writes, have punted cases involving high-level political corruption and financial malfeasance, meaning almost nobody’s paid for the 2007 financial meltdown. But blacks face jail for loitering in front of their own houses.

Michael Brown was stopped for a paltry civil infraction, and died. In a town nearly two-thirds black, the overwhelmingly white police force has a documented history of racial profiling and lopsided justice. It seems likely Michael Brown’s stop was a form of social control meant to keep poor blacks in their place. While I never advocate violence, resisting such naked injustice is both righteous and overdue.

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