Ferguson’s Lawlessness is Not a Big Surprise

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Scott Olson/Getty Images

By Harold Meyerson

Lawlessness happens when the law breaks down. That sounds like a tautology. It’s not.

The urban — and now, with Ferguson, suburban — riots of the past half-century have characteristically broken out only after the notion that we’re all equal before the law has been mocked by judicial verdicts or police practices that fairly scream that blacks are not the equals of whites — indeed, that they’re fair game for hyped-up, bigoted police. The Los Angeles riots of 1992, which I covered, didn’t break out when the videotape of four policemen beating the prone Rodney King was aired. They erupted when the cops, all evidence to the contrary, were found not guilty. The fires of Ferguson, Mo., blazed not when Michael Brown was killed but when a plainly biased county prosecutor announced that the grand jury he’d guided refused to indict Brown’s killer.

That jury may have had reasonable grounds for declining to bring an indictment. But that failure to indict came as a culmination of a string of unpunished killings, going back to Trayvon Martin’s, in which young black men were summarily gunned down by police or neighborhood-watch zealots.

When the law offers no recourse, a lawless response shouldn’t come as a surprise. Politically, such responses are usually counterproductive, providing fodder for those who favor discriminatory laws and policing. But when police departments routinely view young black men as an enemy population to be stopped, frisked, harassed, humiliated, beaten and occasionally shot, young black men can’t reasonably be expected to respect law enforcement. When drug laws incarcerate hundreds of thousands of young black men for nonviolent offenses — in clear contrast to the indifference with which police departments viewed the Prohibition violations of the white, urban poor of the 1920s, or the powder cocaine violations of the upper-middle class today — young black men may reasonably suspect that the laws criminalize skin color more than they do a banned substance. And when district attorneys and juries decline to indict or convict the police who kill young black men, even when audio or video evidence suggests the killing was, shall we say, discretionary, young black men might reasonably conclude the law provides them no protection from armed authorities run amok.

The lawlessness of Ferguson began, then, with the lawlessness of its discriminatory police practices, just as the lawlessness of the Watts riots of 1965 and the Rodney King riots of 1992 began with the discriminatory practices of the Los Angeles Police Department — in those days, a paramilitary force feared and loathed throughout the city’s black and Latino communities and beyond. In his classic “The Making of the President: 1960,” Theodore White referred in passing to the department as “among the most efficient, if the most cruel, in the nation.” But two decades after the 1992 riots, the LAPD has been substantially transformed — statutorily, demographically and behaviorally. Reforming the cops required federal monitoring, the constant pressure of civic elites and community organizations and the transformation of Los Angeles itself into a majority-minority city in which the political base of support for racist law enforcement was greatly diminished. Today, L.A. is a city where many cops actually look like the people in the neighborhoods they patrol and, most of the time, don’t treat those people as enemy aliens. Those people generally don’t treat the cops as enemy aliens, either.

Ferguson — a majority-black town with a police force that is almost entirely white — is past due for such a transformation as well. As in L.A., the federal government will have to step in to help create a department that understands what equal justice under the law means. As in L.A., the city’s minority voters will have to assert their majority status at the polls if they’re to change their police department into a force that doesn’t threaten them. 

No department has yet found a way to completely screen out those cops who actually like to pose such threats. Police work attracts idealists, but it also attracts thugs; in some places, police work can turn idealists into thugs. Psychological screening and ongoing monitoring can diminish police brutality; so can video cameras that record the cops’ encounters. In a democracy, the legal monopoly on violence we accord the police requires the maximum possible accountability when the police employ violence. If we want the lawlessness of Ferguson to stop, we need to build a Ferguson, and an America, where law is enforced uniformly and where being young and black isn’t grounds for a frisk, an arrest or a sudden death.

This article was originally published in the Washington Post and reposted with permission of the author.

 HaroldMeyersonAID.png Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect and a Washington Post columnist. He is a vice-chair of DSA.

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