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.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

Grassroots Fundraising: Paying for the Revolution (9pm Eastern)

June 23, 2017
· 46 rsvps

Are you new to socialist organizing? Or after many years do you still struggle, raising money from members when you need it but without a steady flow of income or budget to plan ahead? Are you afraid to tackle fundraising because it seems so daunting or you are uncomfortable asking people for money?

In this webinar, you will learn why fundraising is organizing, and how to do it – face to face, through fundraising events, and other ideas.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

Instructor:

  • Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

Training Details:

  1. Workshops are free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have preferably headphones or else speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt talt@igc.org.
  5. If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt schmittaj@gmail.com 608-355-6568.
  6. Participation requires that you register at least 21 hours in advance -- by midnight Thursday for Friday's webinar.

NOTE: This training is scheduled for 9:00pm Eastern Time (8pm Central, 7pm Mountain, 6pm Pacific, 5 pm Alaska, 3 pm Hawaii).

Data Security for DSA Members

June 27, 2017

Ack! I googled myself and didn't like what I found!

WHAT: A DSA Webinar about "Doxing"
WHEN: 9PM EST, 6PM PST

We're proud of our organizing, and chapter work is transparent for both political and practical reasons. However, there are basic precautions you can take in this time of rapid DSA growth to protect your privacy.

Key Wiki is a website that meticulously documents DSA activity and posts it for the world to see. If you're an active DSA member, likely your name is on their website. This is an example of "doxing".

As DSA becomes larger, more visible, and more powerful, we might expect that more websites like this will pop up, and more of our members' information might be posted publicly on the web.

Join a live webinar on Tuesday, June 27 with data security expert Alison Macrina, to learn:

  1. what is doxing? with examples and ways to prevent it
  2. how to keep your passwords strong and your data secure
  3. where to find your personal info on the internet and how to get it removed
  4. social media best practices for DSA organizers
  5. what to do if you've already been doxed

Zoom Link: https://zoom.us/j/9173276528

Call-in Info: +1 408 638 0968
Meeting ID: 917 327 6528

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 11 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 8 rsvps

 

Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.