The ongoing protests and civil unrest in Ferguson, MO, is in many ways a long simmering set of problems brought to a boil. Most acutely, there’s the perfectly justifiable anger and resentment from a black population that, 50 years after the Civil Rights Act, still struggles to overcome centuries of entrenched and systemic racism. Black America’s status as a permanent underclass is baked directly into the foundations of our economic and social system, and piecemeal reforms have proven utterly inadequate to the task of fixing the problem. In particular, the criminalization of black young males makes angry conflict with police inevitable. Under such circumstances, the surprise isn’t that protests and civil disobedience have broken out in Ferguson. The surprise is that it doesn’t happen more often.
Beyond the racial dynamics, there’s the growing public realization that the police in America are out of control. It’s a problem that only we, the broad public, can fix. And we are responsible for fixing it because we’re all to blame.
If I sat down to summarize even a year’s worth of police misconduct and brutality, it would take hours and hours. Those of us who follow the news closely know that outrageous behavior by the cops is a daily occurrence. Sites like Gawker and journalists like Radley Balko have spread word of this misconduct regularly, but all it usually takes is a brief visit to Google News. And people, finally, are starting to notice. When even National Review is running a piece like “It’s Time for Conservatives to Stop Defending Police,” you know that the issue is becoming too acute to ignore. What the American poor have been experiencing for decades has become too obvious for affluent America to ignore.
Like so many of our national problems, our deep, perpetual problems with police behaving badly stems in part from 9/11 and the post-9/11 world.
I don’t want to oversell this; certainly, we’ve been living in a culture of deference towards police for far longer. But as we did with the presidency, the military, the intelligence services, and soldiers, we responded to 9/11 by buffeting our police officers with obsequious respect and endless displays of extreme gratitude. We feted them at football games and through parades in their honor. We plastered stickers celebrating them on our cars. We exhorted each other to “thank a first responder today.” We set about to create a culture of unwavering, unquestioning, credulous support for our police, and that has everything to do with today’s problems.
None of this should be surprising. In times of crisis, people often retreat to militarism, nationalism, and extreme respect for authority. This is part of why an aggressive foreign policy is so counterproductive; every time we rattle our saber at Iran, for example, we empower the theocracy and the establishment government and hurt the resistance. Our showy disdain for Russia, the way we layer disrespect on their displays of national pride and celebrations of their history– like we did during Sochi– only causes them to embrace Putin and his narrative more. You might find that foolish, but we did the exact same, affixing flags to our cars and writing our national security state a blank check in the form of the PATRIOT Act and similar legislation. And we told the cops, more or less explicitly: you can do whatever you want. The results are unsurprising.
After all, when you give any group carte blanche to do what they want, and make it clear that you will support them no matter what, how can you be surprised when they abuse that generosity? It’s human nature: people who are subject to little or no review will inevitably behave badly. No group can be expected to police itself; that’s why the foundation of our democracy is the separation of powers, the way in which different parts of government are expected to audit each other. Ultimately, though, the most important form of audit comes from the people themselves. Only the citizenry can ensure that our systems remain under our democratic control, and this function is especially important concerning the conduct of those who have the capacity to legally commit acts of violence– and to define for themselves what acts of violence are legal, whether those definitions are official or merely ad hoc. Well, we have abdicated that responsibility, and in that vacuum, misconduct, brutality, and corruption have rushed in. The problem is endemic. I don’t believe that all cops are bad, or even the majority, but I also don’t believe that this is a “few bad apples” problem. A few bad apples could not cause a problem as widespread and constant as the one we’re witnessing now.
You may not agree completely with the protesters in Ferguson. You may find their tactics unhelpful or misguided. But you should recognize: they are the front lines in a long-overdue process of reversing this problem and slowly dragging the police back under community control. It’s going to be an enormous task, one that has to occur on both the national and the local level. The acrimony and recrimination that will attend this project will be enormous, as the “law and order” brigades deride those working to rein in the police as radical, soft on crime, or worse. But we have to do it. This problem will never fix itself. The police cannot be expected to reform themselves. And since we as a people had a hand in creating these conditions, it’s our responsibility to change them. If you find the size of the task daunting, you need only think of the alternative, an ever-more unaccountable and entitled gang of men with guns and batons. Or think about an 18 year old black body, lying for four hours in a Missouri street.
(Photo: Police forces intervene protesters, who took to the streets to protest the killing of Michael Brown on August 17, 2014. U.S. Missouri State Governor Jay Nixon Saturday declared a curfew and a state of emergency in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis. By Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)