Like most people who are getting into their 40s, I suffer occasional bouts of nostalgia. But lately, in a cruel irony, the world only seems interested in re-enacting the parts of my youth that I’d rather not relive. A Russian dictatorship that invades its neighbors. A stagnant economy with rising food and gas prices. A giant new welfare boondoggle. An overmatched president who seems too small for his office.
And now race riots.
The whole feel of it is captured by David “Iowahawk” Burge, who jokes about a man who wakes up from a coma after 45 years and asks the doctor about the latest news. The doctor replies: “Nixon is talking about the race riots.” The patient asks if he can be put back into the coma. That about sums it up.
I’ve described the whole Obama era as 20th Century Lite, “an era in which we will have to relive—hopefully in a shorter and shallower form—all of the disasters of the 20th century, as a cultural refresher course.” Because apparently we didn’t learn the lessons of the last century well enough the first time around.
I don’t think anyone can really understand the events in Ferguson without understanding this 20th Century Lite phenomenon, because the whole thing re-enacts in exact parallels all of the major elements of the mid-to-late-20th-century crime wave. It’s Fort Apache, The Bronx all over again.
That 1981 film, which has since lapsed into a probably deserved obscurity, captured the overall sense of how things had been going on the domestic front in the late 1970s, with the police hunkered down in their precincts struggling vainly to establish law and order among a hostile population.
Looking at the past weeks’ upheaval in Ferguson, Missouri, I see seven parallels to the bad old days of my youth.
1) The disconnect between the police and the people. In Fort Apache, the Bronx, based on the real-life 41st Precinct in the South Bronx, the problem was a police force that was virtually all non-Hispanic trying to patrol a Puerto Rican neighborhood. But the bigger racial divide of the era was between blacks and whites. In the decades prior to the 1970s, about a third of the blacks in the South moved (for understandable reasons) to Northern cities, but the composition of city governments and police forces lagged behind.
Megan McArdle explains how a similar thing has been happening recently in the suburbs, which is how Ferguson ended up with a white city council and mostly white police force that is resented by many among the town’s relatively recent black majority.
And it goes both ways. The police tend to feel as if the city they grew up in is being overrun by people they’re not accustomed to and don’t like. Which leads me to the second parallel.
2) The siege mentality of the police. In the face of rising crime, and with a lack of connection to the people they’re policing, the cops see themselves as the “thin blue line” separating decent people from anarchy. The over-militarization of the police, which many people have complained about after seeing photos of suburban cops in full battle rattle, is just a symptom. The underlying problem is that the police feel like occupiers trying to suppress a native insurgency. That’s why they called the 41st precinct “Fort Apache,” after an Arizona cavalry garrison that fought off Apache warriors in the Old West.
Breaking this siege mentality, by the way, was one of the lessons about how to break the late 20th-century crime wave. While aggressive policing methods, including some that have been denounced as intrusive (like “stop and frisk”), are part of the success in places like New York City, this was coupled with increased engagement with the community.
Law and order is an enormous value, and if you provide it to people, they will appreciate it. But law and order in a free society has to be based on earning the trust of the public.
3) Opportunistic politicians. That’s why we cringe when we see the usual race-baiters like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton descend on Ferguson. They’re there to inflame the situation and take advantage of the resentment of the locals to boost their own reputations and political power. And the most inflammatory thing they do is to promote the next big element of the 1960s mentality.
4) The whole system is out of order. No, Al Pacino never quite said that, but it has gone done in popular imagination as the summation of the prevailing attitude of the 1970s. Grievances like the shooting of Michael Brown are used not to reform the system but to delegitimize the system.
That’s the key to whole Ferguson fiasco, and it’s the biggest parallel to the 1960s and 70s. Police abuses, or alleged police abuses, are presented by the political left as an indictment of America as institutionally racist and hopelessly immoral. So what’s the point of waiting for a case to be heard in court, demanding reform of the local police, or waiting for the next municipal election to vote more responsive candidates into office? The whole system is out of order and needs to be torn down.
That’s what explains the riots in Ferguson. You don’t keep rioting because you want justice, certainly not when you’ve already brought the case to everyone’s attention and gained the nation’s sympathy. No, you riot because you feel that all authority has been knocked down, that the whole system is rotten and that there is nothing to stop you from smashing everything and taking whatever you want. Notice the way in which the rioters have threatened reporters, who are, after all, attempting to document them in the process of committing serious crimes. Only a kind of comprehensive delegitimizing of the system can produce this result.
That’s also why we’re getting a whiff of justice by revolutionary tribunal, in which the guilt of the officer who shot Michael Brown has already been determined.
In fact, as I predicted, most of the facts everyone supposedly knew within the first 24 hours of the shooting of Michael Brown have been significantly revised. For example, it turns out that Brown was not an angelic aspiring college student, but a criminal. And not a sympathetic petty criminal but a thug caught on tape earlier that day committing a strong-arm robbery against a convenience store clerk. (Those who call this “shoplifting” are ignorant of legal definitions. This was strong-arm robbery in the most literal sense, as you can see from the surveillance footage of Brown grabbing a guy half his size and shoving him around.) This is relevant because it lends some plausibility to the idea that Brown might have later initiated a conflict with a police officer. It also casts some doubt on the most inflammatory eye-witness account in this case, which was offered by the friend who was with Brown at the time, who apparently left out the part about how he and Big Mike had spent the afternoon mugging store clerks.
Yes, police officers sometimes lie. In Ferguson, as other reports indicate, they might lie more often then most. But criminals lie, too. So let’s just stipulate that everything everyone says in this case will need to be backed up thoroughly by independent witnesses and physical evidence.
On that grounds, it’s not looking good. There are reports (still disputed) that the officer who shot Brown was seriously injured in the altercation, and even some inadvertently captured eye-witness testimony that Brown may have advanced on the officer rather than being shot in the back, which is consistent with autopsy results showing all his wounds in the front.
No, none of this creates a presumption in favor of the officer, but it undermines the presumption in favor of Brown. There’s good reason to be skeptical of everyone, and we’re going to have to wait a good while longer before we can get a systematic and impartial accounting of all the relevant facts in court.
But the protesters and media have already convicted the officer by revolutionary tribunal and will never believe any other outcome. Why? Because the whole system is out of order.
5) Whataboutism. Every bad actor in the world—people who routinely jail reporters, beat protesters, shut down newspapers, behead people, and kill their own citizens by the trainload—every damn one of them starts to lecture us about how bad we are. To date, in ascending order of evil, we’ve heard an earful about Ferguson from the Russians and the military junta in Egypt, Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei, and the lovely gentlemen of ISIS.
Back in the Cold War, we had a term for this: “whataboutism.” Whenever anyone criticized the Soviets about the gulags, their mouthpieces would start a sentence with “What about…” and go on to talk about racism and poverty and whatever bad thing they could think of that was happening in the United States. They understood that when the left sets out to delegitimize our system, they always seem to end up legitimizing the world’s real bad guys.
6) A pro-cop backlash. I was struck by comments from The Federalist‘s Ben Domenech about how this case has divided conservatives and libertarians in their attitude toward the police.
Do you naturally tend to trust them, viewing them as a necessary and needed hedge acting in defense of law and order? Or are you naturally suspicious of them, believing them to be little more than armed tax collectors and bureaucrats with a tendency to violence and falsehood in service of their whims?
This is a bit of a false alternative. You can think that the police are a vital necessity while still thinking that they need to be carefully monitored and brought to justice if they overstep their bounds.
Yet this divide in attitudes is real. This is partly because libertarianism has always had an anarchist undertone. The modern libertarian movement emerged from that same late-20th-century era when the whole system was out of order and both the military and the police were viewed as bad guys. The early libertarians participated in the delegitimizing of the system, imagining that this would somehow bring about a stateless libertarian utopia.
No, I don’t think most young libertarians embrace this attitude or have thought it out thoroughly, and that’s why I think there’s a generational element to this. I’m just old enough to remember the tail end of the great crime wave of the 1970s, a spree of murder, robbery, rape, and general mayhem that wrecked America’s inner cities for decades. (Some of them have never recovered.) I remember the news being filled with sensational murders, random muggings, drive-by shootings, and the general sense that the criminals were taking over the streets. Take a look at this graph, which charts an eight-fold increase in total violent crime from 1960 to 1990. At the time, I can assure you that we had no idea crime rates would drop precipitously afterwards. We thought the line might just keep sloping upward.
People my age remember the stunning turnaround. We remember how Rudy Giuliani was reviled and denounced—including by the same people exploiting the Ferguson tragedy—even as he adopted policing tactics that turned New York City from a murder capital into one of the safest places in the nation.
So all of the new complaints about how we have too many people in jail and how police are too militarized “despite” the fall in crime rates are courting the Fox Butterfield Effect. They don’t recognize that one of the reasons for falling crime is precisely because we have put more bad guys in prison and given more resources to the police.
So that’s why those of us who still remember that era have a more positive view of the cops. They saved us from fear and chaos. And even a few black commentators have had the courage to mention this, because they, too, were saved from fear. When the cities went downhill, many whites fled to the safe streets of the suburbs, while blacks were stuck living in the inner city.
So when I hear young libertarians casually jump onto the anti-police bandwagon, I partly think that these whippersnappers grew up with safe streets—they’re maybe a decade younger than me, but the crime wave broke so sharply that those few years made a big difference—so they’re not as likely to appreciate the “thin blue line.” Whereas I’m from a previous generation that saw the rising tide of crime and fantasized about the kind of cops who would ask the punks if they felt lucky.
That said, I’ve also lived in Chicago, where the police are callous, officious, and opposed to individual self-defense—while pretty much failing to provide public safety. I also understand how the drug war has not only fueled crime in the big cities—a huge portion of the murders in places like Chicago are the product of warfare between rival gangs, just as in the first era of Prohibition—and it has also contributed to the militarization of the police, who up-armor themselves to fight against well-armed gangs.
But remembering the history of the great crime wave helps us guard against presuming the guilt of the police in a case like this one.
There’s one last, tragic parallel to the old crime wave era.
7) The self-destruction of Ferguson. What we can expect next for Ferguson is probably what we saw in the big cities in the wake of the crime wave. The white middle class—and some of the black middle class, too—speeds up its exodus, and businesses whose operations have been disrupted for weeks decide to pull out.
How much luck do you think the Ferguson Chamber of Commerce is going to have for the next ten years? Ferguson was already under-banked, with more check-cashing outfits and sketchy payday lenders than regular bank branches. How many people are going to be eager to open up new shops along West Florissant Avenue, the epicenter of the riots?
How soon are they going to rebuild the QuikTrip? The most poignant part of that story is the conscientious young man who decided to come to work that day, despite the air of menace in the town, because he “he loves his job”—and barely escaped with his life when the store was looted and burned. Will he have any job to return to? In the first go-around, in the 60s and 70s, the answer was frequently, “no.”
That’s the real crime of the rioters. In an attempt to force the authorities to meet their demands, they’re engaging in the self-immolation of their own community. Then again, there are always those who would rather rule in hell than be just another law-abiding sucker in heaven.
Michael Barone, who was there as a reporter the first time around, says this isn’t quite like the 60s—but mostly because it’s smaller. That’s what makes this 20th Century Lite. The first time around, Ferguson was practically every big Northern city. This time around, it’s one Midwestern suburb.
But this is a warning that we need to re-learn the lessons of the 20th century. The police need to be reformed to overcome the Fort Apache mentality—and the rest of us need to recognize the destructiveness of the left’s race-baiting and its attempts to delegitimize and tear down the whole system of law and order.
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