It’s hard to find an uplifting angle on the events in Ferguson. Conservatives have drawn many familiar morals: that the media is ravenous for manufactured controversy, and will shamelessly exploit any tragedy to that end; that the Left will callously seize any opportunity to stoke racial tensions for political gain; that regrettable numbers of people prefer the satisfaction of rioting to the hard work of self-examination and community improvement.
If you’re feeling deeply depressed about it all, go read this story about Ferguson baker Natalie Dubose, who asked for donations to help rebuild her small business after it was looted. Last time I checked, she had been pledged more than $80,000. It’s good to be reminded that Ferguson has hardworking citizens who want to make a living, and that America has generous people who are willing to reach out.
Following that spiritual aperitif, go read Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s remarks on the Ferguson affair. Paul manages to push the conversation in a positive direction by showing conservatives where they can find constructive common ground with those who are angered by the grand jury’s non-indictment of Darren Wilson.
Let’s Review the Basic Points and Counterpoints about Ferguson
Here is the point, in a nutshell. Minorities and impoverished Americans feel screwed by the system. They feel like pawns in the hands of a massive, incomprehensible, frighteningly invasive, and callously unfeeling bureaucratic system. This, surely, is something conservatives can understand. Middle-class conservatives are angry and frustrated because they feel screwed by “the system.” Guess what? The angry residents of Ferguson (and their sympathizers) feel the same way. We may have more common ground than we realize.
The concerns of these various groups aren’t precisely the same, of course. The middle class is deeply concerned about taxation and over-regulation. The poor feel bullied too, but not by the Internal Revenue Service or the Environmental Protection Agency. They’re more concerned about policemen who search homes, destroy property, harass citizens, and tase unarmed people, sometimes for crimes as serious as underage drinking. The police fatally shootfar too many people each year. Many are unarmed, and many are young, black, and male. Impoverished minorities who survive their youth may have prison to thank for it; black men are six times more likely than whites to be incarcerated. For those looking at African-American communities and asking, “Where are the fathers?” that is part of the answer. Many of them are in jail.
Of course, it’s also much too simple to conclude that the system is racist. Minorities are disproportionately incarcerated (and killed) at least partly because they commit more crimes. While I have no doubt that the police engage in stereotyping on the job, we also need to recognize that this is to some extent necessary, and even commonsensical. Cops regularly have to make quick decisions on the basis of limited information. Sometimes “stereotyping” is just another word for “making the strongest possible assessment of a situation based on limited facts.” If we ask the police to stop doing this, we may in effect be asking them to do their jobs less well.
At the same time, it’s also too simple to declare that the system isn’t racist. An honest, responsible cop may sometimes have reason to stereotype, but it doesn’t follow that all cops are honest and responsible. It’s easy to see how an ugly racial dynamic might develop in a high-crime neighborhood where the cops are disproportionately white and the robbers non-white. Not every representative of the law is careful and fair-minded in applying necessary generalizations to discrete individuals. Even I, an educated white woman who lives in a relatively affluent neighborhood, have had occasion to be annoyed by rude, over-aggressive cops who seem to think they are exempt from following city ordinances. I can only imagine how much worse this problem must be for minorities in impoverished areas, who are dramatically more likely to be viewed as a menace, and who can safely be presumed not to have much recourse if they are mistreated.
Ferguson Is Not Really a Good Test Case of These Concerns
The Ferguson affair has been frustrating because it doesn’t really appear to represent a miscarriage of justice. The case was admittedly unusual insofar as the prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, was effectively drafted into proceeding even though he didn’t regard the evidence as sufficient to warrant indictment. Ordinarily in such circumstances a case would simply be dismissed, but dismissal seemed unwise in this instance. McCulloch was therefore in the uncomfortable position of having to bring a case before a grand jury which he regarded as too flimsy to prosecute. He tried to navigate the problem by offering the jury the full slate of evidence so they could decide for themselves what to do. They chose not to indict, which seems like a reasonable decision in light of the evidence. But given the rarity of a grand jury non-indictment, some still felt we had been robbed of a real trial.
Prosecutors are not obliged to cherry-pick the evidence most likely to secure an indictment. Their job is to serve the interests of justice, not to maximize indictments or convictions. So this really wasn’t a case in which the system failed, although the result is understandably disappointing for some. The truth is that Ferguson was never the right choice for illustrating the shortcomings of our criminal justice system. Journalists and others who hyped it into “watershed” status have reason to be ashamed, because in the end they largely succeeded in persuading middle America that complaints about police brutality and the “targeting” of minorities are overdrawn, and that agitators for “racial justice” are disturbingly willing to countenance injustice in pursuit of their goals.
Even granting all of this, however, we should still be able to look beyond the details of Ferguson to focus on the legitimate concerns of the aggrieved. Every element of our criminal justice system (the police force, the courts, the prison system) deserves re-examination. Across the country, millions of Americans feel used by a bloated and broken bureaucratic system. Understanding as we do the evil tendencies of governmental bloat and abuse of power, conservatives should readily sympathize with these concerns. Ferguson probably isn’t a sterling example of bad policing or prosecutorial misconduct. But those examples do exist, and the bad feeling that follows on them certainly helped fuel the fire in Ferguson.
Following Paul’s lead, let’s try to take something constructive from a mostly-unedifying incident by renewing our interest in criminal justice reform, and in restoring Americans’ confidence in the justice and efficacy of our legal system.