Michael Brown Shooting

Ferguson, Abusive Policing, and Racial Politics

The fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown and its aftermath have once again brought the national spotlight on race relations.


Drew Stephens

The tragedy and turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri—the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, followed by sometimes violent protests and a heavy-handed police crackdown—have once again brought the national spotlight on race relations in America. It has also revealed unusual political alignments, with libertarian-leaning Republican Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and some other libertarians and conservatives joining liberals and leftists to denounce abusive police behavior, particularly toward young African-American males.  Others on the right—not only Rush Limbaugh but black commentators such as Jason Rileyare taking a more traditional conservative view which sees the black community's worst woes as due not to racism but to its own cultural problems, aggravated by the welfare state and liberal paternalism.

Each of these narratives—"racial injustice" and "cultural dysfunction"—has its truths and its blinders. Each, by itself, is overly simplistic and (as it were) black and white, both with regard to the situation in Ferguson and with regard to the larger picture.

What are the facts in Ferguson? For starters, we can all agree that the Ferguson police department couldn't have done a worse job of handling the crisis from the start. Leaving Michael Brown's body lying in the street for hours, treating protesters and journalists like the enemy in a war zone, stonewalling on the identity of the officer who shot Brown and then releasing it together with information about Brown's involvement in a convenience store robbery—it seems as if, every time the cops had to make a decision, they made the one most likely to inflame anger.

Pending a full independent investigation, we don't know the exact circumstances of Brown's death at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson—an army of armchair experts notwithstanding. We don't know how relevant the robbery, captured on a security camera video, may be. Its disclosure, denounced as a "smear," was certainly poorly timed—and further bungled by contradictory police statements on whether Wilson knew Brown was a suspect. Still, George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf, no right-winger, argues that the video may be valid evidence: if Brown had just committed a crime, that makes it more plausible that he could have been aggressive in his encounter with the police. Given that early reports portrayed Brown as quiet and non-confrontational, withholding this information seems hard to justify from an accuracy-in-reporting standpoint. Had officials kept it from the media, there would have been a strong chance of a leak followed by claims of a politically correct cover-up.

Actual smears of Brown as a "violent gun-toting gang-banger"—based on nothing more than photos of hand gestures said to be "gang signs," most likely the posturing of a teen who wanted to be a rap artist—have appeared on some far-right websites. These and other posts in the right-wing blogosphere are a sobering reminder of how easily the "cultural dysfunction" narrative can cross the line into racism—which is thick, overt, and vile in the reader comments. Yet Brown's defenders have shown biases of their own, however well-meaning—for instance, dismissing the store robbery as "petty theft" or "shoplifting," even though the assault on the clerk who tried to stop Brown clearly raises the level of the offense to "strong-arm robbery." Left-wing activist and blogger Olivia Cole dismisses as a troll anyone who talks about waiting for the evidence and deplores (seriously!) "riot-shaming."

Beyond the specifics of the Ferguson situation, there is the bigger issue of the relationship between the police and the black community—actually, a tangled web of difficult issues.

There is the general problem of a police culture that often harbors authoritarian attitudes—starkly illustrated by the much-discussed Washington Post column by Los Angeles police veteran Sunil Dutta blaming most police/civilian conflicts on insufficiently submissive civilians—and fosters an "Us vs. Them" mentality that views citizens as a hostile element to be kept in place. Demographically, I'm very near the top of the totem pole as far as police interactions go—female, white, middle-class, conventionally dressed—but even I have unpleasant memories of a routine traffic stop during which I was brusquely told not to argue with the police officer's rather dramatic overestimate of my speed, and then ordered to state my exact destination.

In many cases, this mentality leads to the shielding of police misbehavior and lack of accountability—even when someone winds up dead. It's not just about race or even class; last week, Politico magazine published the troubling account by retired Air Force Colonel Michael Bell (who is white) of his unarmed son's shooting by a police officer during a routine traffic stop, with no consequences to the shooter. The post-Ferguson shooting in St. Louis, Missouri of a knife-wielding, mentally ill African-American man, Kajieme Powell, has prompted many comments to the effect that no white person would be so cavalierly gunned down. But one can easily find recent instances of mentally ill white people—such as South Carolina teenager Keith Vidal last January,  or disabled 51-year-old National Guard veteran Brian Newt Beaird  in Los Angeles last December—being shot under dubious circumstances.

What happens when race is added to the mix? There is no question that young black males are killed by the police in disproportionate numbers. African-Americans make up about 13 percent of the population of the United States; according to various statistics, they account for 32 to 41 percent of Americans killed by law enforcement and 28 percent of arrests. At least some of this gap is clearly related to the demographics of violent crime. An analysis of shootings in New York City in 2011 finds that blacks, about 22 percent of city's population, were the targets in about half of police shootings—and the suspects in 70 percent of criminal shootings in which the suspect's race was identified.

Conservative analysts, most notably Manhattan Institute fellow Heather MacDonald, argue that all racial disparities in arrest and incarceration are due to differences in crime rates and that racism in the criminal justice system is a myth. That too is an oversimplification. Some of the studies MacDonald cites actually find that the demographics of crime are the primary, not the sole, reason for those gaps; there is documented evidence of black and Hispanic defendants being treated more harshly than otherwise similar white offenders.  But it's also difficult to take the liberal narrative seriously when it results in such fallacies as writer Jamelle Bouie's purported debunking of the "myth of black-on-black crime." The gist of Bouie's argument is that most violence involves same-race victims and offenders, regardless of racial group. True; but, unfortunately, it's no myth that a vastly disproportionate number of intra-racial murders in America—almost 50 percent—are black-on-black.

Commentators as different as black progressive Ta-Nehisi Coates and white conservative Charles W. Cooke have warned that to bring up black-on-black violence in the context of Ferguson amounts to "changing the subject" and "hectoring blacks" instead of confronting the fact that a young black man was gunned down by the police under highly questionable circumstances. But surely there is room to talk about both—as writer John McWhorter demonstrates in his fine recent essay on Brown's killing in The Daily Beast. Otherwise, one gets a jarring sense of cognitive dissonance when MSNBC contributor Michelle Bernard says that incidents such as Brown's shooting are par of a "war on black boys" that could turn into "genocide" with no acknowledgment that black boys are in far more danger of being killed by other young black males than by white cops or vigilantes. Few would disagree with Coates that crime in the black community exists in a historical context of white supremacy and racism. That does not make it any less vital to address these problems.

White conservatives can sound distastefully tone-deaf when discussing race, justice, and the demographics of crime (a risk of which I am well aware as I write this). Thus, in a July 2013 article in the wake of George Zimmerman's acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin, MacDonald acknowledges that law-abiding African-American men are often targets of "humiliating" scrutiny and suspicion. Then, she goes on to say, "Here's a proposal: For a good five-year stretch, blacks bring their crime rate down to white and Asian levels. Once it becomes widely understood that blacks are no more likely to steal, rob, rape, or shoot than whites or Asians, we'll see if blacks still elicit the defensive reactions." However solid MacDonald's statistics, this comes across as smug and insulting, if only because there's nothing law-abiding blacks can do to bring down black crime rates.

Yet surely white liberals like The New Republic's Julia Ioffe sound no less smug when they lecture blacks who condemn self-destructive behavior in their community on the perils of "self-flagellation" and "preaching respectability." And both liberals and libertarians can easily forget that, as grave a problem as police brutality is, violent crime takes a horrific toll on low-income minorities—not only because it hurts its immediate victims and strips others of their sense of safety, but because it ravages neighborhoods and businesses and perpetuates the poverty trap. For all the racially charged controversy about New York's stop-and-frisk policy, a poll last October found that two-thirds of the city's black residents wanted it to continue, albeit with changes.

Where do we go from here, other than waiting for the law to take its course in Ferguson? Meaningful police reform would certainly help: more cameras; curbing the use of law enforcement to boost municipal revenues through fines for petty offenses; a hard look at less deadly ways to subdue violent suspects.  Most people appreciate the fact that cops have an extraordinarily demanding and stressful job. But that should not be an excuse for bullying or violence, any more than the stress of poverty is an excuse for crime. Law-and-order conservatives should remember that the principle "power corrupts" applies not only to government but to the police.

At the same time, no amount of reform can completely eliminate racial tensions around law enforcement as long as African-Americans are disproportionately involved in crime. That brings us to the much larger unfinished business of racial inequality. The "national conversation on race" is a perennial cliché. But the only way to even get that conversation started is to listen to different voices.

NEXT: Brickbat: Stand It Right There and Bend Over

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  1. They're just running your plate number to try to chat you up later, Cathy.

  2. Maybe MacDonald is pointing out that there is not much the larger community can do to curb black criminals other than vigorous policing. It is certainly more acknowledging of the harm done to communities by violent crime than Ioffe's resentment of even talking about it.

  3. It has also revealed unusual political alignments, with libertarian-leaning Republican Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and some other libertarians and conservatives joining liberals and leftists to denounce abusive police behavior, particularly toward young African-American males. Others on the right?not only Rush Limbaugh but black commentators such as Jason Riley?are taking a more traditional conservative view which sees the black community's worst woes as due not to racism but to its own cultural problems, aggravated by the welfare state and liberal paternalism.

    So, both sides blame the state. Right on, brothers!!

    1. Why can't it be a combination of all of the above?

      1. It can, and probably is, but that would mean there can't be a political victory for either side.

        Also, those that live in black communities continue to have more to fear from some of those in their midst - all related to the WoD - but no one wants to talk about that either, probably for the same reason.

      2. I have to agree with Suthenboy, this is not an either/or thing. The black community can have 'cultural problems aggravated by the welfare state and liberal paternalism' and also be the target of abusive police behavior.

        1. I think it is safe to say that everyone can be a target for abusive policing power, simply because the police get away with it at all times and regardless of circumstances.

          I do think that black communities are the target of more policing - and therefore more susceptible to abuse by it - than other communities for the reasons sited, but also for the idiotic WoD, which has morphed (as always) from a government driven program with 'good intentions' (however misguided) into a jobs program for below-average intelligence white people.

          1. Agreed on all points.

        2. Thenblack community doesn't have a single "cultural problem" that doesn't directly stem from the way they are threaten by the government.

          And as soon as they realize that, the sooner the stranglehold the Democrats have on them goes away.

          1. The problem is they quite rightly are suspicious of the GOP to treat them right.

            1. I didn't say it was only the left's government programs. But the suspicion is only levied at the GOP because their "programs" aren't the ones that give the black community free housing, food and other giveaways...which are as enslaving to the community at large as the war on drugs is.*

              *Not that the war on drugs isn't bipartisan in execution.

              1. I think its leveled primarily (or I should say chiefly, because if you talk to blacks they are often quite critical of the Democrat Party but just find it to be the lesser evil) because of the GOP's own actions and rhetoric at times.

                1. I keep wondering what GOP actions or rhetoric are so much worse than supporting slavery, lynching, founding and supporting the KKK, promulgating Jim Crow and segregation--because all of those are things Democrats actively did.

                  What is it that Republicans did that can even begin to compare to the mountain of black corpses that modern Democrats stand on?

                  1. This crap. THIS insulting crap is the type of rhetoric that does it.

                    "Oh....wow! The Democrats supported SLAVERY you say? OMG! I did NOT know that! All this time I thought the Lincoln was a Dem! Holy God I've been lied to for years!"

                    The original KKK was a paramilitary arm of the Democratic Party. Full stop. This is the historical record.

                    Do you *really* think black people don't know that?

                    What is it that Republicans did? They scooped up all these old racist segregationists with open arms when they fled the Democrats after Jim Crow died. THAT'S what they did. They embraced the people who BUILT that mountain of black corpses. You people crying about how racist the old Dems were always conveniently leave that part out.

                    Let me ask YOU a question: Why are the Confederate flag fanboys almost exclusively in the REPUBLICAN Party now, the party that DESTROYED the Confederacy and signed off on Sherman's March to the Sea?

          2. That is probably why Oblamer has not threatened them with too many job opportunities. Uppity people with their own money are dangerous too. Gotta leave them wanting more and all.

    2. So, both sides blame the state. Right on, brothers!!

      Yes, both sides blame the state The answer from one side is more Federal authority.

      1. I certainly think blacks can be forgiven for taking the position that the federal government rather than local and state ones might be better for them when it comes to policing matters.

        1. Sure, it's just short-sighted.

          1. Conceded, it also lacks some hindsight (example, Fugitive Slave Law).

      2. and the other side wants us to submit to the part of government they like[police,NSA,CIA,TAS,DEA]

  4. One side needs to abandon the idea that police only abuse blacks,just reading Reason will show the lie in that.I'm also talking about the federal gov. list of swat teams.The other needs to admit that the police are agents of government and,as a result,need to be seen with as much s jaded eye as they do the rest of government,including the NSA,CIA and the military.

    1. Good luck. The battle lines were drawn decades ago and have been reinforced ever since.

      1. Yup, and with an eye towards power and not resolution.

  5. "conservatives and libertarians joining liberals and leftists to denounce abusive police behaviors"

    As long as we narrowly define "abusive" on liberal's and leftist's terms, that might just work out. Kinda like how an "abusive" relationship only conjures up images of a drunk hillybilly in a wife beater.

    1. Shouldn't the image of an "abusive relationship" involve a cop beating his wife? After all, they're twice as likely to be a domestic abuser...and that's after many of them get their cases swept under the rug.

      1. Or her husband.

    2. Controlling The Story

      Anyone in public relations will tell you that, in the midst of controversy, you must control the story. A critical aspect is terminology.

      American Traditionalists ... those who promote the U.S. Constitution as written and promote traditional, American ideals and values ... have allowed their opponents to gain control of the stories. Loss of control signals loss of battles. Loss of battles signals loss of the war, and war it is ... biological, political, economic, and sociological.

      One example is the euphemism, "gay" used instead of the real term, "homosexual". The homosexual lobby has usurped this term explicitly to control the story; they have succeeded. Even those who regard homosexuality as an abomination blindly and mistakenly use the homosexuals' own chosen terminology.

      Another example is the word ... well, one can't use it, or one gets censored. Instead of the biologically-meaningful term unstated herein, substituted are the imprecise terms "black" and "African-American". Yet, the United N* College Fund continues to use the term. Ironically, use of the term, Caucasian, remains acceptable. The point is that by allowing others to censor your legitimate use of a legitimate term, you cede control of the story to others.

      Words have power. Words can kill. The demagogues well are aware of this fact. American Traditionalists seem to have lost sight of it. There are consequences to such blindness (www.inescapableconsequences.com).

      1. First step to knowledge is calling things by there proper names.


        He who go to bed wit itchy butt, wake up wit stinky finger.

        Confucious on some good shit.

      2. You can say 'negro' or 'nigger' here.

        And I'm feeling really uncomfortable with saying that your concept--that altering the meaning or allowability of words is a staple of the left--is correct because I'm getting a strong vibe that maybe you want to say 'nigger' a little too much.

  6. Let me show you how the liberals and leftists view those that join with them to denounce abusive police behaviors.


    1. The way to stop the abuse of power is to give government more power. Eventually government will have the power to stop abusing its power. Rand Paul is a silly child for thinking that less power is the answer. I mean, it's the same thing with the corporations. Government is controlled by the corporations, and the way to take government back is to give it enough power to control the corporations that control it. More power is always the answer. Only children think otherwise.

    2. Why in the world would you bother reading DU?


      1. I registered there once and got about 2 comments in before I was banned.

        I think the same thing happened at Salon, but they didn't outright ban me, they just disallow my comments from ever posting. I spent about an hour lighting people up before I realized no one was replying to me.

        Echo-chamber only. It is imperative to the left that no other ideas are allowed.

        When you talk to someone on the right, they are usually convinced through logic, or they at least just shut up and go away, because they respect logic and differing opinions based upon such.

        Try that with the left, and they barrage you with ad hominems and/or censor you. Leftists are completely and utterly a fucked up bunch of lunatics.

        1. The left only sees people. They don't understand ideas. Just people. So when someone has an idea that they don't like, they don't consider the idea. They consider the person. Since they don't like the idea, then there must be something wrong with the person. Therefore the person and everything they say must be censored.

          1. I'd really like to see a Myers-Briggs personality test based upon political affiliation. I bet the results would be telling.

            1. Why? Just to confirm that the farther left you go, the more emotional and less rational a person tends to be?

              1. "It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be." -- George Orwell, 1984

  7. And, on topic surprisingly, a really good article at Cracked about the police's slide into abusiveness.


    1. Is it surprising that you're on topic or that Cracked has a good article?

  8. Most people appreciate the fact that cops have an extraordinarily demanding and stressful job.

    Bullshit. Cops are about as likely to be shot on the job as golfers are to be hit by lightning.

    1. I know its hard for a badass like you to understand but for normal people there are things that can be stressful and demanding *below* the level of getting shot at.

      1. I know its hard for a badass like you to understand but for normal people there are things that can be stressful and demanding *below* the level of getting shot at.

        The guns, body armor, handcuffs, cruiser, backup, and ability to pull someone off the street and throw them in a cell probably helps, though, right?

    2. You don't understand. It's extraordinarily demanding and stressful to be out there doing violence to anyone who doesn't obey you. When you tell someone to do something and they refuse, there is nothing more stressful than punching them in the face. If anything cops deserve pity. I mean, issuing commands and assaulting anyone, man woman or child, who doesn't obey must be extremely stressful work.

      And on top of that they have to go back to their families, where again they immediately use violence when they're not obeyed.

  9. A little while ago, the Morning Jokers were boohooing about Ferguson and teh RACISM.

    They somehow managed to elude any cognizance of the role played by the inexorable expansion of authoritarian government, a grotesquely excessive number of laws and the virtually limitless power granted by collective bargaining agreements to the police.

  10. there's nothing law-abiding blacks can do to bring down black crime rates.

    I can only shake my head in sad disbelief at such total bullshit like this.

  11. for normal people there are things that can be stressful and demanding *below* the level of getting shot at.

    Whether or not cops are normal, they grossly inflate the hazards and stresses of the job. Like baboons, they swarm the weak and infirm, and avoid the strong. That can really wear you down.

    1. I agree with this - but I would also say that, even for the mythical 'good cop' policing is a very stressful job.

      Dealing with DV, the mentally ill, 'real' crime (not vice/drug stings or code/license enforcement actions), responding to accidents, breaking up idiot drunks fighting because they're idiot drunks.

      1. From what I've seen, they don't even try very hard anymore. They strut around issuing commands, and immediately jump to threats of violence when not immediately obeyed. When threats don't work, they quickly get to work beating the crap out of whoever isn't showing sufficient respect. It seems that the only thing they find stressful is not being obeyed.

      2. Of course getting to moonlight in your costume for triple pay doesn't hurt.

        1. That, I'm sure, makes the hardships a little more bearable.

          Along with special considerations like being able to take a firearm into places (while you're off-duty) that would get us 'civilians' arrested (at best, shot at worst).

          Or being exempt from the '7-round only' law in New York.

      3. Law enforcement doesn't have a draft so why should anyone feel sorry for people who knowingly seek employment in a bureaucracy that specializes in stress? At some point the 'stressful job' aspect becomes a tired cliche'.

  12. What? Division?

    In 2008, Obama was supposed to bring the nation together. Fat chance!

    By the time, Obama leaves office, pending his decision not to issue an Executive Order declaring himself President-for-Life, he likely will leave a smoldering ruin behind him. He has played the "race-card" to the hilt, affrighting most of his opponents into refraining from righteous and rightful criticism.

    If the goal of Obama and his cabal has been to destroy "White America", let us not forget the notorious exclamation by his infamous pastor of 20 years ... "God d*mn America!", they largely will have succeeded. A multi-cultural America likely will have a singular and most unhappy ending for all its citizens. The increasingly dispossessed majority of Euro-Caucasians will remain dispossessed, some delighted to be so, and that outcome is all that counts to those in the White House (www.nationonfire.com).

  13. What are the facts in Ferguson?

    Thieves gotta steal, pigs gotta squeal.

  14. "Most people appreciate the fact that cops have an extraordinarily demanding and stressful job."

    Irrelevant. No cop is forced into his or her 'demanding and stressful job'. There is no sign on the front of a cop career stating that every day for an officer is a bare-footed romp on a sunny beach packed with compliant human robots.

    Frankly, I don't give a single shit about how hard your job is if you are using stress as a justification to behave like an angry and arrogant tool.

    1. you want a stressful job,try being self employed for a couple years.

      1. Was self-employed for 20 years. It is a special kind of hell until the business can sustain itself and even then the stress can be considerable at times.

        But most who go down that road expect hardship and a tough road. There is no wailing and gnashing of teeth in the business community for those who are unlucky enough to struggle through hard times or outright fail.

        Police are some of the most coddled and protected specie of employee on the planet. It's time to take their goddamn diapers off and ditch the fucking unions and special rights and protections and treat these people like the adults they are.

        1. very true,but I have seen many people,who worked for others before,shocked at the paper work ,taxes and regs they have to abide by.Owning a business is not a pot of gold.

          1. Sure, but that shock lasts about a year when all the onerous government crap hits them in ass. After the first wake up call of government getting their piece of everything begins the second wake up call of trying to make enough to eat and not live in cardboard boxes.

  15. Cathy Young? Why doesn't she just blame Putin, like she always does!

  16. People just see this as either a race issue, or race-baiting issue and not a police brutality issue. Aligning with the left here is just going to help them to fight "hate speech," have more affirmative action and increase welfare for the "oppressed."

    1. Aligning with the right is just going to help him keep their police state and spying on your every move in place, not to mention the endless war that the government has fought in our name since WWII.

      There is a third way. You don't have to be for the big government Democratic Party or the big government Republican Party. And you certainly don't have to be for police breaking into you house at 2AM on a drug raid, shooting you first, asking questions later, only to find out that they broke into the wrong house.

      1. The right does not have a police state. The very notion of a police state is anathema to the most basic precepts of the right.

      2. The point is this isn't the event to rally behind. For one we don't even know what happened so it could blow up in our faces if it turns out to be justified. Second, only libertarians see it as police brutality, everyone else thinks it's a racial war. So whatever reduction in statism you think your signing up for with an alliance you'll get the opposite. There are examples to minimize police power like the Bindy ranch, but this isn't it.

  17. my best friend's mother makes $66 /hr on the computer . She has been without work for 7 months but last month her payment was $13283 just working on the computer for a few hours. go.....

    ?????? http://WWW.JOBSAA.COM

  18. This article seems to beat around the bush and says nothing new. We will not know anything until the investigation is complete and cases are presented at trial.

    At this stage, given the public information available, there is unlikely going to be an indictment against the police officer involved in the shooting.

    The next round will be the civil remedy where this issue will be speculated upon in and by the media ad nauseum.

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