Rand Paul, The Police Shooting of Walter Scott, & The Need for Change


Walter Scott shooting from The Post and Courier on Vimeo.

Yesterday, Jacob Sullum wrote about the incident captured above, in which North Charleston, South Carolina Patrolman Michael Slager shot and killed unarmed motorist Walter Scott after a traffic stop.

The video of the event has led to murder charges being brought against Slager. The video was captured by an onlooker and is almost certainly the only reason that Slager is being charged at all, much less for murder. The policeman originally reported that Scott had grabbed his Taser and that's why he shot the man as he was running away. The video shows Slager dropping what seems to be a Taser next to Scott's inert, handcuffed body.

Reason on police abuse here.

Last summer, the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the police overreaction to initially peaceful protests triggered a national discussion about police brutality, militarization of police, the use of body cameras, and more. As I noted then, one of the reasons Ferguson went national is that it represented the intersection of two major critiques of law enforcement that normally didn't overlap that much:

In Ferguson, minority outrage at police mistreatment has intersected with the libertarian critique of state power in a way that has brought the concerns of both groups to a national audience. Most interestingly, the coverage of Ferguson hasn't been dominated by figures such as Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. Even a few years ago, they would have been at the forefront of the coverage. Now, the people at the center of this conversation have been journalists on the scene and local community spokespeople.

Only one major-party politician running for president had much timely or relevant to say about Ferguson.

When it does come to the political class, Rand Paul's op-ed in Time was far and away the most trenchant (and early) sustained commentary on Ferguson and the issues it raises. "There is a systemic problem with today's law enforcement," he wrote. "When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury—national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture—we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands. Given these developments, it is almost impossible for many Americans not to feel like their government is targeting them. Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them."

Read more here.

Paul's announcement yesterday was met with the predictable natterings of disgust by various right-wingers and left-wingers who hate anything that smacks of libertarianism. Far more important, establishment types at The New York Times and Bloomberg View (run by a former editor of the Times' op-ed page) admitted that "Rand Paul Matters" (to use part of the headline of Bloomberg's house editorial. "Can Rand Paul Win With His Principles?" queried the Times in a respectful if semi-dismissive tone.

The police killing of Walter Scott and the senator's almost singular foregrounding of issues of police abuse, militarization of police, state surveillance, and other related matters involving civil liberties shows that that Paul can enrich and enlarge the debate on those topics every bit as much as he can on foreign policy, military intervention, and spending, debt, and deficit.

Regardless of whether Rand Paul secures the GOP nomination much less the presidency, any of us who care about limiting the size, scope, and spending of the state should be glad that he has elbowed his way to the table and is starting conversations that most of the participants don't want to have: about limits to power, spending, regulation, prohibition, you name it. This is one of the hallmarks of "the Libertarian Moment," after all: Politicians and special interests who benefit from the status quo don't want to acknowledge that their policies and priorities are played out and that their days in power are numbered. Paul's effectiveness is visible from his epic filibuster about NSA surveillance, Obama's kill list, and the like: Prior even to the Edward Snowden revelations, he started a necessary conversation where there was none. Indeed, his filibuster laid essential groundwork for the country to understand Snowden's subsequent bombshells. Most important, people across the political spectrum were forced to check their premises (many did, which explains why the Republican won plaudits from the left as well as the right). Contrast that to, say, Ted Cruz's 11th hour extended speech about Obamacare. While I enjoyed Cruz's exhaustive denunciation of all that was objectionable about Obamacare, his talk convinced nobody to change their existing positions one bit. 

To the extent that he continues to force discussions that disrupt traditional ideological and partisan talking points and alliances, we'll all be better off. The grand logic of his presence in the Senate so far has been to force a reevaluation of politics as usual. We need much, much more of that and are unlikely to get it from anyone other than the Libertarian Party nominee. But to the extent that Paul starts trimming his candidacy for the sake of simple expediency, well, he'll be hearing from those of us who want to get on with building a 21st century that we can all be proud of.