Sen. Brian Schatz (D–Hawaii) took to Twitter on Friday to share his thoughts on the current situation in Portland, Oregon, where animosity is increasing between protesters and police as federal agents have been forcing demonstrators into unmarked vans:
Libertarians should be freaking out about Portland.
— Brian Schatz (@brianschatz) July 18, 2020
The senator didn't name names or provide any concrete examples of which libertarians he believes have fallen short of the proper outrage threshold. But Schatz's comments are part of a larger trend—one where libertarians have become the perpetual scapegoat for the failed policies of both the left and the right, even when they've been fighting against those very policies for years.
After George Floyd's killing, people on social media coalesced around a common refrain: "Where are the libertarians?" It's a bizarre response, given that libertarians have been beating the drum against police brutality far longer than either mainstream party. "Having left the issue on the back burner for so long," notes Reason's J.D. Tuccille, "some people don't want to admit that we were there ahead of them. Unfortunately, when it comes to police misconduct, we've been way ahead of them."
"As it stands in America today, the police aid in the trampling of rights on such a massive scale that there is hardly a word sufficiently descriptive," wrote Lanny Friedlander, the founder of Reason, back in 1969. "Limited liability? The price of retribution due to the victims of the crimes committed by police on any single day would be beyond calculation, yet not only do these crimes go undenounced (for the most part), and the perpetrators, police and politicians, unpunished, but, even worse, the victims are forced through taxes to finance the operation and salaries of the criminals."
What Friedlander expresses is not only true but also still relevant today. The only difference is that police reform now enjoys widespread support; during Friedlander's day, the opposite was true.
Had Schatz wanted to engage with libertarians on the subject, he wouldn't have had to look very far. Just 11 hours before the senator sent out his rebuke, the Libertarian Party (L.P.) condemned the actions of the federal agents in Portland: "This is not how law enforcement should be conducted," the L.P. tweeted. "America is the home of the brave, land of the free—not the bastion of secret police. #Gestapo"
But aside from his fantastical suspicions of libertarians, what does Schatz believe? The senator has been a vocal proponent of criminal justice reform. Like so many, however, his understanding of the subject fails to consider the fact that bad policing is in major part a result of bad laws, some of which he's supported.
In a 2014 Senate debate with Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D–Hawaii), his challenger said she supported allowing states the choice to legalize marijuana. Schatz wasn't convinced, according to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. "Schatz said he does not think Hawaii is ready to legalize marijuana," wrote the paper, "but does believe there needs to be a national conversation on drug laws that are 'incarcerating young men and women and ruining their lives.'" How Schatz intends to untangle the two remains unclear.
The senator has a similar stance on methamphetamine, which has become a lightning rod issue in the state amid rising overdose deaths. "Some of the strategy's goals mention meth as an example of an illegal substance that the federal government will interdict. This is not enough," he wrote in a letter to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) in December 2019. (Emphasis mine.) "As ONDCP, along with your partner federal agencies, responds to the opioid overdose epidemic, it is imperative that you also prioritize efforts to stem and reduce meth misuse, addiction, and deaths."
It's fair to take issue with the increasing hostilities in Portland while coming to varying conclusions on drug enforcement, which, on its face, sounds unrelated. Yet it's impossible to avoid the reality that more laws mean more interactions between police and the public. Those interactions can turn violent and deadly—something libertarians have been talking about for decades.
In 2019, the senator received a 100 percent rating from the National Organization for Police Organizations, a group that lobbies on behalf of police officers, police unions, and other related law enforcement groups. Also of note is his state's horrendous record on civil asset forfeiture, which allows police to seize assets from people who have not been formally charged with a crime. Gov. David Ige, a Democrat, last summer vetoed legislation to reform the practice. Schatz should have been freaking out!
Though Schatz introduced an amendment last month to curb police militarization, he has voted in support of the National Defense Authorization Act, the law that emboldens such militarization, in 2017, 2018, and 2019. He can criticize libertarians all he wants, but we can at least be glad he's caught up to us now.