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The Wane of Government by Consent
Ferguson shows us what happens when people distrust their leaders.

Demonstration in Ferguson, Mo., August 19, 2014 (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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435
Kevin D. Williamson

The mathematics of civil disobedience has always been pretty straightforward: As Mohandas Gandhi pointed out to the raj, 100,000 government officials cannot control 350 million citizens if the citizens do not cooperate. There are not enough police in St. Louis County to control the people who do not wish to be controlled by the police in St. Louis County, as least as currently constituted. There are two ways to govern: By consent or by terror. In the United States, we govern by consent.

(Mostly.)

We spend altogether too much time talking about sentiment, e.g., polling Americans about whether they feel that the laws of economics apply in any given situation, as though their feelings were relevant to it. But there are occasions upon which sentiment must be considered, and considered seriously. One is the matter of public confidence in institutions, and the other is in the very serious business of consent.

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On the matter of confidence, it is difficult to fault the critics of the Ferguson and St. Louis County police authorities. They do not give a very strong impression of competence, and the relationship between police and community appears to be adversarial on both sides. The police have been less than forthcoming, and their release of information has been self-serving. Ferguson already was a relatively high-crime area and economically depressed, meaning, almost by definition, that local institutions were failing to do their jobs. There are looters, adventurers, and opportunists, of course, but the fact is that people in the town of Ferguson, Mo., could be at home watching television or updating their Facebook pages but instead are protesting the performance of their local government. That is not an insignificant fact.

Race of course is a factor. When the nation’s attention was drawn to Ferguson, journalists began to ask: Why does this largely black town have such a predominantly white government and white police department? The question was put forward as though the issue of race were self-evidently relevant and as though the situation in Ferguson were self-evidently unjust. It is a fact that people are less inclined to cooperate socially with people who are less like themselves and that racial and linguistic diversity can hamper the provision of public goods.

From the practice of slavery to the ideology of black nationalism, there always has been a strong current in black–white relations that is fundamentally adversarial, and the two races interact in some ways as though each were foreign to the other. To some extent, each defines itself in opposition to the other. Maybe there is no real reason why a black man in Ferguson should feel alienated by having a white mayor, any more than white Americans should feel alienated by having a black president. But the fact is that people do often feel that way, and that it is not limited to malignant racists. Even among people of good will, race often is an extra wrinkle that complicates relationships. And when one party in the relationship has guns, badges, and a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, that tension is intensified.

To consider Gandhi’s thinking again, he argued that any people would be more contented under a bad government of its own than under the good government of an alien people. (I have heard older Indians, in despair at their government, contest that sentiment.) One cannot help but detect a trace of that thinking in, for instance, the black-power politics of Detroit: The city’s government may be feckless and corrupt, but it is black, and that matters. (Though Detroit currently has a white mayor.) Ferguson’s government and police are overwhelmingly white in a town that isn’t. Maybe that should not matter, but it does. Though I should emphasize here that even if Gandhi’s notion applies and that the blacks and whites of Ferguson think of themselves as essentially alien peoples, the comparison fails in an important way: The black residents of Ferguson are not wondering what to do about a good white-dominated government, but what to do about a bad one.

When the people of Ferguson complain that their police and their government are dysfunctional, what evidence should be presented against them? The town’s prosperity? Its safe streets?

We have seen withdrawals of consent before, and we will see more in the future. From cracked Texas secessionists and Cliven Bundy to the people throwing rocks at police in Ferguson, such gestures are rarely altogether admirable, but that does not make them necessarily illegitimate. (I must confess that I’d have more sympathy with the protesters in Ferguson if they were setting fire to tax offices rather than convenience stores.) (Not that I’m endorsing setting fire to tax offices.) (At this time.) And there are real reasons to consider the question of consent: From local politicians legally looting their communities to federal government that uses the IRS as a weapon of politics, there are real objections to be made. In practical terms, we have a government that interferes with our lives and livelihoods far more than did the one our Founders threw off.

Which is not a call for revolution — it’s a call for rebalancing, for reestablishing exactly who works for whom. As I wrote in the matter of the Nevada standoff:

There are of course questions of prudence and proportion to be answered here, and though I note that he uses the very strong phrase “lawless government,” I sympathize with Rich Lowry’s desire that both sides should follow the law. . . . The thing that conservatives seek to conserve is the American order, which (1) insists that we are to be governed by laws rather than by men and (2) was born in a violent revolution. Russell Kirk described the conservative ideal as “ordered liberty,” and that is indeed what we must aim for — keeping in mind that it is order that serves liberty, not the other way around. And it is the government that exists at the sufferance of the people, including such irascible ones as Cliven Bundy, not the other way around.

Including the people in Ferguson, too. (Cliven Bundy and the Ferguson protesters have more in common than you’d think. “The Constitution of the United States of America clearly affirms the right of every American citizen to bear arms. And as Americans, we will not give up a single right guaranteed under the Constitution.” Cliven Bundy? Wayne LaPierre? Nope.)

If not only blacks and whites but all sorts of distinct groups see political power as a form of rivalrous consumption, and it may be the case that they do, then we should expect more and deeper ethnic, linguistic, religious, and economic fissures, and more intense conflicts associated with them, as the size of government grows and power is consolidated at the federal level. On the other hand, if you want peace, then you should press for localism, federalism, the devolution of powers, strong property rights and constitutional protections of other individual rights, and, above all, limited government — because limited government means less to fight over in the political realm. That will not solve every problem — nothing solves every problem — and it wouldn’t necessarily have prevented the problems in Ferguson. But it will help forestall some much more significant challenges in the future.

If a town of 21,000 cannot be governed without consent, what of a country of 300 million?

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.


Clashes in Ferguson
TUESDAY, AUGUST 19: The daily protest gatherings appeared to heed calls for calm on Tuesday evening, only to see a return to violence aimed at police forces and a resulting crackdown that once agin filled the air with lights, sirens, and tear gas.
As with previous days, the gatherings and marches during daylight hours were largely peaceful affairs, punctuated by heated rhetoric directed at law enforcement, as authorities strove to keep demonstrators moving through the usual location.
Some arrests were made during the daytime demonstrations.
Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson again walked among the crowd to call for an end to the violence.
Law enforcement and Ferguson community leaders appealed for a night of calm to help ease tensions. A noticeably smaller crowd remained after dark, changing the mantra “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” that has become the protesters rallying cry throughout the unrest.
A young demonstrators waves a sign that reads “Justice!”
After clashes broke out with police, some in the crowd stove to prevent further escalations, locking arms and confronting those in the crowd bent on violence.
A man stands between police and protesters to appeal for calm.
An older man appeals for calm from a group of younger men wearing masks and face coverings.
Some demonstrators and onlookers took shelter inside a nearby business.
A business owner tussles with a young demonstrator, forcing him outside.
Verbal confrontations escalated later in the evening after bottles were thrown at police.
A policeman speaks with demonstrators as tensions escalate.
Authorities reported that some protesters had thrown urine at police, and additional threats were made from a passing vehicle. In all police made 47 arrests on Tuesday evening.
MONDAY, AUGUST 18: More clashes shook the streets of Ferguson on Monday as the arrival of the Missouri National Guard and the cancellation of the midnight curfew failed to quell the growing crowd of protesters and the growing anger surrounding the investigation of the death of Michael Brown more than a week ago.
Authorities report at least 31 persons were arrested in renewed clashes, which saw the air along Florissant Avenue once again filled with smoke and tear gas as police and demonstrators vied for control.
Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson told reporters that there was information that some of the more disruptive participants had travelled to Ferguson from as far away as New York and California. Pictured, protesters tip over a porta-potty onto Florissant Avenue.
Johnson had been sent to Ferguson to try and reduce tensions between police and local residents, but that mission appears to have failed as clashes have only increased in intensity since the weekend.
As on previous days, earlier demonstrations were largely peaceful, though arrests did take place as police tried to keep people moving along Florissant, where most of the unrest has taken place.
Rapper Nelly arrived on Monday to join the protests.
Among the large group of demonstrators, a man with a megaphone speaks to the crowd.
Anger rises among the demonstrators.
A melee ensues as police move to arrest a demonstrator.
Heavily-armed special police units were once again out in force.
Police units form a line to prevent demonstrators from moving further.
Riot police advance on the crowd.
Police wear gas masks as they deploy tear gas in the crowd of demonstrators.
A man reacts to the effects of tear gas.
SUNDAY, AUGUST 17: After the curfew on Saturday evening broke down into more clashes and arrests, police increased their presence on the streets on Sunday. But as night fell the situation again turned violent, with demonstrators taunting police and drawing a firm response from police.
After another day of violent clashes and flaunting of the town's midnight curfew, Missouri governor announced late Sunday evening that he is deploying the Missouri National Guard to restore order.
Said Nixon: "Given these deliberate, coordinated and intensifying violent attacks on lives and property in Ferguson, I am directing the highly capable men and women of the Missouri National Guard ... in restoring peace and order to this community,"
Police with riot gear assemble earlier in the evening to deal with the gathered crowd.
Special units prepare to head out as a tear-gas shell streams from behind an armored vehicle.
Police respond to reports of looting at an area business.
SATURDAY, AUGUST 16: By Saturday, Missouri governor Jay Nixon announced a midnight curfew in an attempt to gain control over the streets of Ferguson in the wake of Friday's continued unrest and growing anger over emerging details of the investigation. Pictured, police maintain order during daylight.
Local business owner Mustafa Alshalabi cleans up his store, Sam’s Meat Market, the morning after looters ransacked it.
Local shopowners brandish firearms to protect their property from further looting.
Two groups of demonstrators march down Florissant Avenue.
Demonstrators pass a line of police.
Captain Ronald Johnson talks with demonstrators earlier in the evening in attempt to head off more clashes with police.
Police stand guard at the 911 Hair Salon.
Police stand guard at area businesses.
Police stand guard at area businesses.
The energy level of demonstrators remain high.
Demonstrators hold up homemade signs.
Police shoot smoke cannisters into the gathered crowd.
Demonstrators run to grab smoke cannisters and hurl them back at police.
Demonstrators and journalists run as police fire tear gas into the crowd.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 15: By week's end, the stronger police presence had returned after several businesses suffered damage and crowds of demonstrators continued to challenge law enforcement.
A demonstrators wears one of many tee-shirts with the image of Michael Brown.
A demonstrator wears a bandana as a mask to conceal her identity. Some have also used masks to cope with smoke and tear gas fired by police.
Fellow Ferguson residents try to restrain energized demonstrators.
Demonstrators stand and kneel in front of law enforcement officials.
Demonstrators climb vehicles travelling Florissant Avenue.
Cars crowd Florissant Avenue as rain begins to fall.
Capt. Ron Johnson, joined by Missouri Congressman Lacy Clay (at left) uses a bullhorn to appeal for calm.
Looters among the demonstrators raid an area liquor store.
Looters emerge from a local business.
Looters flee the scene.
Law enforcement prepare to move against the demonstrators.
A police officer chases a demonstrator.
Particles from a concussion grenade explode into the air.
A demonstrators walks amid gas cannisters fired by police.
THURSDAY, AUGUST 14: Protesters walk down Florissant Avenue as demonstrations continued.
Demonstrators show the "Don't Shoot" hands-up gesture to gathered media.
Demonstrators gather near the location where Michael Brown was gunned down by a Ferguson police officer on August 9.
Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ronald Johnson walks among demostrators as night falls. Johnson, a Ferguson native, was brought in to take over security from local police in an attempt to quiet tensions.
A child's train joins the demonstrations on Florissant Avenue.
Tear gas spreads through the crowd.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 13: Some 500 demonstrators gathered Wednesday to continue protests against the shooting and delays in identified the police officers involved. Protesters vented their anger and in some cases taunted police.
Local police and other law-enforcement personnel have stepped up their presence on city streets over the past several days. But some observers wonder if the show of force, including military-style weapons and tactics, is only exacerbating tensions.
Though confrontations have been loud and vocal thorugh the week, there has as yet not been a repeat of the looting and arson the broke out on August 10, when some two dozen local businesses were damaged and a convenience store was gutted by flames. Nine persons have been charged in those incidents.
Throughout the night, as they have done since the demonstrations began last weekend, many protesters advanced on police lines with arms held high in the air in a gesture of surrender, exclaiming “Don’t Shoot! Don’t Shoot.”
After repeated calls to disperse were ignored, police cracked down with riot gear and tear gas.
Police line up to push the protesters back.
Some demonstrators responded by throwing the tear gas canisters back at police, while others attempted to hurl homemade molotov cocktails.
An Al-Jazeera news crew flees the scene as teear gas strikes their camera location.
Police guarded area businesses to head off a repeat of Sunday's looting and arson.
Tear gas and smoke filled the night air as police moved against demonstrators.
A demonstator braves the smoke to grab a gas cannister and hurl it back at police.
Smoke from tear gas and gas cannisters drifted into nearby neighborhoods.
Police fan out to secure nearby neighborhoods and search for violent protesters.
Updated: Aug. 20, 2014

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