The Lighter Side of Ferguson! A Historical Riot Perspective

by Tim Cavanaugh

Since nobody’s focused on the good news out of Ferguson, Missouri, here’s something to keep in mind, from a previous period of U.S. street violence involving race and police use of force:

By this point in the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, 53 people were dead, thousands were injured, and billions of dollars in property damage had been inflicted on a city that, with all due respect to the Show Me State, occupies a more essential place in American culture than does Ferguson.

This is not to downplay the terrible events in Ferguson, but some perspective is in order. “Something is different,” begins one recent, extremely solemn, opinion piece (which blames events in a town and state with a Republican mayor and Democratic governor on, naturally, Randian libertarians). “Every person I spoke to said the same thing: this is the beginning of something big.”

Yeah, that’s just not true. Ferguson is certainly worthy of a lot of attention. But to an extent its dominance of the news cycle is a function of August’s traditional role as a slow news month and the petering out of such attention-getters as people getting ice dumped on their heads and the kid who says “apparently.”

Jonah Goldberg’s column today contains a wonderful phrase describing “the by turns hapless and devious Ferguson Police Department.” Without prejudicing Darren Wilson’s defense (and as I’m typing this, it’s worth noting that multiple news media are reporting new corroboration of earlier reports that Wilson suffered a severe beating including a fractured eye socket), it is fair to say the department falls into the “needs improvement” percentiles.

Among other things: How have Ferguson’s finest — who otherwise seem to have access to the kind of high-powered equipment Barney Fife could only dream of — managed to avoid the everything-recorded trend that has vastly improved police work and police accountability around the country? Unlike MRAPs, cameras are cheap and have a direct connection to effective law enforcement. Many departments have dashcams. Many cops are now required to be equipped with wearable audio and video. Even the Tasers have cameras. The lack of officially recorded documentation of Wilson’s lethal encounter with Michael Brown is not just an incidental setback. It’s a scandal.

There is another similarity here with the 1992 riots. The Los Angeles Police Department was historically corrupt, racist, and barely competent; the LAPD was not very far along on its path of improvement in the early 1990s. Then, as now, the usual faces (in the case of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, the exact same faces) descended on the City of Angels to attribute specific events with specific actors to Structural Racism, Grinding Poverty, lack of Social Justice, and other convenient negators of individual responsibility. As recently as a few years ago, a South L.A. activist made a point of correcting my use of the word “riots” to describe what were in fact an “economic referendum.”

This is all provably false. The LAPD was unloved because it was doing a bad job as a police department. Its bad relations with the residents of South Central L.A. did not stem from some deep root causes requiring complex solutions. As the department got better at solving crimes and working with law-abiding citizens (haltingly under Bernard Parks and much more forcefully under William Bratton), its relationship with the community got better too. The problem had nothing to do with economics or social justice. In strictly fiscal and opportunity terms, black L.A. is not doing much better now than in 1992, and in some respects it is doing even worse. (Amazingly, thanks to the superhuman corruption of L.A.’s redevelopment authorities, wide swaths of South Central still have not been rebuilt.) What has changed is that the police do a better job and the crime rate continues to fall. For a good history of this improvement, see this John Buntin article from the December issue of City Journal.

It should be obvious that people, regardless of race, have a better opinion of police when the police are more effective in controlling crime. But advocates, by definition, seek to introduce side issues. As Rich Lowry pointed out the other day, the militarization of police does not appear to have been a factor in either Brown’s death or the ensuing rioting — and in fact the widely welcomed decision to bring in the National Guard is undoubtedly a much greater militarization of the situation. Spike Lee’s newly declared War on Black Men also does not have a lot of statistical support. The events in Ferguson do not represent a tipping point or the culmination of a trend. Deaths at the hands of police officers have been rising somewhat in recent years, but not at a rate that would rule out statistical noise (or the concurrent trend of increased numbers of police officers nationwide), and they are way down from 20 years ago.

The question isn’t whether cops need to be meaner, nicer, or just right. We want police to solve and/or prevent crime and maintain a modicum of civil order, with as little molestation of the citizenry as possible. Ferguson’s performance along those lines has been mediocre: The town’s rates for all areas of crime appear to be higher than both the national average and the Missouri average. And even if you leave out what Sharpton in other context calls “interlopers,” the protests indicate the citizens don’t feel unmolested. Virtually all people, regardless of ethnicity, want police to keep the peace. Solve that problem and the others go away.

I don’t have a ton of confidence in Attorney General Eric Holder’s commitment to blind justice, though I hope he will do a good job with this sorry episode. But the fact that the issue has been nationalized in this way suggests how many people have an interest in pettifogging what is, at its base, a matter of law and order.