Politics & Policy

No, It’s Not Our Fault

(Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
Americans as a whole are not responsible for events in Ferguson.

‘We are all complicit in the warzone that has become Ferguson, Missouri,” declare the headline writers at Esquire.com.

And you thought you had been on your best behavior in the past week, hm?

Those of us who live outside of Ferguson ought to react with empathy; the locals there seem caught between, on one side, opportunists who think outrage over a police shooting offers them a nice chance for some looting and tipping over public portable toilets, and on the other side a police force that looks like a U.S. military platoon heading into Fallujah, with some members of that force losing their cool. So far, no approach is sufficiently quelling the rioting, the looting, and the related crime: not the armor, rifles, tear gas, and flash-bang approach, not the initial lighter touch of Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson on Thursday night, not the subsequent curfew, not the arrival of the National Guard.

But it’s the height of arrogance to assert that the readership of Esquire — or any magazine or website — is complicit or somehow responsible for the events going on there. Roughly 99.5 percent of that article’s readers are not members of the Ferguson police force, nor public officeholders with authority over that police force, nor rioters, nor residents. Only a fraction of Americans have ever set foot in the state of Missouri, much less in Ferguson.

If, as author James Joiner asserts, “acts of despotism are being carried out, by a mostly white militarized police force upon a mostly black, mostly lower class populace,” then the responsibility lies with that police force and those who have authority over it. Casting blame on all of American society disperses accountability instead of focusing it.

If you live outside of a troubled, poor community with failing schools, broken homes, high crime rates, few jobs or other economic opportunities, racial tensions, and high crime rates, you may have noticed that you are the eternal scapegoat.

If you notice the problems of these communities and discuss them, you’re demonizing the residents and fear-mongering. If you ignore them, you’re sweeping them under the rug and guilty of malign neglect.

If you make recommendations about how to solve the problems in these communities, you’re condescending and fail to understand the “root causes” of the problems there. If you move into these communities, you’re part of the gentrification process, driving up housing prices and driving out the poorer residents, culturally supplanting and replacing what came before.

As Kevin D. Williamson noted, the only individuals who seem to escape blame for the conditions of America’s poorest, most crime-ridden, opportunity-deprived, and despairing communities are the elected officials who actually govern these communities.

Joiner declares: “Every member of our government, and every member of populace who is not outraged at what is happening here, is complicit in not just the violations of these people’s human rights, but in the slow death of a hard won way of life.”

How? What the heck did we do? How are we helping kill off a “hard won way of life”? And for that matter, how does our level of “outrage” determine whether or not we’re “complicit” in violations of human rights? What level of outrage is sufficient to not be complicit? Just how vocal do you have to be to get off the hook?

Eventually, Joiner focuses upon his true complaint: “Small town police departments will slowly militarize as we shrug or radicalize into smaller, polarizing segments, sending us tumbling backwards through the follies of history, writing off hate crimes committed by law enforcement simply because law enforcement committed those crimes, and because it was too politically inconvenient to ever question them.”

Except that recent history provides some glaring examples of law enforcement officers’ running into legal trouble for alleged racist statements and behavior:

• Mark Fuhrman’s use of the N-word helped derail the prosecution of O. J. Simpson; he ultimately pleaded no contest to perjury and was sentenced to three years of probation.

• Two of the four officers in the Rodney King case were found guilty of violating King’s civil rights in a federal case and served 30 months in jail.

• The four officers in the Amadou Diallo shooting faced charges of second-degree murder and reckless endangerment; a mixed-race jury acquitted them.

It’s not just big cities; police officers in Pleasantville, N.Y., Leominster, Mass., Little Rock, Ark., and Minneapolis, Minn., have faced consequences from suspensions to firing for comments and behavior that their superiors determined to be racist. The reaction of America’s police authorities to allegations of racism on the part of their officers may not be perfect, but it’s far from a monolithic “shrugging” or “writing off” of the behavior.

But this would interrupt Joiner’s how-dare-we narrative: “We are all complicit. We, the people, of that same supreme document mentioned before, have allowed this to happen.”

How? We’re not purchasing the equipment for our police force. (We’re paying for it, with our tax dollars, but we’re not filling out the purchase orders.) We’re not instructing them on tactics. No one ever asked us how we think a police officer should handle a potentially dangerous suspect, or how to respond when someone within a crowd of protesters hurls a bottle at him. None of the rioters in Ferguson asked us for advice, either.

Some among us, in fact, have objected to the militarization of the police for a long time. Who the hell is James Joiner to declare it’s everybody’s fault?

The vast majority of us are doing our jobs, going to school, raising our kids, taking care of our loved ones, and trying to carve out a little leisure time. For most people, that comes close to filling up the day. It’s insulting to suggest that Americans either chose for their poor communities to suffer such conditions, or somehow inadvertently forgot some action that would have rectified this — as if “fix the problems of America’s most troubled communities” was on the to-do list between filling up the car with gas and picking up groceries.

“I blame society” is the ultimate cop-out. The American people have their flaws, but to assign a national collective blame for the actions of particular police officers and particular agitators is to perhaps unwittingly excuse the inexcusable. Crimes, whether committed by citizens or officers of the law, are solved by investigation, indictment, successful prosecution, and incarceration. Cries for abstract “outrage” just don’t get it done.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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