Politics & Policy

The Ferguson Charade

(Getty Images)
Al Sharpton takes the stage at the White House to help keep the story alive.

The White House response to Ferguson wouldn’t be complete without a meeting with Al Sharpton, the infamous agitator who has become President Barack Obama’s “go-to man on race,” in the words of a Politico headline from last August.

So Sharpton was inevitably one of the civil-rights leaders at a White House meeting Monday. The president no doubt passed up the opportunity to direct Sharpton to the Treasury Department up the street, which would surely love to have him visit and make good on all the taxes he has avoided paying through the years.

A New York Times report found that there are $4.5 million in state and federal tax liens against him and his businesses. If the rest of the country had Sharpton’s accountant, there would be no reason for anyone to call for tax cuts. Our complex and onerous tax code would be rendered irrelevant by simple nonpayment.

Despite a disdain for the Internal Revenue Service that would make the average anarcho-libertarian blush (among other embarrassments and scandals), Sharpton has leveraged himself into respectability with the Democratic establishment by making himself central to any national racial controversy. By rights, he should have given up any pretense to criminal forensics after his defamatory role in the Tawana Brawley hoax in the 1980s, but there he was in Ferguson, Mo., suggesting the worst despite what turned out to be strong evidence that Officer Darren Wilson acted lawfully.

When the grand jury found there was insufficient evidence to indict Wilson, Sharpton pronounced that the Ferguson protesters had lost the battle, but not the war. What are they going to do to win, go out and find another cop to falsely accuse of a racial assassination and attempt to railroad into an indictment and conviction?

The Ferguson story has progressed from the tragedy of the initial incident to the outrage of the violence of the protests to a new phase of charade. The federal government must pretend to do something because it must . . . do something.

But what national initiative is going to stop police officers from defending themselves when they feel as if they are under mortal threat, as Officer Wilson says he did?

The Justice Department investigation of Wilson on civil-rights grounds will almost certainly lead nowhere. The standard for such a prosecution is high, and if the evidence didn’t merit a routine criminal prosecution, there is no way it can reasonably support a civil-rights charge.

President Obama is ordering the streamlining of the rules for providing surplus military equipment to police departments. Fine. But the militarization of the police had nothing to do with the original confrontation between Wilson and Michael Brown, and nothing to do with the ensuing violent protests in Ferguson, which rolled on regardless of the posture of the police.

The president wants funding for more body-worn cameras for local police, a worthy-enough experiment. But such a camera, assuming that what it captured was consistent with the most credible evidence, would have served to vindicate Wilson’s version of events rather than the protesters’ narrative of an extralegal killing.

The most needful reform in Ferguson and surrounding communities, per the excellent reporting of Radley Balko of the Washington Post, is the end of the obnoxious and parasitic practice of squeezing revenue out of residents with fines from traffic and other petty offenses. This creates an incentive for police to hassle motorists and is especially burdensome to poor residents. Because this issue is exceedingly local and dull, almost no one talks about it.

The facts have stopped mattering in Ferguson, if they ever did. It is probably destined to live on in the roll call of locales, like Selma and Birmingham, that are bywords for civil-rights abuses. Never mind that this distorts what happened in Ferguson and belittles the memory of past civil-rights battles. There are too many people too vested in the myth, with Al Sharpton leading the way.

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail:  comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2014 by King Features Syndicate

Rich Lowry — Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. 

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