Politics & Policy

Finding Meaning in Ferguson

Demonstrators celebrate as fires rage in Ferguson, November 24, 2014. (Scott Olson/Getty)
What the New York Times won’t tell you.

The New York Times has now pronounced on the “meaning of the Ferguson riots.” A more perfect example of what the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “defining deviancy down” would be hard to find. The Times’ editorial encapsulates the elite narrative around the fatal police shooting of unarmed Michael Brown last August, and the mayhem that twice followed that shooting. Unfortunately, the editorial is also a harbinger of the poisonous anti-police ideology that will drive law-enforcement policy under the remainder of the Obama administration.

The Times cannot bring itself to say one word of condemnation against the savages who self-indulgently destroyed the livelihoods of struggling Ferguson, Mo., entrepreneurs and their employees last week. The real culprit behind the riots, in the Times’ view, is not the actual arsonists and looters but county prosecutor Robert McCulloch. McCulloch presented the shooting of 18-year-old Brown by Officer Darren Wilson to a St. Louis county grand jury; after hearing three months of testimony, the grand jury decided last Monday not to bring criminal charges against Wilson. The Times trots out the by now de rigueur and entirely ad hoc list of McCulloch’s alleged improprieties, turning the virtues of this grand jury — such as its thoroughness — into flaws. If the jurors had indicted Wilson, none of the riot apologists would have complained about the length of the process or the range of evidence presented.

To be sure, most grand-jury proceedings are pro forma and brief, because the evidence of the defendant’s guilt is so overwhelming, as Andrew McCarthy has explained. Here, however, McCulloch faced a dilemma. His own review of the case would have shown the unlikelihood of a conviction. Physical evidence discredited the initial inflammatory claims about Wilson attacking Brown and shooting him in the back, and Missouri law accords wide deference to police officers who use deadly force against a dangerous suspect. Not initiating any formal criminal inquiry against Wilson was politically impossible, however, especially since the eyewitness accounts that corroborated Wilson’s version of events would have remained unknown. (Not surprisingly, the six black witnesses who supported Wilson’s story did not go to the press or social media, unlike the witnesses who spread the early lies about Wilson’s behavior.) So McCulloch used the grand-jury proceeding as a way to get the entire dossier about the case into the public domain by bringing a broad range of evidence before the grand jury and then releasing it to the public after the proceeding ended — a legal arrangement.

The Times is silent about that evidence, of course. Blood and DNA traces demonstrated that Brown had initiated the altercation by attacking Wilson while Wilson was inside his car. Brown then tried to grab Wilson’s gun, presumably to shoot him. Such an assault on a law-enforcement officer is nearly as corrosive to the rule of law and a stable society as rioting. But to the mainstream media, it is apparently simply normal behavior not worth mentioning when a black teenager attacks a cop, just as it was apparently normal and beneath notice that Brown had strong-armed a box of cigarillos from a shopkeeper moments before Wilson accosted him for walking in the middle of the street. Amazingly, anyone who brought up that earlier videoed felony was accused of besmirching Brown’s character, even though the robbery was highly relevant to the encounter that followed (and showed that Brown did not have much character to besmirch in the first place, something his sealed juvenile records would likely have confirmed).

Even if we ignore the exculpatory evidence, it is absurd to blame the riots, as the Times does, on McCulloch’s management of the grand jury or the way he announced the verdict. There would have been rioting if the grand-jury proceeding had lasted one day, so long as it failed to indict Wilson for murder. It is unlikely that the rioters even listened to, much less carefully parsed, McCulloch’s post-verdict press conference, which the Times finds biased. It is equally absurd to imply that the grand jury’s decision not to indict resulted from unprofessional behavior on McCulloch’s part or from prejudice that somehow infected the proceedings. Not indicting officers for good-faith shootings in the course of their duty is the norm, not the exception. There have been no indictments of Missouri officers for shootings since 1991. Houston grand juries have cleared officers of shootings 288 consecutive times. The Brown verdict was par for the course and not the result of some flawed, partial process.

The Times then goes into blazing hyperbole about the reign of terror inflicted “daily” on blacks by the police in Ferguson and nationally. The Times coyly cites “news accounts” — i.e., its own– claiming that the police in Ferguson “systematically target poor and minority citizens for street and traffic stops — partly to generate fines.” The Times has no evidence of such systematic targeting, proof of which would require determining the rate at which blacks and whites violate traffic and other laws and then comparing those rates to their stop rates. Studies elsewhere have shown that blacks speed at higher rates than whites. Blacks likely also have lower rates of car registration and vehicle upkeep, for economic reasons. Moreover, if authorities are using traffic fines in order to generate revenue, they would presumably “target” the people most likely to be able to pay those fines, not the poorest residents of an area.

Even more fantastically, the Times claims that “the killing of young black men by police is a common feature of African-American life and a source of dread for black parents from coast to coast.” A “common feature”? This is pure hysteria, likely penned by Times columnist Charles Blow. The public could perhaps be forgiven for believing that “the killing of young black men by police is a common feature of African-American life,” given the media frenzy that follows every such rare police killing, compared to the silence that greets the daily homicides committed by blacks against other blacks. The press, however, should know better. According to published reports, the police kill roughly 200 blacks a year — most of them attacking the officer. In 2013, there were 6,261 black homicide victims in the U.S. The police could eliminate all fatal shootings without having any significant impact on the black homicide death rate. The killers of those black homicide victims are overwhelmingly other blacks, responsible for a death risk ten times that of whites in urban areas. In 2013, 5,375 blacks were arrested for homicide, which is greater than the number of whites and Hispanics combined (4,396), even though blacks are only 13 percent of the national population.

The Times trots out the misleading statistic published by ProPublica last month that young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than young white males — a calculation that overlooks that young black men commit homicide at nearly ten times the rate of young white and Hispanic males combined. That astronomically higher homicide-commission rate means that police officers are going to be disproportionately in black neighborhoods to fight crime, where they will more likely encounter armed shooting suspects. If the black crime rate were the same as the white crime rate, the victims of police shootings would most certainly also be equal among the races. Asians are minorities, which, according to the Times’ ideology, should make them the target of police brutality. But they barely show up in police-shooting data because their crime rates are so low.

For the years 2005–2009, a significant portion of victims in the ProPublica study — 62 percent — were resisting arrest or assaulting an officer as Michael Brown did. The cop hatred that activists and press organs like the Times do their best to foment significantly increases the chances of such aggressive and dangerous behavior.

The Times serves up a good example of anti-cop propaganda when it confidently states that “many police officers see black men as expendable figures on the urban landscape, not quite human beings.” That will be news to the thousands of police officers who are the only people willing to put their lives on the line to protect innocent blacks from predation. Until the Times’ editors and reporters start patrolling dark stairwells in housing projects and running toward gang gunfire, their superior concern for black men will lack credibility.

Without question, plenty of officers treat civilians rudely and desperately need retraining in professional courtesy. Having trash thrown at you from roofs or being cursed at and blocked in your pursuit of suspects does not conduce to a cheerful attitude on the streets, but officers nevertheless have a duty to respect the public. The fact remains, however, that black crime drives police presence and activity in black neighborhoods.

The Ferguson episode has starkly revealed several key and sometimes contradictory elements of the elite liberal mindset. The elites are in deep denial about black underclass behavior. They seem to believe that black crime is no higher than white crime, leading to the presumption that law-enforcement activity, if unbiased, would be equally spread between white and black neighborhoods. Ezra Klein is dumbfounded that Michael Brown would have refused to move from the middle of the street or cursed at or attacked an officer. Klein has clearly not spent much time in Central Brooklyn. Yet the liberal elites have also so lowered their expectations for black behavior that they accept criminality as normal. Stealing from a store clerk or assaulting an officer is now considered beneath mention. And black rioting, too, is both understandable and, it would seem, justified when, as in Ferguson, the police are “justifiably seen as an alien, occupying force that is synonymous with state-sponsored abuse,” in the Times’ words.

Plenty of blacks reject such condescension and excuse-making. A corporate executive in Atlanta observed after the riots: “Michael Brown may have been shot by the cop, but he was killed by parents and a community that produced such a thug.” The blight in Ferguson may well be “incurable,” the executive wrote me in an e-mail, but at the very least, “we should mount a campaign to hire ALL of the White cops out of the city/county and see how THEM cow chips come to smell.” Such views almost never find their way into the mainstream media.

The Times’ most influential readers often know even less about policing and crime than its editorialists and use the paper as an authoritative source of information about such matters. This transmission belt of ignorance ineluctably spreads into policy as well as culture. We are entering an era of increased anti-police activism, led by the federal government in conjunction with anti-cop advocates like Al Sharpton. The Justice Department will inevitably impose a costly and unnecessary consent decree on the Ferguson police department and ratchet up pressure on other departments to equalize their law-enforcement activity between black and white neighborhoods, regardless of crime disparities. President Obama is spreading the dangerous lie that the criminal-justice system treats whites and blacks differently. The Ferguson authorities are already rewarding the rioters by promising new programs and incentives to diversify the town’s allegedly over-white police force. Never mind that some of the most criticized law-enforcement bodies in recent years — such as in Detroit and New Orleans — have been majority-black.

Such anti-law-enforcement activism puts the public-safety triumph of the last two decades at risk. That unprecedented crime decline was the product of data-driven, proactive policing and stricter incarceration practices, themselves under attack as well. Officers facing the risk of specious “racial profiling” charges will likely back off proactive policing.

The nation is already turning away from the orgy of hatred, destruction, and entitlement that incinerated Ferguson last week, even as protesters, wedded to the now-discredited myth of an innocent Brown’s unprovoked martyrdom, continue to indulge in sporadic violence across the country. But it is well to remember, before the riots are shelved under the “too uncomfortable to confront” category, that such mass destruction threatens civilization itself by exposing the rule of law as powerless to check hate-driven anarchy. And the only people responsible for such an inferno are the perpetrators themselves.

— Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of Are Cops Racist?


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