I used this space recently to discuss in part the emerging coalition led by Ralph Nader, Ron Paul and others between libertarians and progressives on issues of war and corporatism. Recently, one of my libertarian “heroes” Nick Gillespie at Reason magazine wrote for The Daily Beast about another type of coalition forming in the wake of Ferguson. A coalition formed in the long overdue discussion about police militarization and race:
In small towns and big cities alike, African Americans have long complained about having to deal with (predominantly white) cops who sometimes act like occupying armies. Sadly, there’s nothing particularly unique about the August 9 death of Michael Brown at the hands of police. Police kill unarmed people—especially unarmed black men—all the time, and it usually doesn’t touch off a wide-ranging national discussion about much of anything.
Wait, wait, I know what you’re thinking. I know you’re not just gonna let me get by with leaving the “police killed unarmed people, black men especially, all the time” line hanging out there. So let’s address it. But first as a reminder: There is no national database for collecting this type of data — the people killed by police. The FBI has some data, but it’s not comprehensive enough or detailed enough. Vox refers to it as “minimum.” In other words, there’s under-counting going on for the number of times police kill American citizens in the United States. Whether it’s deemed justified or not, such is unacceptable. Anyhow…
In 2012, police killed 426 felons in what the FBI refers to as a justified homicide. Here is the graph they supply:
The justifiable homicide victims of 2012 were overwhelmingly male — the FBI’s records included 11 women and 415 men. They were also, as are most people that interact with the criminal justice system,disproportionately black. Black Americans make up 13 percent of the US population, but the FBI’s data shows that 32 percent of the felons killed by officers in 2012 where black. Fifty-two percent were white, and 12 percent were Hispanic.
Emphasis mine. But still, the data is problematic:
One reason that the FBI’s data is incomplete, of course, is that not all killings by police are “justifiable” — even under the FBI’s loose definition, which includes any death of someone who’d committed a felony. That said, experts believe that local police departments tend to write up reports for justifiable homicides immediately after the incident, and submit those every month — they don’t wait for a formal officer-involved shooting investigation to determine whether the victim was really committing a felony or not. In the meantime, the FBI trusts the agency when it says that the homicide victim was a felon. So there may be homicides in the FBI’s data for justifiable homicides that turned out not to be.
The most important reason the FBI’s data doesn’t tell the whole story, though, is that the SHR isn’t something agencies are required to submit. In fact, according to the Urban Institute’s Roman, the FBI doesn’t accept SHR data from the entire state of Florida, simply because the FBI doesn’t like the way Florida reports it. (This might explain the biggest discrepancy between the FBI data obtained by Vox and the most closely related federal database, which tracks arrest-related homicides; that database shows that 20 percent of victims are Hispanic, as opposed to the FBI’s 12 percent.) This is also why we’re not presenting a geographical breakdown of the FBI’s data: it would be completely skewed by which agencies are choosing to report, and which are not.
So, in essence, we just don’t know. Again, this is problematic to say the least.
However, even with the limitations of the data, the racial disparities, as Vox refers to it, are apparent in those killed by police.
Now back to Gillespie:
What has helped the story [referring to Ferguson] to go fully national, however, is that the events surrounding it exemplify the concerns that libertarians have been raising for decades about the militarization of police, which has its roots both in the drug war and the post-9/11 terror-industrial complex. As my former colleague Radley Balko, now at The Washington Post, has documented for years (first at The Cato Institute, then at Reason, and most fully in last year’s Rise of the Warrior Cop), “The buzz phrase in policing today is officer safety. You’ll also hear lots of references to preserving order, and fighting wars, be it on crime, drugs, or terrorism.
Those are all concepts that emphasize confrontation. It’s a view that pits the officers as the enforcer, and the public as the entity upon which laws and policies and procedures are to be enforced.”
See where’s he going with this? Libertarians have long talked about police militarization (and racial disparities in the War on Drugs and the larger area of the criminal justice system). Those in Ferguson and in the rest of the country are seeing those two areas (police militarization and racial disparity) on full display. Here’s the crucial point:
In Ferguson, minority outrage at police mistreatment has intersected with the libertarian critique of state power in a way that has brought the concerns of both groups to a national audience. Most interestingly, the coverage of Ferguson hasn’t been dominated by figures such as Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. Even a few years ago, they would have been at the forefront of the coverage. Now, the people at the center of this conversation have been journalists on the scene and local community spokespeople.
I think that’s pretty damn exciting myself. Even Rand Paul said in an op-ed, “Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them.”
The politics of exhaustion—that desperate attempt to maintain an increasingly dysfunctional and disheartening status quo that is swelling the ranks of independents and driving down political approval ratings to historic lows—is giving way to new sets of conversations that are as urgent as they are overdue. Exactly how those conversations play out, especially in terms of partisan politics, is far less important than the fact they are taking place and moving the country forward to new areas of common ground.
Exactly — that’s all this is about is forming coalitions on the common ground of moving beyond the status quo. A status quo seeped in political power and with a disproportional bent toward harming minorities. We are not going to agree on everything, certainly, but these possibilities are enthralling to consider.