After the funeral of Michael Brown, the unarmed black man shot to death last summer by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., I was invited to appear on Newsmax TV. It’s the television offshoot of the conservative political magazine by the same name. Producers of a program called “MidPoint,” which is hosted by the unfailingly professional Ed Berliner, asked for commentary on the Rev. Al Sharpton’s eulogy to Brown.
It didn’t occur to me until later that Berliner and I had different perceptions of the parties responsible for inspiring fear, rage and protest in black Ferguson. When he asked if the most dangerous thing right now is the stoking of racial tension, I was a bit stunned and offered a bumbling answer: “They are pretty stoked already,” I said. “I don’t worry about stoking racial tensions, because they are already there. Michael Brown was lying in the street for more than four hours, so they are already pretty stoked.”
What I meant to say was something more felicitous: “Yes, there are racial tensions, but let’s properly identify the source of that ‘tension.'” Ferguson police allowed Michael Brown’s body to remain uncovered, drenched in blood, and exposed to the heat of the late summer sun for more than four hours. That’s what I’d call an expression of “racial tension.” But his death alone didn’t spark a national movement against routine police brutality. Along with the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York City, people everywhere, but especially white people insulated from police violence, are waking up to an injustice long recognized as a normal fact of life by black Americans.
I think it’s accurate to say Berliner held the opposite view, and this view informed his question. The cause of “racial tension” is not police violence in African-American neighborhoods around the country, because police violence is a necessary part of law enforcement in African-American neighborhoods. The real cause of “racial tension” is the many thousands of people who have taken to the streets, since the grand jury decisions against indicting the white police officers responsible for the deaths of Brown and Garner, to protest the institutionalization of police violence. Whether those protests are peaceful is beside the point, because they may lead to violence and that possibility alone, in the conservative view, is justification enough to suppress dissent — or at least to unequivocally blame peaceful protesters in the event of violence.
I don’t mean to single out Ed. As I said, he’s a pro all the way, and I’m grateful for the air time. This cast of mind is widely shared among affluent white men, especially law-and-order types. It is reactionary in that it recoils in the presence of political dissent and strives to return things to their previous state of normalcy. To that end, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) has been a regular presence on the Fox News Channel since Brown’s death. He has dependably blurred distinctions between sources of “racial tension” and generally discredited anyone seeking to voice grievance with the status quo. After Ismaaiyl Abdulah Brinsley gunned down two New York City cops before killing himself this weekend, in what he claimed beforehand was an act of vengeance, Giuliani predictably pinned blame on protesters.
“We’ve had four months of propaganda starting with the president that everybody should hate the police. The protests are being embraced, the protests are being encouraged. The protests, even the ones that don’t lead to violence, a lot of them lead to violence, all of them lead to a conclusion. The police are bad, the police are racist. That is completely wrong.”
Patrick Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, was even more pointed: “There is blood on many hands from those that incited violence under the guise of protest to try to tear down what police officers do every day.” (Thus far, no connection has been made between Brinsley and the protest movement; Garner’s mother and widow, and President Obama, have all condemned the murders.)
As I said, this is predictable stuff. Ask any reporter who has covered the cops beat for any newspaper of any size in any city. She will tell you that whenever cops step over the line, whenever they are criticized, even in good faith, even on the fairest of terms, they react as if wounded, as if they have been betrayed. I once ran a weekly newspaper in New Haven, Conn., and oversaw coverage of occasional acts of police brutality. I have tried to understand this mindset. The conclusion I have come to is that the culture of police departments — which is distinct from individual cops — divides the world between friend and enemy.
In this worldview, friends don’t criticize friends, only enemies do, even if the object of one’s critique is an unambiguous abuse of police power. Loyalty trumps all other values. That includes truth, as cops routinely lie to protect fellow officers from indictment. That includes a host of other values, like democracy, justice, equal rights and equal protection under law, as these require accountability on the part of police departments and participation on the part of citizens in determining how laws are enforced. Such truly American values are antithetical to the departmental values of loyalty and deference to the chain of command. This is why cops like Lynch talk as if they were in a war zone: “Our friends, we’re courteous to them. Our enemies, extreme discretion. The rules are made by them to hurt you. Well, now we’ll use those rules to protect us.”
This us-versus-them worldview endures because of police departments’ monopoly on information. If a cop says I resisted arrest, whom are you going to believe in the absence of countervailing evidence? But this new age of social media is eroding that monopoly. Perhaps that’s what really enrages people like Giuliani and Lynch. We typically pay deference to the authority of the police, but that authority rests on trust. Meanwhile, viral videos like the one showing Garner being choked to death by a cop jeopardize that trust. Without it, the “us” in us-versus-them becomes a shrinking authoritarian cabal on the fringe of political legitimacy.
I don’t suggest the police are going to change soon. But the ubiquity of social media and the entrenched cultures of police departments together suggest the politics may be changing, and with that, the prospect of change. Even Giuliani may sense a shifting wind. The pundits, he said recently, are creating “an atmosphere of severe, strong anti-police hatred in certain communities.” The key words here are “certain communities.” He could mean black communities, but blacks have long recognized the abuse of police power as a normal fact of life. A severe, strong anti-police sentiment is already present.
Maybe he meant white communities and white Americans who wouldn’t otherwise pay attention to the tribulations of African Americans but who are now suddenly aware thanks to the power of social media, the nationwide protest movement and its high-profile champions like basketball star LeBron James. Suddenly, even the people most receptive to an us-versus-them worldview, people like George W. Bush, are left scratching their heads after a grand jury fails to indict Garner’s killer, not even on a lesser charge. The former president saw the video, too. He clearly arrived at his own conclusion.
And he could see that “racial tensions” didn’t arise after protests began.
They were already there.