A couple of years ago, an African-American woman who has worked in my home one day a week for many years was assaulted by a police officer outside her home in the Bronx because her neighbor was playing loud music.
She is in her late 50s – mild-mannered, a devout Christian and a very hard-working lady; her character is, in my long experience, unimpeachable. Imagine our surprise, then, when she showed up for work one day with her face covered in ugly bruises, explaining that her injuries had been caused by an out-of-control member of the NYPD.
I have been thinking about her experience while reading about the protests/riots in Ferguson. She and her very large, teenage son were probably both very lucky that he was not present when the policeman lost his temper over something that was no fault of hers. Her wounds have long since healed; she sued and is likely to receive some compensation for her injuries.
What does this history have to do with Ferguson? Official misbehavior happens – doubtless more frequently to the poor and black than to those of us who are neither.
One narrative about that town’s current agonies presumes that its mostly white police force had been roughly treating poor black people for quite some time, engendering rage in the community that exploded with the death of Michael Brown at the hands of the police. To the extent that you are a young, poor black man who has heard stories of many experiences like the one that happened to the woman who works in my home, I suspect that this is the only explanation that makes any sense.
An alternative story line is that local toughs turned very real economic frustrations and rumors, which now look highly questionable, that the police had shot a fleeing, innocent boy, into riots. It’s hard to see why those interested in protests of a putatively legitimate injustice would loot store after store. The woman who works for me would never approve of looting, even though she was badly mistreated by a policeman – but would an angry teenage male show the same wisdom?
Some want to see the death of Michael Brown at the hands of the police in strictly racial terms because doing so furthers their personal agendas. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are rarely to be seen protesting black on white crime, or the longstanding tsunami of black-on-black crime – but when there’s an incident of alleged white on black crime, they are all too happy to pronounce that it was obviously racially motivated. Eric Holder, too, seems to fan the flames of racial conflict whenever he gets the chance.
While such motivations are loathsome, it would equally be mistaken to ignore the racial overtones to the protests/riots in Ferguson. Economic and social issues combine with racial and cultural differences to make a poisonous brew of anger and distrust.
It doesn’t surprise me that there are severe tensions between the Ferguson police and the young, poor African-American males of that town. It may not be politically correct to write about the crime statistics of that demographic as compared with others, but if you were a police officer, irrespective of your color, you would know them. The constant suspicions of the police are probably quite clear to local kids, who therefore may view them as an occupying, rather than a protective, force.
Whether or not the police in Ferguson have a history of behaving abusively, and in spite of the photographs of them in riot gear that makes them look really a lot like the bad guys in The Hunger Games, I am not without sympathy for the police. Most of them, I am guessing, are scared; they don’t know when some angry protester or self-interested rioter will see fit to reach for a pistol or throw a Molotov cocktail, protected by the anonymity of the crowd. While the police can usually maintain order in part through intimidation, they now face unpredictable and sometimes violent mobs.
The population of Ferguson has been sharply, downwardly mobile in recent years. Today the town is the very picture of an American underclass that sees itself as separate, angry and different from the surrounding society. Do I think that its denizens hate what they see as America’s dominant society? No; but I think they don’t see a way to really join it. Rightly or wrongly, they feel locked in a go-nowhere system of dependency and apartness.
The War on Poverty has failed. The school system has failed. Racial animus seems to be growing rather than fading. Hope and Change have not come to the underclass.
More government spending is not the answer. Over the last fifty years, we have engaged in an expensive War on Poverty – and while its programs have met material needs, they have also robbed the underclass of the dignity of self reliance, discouraged family formation and indirectly fostered a culture quite different from that of the rest of our society.
Throwing money at union-run public schools won’t help, either: US per-pupil spending on public, pre-collegiate education, measured in constant dollars, has nearly tripled since 1965 (http://www2.ed.gov/about/overview/fed/10facts/edlite-chart.html), and yet our education system is demonstrably failing the poor.
In response to festering inner-city (and now suburban) problems, we have also, increasingly, armed our police as if they were an occupying army.
I’m guessing that if you were to check, none of the rioters in Ferguson would be found to have jobs. You don’t burn down or break into stores if you are employed by one. If you have a job, you have a stake in the system; if you don’t, you are a dependent or off-the-books, and quite possibly resentful of the fact.
Real hope and change will come from enabling people to build themselves up, rather than from feeding them and making it ever more difficult – and expensive – to give them jobs. The amount of government paperwork and payroll taxes required to legally employ the woman described at the beginning of this post might as well be designed to intentionally discourage such employment – or to encourage a casual disregard of the laws. It almost seems as if our government wants the poor to be dependent.
That’s not what they want for themselves, though.