Why American liberals need to stop acting like the People’s Front of Judea over the Baltimore conflict

ferguson police

By Simon Davies

At a press gathering earlier today in Paris, a journalist asked for my thoughts on the Baltimore “riots”. To my surprise – as a pacifist liberal – all I could do was shrug my shoulders.

After all, in view of the utterly appalling record of brutality and institutional racism among US police, any right minded person should feel alarmed if there wasn’t the occasional reactive disturbance from communities. Some parts of the US population have reached the end of their tether.

But here’s the problem: such observations have become clichés. Pointing out the jagged dysfunction of America has now become an almost meaningless exercise. Crucially, there are many disenfranchised people who – like their counterparts in other countries – also know all too well that it has become meaningless.

Despite high-sounding commitments to police reform by the Obama administration, police continue to murder dozens of (mostly innocent) coloured people each month. Cause Celebre’s notwithstanding, where is the outcry from liberal media about those atrocities?

US police have been begging for this tumult – indeed instigating it – for two decades. Rather than pursuing systemic reform of their operations, police forces have become more aggressive and provocative than ever before. And rather than cleansing their ranks of inhumanity and corruption, they appear to have resorted to type by protecting officers who demonstrate the very worst elements of policing. It’s not just black communities that had hoped the practice of recruiting intellectually challenged, racist thugs would have come to an end by now.

Those of us who are old enough to remember the Rodney King beating and the LA riots of the early 1990’s will understand that such episodes are the manifestation of deep dysfunction – and not merely a consequence of ‘bad apple’ militant activism. To believe otherwise would be buying into the sort of propaganda that was spread by the FBI in the 1960’s or the Egyptian government of recent times in response to unrest.

Urban militarisation, mass surveillance and expanding legislative power for police agencies have set the scene for mistrust and conflict with disenfranchised communities. When tensions boil over, the most visible response from government is a push for even greater urban militarisation, mass surveillance and expanded legislative power. This cannot end well.

Liberals need to stop sitting on the fence on issues like the Baltimore disturbance. And they urgently need to stop acting like hypocrites. Privately, many liberal thinkers see events such as Baltimore as the only way the US administration will ever address the devastating divide in American society. Publicly, those same people adopt the virtuous view that two wrongs don’t make a right. This position helps no-one. True, outlets such as Newsweek have published thoughtful pieces that challenge the hysteria and language manipulation of the conservative media, but even this coverage is neither inspiring nor provocative enough to make a serious contribution to the crisis.

Western observers – often most vocally from the US – praise civil resistance in discriminatory and brutal overseas regimes as a necessary step to force reform. Those observers should be equally clear-headed and consistent about events closer to home. You can’t support the street turbulence of the Arab Spring or the pro-democracy movement in Thailand and then act all circumspect and cautious when it comes to similar episodes on your own doorstep. That’s a coward’s rationale.

I would never condone violence, and I am aligned with my colleagues in the view that peaceful means must be found to resolve conflict. The problem now, however, is that the intransigence of US police, state governments and the White House have inspired the Baltimore events. The opportunity for constructive change came and went after the shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson police eight months ago. Despite high-sounding commitments to police reform by the Obama administration, police continue to murder dozens of (mostly innocent) coloured people each month. Cause Celebre’s notwithstanding, where is the outcry from liberal media about those atrocities?

As I’ve pointed out time and time again on these pages, US police seem to view these serial killings as a sort of grotesque “collateral damage” in the struggle to maintain public order. True, they will occasionally sacrifice one of their own to pacify unrest, but that modus operandi begs the question of whether it’s then reasonable to conclude that the Baltimore events should rightly be viewed as “collateral damage’ from a deeply unfair social and economic policy. This would prompt a shift in language from “riots” to “protests”.

The White House is running scared of trampling on state’s rights on the issue of police reform. And the states themselves are unwilling or incapable of inducing police reform because policing is – well – a local issue.

The fact is, few people are actually watching what police are doing – and even fewer have the power to force reform. We talk of the widening divide between “mainstream” and “disaffected” US society; we can talk equally about the widening divide between police forces and the rest of America.