Ben Boychuk

Focus on ‘racist’ cops misses the bigger picture

A California Highway Patrol officer keeps protesters from blocking Interstate 980 in Oakland on Tuesday. The message of criticizing police killings is being lost in the street demonstrations.
A California Highway Patrol officer keeps protesters from blocking Interstate 980 in Oakland on Tuesday. The message of criticizing police killings is being lost in the street demonstrations. The Associated Press

Saturday is the National Day of Anger. You haven’t heard? If some far-left websites are to be believed, millions of Americans are taking to the streets right now in a “wave of indignation” from San Francisco to New York City.

Why so angry?

Well, as the saying goes, if you aren’t angry you aren’t paying attention. They’re angry about Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and dozens of other black men who have died at the hands of police. The “consensus” among protesters, according to the San Francisco Chronicle the other day, is that “law enforcement in the U.S. is poisoned by racial bias that wounds or kills people of color and must change.”

Something must change, but maybe it’s the way we think about law enforcement in general.

The racial disparities in these stories seem tailor-made for reaching pat conclusions. Most residents of Ferguson, Mo., are black and most police officers there are white. Obviously racism. Activists – up to and including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio – accuse the NYPD of racially biased policing. Surely there’s something to the claim, right?

How nice it must be to see the world in such black-and-white terms. Rarely are social and political problems ever so simple. Then again, street protests rarely lend themselves to nuance. It’s tough to reason with a demonstrator playing dead in the middle of a highway, or a brick smashing through a storefront window. Shutting down Interstate 5 in San Diego or I-80 in Oakland is disruptive. But it isn’t terribly persuasive.

If you think the system is inherently racist, you aren’t paying attention. Americans distrust government institutions writ large, and the police are not exempt.

In a Pew Research Center poll published this week, 57 percent of respondents said they thought NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo should have faced manslaughter charges in Garner’s death. Another Pew poll released two weeks after Brown’s death in August found that Americans distrust and largely disapprove of the way police use force, hold misbehaving officers accountable and deal with racial minorities. Not surprisingly, a large majority of blacks distrust the police more than whites.

But our attitudes are contradictory, as usual. When asked about local police, those same people surveyed said they generally approve – though the gaps between black and white respondents remained wide.

This should come as no surprise. We believe public schools are terrible, but our neighborhood school is just fine. We hate politicians, but our guy isn’t too bad. The cops in Ferguson are obviously racists, but police in our city are generally unbiased.

What’s missing here is a serious discussion – as opposed to street sloganeering – about the limits of police power. For conservatives, this is a challenge. Law and order are crucial elements of a free society. We are “a government of laws, and not of men,” as John Adams declared.

But in the 21st century, we are a government of too many laws and too many bureaucrats. We have thousands upon thousands of rules and regulations, all backed by the implicit threat of force. Our legislators send around 1,000 bills to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature every year, many for “our own good.”

True, cops go where the criminals are. They also enforce the laws, not matter how ill-conceived, idiotic or unjust.

What’s more, a web of laws and court rulings over the course of three decades effectively immunizes police from prosecution in all but the most egregious cases. And when you encounter bad people every day, it’s easy to begin to see Joe and Jane Citizen as would-be criminals. A police officer need only say he feared for his life to justify killing an unarmed civilian. This is an untenable situation for everyone.

The slogan du jour is “black lives matter.” Of course they do. All lives matter. But to say so today is somehow to denigrate black lives. What nonsense.

To say all lives matter is to reaffirm a very old idea, summed up on a piece of parchment fewer and fewer Americans seem to take seriously: All men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.

No, not just the male sex. And not just white men, either, as Martin Luther King, Jr. understood when he pointed to the Declaration of Independence to move a segregated America into making good on its promise of liberty and equality under the law. We mean “men” in the old sense, before we collectively lost our minds – humanity.

Saturday’s political street theater amounts to a tragic missed opportunity. This “Day of Anger” is a tantrum, and branding cops as racists is a trivial pursuit. Burn down the system? Fine. And replace it with what?

We don’t need a police state, and we don’t need an administrative state. We need a strictly limited state. That’s a goal that should unite Americans left and right.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Contact him at bboychuk@city-journal.org.

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