It didn’t take long for America to assert its lesser self after two police officers were shot in what officials quickly called an ambush in Ferguson, Missouri.
Social media, so often a barometer of all that is wrong with the collective soul of America, erupted.
The sentiments were swift, furious and condemning: Eric Holder has blood on his hands. Barack Obama has blood on his hands. Any writer who has dared to call out the actions of the Ferguson police has blood on her fingertips.
Among the most offensive was a widely retweeted picture of Obama and protester gadfly Al Sharpton. The picture showed them buddy-buddy, sharing a laugh with the caption: “We’re on a roll, bro’ … we just got two more in Ferguson.”
To call out police when they do wrong — merely to believe that it’s possible for police to do wrong, or to overreach their authority, or to fail due to poor training — this apparently is on a par with shooting cops.
Welcome to our post-racial America.
Seven months after police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, after the protests, the grand jury investigation, the Justice Department investigation, the national soul-searching, far too many people see Ferguson as a zero-sum proposition, as if valuing black lives devalues blue lives. The simple-mindedness is astounding.
For the record, both the president and the attorney general immediately condemned the violence. Obama tweeted that “Violence against police is unacceptable.” Holder called the shootings a “heinous assault” and “inexcusable and repugnant.”
The family of Michael Brown also condemned violence against law enforcement, saying that it “cannot and will not be tolerated.”
The meaning of these words could not be clearer. And yet some chose to dismiss these sentiments.
The usual suspects, from Fox News to Rush Limbaugh, didn’t disappoint. Limbaugh opened his segment by congratulating Holder and Obama in succeeding, because “Ferguson is on fire again.”
Limbaugh ranted on that police misconduct is an aberration, “totally manufactured” by the federal government as part of a “leftist civil rights agenda.”
Many conservative dismiss the findings of the recent Justice Department report on Ferguson as nothing more than a few tactless emails and a little exuberant ticket-writing by police.
“Eric Holder has proven, time again, he is an attorney general for the criminal, by the criminal, and of the criminals in the United States of America,” Fox News co-host Andrea Tantaros sneered in an “Outnumbered” segment with Lou Dobbs.
All this baseless innuendo is perhaps a way to avoid confronting an inconvenient truth about institutional discrimination in Ferguson.
The outrage over the shooting of Brown was never only about that one case. The protests were a cumulative pushback against countless encounters with an oppressive police force. Indeed, the protests went national because police excesses in minority communities are a national phenomenon.
We do not know enough about the number or manner of most police shootings. The data are incomplete, largely because many departments refuse to report them and there are no federal standards to assure compliance in meaningful ways. This needs to change.
Police officers are often put in life-threatening situations, in which they usually act as dutiful and brave servants. Just as true is that police can incite incidents to where violence will be the outcome if they are not well trained. Hiring a few more black officers (which is not easily done) or firing a few officials will not magically fix all that ails Ferguson or any city with similar problems.
More damning, in the case of Ferguson and likely many other cities as well, is the morally bankrupt mission the police were given to squeeze revenue out of a largely black and economically struggling population. This kind of abuse, after all, is what touched off the American Revolution and, more recently, the civil rights movement. In their protests, the people of Ferguson made it clear they weren’t going to take it lying down.
Until the police of Ferguson abandon their role as revenue generators, they’re unlikely to win the respect of the community. Respect is a two-way exchange. We’ll never achieve it by idolizing police and demonizing the community, or vice versa.