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No Law, No Order

Making a federal case out of Ferguson

Sep 1, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 47 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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It was in this context that Holder made his bizarre visit to St. Louis. Bizarre in the sense that he intervened, in the name of the federal Justice Department, in a case already before a grand jury, without making even a feint at blind justice. The Los Angeles Times reported that Justice Department officials attributed Holder’s concern to “the continuing violence and apparent mishandling of the case by local officials.” Without making any judgment about whether the local officials mishandled the case, it is worth noting that the federal intervention has taken the side of those committing the continuing violence. 

Other reports indicate that the administration has sent to Ferguson dozens of FBI agents who have already conducted hundreds of interviews, along with personnel from the civil rights division of the Department of Justice and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). On Florissant Road I met a man in a tie who claimed to be a St. Louis-based employee of the Justice Department. Holder said after the visit that “few things have affected me as greatly” as the trip to Ferguson, and he had a special message about Brown’s family. “I spoke to them not just as attorney general but as a father,” he said. He called for a third autopsy of Brown, following an official one (which found marijuana in his system) and one ordered by Brown’s parents (which found he had been shot six times, with all bullets entering through the front). As Holder puts it, “History simmers beneath the surface in more communities than just Ferguson.”

It is difficult not to see a political strategy in the combination of Holder’s activism and, until recently, President Obama’s distance. A tricky electoral landscape awaits the Democratic party this fall. Avoiding losses will require a black vote running at maximum level, as it seldom does in midterm elections. The evenings of unrest are not riots, even if they have violent elements in them. They are protests. The protesters have a number of highly specific demands—and those who back them will be watching carefully to see if the administration helps the protesters realize them. First, they want Darren Wilson arrested. “Arrest Wilson and we can all go home!” people yell after night falls. Whatever the facts of the case—facts no one can yet make any pretense to know—this is a demand for “mob justice,” to use the mildest applicable expression.

Second, they want elected St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch, a Democrat, removed from the case. Activist groups trying to move the protests to the county seat in Clayton are doing so largely for this purpose. This is an interesting demand because it reflects a larger national dynamic. McCulloch is popular—he has been elected seven times since 1991. He is accused by detractors of favoring police, largely on biographical grounds. Many in his family are police officers. When he was 12, in 1964, his father was shot in the head and killed in Pruitt-Igoe by a kidnapper, who was black. This, too, is the history simmering beneath the surface that Holder spoke of. State senator Jamilah Nasheed has warned McCulloch, “If you should decide to not indict this police officer, the rioting we witnessed this past week will seem like a picnic.” 

The dynamic is a political nightmare for Governor Nixon. Ordinarily a prosecutor can be removed only for a conflict of interest, but Nixon, having declared a state of emergency, might be authorized to appoint a special prosecutor. McCulloch believes he is, but seems confident that Nixon wouldn’t dare. At any rate, McCulloch has been taunting the governor on the radio. “Stand up, man up,” he said in mid-August. Nixon’s trepidation is striking. It is a sign that Missourians are looking at this episode differently than they have other racial explosions over the years. They are right to. Although there have been protests, riots, demonstrations, and uprisings throughout the half-century since Civil Rights legislation was passed, there has been one constant. The government has always been at the side of those seeking to restore public order. Now Obama and Holder have placed the government on the side of the uprising—or, to put it more neutrally, on the side of those who would restore order on the terms demanded by the uprising.

That changes the calculation of moderate and conservative voters. When people are assured the authorities will act to protect them from unrest, they can be extraordinarily generous. If they lose that assurance, they may respond differently. A recent Pew poll asks simply whether the unrest in Ferguson “raises important issues about race.” Eighty percent of blacks say it does, but only 37 percent of whites. That is extraordinary. To say something “raises important issues” is mush. Almost anything involving race “raises important issues.” To deny, as 63 percent of whites did, that a slaying that causes weeks of demonstrations tells us anything is evidence of truculence. The administration is pursuing a reckless strategy, hoping that it can present the barn-burning Holder as its face to the black community and the conciliatory Obama as its face to the white community, exploiting the very divisions it promises to heal.

About the only thing agreed on by the people of Missouri, the forces of order and the forces of revolution alike, is that motley outsiders have brought much of this unrest to St. Louis. There are the social-media journalists who seem to have formed their understanding of politics from after-school specials about Gandhi, the guy from Huffington Post who mistook earplugs for rubber bullets, the veterans of various Occupy movements who have come to teach protesters how to treat tear gas burns with a solution of half-Maalox and half-water, the Communists from Chicago trying to incite riots. There is even the Ku Klux Klan,  according to one rumor circulating among the people protesting across from the Ferguson police station. And there are, of course, “race hustlers,” from Al Sharpton to Jesse Jackson, who exploit tragedy to build their constituencies. 

But really, the situation in Ferguson is more tragic than that. Anyone who wishes the mostly decent, hardworking, neighborly people of Ferguson well has an incentive to tell himself that only some malevolent outside force could account for this failure of the good-hearted system we have thrown all the country’s energies into building for half a century. Some in St. Louis are beginning to doubt. “The ‘look at us, we are on our way back’ slogans boasted by chambers of commerce say nothing about those who have been treated as invisible or dispensable,” wrote the black weekly, St. Louis American, in an article about Normandy High School. It is a facility you pass when you head to Ferguson from downtown St. Louis, turning from Martin Luther King Boulevard onto Lucas-Hunt Road. It has been lavishly funded over the years, and it looks like a grand hotel. It has everything—everything, that is, but its accreditation, which it lost shortly before sending Michael Brown out into a grown-up life that would last 80 days. 

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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