The default position you take reveals everything

August 14, 2014 – 12:14 pm by John

Since I surely have nothing new to say about the events on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri, I wanted to comment on the attitudes and opinions of a certain type of commentator on this matter: those who pretend to be fair and balanced, who rush to mention that both looters and police can be in the wrong at the same time, who bend over backwards to come to the defense of the poor endangered police officers who just want to maintain law and order.

Some of them may think they are avoiding taking any default position, that their withholding of judgment constitutes carefulness, fairness, and objectivity. But I think that this evasion is itself a default position—a side taken on a substantive matter—and that this overly sensitive faux-objectivity reveals a lot about those commentators. It reveals that deep down, they really side with the (powerful) State against the (relatively powerless) citizen. Deep down, they think that peace, safety, and order come from the State. They idealize our society as one of laws, not of men, so they take a default position in defense of those who enforce the law.

As with the NSA spying scandal, the people whose default position all along has been against police militarization, against expansion of State power, have been vindicated in Ferguson, Missouri. A police state can exist in an American city. Right now Ferguson is by all accounts a police state! If these developments lead you to say, "The police might be overreacting, but the looters are definitely in the wrong too," or, "I'm not comfortable with the shutdown of media, but some type of response to rioting and looting was necessary," or, "Crowds violently attacking cops and rioting and people are surprised cops are responding accordingly? I must be missing something...", then you reveal yourself as an apologist for police militarization, as one of the tough-on-crime law-and-order types who have pushed us in this direction for 30 years. If such hedging and wishy-washiness are your default reaction to the war zone that is Ferguson, Missouri, then you are part of the problem.

Of course looting is wrong, for the same types of reasons that shooting an unarmed Michael Brown in the back, multiple times, is wrong. Of course the private property owners whose stores are being looted and whose convenience stores are being burned down are being severely, disgustingly wronged by the looters, and they must rely on the police to protect them.

But anyone who's been paying attention to the eyewitness accounts, the Twitter feeds, and the livestreams knows that the police (1) created this issue by shooting a defenseless man in the back multiple times ("more than just a couple"); (2) they exacerbated it by being secretive, refusing to release the shooter's name, and not conducting any investigation at all; (3) they made their unconstitutional/martial-law intentions obvious to everyone by blockading media from entering the city, trying to prevent anyone from photographing or filming them, even going to so far as to tear-gas reporters and dismantle their recording equipment; and (4) they exacerbated it further and created a war zone in the Midwest by pointing sniper rifles and assault rifles at protesters and even at non-protesting people just walking in their own city.

Considering such egregious police overreach on the backdrop of a city that has, at least subjectively but also by objective measures, felt wronged by a long history of racially inequitable treatment by the criminal justice system, it is easy to see how the entire town felt wronged by the shooting and abandoned—no, antagonized—by its government, and it saw the murder of Michael Brown as the last straw. A stance that glosses over everything leading up to the looting and even outright excuses the hyper-militarized weaponry and tactics of the local police is antithetical to the protection of individual rights, and is, most importantly, opposed to the protection of the citizen against the State.

The default position I take is to distrust and despise the police, especially given their terroristic and militarized weapons and responses. My default position is to focus on the militarized police forces who drive (who even want) MRAPs and point military-style weapons at unarmed protesters and bar journalists from the city and order everyone to turn their cameras off, rather than focus on the opportunistic criminals who loot and burn down stores. The latter should be mentioned and condemned, but they are not the national story. They are not turning our cities into militarized zones. They are not eating away at our constitutional rights and putting a death-grip on entire cities. They are not locking world-leading numbers of nonviolent criminals in cages for years. They are not the cause of lost rights and growing fear and an increasingly adversarial relationship between citizen and State that has been about 40 years in the making (since the beginning of the War on Drugs).

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