From time to time, we get fleeting glimpses into the possibility of a left-right alliance on issues where the preoccupations of civil liberties progressives and libertarian conservatives intersect: The surprising bipartisan alliance to defund NSA surveillance; the demand for more transparency into Obama’s drone program; the increasing chatter on drug war and sentencing reform.

The police killing of Michael Brown potentially offers another area of left-right agreement, as it has focused national attention on the over-militarization of our police forces, particularly in the wake of days of standoffs between protestors and heavily armed police.

Today Rand Paul weighed in with a striking op ed piece on the Brown shooting called: “We must demilitarize the police.” In it, Senator Paul linked the “militarization of law enforcement” directly to race:

Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them….Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention. Our prisons are full of black and brown men and women who are serving inappropriately long and harsh sentences for non-violent mistakes in their youth.

In an interview this afternoon, Dem Rep. John Conyers Jr. — the dean of the Congressional Black Caucus and longtime civil rights figure — told me he found Senator Paul’s quotes “heartening.”

“I never thought of him in that light before,” Conyers said of Paul. “It certainly is heartening. I’m encouraged by that kind of observation.”

With the Department of Justice investigating the Brown shooting, Conyers and the Congressional Black Caucus sent Attorney General Eric Holder a letter asking him to broaden the scope of federal involvement to include an investigation of the “legal and civil rights ramifications” of the shooting, as well as “the potential for any pattern or practice of police misconduct by the Ferguson Police Department.” The letter cited “evidence of racial profiling by the department” to bolster the case for a broader federal probe.

Conyers, who is also the ranking Dem on the House Judiciary Committee, suggested Paul’s acknowledgment of the racial dimension of police militarization was exactly the sort of expression of support from libertarian conservatives that civil rights liberals should welcome.

“We hope for it — and every now and then it happens,” Conyers told me, adding that he would reach out to Paul to gauge his support for a broader federal look at the shooting. “I could see something like that happening,” he said.

In his op ed piece, Paul talked about how “big government” is to blame for the militarization of police, a broad-brush statement that many liberals would reject. But his discussion of Washington’s role in incentivizing the militarization of police departments in the name of the war on drugs or terrorism is an area for overlap with the left. Indeed, a massive ACLU report recently documented “the excessive militarization of American policing” with an emphasis on “federal incentives” and the toll of the war on drugs.

Laura Murphy, the director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office, also says she sees potential in Paul’s response to the Johnson shooting. “We’ve been working towards a left-right alliance on militarization that also acknowledges the racial dimension,” she said. With the shooting focusing the nation’s attention, she added, “there is a stronger chance that a left right alliance will develop in Congress to bring attention to these issues.”

Murphy suggested Paul could help the cause further. “We would welcome Senator Paul’s support for a deeper investigation by the Justice Department into the causes of racial profiling and ways to thwart it,” she said.

Beyond any probe of the Brown shooting, it’s not impossible that with discussion increasingly focused on sentencing reform, the war on drugs, and police militarization in general, criminal justice issues could gain traction more broadly. Ezra Klein:

Something very dangerous has happened here: we have let the people and the system that’s supposed to protect our communities become a threat to some of them. This is not tenable in a democracy; you cannot have the men and women who carry guns be seen as enemies by so many of the people whose taxes pay their salaries.

We are again entering a period in American politics where criminal justice is a central issue. But this time, cops and prisons and sentencing laws aren’t the answer. They’re being seen as the problem. And politicians on both sides of the aisle recognize it…A lot has gone wrong in our criminal justice system. It’s time to fix it.

 

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.