August 19

After another chaotic night in Ferguson, MO, there are a dozen competing narratives swirling about this crisis, with everyone hoping that their preferred interpretation of what is happening, why it’s happening, what it means, and what should be done about it, will lead the discussion. A new argument is emerging on the right, one articulated by Paul Ryan when he addressed the issue this morning:

“The first thing I do is don’t try to capitalize on this tragedy with your own policy initiatives,” Ryan said in an appearance on “Fox & Friends.” “Don’t try to link some prejudged conclusion on what’s happening on the ground right now.”

“What I don’t want to do, as a political leader, is try to graft my policy initiatives or my preferences onto this tragedy,” he added. “I think that would just be disrespectful.”

Today on Brietbart.com, there’s an article about how appalling it is that some people set up a table in Ferguson to register voters. The executive director of the Missouri GOP says:

“If that’s not fanning the political flames, I don’t know what is,” they quote the executive director of the Missouri GOP saying. “I think it’s not only disgusting but completely inappropriate.”

Imagine — registering people to vote! Disgusting.

This argument isn’t just wrong, it’s precisely backward. “Politicizing” this crisis is exactly what we should be doing.

“Let’s not politicize this” is something we hear whenever a dramatic (and especially tragic) event occurs, and talk inevitably turns to the larger issues and policy implications raised by the event in question. The guardians of the status quo always say that this isn’t the time to talk about those implications (this is particularly true of gun advocates, who inevitably argue that the latest mass shooting isn’t the time to talk about the fact that our nation is drowning in firearms).

But what’s a better time to talk about those larger issues than when the nation’s attention is focused on a particular crisis or tragedy? The events in Ferguson have highlighted a number of critical issues — the treatment of black people by police, the unequal distribution of power in so many communities, the militarization of law enforcement, and many others. Does anyone think that if we all agreed not to propose any steps to address any of those problems for a few months, that we’d actually restart the debate over these issues unless there was another tragedy that forced it into the news?

The emerging conservative “move along, nothing to see here” caucus can call it “exploiting” the crisis if they want, but you can put that label on anyone who talks about it. Are the libertarians and liberals who want to talk about the long-developing issue of the militarization of law enforcement “exploiting” Ferguson for their own purposes? If you mean that they’re hoping that the crisis will lead to change, and making a case for why it should, then I suppose so.

But that’s how change happens. When events draw public attention, they spur people to think about things they might have been unaware of or just been ignoring. Politicians feel increased pressure to come up with ways they can address the problem, which will vary depending on where they’re situated. So members of Congress want to reexamine the 1033 program that has transferred billions of dollars of military equipment to local police forces, because that’s an area where the federal government’s actions have played a part in what we’re seeing in Ferguson.

Meanwhile, people in that community may be thinking more about their lack of political power, which might lead them to do things like register voters. I’m sure that all over the country, local activists are starting to ask questions about their own police departments and whether they suffer from some of the pathologies we’ve seen in Ferguson. That’s not exploitation, it’s the political process in action.

Since I’m generally cynical, I’m not particularly optimistic that creative and far-reaching solutions are going to come out of this crisis. The deepest problems it has revealed, like the general hostility with which police so often view black people, are the ones that can’t be fixed with a bill in Congress. The militarization of law enforcement is about the equipment they’ve been given, but it’s even more about a mentality that has spread through departments all over the country.

But change certainly isn’t going to happen if we all agree to defer talk about the policy steps we can take to solve those problems until the media leaves Ferguson, everybody’s memory fades, and the urgency disappears. If we want to make crises like this less likely in the future, this is the best opportunity we have.