As you may recall, the events in Ferguson led many Republicans to argue that the militarization of police had gone too far, and some expressed sympathy for black residents beset by constant harassment and fines from police. Meanwhile, just today, the New York Times ran a front-page article about how Democrats and Republicans are uniting on the issue of criminal justice reform, in stark contrast to the situation a quarter-century ago when everyone wanted to be “tough on crime.”
The events of the last couple of days in Baltimore in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, who nearly had his spine severed while in police custody, are painful and tragic. There’s a similar opportunity here to revisit the discussion about criminal justice reform and police brutality.
But there are some who also seem to see the Baltimore riots as an opportunity, a way to drive a wedge between Democrats and white voters. The violence has some on the right apparently rooting for a backlash against Democrats, in the hopes that white Americans will react the way they did to riots in the 1960s, turning to the man who channeled the fears and resentments of the “silent majority.” It’s an old story that may be coming back.
Here’s what Bill Kristol tweeted this morning:
Winning GOP message: Against anarchy & chaos, at home & abroad. Cheney-Giuliani 2016 probably too much to hope for…But if not them, who?
Leave it to Donald Trump to
the racial angle explicit:
Our great African American President hasn’t exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore!
So while some Republicans are exploring policy changes to reform the criminal justice system, others are saying that policy is irrelevant. You may be familiar with what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error, our tendency to view our own actions as the product of circumstance, but other people’s actions as revealing their character (when I cut someone off in traffic, it was an honest mistake, because he was in my blind spot; when you cut someone off in traffic, it’s because you’re an inconsiderate jerk). We can see this operate in the way some on the right are judging what’s happening in Baltimore right now.
As Radley Balko notes:
The cities where we’ve recently seen civil unrest/rioting have also been shown to have widespread police abuse. This is not a coincidence.
But some prefer to see riots not as an explosion of anger that was produced by police brutality and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, but purely as an expression of the character of the people in the streets, divorced from any context. For instance, here’s the National Review’s Ian Tuttle:
The riots, of course, had nothing to do with Freddie Gray. The anger over his death simply provided for the type of person who wants to rampage the excuse to do so. What makes the situation alarming is that the reaction of the powers-that-be was not to squelch hundreds of stampeding criminals, but to intellectualize away their animalism. Rather than clamp down on hordes of opportunistic thugs, Baltimore’s Oberlin-alumna mayor treated them as just extra-passionate protesters, whose interests required from the government a “balanced” response.
To deny that this position is tied up in the race of the people rioting requires a truly epic feat of intentional blindness. Perhaps I overlooked it, but I don’t remember too many National Review writers getting angry at the many incidents in which white people have rioted in recent years, with as little provocation as the outcome of a football game. But it’s all there in this one paragraph from Tuttle: the insistence that the riots are only produced by a certain “type of person,” the “thugs” characterized by “animalism.” The way he describes Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake as “Oberlin-alumna,” as though it was her liberal-arts education that set the streets ablaze, is straight from the Republican playbook: When you can’t argue that your side doesn’t represent the economic elite, encourage resentment at a liberal intellectual elite that supposedly coddles and encourages the degenerates of the black underclass.
Meanwhile on Fox Business, Lou Dobbs tells viewers that it’s happening because “there is a war on law enforcement” that is being “corroborated if not condoned by this administration.”
Among other things, these arguments say that we don’t actually need a policy response to events like these. If the violence of riots has its roots not in mistreatment and violence from police but in the poisoned hearts of a certain kind of person, then what can you do? There’s no point in reform.
So let’s hope that the Republicans who have been approaching the issue of criminal justice reform thoughtfully won’t be tempted by their inner Nixon to exploit these events and simply encourage a white backlash for political gain. There’s an opportunity here to show some leadership and work to devise the policy solutions that will actually reduce police brutality, if someone decides to take it.