The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This isn’t 1968. Baltimore isn’t Watts. And Hillary Clinton isn’t Michael Dukakis.

A protester carries a sign during a march trough Baltimore, Maryland on April 29, 2015. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

I wish I could introduce Richard Cohen and Lloyd Green to Antonio Morgan. Cohen of course is my Washington Post colleague and columnist. Green is a former Justice Dept. official and former opposition research counsel for the Republican Party.

The two wrote remarkably similar columns this week about Hillary Clinton’s response to the protests and riots in Baltimore. Both compared the civil unrest of 2015 to the civil unrest in 1968. Both cited Nixon’s “tough on crime” campaign, which even members of that campaign team have since admitted was an overt, often racist appeal to white fear of black people. Both scorned Clinton for being “soft on crime,” and daring to criticize mass incarceration in a speech given the same week as the riots. Both mentioned New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and his shift in tone from gently criticizing the New York City police department for excessive force after the death of Eric Garner to robustly defending the officers after they were accused of roughing people up at a recent protest. Both columns noted polls suggesting that much of a America, especially white America, is fed up, and both cite one particular poll which found that 96 percent of respondents expect more racial strife this summer. Both referenced the recent shooting of NYPD Officer Brian Moore, and note that he’s the fifth officer to be shot since December. And both concluded that all of this means that Hillary Clinton is setting herself up to be the next George McGovern or Michael Dukakis.

Green complains that Clinton’s “campaign rollout video had no footage of cops or firefighters” and concludes, “Message to Hillary Clinton: Law and order still counts.” Cohen concludes that Clinton’s bleeding heart means, “We might be heading back to Nixonland.”

I’ll get to Antonio Morgan in a bit. But first, let’s unpack all the wrong in these two columns.

First, this isn’t the late 1960s. By noting that Brian Moore is the fifth NYPD officer shot since December, both Cohen and Green imply that police officers today operate in an increasingly dangerous environment. That just isn’t true. I’ve made this point many times over the last few years, but the job of policing has been getting progressively safer since the mid-1990s, and today is as safe as it has ever been. About half as many cops are killed on the job today as in 1968, despite the fact that there are significantly more cops on the street. So far this year, 10 U.S. police officers have been killed by gunfire. That puts us on pace for 29 by the end of the year. That would be the lowest raw number in well more than half a century. And again, once you factor in the increase in the number of cops overall, the drop in the homicide rate among cops is even more dramatic. To put all of this into perspective, here’s a figure I pulled from the Fatal Encounters database of people killed by law enforcement: While 10 cops have been killed by gunfire across the entire country so far in 2015, police in Los Angeles County alone have killed 14 people over the exact same period.

There are lots of other reasons why the 1968 comparison is off. The crime rate was much higher in 1968 than it is today. Here’s a mind-blowing statistic: There were 500 fewer overall murders in 2013 than there were in 1969, despite the fact that the population increased by 115 million people. And while Green tries to contrast Nixon’s tough-on-crime agenda with that of bleeding heart reformers, it’s worth noting that crime continued to go up through both of Nixon’s terms. Homicides continued to climb until 1974 and 1975 before dropping, then soaring again in the 1980s. The all-time homicide high came in 1991, after 11 years with a Republican in the White House.

More stats: In 2013, there were nearly 9,000 fewer homicides, about 27,000 fewer rapes, and about 368,000 fewer aggravated assaults than there were in 1991, even though the country’s population increased by 64 million people.

In fact, all crime, violent and property, increased dramatically during the term of Green’s one-time boss, George H.W. Bush. I don’t know that Michael Dukakis would have done better. But I bet he couldn’t have done much worse.

People only vote on criminal justice issues out of fear. People aren’t in fear today. It’s true that white people have largely had a decidedly different reaction to the Baltimore riots than black people. But white people are not scared of crime today like they were then. While most people continue to erroneously tell pollsters that crime is getting worse nationwide, on the more pertinent question — whether Americans fear walking alone in their own neighborhood — the percentage answering yes hasn’t been above 40 percent since the early 1990s. The riots are unlikely to have much effect on how people vote.

I also have doubts about the main thesis of both columns: that advocating criminal justice reform will be just as much of a liability today as it was in 1968. It was a much different electorate in 1968. For one, we have different attitudes about race now. In 1965, three out of four Americans disapproved of interracial marriage. Today, nearly nine in 10 Americans approve. In the late 1960s, Nixon played to a growing distrust of the Warren Court, which much of the public saw as soft on criminals. Today, 66 percent of the country thinks the court is either too conservative or middle of the road. Today, a majority of Americans also think that black people are treated unfairly by the criminal justice system.

Green thinks voters will punish Clinton for advocating that police wear body cameras. But polls consistently show that this is a policy supported by 85 to 90 percent of the country. Not only is Green wrong here, it’s hard to think of many issues for which there’s so broad a consensus.

And it isn’t just body cameras. Look at mass incarceration, the issue both Cohen and Green scolded Clinton for raising. Polls now show that 60 to 75 percent of the country favors eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders. A Pew poll taken last year found that two out of three respondents thought the government should emphasize drug treatment over incarceration. And nearly all polls now show a growing majority in favor of legalizing marijuana. Even in conservative states like Texas, polls show the public consensus swinging toward reforming the criminal justice system to be fairer to the convicted and the accused, not tougher on them. We’re also seeing significant police reform in deep-red states like Utah.

So the central argument of both columns falls short. It’s far from clear that voters will punish Hillary Clinton for criticizing mass incarceration, or expressing support for body cameras. It’s far from clear that voters even disagree with her. And there’s no evidence whatsoever that taking the positions she did will make her the next Michael Dukakis. Clinton is a shrewd politician who is being advised by the party’s elite campaign operatives. The very fact that she broached criminal justice reform is a pretty good indication that it’s now politically safe for her to do so.

But the premise of both columns is also wrong. Ask any leader in the criminal justice reform movement if they consider Hillary Clinton to be an ally. After a bout of laughter, they’ll likely point out that she criticized Barack Obama in 2008 for his support to reform mandatory minimum laws and to change the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. They’ll then point out that she not only supported her husband’s tough-on-crime policies that exacerbated the mass incarceration problem, she fought for them. So far, Hillary Clinton has offered up some milquetoast pronouncements about criminal justice reform. She has offered few specific policies, and even the pronouncements have been couched in ways that provide political cover. (For example, she has said that with the money we save by reducing the prison population, we could hire more police officers.)

That pundits writing for prominent media outlets would characterize such middling, non-committal rhetoric as some sort of radical soft-on-crime agenda is more than anything a demonstration of the warped reality in which the political and chattering classes operate. (I suspect age is also a factor. There’s a marked generational split on many of these issues.)

But let’s be clear: Hillary Clinton isn’t a radical reformer of criminal justice. She’s a Johnny-come-lately.

That brings me to my main beef with these two columns: They’re just crassly political. They reduce very real questions about injustice, race, and systematic oppression to blunt political analysis. This is typical of punditry in general, and it’s particularly true as election season heats up. But it’s particularly callous with these issues because of what’s at stake. Cohen and Green’s chief criticism of Clinton is that her (superficial) nod to criminal justice reform is bad politics. That’s it. It will make her look like Dukakis. They’re not interested in exploring, say, the now well-documented history of police misconduct and excessive force in Baltimore, the city’s history of rewarding abusive cops, or the 2000s-era campaign of mass arrests for misdemeanor offenses, which saddled a wide swath of the city’s black population with a debilitating arrest record. Never mind all of that. Hillary Clinton talked about reform as riots were happening. Therefore, she’s Dukakis.

And this is why I want Richard Cohen and Lloyd Green to meet Antonio Morgan.

Morgan was featured in my September investigation into the municipal courts system in St. Louis County. He’s a 29-year-old resident of Hazelwood, Missouri. He owns his own small business, a car repair and body shop he’d been saving up to buy since he was a teenager. He has also been arrested more than 20 times. All but two of those arrests were for misdemeanors.

Morgan saved up for his business by fixing cars in his mother’s driveway. That required him to occasionally park cars on the street. That earned him parking tickets. He paid them when he could, but he occasionally missed deadlines. And that would lead to an arrest warrant.

All of this also put Morgan on the radar of local police. He’s a tall black man with dreadlocks. That made him easy to spot, and probably easy to profile. His unpaid parking tickets led not just to arrest warrants, but to the occasional suspension of his license. That led to more citations, although like many in the area, Morgan was sometimes pulled over and issued only a ticket for driving on a suspended license, or driving a car that wasn’t registered to him. (Morgan sometimes drove his clients’ cars to test them.) But there was no underlying traffic violation — which raises the question of why the officer pulled Morgan over in the first place, if it wasn’t to profile him. Those citations then led to more arrests.

When Morgan finally opened his business, the harassment continued. Cops would show up at his garage and cite his employees for operating without a business license. Morgan has a license; his employees didn’t need one. But to get the citations dismissed, Morgan and his employees would have to go to court, which was held once a month, at night. If they missed their court date, they too would be hit with an arrest warrant. Wealthy people can hire an attorney to go in their stead, and to negotiate their way out of a citation. But neither Morgan nor his employees were wealthy. Sometimes, Morgan was given other citations that required the man from whom he rented the space for his garage to come to court to vouch for him. That put strain on the relationship between Morgan and his landlord.

Of course, this was all part the day-to-day harassment, fining, and arresting of black people in St. Louis County that was well-documented in the Justice Dept. report on Ferguson and in subsequent reports on St. Louis County by advocacy groups and media outlets.

There were two occasions in which Morgan was arrested for offenses that weren’t misdemeanors. Here’s the first, from my report:

In 2011, Morgan had to show up for municipal court in Hazelwood to appear for some traffic violations. He had been to the court before, and recalled that on a previous occasion he had been told by a police officer that children weren’t permitted inside. Having just picked his kids up from school, Morgan spotted the girlfriend of a friend in the parking lot and pulled his truck up next to her. He asked her to keep an eye on his kids while he was in court. She agreed.
As Morgan walked toward the courthouse a police officer asked him the kids in the truck were his. He replied that they were. The officer asked him why he had left them alone. Morgan replied that he hadn’t, and that the woman parked next to him had agreed to watch them. By now, Morgan’s friend had returned, and started to leave.
“I can’t really blame them,” Morgan says from his home in Hazelwood. “No one around here wants to attract attention. You don’t want a police officer knowing who you are.”
Morgan pleaded with the police officer to flag down his friends, who he said would vouch for him. He says the officer then threatened to Taser him. Morgan put up his hands. The officer then arrested him for child endangerment. Morgan’s wife had to leave work to come pick up the kids, and Morgan spent the night in jail. He was fined $1,000, though both the fine and the charge were later reduced.
The incident still upsets Morgan — not even the arrest so much as that his children had to see it. “I’m a good father,” he says. “I own my own business. I provide for my kids. Do you know what it’s like for your own children to see you get arrested? For a cop to say, right in front of them, that he’s arresting you because you’re a bad parent?”

The other incident involved a local police officer who Morgan says had been harassing him for months. On this occasion, the officer confronted Morgan because he was “trespassing” on a neighbor’s lawn. Morgan responded that he wasn’t trespassing, because the neighbors didn’t mind. Morgan says the cop moved to arrest him, and he lost his cool. He claims he never struck the police officer, but he does admit that he screamed at him. Once he did, he was hit with a Taser and arrested for assaulting a police officer. That charge was later dropped. (The neighbors back Morgan’s account of the entire incident, including his assertion that he never touched the cop.)

When Morgan told me that final story after about an hour-long interview, I was stunned. But not because Morgan lost his cool with the cop. I was stunned that it had taken him so long to do so. And that even then, he’d manage to restrain himself from physical violence. I’m not sure I’d have been able to say the same.

Morgan is no one’s definition of a “thug.” He’s a guy who breaks his back to keep up the business that supports his family, despite obstacles that, frankly, most white business owners don’t have to endure. For all he’s been through, he is remarkably composed. He deals with the daily harassment in a remarkably manner-of-fact way. He takes photos of his business and the cars outside it. He records all of his phone conversations and most in-person conversations he has with public officials. He has a laptop filled with nothing but photos, documents, and recordings should he ever need them as evidence. Engaging in such defensive preparations on a daily basis would drive a lot of people insane — or perhaps be an indication that they’re already there. He does it because he has to. As he put it, “You have to struggle just to catch up.”

I wonder how many people who rioted in Ferguson and Baltimore were carrying the same load Morgan was, but simply lacked his will to withstand it all. I also wonder what would have been said about Morgan if during one of his many arrests he had somehow died in the back of a police van as Freddie Gray did. Certainly we’d hear about all of those arrests. We’d probably hear about how he once abandoned his children in a parking lot. We’d definitely hear that police once had to Tase him, threatened to do so on another occasion, and that he had once been arrested for assaulting a cop.

People like Morgan put the lie to blaming all of this on “black culture.” Morgan isn’t a drug pusher. He isn’t an absentee father. He isn’t in a gang. He’s a guy trying to do right by his family. Yet people like Morgan also show how the system feeds into the lie. Despite his biography, it would be very easy to portray Morgan as the very stereotype of “black culture” that law-and-order types rail against.

Here’s how easy it is to stereotype: I did it, too. Just after Morgan finished telling me the story about how he was arrested in front of his kids, I asked him if that affected his visitation rights.

He asked, “What do you mean by visitation rights?”

“I mean, do you worry that their mother is going to use that against you, or do you have a good relationship with her?”

“By the mother, do you mean my wife? She lives here too, with me and the kids.”

He then laughed. “I have all the visitation I want.”

Morgan was far more gracious about my blunder than he could have been. I was embarrassed. Mortified, really. I sympathized with Morgan. I felt awful for what he had endured. And then I profiled him, too.

“Look at the root causes” has become a profane phrase in politics, but there are significant costs to rising up. People only do it when they’re desperate. Probing for the root of that desperation isn’t justifying the violence; it’s merely recognizing that the violence means that something has gone terribly wrong. Fix what went wrong, and perhaps you can reduce the chances that the violence will happen again.

In his column, Richard Cohen bemoans Hillary Clinton for “blaming white racism for the disproportionate number of black men behind bars” and chastises her for saying “nothing about the high incidence of criminality among young black men, surely a factor.”

But this misses the point. Many white people hear “racism” and immediately think it’s a personal accusation. But a system can be racist without any racism from the people who operate within it. Look again at St. Louis County. Antonio Morgan’s business is located in the town of Pine Lawn. It’s one of the most egregious offenders in the county. But Pine Lawn is 96 percent black. Most of its city officials are and have been black. In fact, Anthony Gray, the attorney for Michael Brown’s family, is the town’s former police chief and current prosecutor.

But Antonio Morgan is still a victim of racism. The reason black people in St. Louis County are unfairly and disproportionately targeted by police for minor offenses is due to the very structure of the county’s political and court system.

When white people fled St. Louis in the early-to-mid-20th century, they took advantage of Missouri’s lenient incorporation laws to set up new towns to keep blacks away. As blacks began to move west, white people would move a little farther out, incorporate again, and set up new zoning laws to restrict black residency. The result is a county filled with dozens of tiny towns, nearly all of which have their own government and police force. The primary source of revenue for the local towns is sales tax. But the poorer (which means blacker) towns don’t generate enough income from sales taxes. So they turn to municipal fines to keep themselves from going under. The poorer the town and its residents, the more likely the town relies on fines for a greater percentage of its annual revenue. Which means that the blacker the town, the more likely its residents are getting treated like ATMs for the local government.

The cops in these towns don’t deal with felony crimes. The county police investigate those. A local officer’s job is to administer fines. Most cops are drawn from whiter, wealthier areas, in part because so many people in the poorer areas have arrest records. That means you have cops patrolling areas they aren’t from who are charged with extracting fines from people with whom they have little in common, and for petty offenses.

We did see a few examples of overt racism from city officials in the months after the Ferguson protests. But a system like this, one created by racism, will produce racist results even if none of the cops, prosecutors, or judges are racist themselves.

Unfortunately, there are also no easy answers. Dissolving many of these towns seems like the most obvious solution, but that also means dissolving towns where blacks have significant representation in local government.

As a number of outlets have reported over the last week, Baltimore’s history is similarly steeped in structural racism, although it manifests in different ways. The point is, this is how the city can have a justice system that disproportionately victimizes black people — a racist system — even as black people are running it. It’s how Freddie Gray could be the victim of a racist system, even though, as Lloyd Green points out, half of the cops who participated in Gray’s death are black.

Major racial riots are inevitably accompanied by a well-documented report finding rampant racism and/or systematic oppression within that city’s police department. That was true after Watts. It was true after the L.A. riots in 1991. It was true after Ferguson. And it’s safe to say it will be true with Baltimore. (Actually, we already had a report before the protests began.)

Here’s what’s also true: Those reports don’t get nearly as much attention as the riots.

It’s much easier to demagogue riots to exploit white fear of black crime than it is to ask complicated questions about what caused this group of people to grow so desperate in the first place. Historically, that tact has also won elections, and deviating from it arguably has lost them.

Green and Cohen seem to think this will always be the case. But 2015 isn’t 1968. In 2015, conscientious people from across the political spectrum are now questioning what a generation of “tough on crime” rhetoric and policies has wrought. Even some politicians — Rand Paul is a good example — have advocated reforms that don’t necessarily benefit them politically.

Maybe, just maybe, the punditocracy will follow suit. Maybe they’ll stop asking, “What does this candidate’s criminal justice policy mean for the election?” and start asking, “What does this candidate’s criminal justice policy mean for the people who will be affected by it?”