As a conservative who has advocated for criminal justice reform, I have a lot of admiration for the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which has been remarkably effective at raising awareness of the myriad ways that black Americans are treated differently — or, put more bluntly, treated worse — by law enforcement. Although I haven’t always agreed with their tactics or rhetoric, I have appreciated the movement’s tenacity and unwillingness to be mollified by platitudes and talking points from politicians who’ve attempted to co-opt them.
That’s why I think #BlackLivesMatter is wasting its time pressing Democrats for answers, or action. The party of big government can’t meet their demands.
For starters, the Democratic presidential contenders have done an infamously bad job of responding to #BlackLivesMatter protesters who’ve attended their events. Sen. Bernie Sanders and former governor Martin O’Malley were practically heckled off the stage at the Netroots Nation conference after they were unable to effectively articulate, let alone posit, concrete solutions to protesters’ concerns. Former secretary of state and Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign has been similarly panned by #BlackLivesMatter leaders.
The relationship has arguably worsened in recent days. There’s video this week of a tense meeting between Clinton and #BlackLivesMatter activists in New Hampshire that shows her responding to a difficult question with: “Respectfully, if that is your position, then I will talk only to white people about how we are going to deal with the very real problems.” After being disrupted twice at recent speaking events by #BlackLivesMatter protesters, in an appearance on “Meet The Press” this Sunday, Sanders appeared to disavow an apology one of his staffers e-mailed to #BlackLivesMatter activists.
The effort to hold these politicians accountable is understandable when you consider that African Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic. But from another perspective, it seems clear that #BlackLivesMatter is looking for real answers in all the wrong places, and is in danger of being taken for granted in the long term by the Democratic Party, as has been the case with previous movements that have attempted to address issues facing African Americans. Why? Because, based on their almost exclusive approach to the Democratic field, #BlackLivesMatter activists seem to be assuming — incorrectly — that conservative candidates have nothing to offer their movement.
From a policy standpoint, #BlackLivesMatter has concentrated on the subconscious (and sometimes conscious) biases that inform interactions between the police and black citizens in many communities. And these biases undoubtedly exist.
But the movement should direct more of its focus toward a crucial link in the chain that drives a substantial portion of hostile interactions between black Americans and police. The emphasis should be on asking: Why are police brought into hostile interactions with black people so often in the first place? It’s because of the big-government policies and practices of the supposedly liberal Democrats that the #BlackLivesMatter crowd is petitioning for help.
Don’t take my word for it; take the word of President Obama’s Department of Justice, which set forth, in painstaking detail, in its report on the practices of the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department all the ways in which pressure to generate additional revenue to pay for the city’s expenses led the Ferguson police to attempt to maximize city revenue by meeting ticket quotas and goals. This pressure was applied without regard to whether the increase in citations related in any meaningful way to public safety or the well-being of the city’s residents. The results of any such program of revenue generation are entirely predictable: If a town directs its cops to write more tickets, they will.
And human nature fills in the rest of the story. Officers will give the most questionable tickets to the people least likely to hire a lawyer or to have their side of the story believed in court, even if they do — minorities and those without means. It’s a system with a foreseeable outcome of putting police officers on a path that leads directly to conflict with the most marginalized citizens in their jurisdiction, in a town where the municipal budget is being subsidized by a hidden tax on its African American residents, extracted with force by the police.
To the extent that #BlackLivesMatter has addressed the problem of revenue-based policing (in Ferguson and elsewhere), the discussion has centered around the inequity of the practice, as well as the fines, while neglecting the underlying inducement for revenue-based policing: the refusal of local governments to cut back when they’re unable to cover their budgets with revenue they collect from direct taxes.
Of course, Ferguson is not unique in this regard. It’s a smaller town that’s appended to a major city — St. Louis — and like a number of other major metropolitan areas, budgets reveal that even though the economy, by any measure, suffered through a period of severe downturn followed by a relatively weak recovery from the period of 2009-2014, most major metropolitan expense budgets increased at a steady rate during that time. In spite of forecast drops in revenue from ordinary forms of taxation, budgets rose. In a number of cases, cities have attempted to make up for shortfalls, at least in part, by mandating that their police departments close the gap with increased miscellaneous revenue, or fines and citations.
For instance, New York City (successively led by independent, but liberal, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and ultra-liberal Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio) had a projected expense budget for 2009 of $59.17 billion, with expected total tax revenues of $36.32 billion. By 2015, New York City’s expense budget had grown to $75.03 billion, an increase of roughly 26 percent over this time period. Meanwhile, tax revenues were projected at a mere $48.62 billion, illustrating a widening gulf between what the city planned to bring in via taxes and what it planned to spend. The city has seen an increase of approximately 30 percent in traffic-generated fees alone since 2009.
Other Democrat-dominated cities tell a similar story. In Chicago‘s budget, revenue from fines increased by almost 60 percent during a 10-year period, from $193 million in 2003 to $307 million in 2012. Philadelphia budgeted for a single-year increase of 13.4 percent in revenue from traffic citations in 2015, and a single-year 20.3 percent increase in other court costs, fines and fees for its traffic court.
Even when these revenue gaps are made up for with openly declared forms of taxation, the outcome can wind up having a disproportionate effect on lower-income and minority communities, as it did in the now well-known case of Eric Garner, who died after being violently restrained by the NYPD. The sheer absurdity of the factual scenario that culminated in Garner’s death would be laughable, if it weren’t so tragic. Due to a combination of nanny-state impulses and desire for additional revenue, New York City raised taxes on cigarettes to the point that it costs around $13 to purchase a single pack of cigarettes — a price too high for many residents to afford. Not incidentally, lower-income Americans are those most likely to remain addicted to tobacco and unable to afford effective tobacco cessation services.
As a consequence of this policy, a market sprang up in New York for “loosies” or individual cigarettes — the sale of which is illegal in the city — for purchase by those unable to afford a full pack. In order to maximize profits, loosie vendors cross state lines and purchase cigarettes more cheaply in states where the cigarette tax isn’t as high. It was enforcement of the prohibition on loosie sales that led up to police confronting Garner immediately prior to his death. No, the loosie law didn’t force police to brutalize Garner, but the loosie law — and the big-government thinking behind it — did force the interaction in the first place.
#BlackLivesMatter protesters won’t find answers to these systemic causes of hostile police interactions with black citizens by asking Democrats, because Democrats are too invested in a system that drains revenue from individuals any way it can. And their candidates don’t have the incentive to run on a platform of cutting budgets, or eliminating the hidden regressive taxes on alcohol, tobacco and gas that help prop up big-city governments.
Instead, #BlackLivesMatter protesters should invest more time engaging a Republican contender like Sen. Rand Paul about his ideas on criminal justice reform and demilitarization of the police — which are realistic, detailed and come from a candidate who advocates consistently and across the board for getting government out of citizens’ lives. Or they should start a dialogue with Gov. Bobby Jindal regarding legislation he signed to reduce sentencing for drug-related offenses in Louisiana. Or they should talk to former governor Rick Perry about how his state reduced its incarcerated population in recent years through conservative-minded justice reforms.
Conversely, the GOP candidates have to do a better job of reaching out to this nascent movement to explain how their policy alternatives address the needs and concerns of the black community more effectively than their liberal counterparts. While #BlackLivesMatter leaders have had to harangue Democratic leaders into sit-down meetings, conservative candidates should be reaching out proactively and initiating a conversation about justice reform.
If #BlackLivesMatter is interested in solutions that begin to reduce the mistreatment of African American citizens by police — from leaders who’ve demonstrated that they have a genuine interest in the issue along with the ability to put reforms in place — they should consider a serious discussion with some of the leaders of the conservative movement. The dialogue they’re having now isn’t likely to produce results much different from what Democrats have delivered in the past.