Conservatives ought to regard the abuses in Ferguson as worthy of attention in their own right, not just insofar as the left's analysis of them is (ostensibly) wrongheaded.
If one accepts every premise advanced by the authors of National Review's coverage, including the most dubious—if we treat the Michael Brown investigation as a cynical pretext; presume Eric Holder hates every white cop in America; ignore statistics about racially disproportionate stops as inconclusive; and presume that people are being mistreated wholly due to their poverty rather than their race; even then, it remains the case that hundreds of Americans have had their Constitutional rights or basic liberties violated by governing elites with perverse incentives to cite, fine, and jail them as often and as expensively as possible.
That is an outrage. And what amounts to the exoneration of Officer Darren Wilson—itself a legitimate news story, from the subset of self-described witnesses who lied about what happened in the altercation with Michael Brown to the media treatment Wilson received—should not be treated as more important than all injustices that hundreds of poor, disproportionately black Ferguson residents experienced. Having criticized the protestors who brought the nation's attention to Ferguson and the DOJ investigators who've done more than anyone to document serious abuses there, how would conservatives suggest uncovering and remedying egregious Constitutional violations in municipalities like it?
I've never seen the question answered well. And I can't help but wonder if the American Fergusons would be ignored entirely if conservatives were running the country, just as present-day injustices tend to be downplayed or left out of conservative media when they cut against the conservative counter-narrative on race.
In Ferguson, I'm open to solutions that would be more effective than the DOJ coercing law enforcement into a series of hit-and-miss reforms. But are there superior alternatives? As best as I can tell, there are not competing liberal and conservative plans for protecting the Constitutional rights of blacks from small-town elites. There is just the center-left approach and conservative complaints about it.
Over at Reason, Scott Shackford, a regular critic of Eric Holder's Justice Department, wrote an article that treated civil-rights violations as more important than attacking the Democratic Party or fighting over racism narratives. He also points out that Ferguson isn't the only jurisdiction that piles criminal charges on top of one another in an opaque system that steamrolls Americans:
The Department of Justice threatens defendants with dozens of federal charges that could put them behind bars for decades unless they accept plea deals and avoid a trial, a punishment for trying to defend themselves. Department of Justice prosecutors, working with other agencies like the IRS, seize assets from Americans and resist giving it back even when there's little evidence such Americans have done anything wrong. The DOJ engages in a lot of the same misbehavior found in the Ferguson system of justice—it's just not motivated by race.
Even though the Department of Justice may attack Ferguson's revenue-generating, they are quick to defend the role of their own "Equitable Sharing Program," which encourages law enforcement agencies to seize property and assets by allowing the agencies to keep 80 percent of what they take in the program.
A White House report crafted in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown and the police's militarized response to protests defended the program, along with others, as "valuable and have provided state and local law enforcement with needed assistance as they carry out their critical missions in helping to keep the American people safe." Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch defended asset forfeiture as a useful tool for law enforcement at a Senate hearing.
Ferguson's police department participates in this federal program. According to research by The Washington Post, the city has spent more than $100,000 on equipment and weapons paid for with assets seized by police in Ferguson (this also means the federal government has also received money from law enforcement activities in the community as well). The DOJ's press office has not returned calls to find out whether Ferguson would be booted from the program due to its behavior. Ferguson officials have said they will attempt to settle with the Department of Justice, not fight, so probably not. The DOJ has only cut off access to the Equitable Sharing Program to a handful of law enforcement agencies. One of them, Maricopa County in Arizona, is infamous for resistance to attempts by the DOJ to reform the way it deals with immigrants and Latino citizens. It's easy to look at the program and see the DOJ using access to its funds as a carrot/stick to influence the behavior of local law enforcement agencies. This is not inherently a bad thing, but all of this knowledge about how the DOJ operates should cause anybody to look askance at the agency's credibility when it comes to evaluating the accessibility of fiscal propriety of any justice system in the country.
For that matter, the DOJ, just like Ferguson, brags about the millions—billions—of dollars it brings in from settlements and enforcement activities in its annual reports. They put out press releases and hold press conferences. The difference may be that its targets are often rich corporations (but not always, as their actions against a small Long Island vending business shows). The DOJ and state-level prosecutors are looking for big paydays, too, to help bolster the budgets of the governments they serve. My story in Reason's April issue, titled "The Settlement Shakedown," helps explain how this all works out (It's available online now to digital subscribers).
None of this is to dismiss what is clearly racist animus by the people in power in Ferguson. But if every victim described in the DOJ report on Ferguson had been white and the racist comments and e-mails hadn't happened, these incidents would still have been huge violations of the rights of the citizens. Many would argue that these incidents wouldn't have happened at all absent the racial component. I cannot possibly say they're wrong. Every single government in the country is driven to bring in revenue to perpetuate itself, and their targets will most likely be those who will have the hardest times protecting or defending themselves. This often means poor minorities and immigrants, but don't confuse the symptoms with the cause. Racism just one sorting tool for governments to decide who they're going to plunder.
Agree or disagree with the particulars of that article, it illustrates that one can critique the Obama Administration, implicitly criticize Democrats for failing to end federal law-enforcement abuses while running the federal bureaucracy, and complicate the left's racial narrative without treating the abuse of blacks in places like Ferguson as fabrications or afterthoughts. The Democratic Party's failure on these issues could be a vulnerability if the Republican Party didn't have so little to offer. Ferguson is a missed opportunity for the GOP in a long line of them.