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Division, Disagreement and Democracy (Another post on Ferguson)

I too have read the Pew Center report on the sad state of affairs in Ferguson. And like E.J. Dionne, I think that acknowledging division – certain sorts of division that cut across different cleavages and not simply the single cleavage of race – is a positive thing, something that opens and encourages debate and provides the potential for coalition-building. A positive thing too is the growing sense that the militarization of American police may finally be on the table, politically speaking, as a topic of discussion. This militarization has a history that begins in the immediate aftermath of the 1999 WTO protests, and loses all sense of proportion after the attacks of 9/11. Local law enforcement and mayors across the US were suddently flush with cash from a federal government eager to fight terrorists, and in the absence of immediate external threats, the enemy was reconceptualized as any group that wanted to demonstrate in the streets. City authorities became obsessed with preventing another “battle in Seattle,” even at the expense of squelching the freedom of speech and severely limiting the freedom of assembly.

Under these conditions, any claim to democratic consensus becomes meaningless. One has to be free to disagree – and to express that disagreement publicly with others – if the principle of majority rule is to mean anything. Perhaps Ferguson teaches us this lesson: the real danger is not in too much disagreement but in the false presumption that all problems have been solved, that there really is no problem, that dissenters are agitated by private grievances or even worse are simply criminals stirred up by “outside agitators.” It’s not that the claim to totality isn’t democratic, but that any time a political figure or a televisual talking head claims “we all agree” on a powerfully divisive issue like class or race, we must be especially attentive to the police power that enforces that so-called agreement. For over a decade, for most of us, that power has worked behind the scenes; the events in Ferguson have brought it center stage and exposed it for what it is, a broken machine for the construction of a false consensus. The truth is: we don’t agree. We are divided. This reality is not unhealthy for democracy.

About the Author

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.



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One year during the LBJ administration, the police chiefs held their convention in Kansas City, Mo. Since POTUS himself was coming (to make a speech without the blue bumper-sticker cloth and/or gawking police chiefs  arrayed behind him, but standing up like a mortal man -- which presidents no longer do), I moseyed over to see how it went.  The vendors in the big hall had a motor pool of armored vehicles, some of which looked like tanks, on wheels instead of tracks. Departments were being offered such materiel to deal with "crime in the streets." The siege of Chicago, involving antiwar suburbanites, came, of course, later. Those vehicles in KC were offered for encounters mostly with one race.

That was almost 50 years ago. I've heard we have become post-racial since, huh?

At some level (mostly unconscious), we know that what we did to African Americans for the 300 years before Emancipation Proclamation is going to catch up with us. Now we have Guantanamo to add to the collective guilt. We are scared shitless and have the weaponry to prove it.


I believe it was President Obama who asserted that he would ease racial tensions during his administration.  He also said that he would cut the budget deficit in half, that he had given the world a stable and peaceful Iraq, would close Gitmo, and that Al Q was essentially beheaded and dead (he was sort of right: It was replaced by ISIS).

Bob, He did vcut the deficit in half. And Osama bin Laden is dead. .400 is great for hitters, bad for fielders. What s a president?

Bob and Tom - you both ignore the reality of Congressional action (executive branch can only do so much).  Shoot, now the Republicans are sueing the president for acting in ways Mr. Schwartz listed.  You might want to go to FactCheckers on your list:

- Gitmo - Congress blocking action

- Al Queda - effectiveness has been significantly decreased

- stable/peaceful Iraq - face it; Bush/Cheney lied and created this mess....yes, it was a mess historically but your comment is so sweeping and unnuanced as to be ridiculous

- budget deficit.......has decreased more than any president since Clinton (always interesting that if you look at historical facts and patterns, the deficit decreases the most under Democratic leadership and increases the most under Republican leadership (although the verbal BS from Republicans is that they are the watchdogs of this - talk about unreality)

Mr. Geroux - was even more shocked by the video of the nearby shooting death of a mentally ill person - from arrival of STL police to death of the individual, 23 seconds with an alleged knife and overhand gesture never visible but highlighted by STL police chief.  My hope is for a national dialogue about *police training* - they are not military; they are peace officers who appear to be more interested in playing with their new military toys.  STL police had tasers but didn't use them?  Really?  The experience of community policing must be the center point - not military reponse tactics.;

The militarization of the police is one issue that has many layers. Already drones are being used for survelillance and this is a problem as it speaks to the entire issue of the police/government surveillance of public space for what purpose? All this hardware that was developed, I guess, needs to be sold off to recoup losses but is this the best use of local dollars?? Policing is governed by the municipality or in some instances the state/province so this should be an election issue. It almost seems like the futuristic movie, The Minority Report, is becoming a reality. From pre-emptive military strikes to NSA data scoops, and, as mentioned, the surveillance of public space. As we speak, and write, our data is literally being stored right now without our consent and this issue has not been addressed.

And all of this starts rather benignly. I was stopped the other night at a Ride program. But I did not do anything, no swerving but there is a pre-emptive move to check for drunk driving. Most would not disagree with this intrusion in the interest of public safety. But multiply by 10 and on and on we go. NSA....still most people do not bat an eye.

As for policing, we do need to revamp community policing. Even in our community, it was tried but the local office is now mostly vacant. I don't see it as a waste of time or money. Presence is good and police presence absent the vests, guns, etc. I heard the police chief in Ferguson in an interview say that they had community policing. I am going to call BS on that one. 

George, very good comment. 

Re: the militarization of police: this HuffPost piece from a few years ago provides some helpful historical specifics.  A passage that seems to get to the heart of the matter:

The problem with this mingling of domestic policing with military operations is that the two institutions have starkly different missions. The military's job is to annihilate a foreign enemy. Cops are charged with keeping the peace, and with protecting the constitutional rights of American citizens and residents. It's dangerous to conflate the two. As former Reagan administration official Lawrence Korb once put it, "Soldiers are trained to vaporize, not Mirandize." That distinction is why the U.S. passed the Posse Comitatus Act more than 130 years ago, a law that explicitly forbids the use of military troops in domestic policing.  Over the last several decades Congress and administrations from both parties have continued to carve holes in that law, or at least find ways around it, mostly in the name of the drug war. 

FWIW - a few years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a luncheon with top brass of quite a few of our local suburban police departments.  The guest speaker was the head of the Chicago FBI office.  His message to these chiefs and captains was that they are considered to be front-line in the war on terror, and he called for increased cooperation between federal and municipal law enforcement.  He peppered his presentation with anecdotes of domestic terror cells on which the FBI was, at that time, keeping close tabs.  

I mention this because, post-911, perhaps there is a genuine need for local police to be vigilant to terror threats and to be prepared to respond effectively.  But one of the points of the HuffPost piece to which I've linked is that laws, tools and resources that have been deployed for the war on terror, instead are being used in the war on drugs (not to mention, as the article details, on crimes that are a good deal more trivial).  And now we've seen them deployed in Ferguson in a racially explosive manner against whatever confluence of peaceful protesters, out-of-town activists and criminals was on the streets the last couple of weeks.  

If police chiefs are going to be given these resources - power - then they must exercise concomitant responsibility and prudence.  Whether or not Ferguson police need military equipment, weaponry and uniforms to be prepared for the war on terror, surely they weren't required to face down church-goers peacefully marching down the main street in broad daylight.  


Bob, He did vcut the deficit in half. And Osama bin Laden is dead.

- Gitmo - Congress blocking action

- Al Queda - effectiveness has been significantly decreased

- stable/peaceful Iraq - face it; Bush/Cheney lied and created this mess....yes, it was a mess historically but your comment is so sweeping and unnuanced as to be ridiculous

Budget deficit:

I believe the deficit is now about 17 trillion.  So Bill, you're saying that when Obama took office it was 34 trillion?


I believe that from 2008 to 2010, the Democrats had majorities in the House and the Senate, and of course Obama was President, so why wasn't Gitmo closed?

Al Queda:

Yes, OBL is dead, but Al Queda is very much alive; it's just that ISIS gets all the press now, seeing as how it is more proactive and creative when it comes to carnage and mayhem.  I heard a report, not confirmed, that ISIS had beheaded a small infant.  Anybody else hear anything like that?

Bob, You are confusing the deficit with the debt.

The deficit has shrunk.  One reason is the sequester and its successor budget deals have tamped down government spending.  Another is that President Obama and Congress struck a deal to increase income tax rates on individuals earning (iirc) more than $400K/year.  Still another is that the economy gradually has been improving for several years now, and so there is more income to tax.  Another is we're not fighting two wars anymore.  Please note that in these matters, the allegedly-incompetent President Obama and the allegedly-do- nothing Congress deserve roughly equal credit or blame.  Running a smaller deficit perhaps isn't a lot to brag about, but such as it is, they deserve kudos.

Jim, You left out the economic recovery for those who benefit from economic recoveries -- increasingly not everybody. It doesn't take an economic genius to do better when business that had stopped starts up again; that's simple math. If there were any economic geniuses around, they would figure out how to revive the middle class. That seems necessary, since the rich don't wanna and don't hafta pay for government, and the poor can't. So if we must, say, go boldly to slay ISIS, it will have to be with the taxes of the middle class. Whcih no longer exists, QED.


You are so right.  I hate it when I do that.

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