The rhetorical strategy in Glenn Loury’s essay looks like a version of deconstruction: find two opposing extremes surrounding the issue and dilute them into indecision. I don’t really get what he thinks is a good way to reduce the death toll. He seems to be arguing that it’s all really complicated, which is true in some sense because almost everything in life is complicated. But these sorts of professions of complexity always seem to end up in a resigned acquiescence to the status quo, or, at best, a modestly tweaked status quo. That’s just not good enough.
The deaths of so many people—disproportionately, though not exclusively, young black men—at the hands of the police is the most visible symptom of the relentless policing that poor communities of color experience. Across the country, such communities live under a regime of racial and economic segregation that persists decades after the demise of Jim Crow.
Ferguson's relentless policing is a constant burden to residents.
New York has been under the regime of broken-windows policing—arresting people for petty offenses to impose a sense of public order and to drag potential or actual criminals into the criminal justice system—for more than twenty years. Though the process of stopping and frisking young black and Latino men has ceased, the NYPD is still arresting people for misdemeanors like crazy. Even as the crime rate plummeted, the rate of misdemeanor arrests has nearly doubled over the last two decades and shows no signs of abating under Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Ferguson’s relentless policing is different. The city’s finances are heavily dependent on ticketing for minor offenses, which puts residents under endless scrutiny and saddles them with fines they often can’t pay. The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, so close to each other and with such similar indulgence by the legal system, were a last straw for communities constantly under the thumb of the police, communities that bear the brunt of our enthusiasm for criminalizing and incarcerating.
While Loury brings up some of this, he doesn’t take it as seriously as he should. He finds Brown too questionable a character to serve as a “poster child” for a movement. He quotes an aphorism, attributed to a bumper sticker, that “Mike Brown is no Rosa Parks.” Parks was standing up against an odious law, while Brown died “under ambiguous circumstances.” Though Loury says he doesn’t want to draw a contrast between the personalities of Brown and Parks, he does exactly that, disavowals aside.
He also uses the contrasting figures of Brown and Parks to analyze the insurgencies that grew up around them. “A well-organized movement already existed when Parks refused to give up her seat,” he says, while “no such movement exists now.” That exaggerates the size of the movement that existed before Parks’s refusal and demeans the one that existed just before its post-Ferguson amplification. Parks’s movement started small—activists determined to challenge segregation on Montgomery’s buses, and, through that, the larger Jim Crow system.
So while Michael Brown was no Rosa Parks in the sense that he was not an activist in a budding movement, his death is giving rise to a much larger challenge to this order under which police can kill black men without consequences and to the broader regime of mass imprisonment. Some activist infrastructure was already in place: the remnants of Occupy have come together with younger black activists who have been organizing against the cops-and-jails agenda. But their movement has grown beyond the connoisseurs.
Loury wrote his essay before a New York City grand jury failed to indict Daniel Pantaleo—a cop who’s been sued three times for denying the civil rights of black men he was arresting—for the chokehold that killed Garner. This case is far less ambiguous than Brown’s. The videotaped evidence was enough to convince George W. Bush and Glenn Beck that something went wrong with the criminal justice system. But so what if a case is ambiguous? A system in which the theft of cigarillos results in loss of life yet the shooter escapes the inconvenience of a trial, is one, to steal a phrase from Martin Luther King, approaching spiritual death. The demonstrations that have occurred in scores of cities across the country in recent weeks look like spiritual rebirth.