Resist partisan responses to Ferguson crisis
“Do we criticize them, or do we remain silent?”
The preceding question was posed to Dr. Ben Carson, a pundit on Fox News, by host Bill O’Reilly during an O’Reilly Factor segment about the Ferguson shooting last month. Surprisingly, the question was not regarding the Ferguson Police Department, the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by one of their officers, the lack of transparency from the department regarding the shooting or the excessive force they used on people protesting the shooting. Instead, O’Reilly was asking his guest whether the parents of Brown should be criticized for accusing the Ferguson Police Department of an injustice without “knowing the facts.”
One would think that conservative pundits—given their fear of tyrannical government over-reach—would be quick to criticize the Ferguson Police. The images coming out of Ferguson seem to be consistent with what conservatives often claim the government will look like if it ever be-comes too powerful—men in armor subduing and assaulting those who only wish to use their First Amendment right to freedom of assembly. Lawful, peaceful protestors are being punished for the actions of a violent few. Curfews and military grade equipment make Ferguson seem more and more like a literal police state. And yet, many conservative talking heads, advocacy groups and politicians have been more critical of other aspects of the story, such as their accusations that Rev. Al Sharpton was encouraging bad behavior among protestors by making impassioned speeches at rallies. O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and others have been much more guarded in their criticism of the police department.
The coverage on Ferguson by Fox News is a sharp contrast with the way the same pundits reacted to the mini rebellion set up by Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy just four months earlier. Bundy became a hero among conservatives when he refused to abide by federal law and remove his cattle which had been illegally grazing on land set aside for conservation purposes by the Bureau of Land Management 20 years earlier. Supporters from across the country—many of whom were armed—joined a protest camp set up by Bundy with their guns aimed at federal law enforcement officials at the scene.
“I like anybody that’s willing to fight,” said Fox News host Sean Hannity in an interview with Bundy on April 11, praising his recalcitrance. Apparently tax exemption is a worthy cause for opposing the law; justice for the death of an unarmed teenager is not.
The hypocrisy of certain conservative commentators like Hannity regarding the shooting of Michael Brown and the protests that followed seem to be more motivated by partisanship than by principle. The response from Fox News may, in part, be a reaction to how networks such as CNN and MSNBC, usually seen as more liberal, are covering the story. During a debate, Fox News host Howard Kurtz criticized CNN host Jake Tapper for saying police should not have been dressed in riot gear and referred to MSNBC as “The Michael Brown Defense Network led by Al Sharpton.” When conservatives saw that liberals were rallying around Brown and criticizing the police department, many on the right instinctively took the other side. This is an unfortunate reminder of the unrelenting partisanship which has engulfed Congress since the election of Pres-ident Barack Obama and has become too common since the rise of the Tea Party.
Reactions from Republican politicians were mixed, but statements from some of the party’s leaders displayed a similar reluctance to criticize the Ferguson police force in the same manner as Democratic politicians have. Statements from Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-OH, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX, were critical of the police arresting journalists at the scene in Ferguson but did not show disdain for the manner in which protestors were treated. By contrast, Democrats in Congress plan to introduce legislation to end the federal program which gives grants to local police forces and allows them to obtain military grade weapons free of charge.
Partisanship also seems to have motivated the way certain conservative advocacy groups have responded—or rather, not responded—to the Ferguson situation as well. Gun rights activists claim that they have the right to keep and bear arms because they need to be able to protect themselves if the government ever becomes too tyrannical. One would think that images of police using military grade weapons on mostly peaceful protestors would ignite the same fear that motivates those committed to protecting gun rights. And yet, both the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America have remained silent about the conduct of the police during the shooting and the protests that ensued.
The way advocacy groups like the NRA shape the views of their followers and the way media outlets like Fox News disseminate information appear to be key reasons why partisanship has reached its current level. Some Americans assume that partisanship in Washington D.C. is a symptom of corruption, but the way many conservatives have reacted to Ferguson is perhaps a sign that that divisiveness represents the sentiments of the people more than previously thought. In a poll conducted on Aug. 16 by YouGov.com (Brown was shot on Aug. 9) Republicans were more likely to say that police militarization is necessary by a 44 percent to 34 percent margin. Democrats polled said by a 63 percent to 21 percent margin that the use of military grade weapons by police is excessive.
The unnecessary death of Brown and the subsequent mistreatment of those protesting his death are very concerning issues. Our nation must stand as one in calling for justice for both Brown and the protestors who were mistreated at rallies held in his name. Upholding partisan battles is no excuse to be less outraged about conduct which is undoubtedly unjust. Ignoring your own beliefs because you refuse to agree with those who you consider political enemies is nothing but reprehensible.