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Opening Arguments

This isn't 1968

Most of us look at splashy, chaotic events like the upheaval in Baltimore through the lenses of our preconceptions.  It's a crime problem. It's a racism problem. It's police misconduct. It's the breakdown of the family. It's poverty. On and on.

This column by Randy Balko is a must-read for any whose preconceptions lead them to a "soft on crime with predictable results" mind set. In it, he criticizes columnists Richard Cohen and Lloyd Green for suggesting that America, especially white America, is fed up with crime and will look on Hillary Clinton's reaction to Baltimore as soft-on-crime mushiness:  "The two wrote remarkably similar columns this week about Hillary Clinton’s response to the protests and riots in Baltimore. Both compared the civil unrest of 2015 to the civil unrest in 1968. Both cited Nixon’s “tough on crime” campaign, which even members of that campaign team have since admitted was an overt, often racist appeal to white fear of black people. Both scorned Clinton for being “soft on crime,” and daring to criticize mass incarceration in a speech given the same week as the riots."

There are lots of reasons why 2015 isn't like 1968, he writes. Crime, especially violent crime, is way down. Police officers are safer on the job than ever. People aren't teally afraid. On and on.

That brings me to my main beef with these two columns: They’re just crassly political. They reduce very real questions about injustice, race, and systematic oppression to blunt political analysis. This is typical of punditry in general, and it’s particularly true as election season heats up. But it’s particularly callous with these issues because of what’s at stake. Cohen and Green’s chief criticism of Clinton is that her (superficial) nod to criminal justice reform is bad politics. That’s it. It will make her look like Dukakis. They’re not interested in exploring, say, the now well-documented history of police misconduct and excessive force in Baltimore, the city’s history of rewarding abusive cops, or the 2000s-era campaign of mass arrests for misdemeanor offenses, which saddled a wide swath of the city’s black population with a debilitating arrest record. Never mind all of that. Hillary Clinton talked about reform as riots were happening. Therefore, she’s Dukakis.

This isn't really a Praise Hillary piece. As a libertarian, Balko knows Clinton is a Johnny Come Lately to the criminal justice reform debate, and as a sentient human being, he knows that she doesn't even mean it anyway. But he uses the reaction to her as a jumping-off point to ask us to reconsider our preconceptions. He introduces us to Antonio Morgan, a 29-year-old small-business owner who is black and has been harassed to the point of absurdity in Saint Louis County.

Morgan is no one’s definition of a “thug.” He’s a guy who breaks his back to keep up the business that supports his family, despite obstacles that, frankly, most white business owners don’t have to endure. For all he’s been through, he is remarkably composed. He deals with the daily harassment in a remarkably manner-of-fact way. He takes photos of his business and the cars outside it. He records all of his phone conversations and most in-person conversations he has with public officials. He has a laptop filled with nothing but photos, documents, and recordings should he ever need them as evidence. Engaging in such defensive preparations on a daily basis would drive a lot of people insane — or perhaps be an indication that they’re already there. He does it because he has to. As he put it, “You have to struggle just to catch up.”

A thought-provoking and compelling read. Highly recommended.