Ferguson’s Libertarian Problem

I’ve been thinking about the “national conversation” that the tragic killings of unarmed young men of color in Ferguson, New York, and elsewhere has spurred. Most recently, Ferguson is back in the news after the Department of Justice released the results of its investigation into the Ferguson Police Department. The pop culture analysis that I perform as a historian hinges largely upon the importance of making a distinction between the discourse of “civil liberties” and “civil rights.” And it seems like this problem — that of racism, economic inequality, and police brutality — is  ripe for this kind of analysis.

In short, here is the distinction between civil liberties and civil rights: civil liberties are protections from the state, civil rights are protections provided by the state. Civil liberties limit the state’s power, and civil rights afford the state power. The first two amendments to the US Constitution are great examples of civil liberties. They protect the state (by which I mean the federal government) from impinging on the so-called “natural rights” that liberalism, in the classical sense, presumes every individual to have.

It’s more difficult to find an example of civil rights in this country, because quite frankly, it’s full of civil libertarians. If the country had an Economic Bill of Rights, as was conceived by Franklin Roosevelt and floated by Truman in 1946 before the Democrats were trounced that year, that would be a civil right. If the country had nationalized medicine and guaranteed health care for every citizen, that would be a civil right. It could be argued that the right to vote is a civil right. While it allows individuals to act as such within a system designed to legitimize and reify classical liberal theory, it also requires positive actions on the part of the state.

Since last summer, the discussion around the problem of the police has seen the problem as a disease rather than a symptom. In this framing, the enemy of the people is the “police state.” This is a reflex that has roots on the left — it goes back to Marx’s concept of the super structure — but it is also profoundly conservative and libertarian, dating back to the myth of Jeffersonianism that imagines the country’s success as the product of self-sufficient, independent, land-owning farmers. And in an era of globalization, neoliberalism, and waning state power, it’s profoundly run out of utility. (Actually, progressive intellectuals and activists of a hundred years ago, from Dewey to Debs, thought as much.) To blame the problem solely on the police is to ignore all of the reasons that crime and violence inhabit geographic spaces that are rife with economic inequality. Reasons that have little to do with state power other than its absence.

Last week, the radio show On the Media pointed out that protests in Ferguson carried out by local community members have been about not only police brutality, but also the lack of jobs and the struggles of “day to day” life. These local activists, the show pointed out, aren’t on Twitter, and aren’t the subject of national attention. Instead, national attention has gone to the civil libertarians. The case is likewise here in Asheville, North Carolina, where a strong civil libertarian and individualistic current takes the place of any kind of real progressive political discourse. Protesters, mostly dreadlocked hippie dudes, take to downtown with signs decrying the “pigs,” illustrating an intellectual sophistication and vocabulary rivaling that which I had when I was in seventh grade.

Gandhi once said that the greatest violence is that of poverty. Such violence — that which conjures no flashy headlines — requires no police state. Its superstructure — if we are to call it that — is multifaceted and diffuse, situated not only, and not even primarily, with local, state, or federal governments. (Such institutions, as Foucault would say, are only where power is most intelligible.) And to solve it requires an emphasis on civil rights, and not civil liberties per se.

And in the midst of this contemporary media environment, in which images of the recent killings are juxtaposed with those of the 50th anniversary of the historic events in Selma, Alabama, it’s worth remembering that Martin Luther King, Jr. would have thought so too. The libertarianism of today would have confounded him, I think. In his 1967 Where Do We Go From Here, King called for the same thing that Roosevelt and Truman wanted: an Economic Bill of Rights, one that would provide the civil right of a guaranteed income and/or job.

To be sure, police violence and racism are abhorrent and calls to end it are just. But little real progress is made when the Justice Department, the White House, the Congress, the media, and the Left treat it as a disease rather than a symptom of the larger problem of structural racial and economic inequality.