Conflict of authority: exalted journalists versus the police

In response to Washington Post, HuffPo Reporters Arrested, Released in Ferguson:

We’re going to be arguing about the various “lessons of Ferguson” for a long time to come.  Here’s my first one, which drew some heat on Twitter because it was assumed I was specifically referring to the Battle of McDonald’s:

Twitter is not the place for complex and nuanced arguments, or to discuss all the possible ramifications of a simple statement.  But I’ll stand by that simple statement as written, and yes, it’s my advice for journalists covering a riot.  By all means, raise holy hell later on, if you think the instructions were unwarranted or unjust.  But police officers trying to keep a lid on a volatile situation, with reason to fear for both bystanders and their own personal safety, deserve some polite deference in the heat of the moment.  Nobody from the Washington Post will be held accountable if a bad situation spins out of control into serious injury or death, but the people with badges will.

Among other reasons for following this philosophy, the cops bursting into McDonald’s and telling everyone to clear out are part of a tactical network with real-time intelligence about what’s happening on the ground.  They have been trained to deal with these situations.  I doubt the Huffington Post provides tactical response training for its writers.  When people in riot gear tell you it’s time to move, it is reasonable to assume they know something you don’t.

Which doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, wholeheartedly and forever.  I’m a big believer in the criticism of authority, and practice it on a daily basis.  Independence is a muscle that atrophies, if not flexed periodically.  I tend to agree that the militarization of local law enforcement has become troubling.  Among other things, it diverts resources from where they are needed – as some critics have noted, all that heavy equipment might be better used on the southern border.  When it’s hard to tell the cops apart from the army, Something Ain’t Right.

But those are arguments to be conducted rationally, not in the heat of the moment, with officers who do not make the laws they are sworn to uphold.  There are plenty of bad cops out there – perhaps a disturbing and increasing number of them.  Too many encounters with citizens are escalating into lethal violence.  But that doesn’t change my essential respect for police officers, or my doctrine for responding to them during a sticky situation.  Have there been a lot of instances in which polite, well-mannered, cooperative citizens have been gunned down by cops?  Note: the “polite” part is as important as the “cooperative” part.  Even the simple act of purchasing a hamburger at the Ferguson McDonald’s can be turned into an ugly confrontation, if the people on either side of the register are impolite to each other.

I’m generally more inclined to criticize the people giving the orders and making the rules than the people who carry them out, particularly in heated situations, particularly when the heat is coming from Molotov cocktails.  I’ve dumped oceans of pixels on the absolutely outrageous abuse of power at the IRS, which I view as one of the greatest scandals in American history, but I’ve never had anything but polite and professional experiences on the few occasions when I’ve dealt with IRS agents.  And those conversations occurred in air-conditioned offices, or over the phone, not while angry crowds were forming for a fourth night of vandalism and looting.

It’s important to conduct ourselves with good manners, with goodwill, toward our fellow citizens, too.  We’re not far removed from an era when courteous behavior was more widely presumed, and its absence more noted and criticized.  The way we speak to each other has changed, and not for the better.  Naturally that colors the way we see each other.  A great deal of ill-mannered conduct descends from contempt, the sense that someone has no reason to respect those he encounters, no reason to make the effort to treat them politely or respect their sensibilities.  Offending sensibilities is a mark of “authenticity” for many of us now.  It defines entire subcultures.

We’ve got a long way to go before we know the full story of how Michael Brown died in Ferguson.  Of course, that isn’t stopping plenty of people from jumping to conclusions… which illustrates another shortage of goodwill and respect, regardless of which conclusion they’re jumping to.  I feel safe in saying the encounter between Brown and the still-unnamed police officer was not marked by mutual good manners and polite respect.  That might be all on the cop, and even if it’s not, bad manners are not “justification” for dying at the hands of any government agent, or being unjustly arrested.  But does anyone really doubt that good manners reduce the odds of those things happening?

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