Cops have a difficult, sometimes impossible, job. It's tough enough when we ask them to handle crimes, the day-to-day lawbreaking that threatens all of us, and particularly those in low-income neighborhoods. When we ask them to be agents of social policy, problems emerge.
Since 9/11, we've accepted changes in what we will tolerate in government intrusion in our daily lives. There's been no sustained outcry against government collection of the speech and communications of Americans. Stop-and-frisk had fairly broad support, even within minority communities. And we seem to have collectively shrugged about the way private corporations collect our data and control our communications.
I suspect that we will understand the depth of change in American society only over time, and as a consequence of fear, vigilance, surrender -- call it what you will.
Then comes Ferguson.
Suddenly, we see images of police/citizen interaction and we are appalled. No one yet knows how or why Mr. Brown was shot to death. It's also hard to understand whether the police's initial refusal to name the shooter was a justified protection in the face of threats, or a double-standard by which police protect their own. But watching police in the dress of soldiers pointing rifles at peaceful protestors, or rousting reporters in a McDonalds, or tear gassing TV cameramen, that hit like a bolt from the blue.
The depth of the reaction is not that we have an isolated example of police excess. It's that we've quietly and without examination created a system of military policing, and bam, we're watching a new kind of America.
The comparisons with the days of Bull Conner and Selma are inevitable. But this is a new kind of problem as well. We've trained our police forces, given them military uniforms and equipment, and encouraged a new kind of relationship between government and governed. And, bam, we don't like it very much.
How much of this has happened across the nation is unknown. Which departments have tanks and other military paraphernalia? What plans have been developed for their use? Who decides when and how to deploy? What the hell is going on?
This goes much deeper than it first appears. Individual police officers and departments should be held accountable for their mistakes. But the implications of what we've done can't be worked through in the context of an individual tragedy. The president and his congressional supporters like Rand Paul (?) are stepping forward, talking about "demilitarizing" American police. The ironies of this are rare and special. There has always been a connection between the grass-roots Tea Party concerns and progressive values. Limitations on government overreach, as it affects police or government surveillance, are ingrained in the ideology of both movements. An alliance can be forged on this issue if both men and both movements have the courage to work alongside each other.
Political change never comes on a smooth curve. Specific events create almost instantaneous changes in public perception and action follows. That's what's going on in Ferguson and across America. We don't want or need our police to treat citizens the way they are treated in Egypt or Moscow. We, citizens and political leaders, can seize the moment, and reach a new consensus on how to organize our lives in a post-9/11 era, consistent with the constitutional and social genius of the American experience.