The Conservative Divide Over the Benghazi-ness of Ferguson

Calling Ferguson the "liberal Benghazi" is only the most extreme example of the conservative debate over the validity of the DOJ report on the city’s police department.

on March 15, 2015 in Ferguson, Missouri.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Three weeks ago the Department of Justice released two reports on Ferguson—one explaining the DOJ’s reasoning against charging Officer Wilson for shooting Michael Brown, and another acknowledging the civil rights violations, brutality, and racial bias ingrained in the culture of the Ferguson Police Department.

One can guess which report inspired the day’s nominee for hottest hot take of the week so far. The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen is back in the spotlight for another controversial column on a race issue, this time arguing that the lack of evidence against Wilson makes “Ferguson” a non-scandal, a “liberal Benghazi,” based on a partisan distortion of facts.

He acknowledges that the Ferguson police department was, in his words, a “cesspool of racism.” But the city itself “was made to represent institutional racism across the nation, but it is, really, a tiny nondescript place where a supposedly racist and unjustifiable killing by the police did not occur,” he writes. 

Cohen is used to being criticized for his controversial essays on race and gender issues—he’s argued that people who gag at the sight of interracial couples aren’t racist, but have “conventional views,” and admitted that he thought that “many blacks were sort of content” until he saw 12 Years a Slave. Monday’s column was met with the sort of hate-read reactions on Twitter one would expect:

Hate-reads aside, Cohen’s essay points to a larger trend—for some writers, especially on the right, the Justice Department’s debunking of the idea that Brown had his hands up, and it’s decision not to charge Wilson, overshadowed what the second report found on the police department. (Liberal heavyweights like Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart have put in their two cents on the way Fox News has selectively covered the reports.)

The available evidence shows that Michael Brown did not have his hands up, but “Ferguson” as a movement goes beyond the Brown shooting: it describes the protests that happened after the shooting, the images of military grade weapons being used to quell mostly peaceful protests, the fact that many communities of color feel threatened, not protected, by their local police forces. It also allows for reforms beyond reducing racial discrimination.

On Monday the DOJ released a report, started in 2013, investigating the Philadelphia Police Department and its “officer-involved shootings.” The report acknowledged that events in Ferguson, as well as Staten Island (where Eric Garner was killed by an officer’s chokehold) and Cleveland, Ohio (where Tamir Rice was shot while holding a toy gun), “have brought these great challenges of policing to the national spotlight and uncovered significant strife between some communities and their law enforcement.” The report did not accuse the Philadelphia Police Department of racial discrimination—many of the officers involved in the shootings were black—but called on the officers to review its training and oversight. Over eight years, the force shot nearly 400 people, or one person a week. Fifteen percent of the suspects were unarmed, and many of them were shot for reaching for an object like a cell phone. 

For a brief moment late in 2014, conservatives and liberals agreed that Eric Garner—the Staten Island man killed at the hands of an officer for allegedly selling loose cigarettes—and his death represented a need for reform, both with policing and the laws we ask officers to enforce. That moment of common ground has been weaker in the wake of the Ferguson DOJ reports. The Atlantic’s Connor Friedersdorf criticized conservatives earlier for not coming out in force to decry the way the Ferguson police department violated the Constitution. A week after the DOJ report came out writers at conservative sites National Review and RedState, having read the report, argued that the right should care.

At RedState, Leon Wolf argued that while the left has resisted the evidence that Brown didn’t have his hands up, conservatives have resisted the evidence that the Ferguson Police Department “truly is out of control,” and “[n]o conservative on earth should feel comfortable with the way the Ferguson PD has been operating for years, even according to their own documents.” Wolf, who later did an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on the story, argued that it was ideological tribalism that prevented both sides from acknowledging all of the facts. Like other conservatives writers who argued the merits of the report, Wolf actually read the DOJ report. 

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