While the world watches the conflict in Ferguson, Missouri, there’s been no comprehensive effort from the nation’s capital to return the small St. Louis suburb to order.
The evident incompetence of the local police, mayor and governor has made it impossible to keep the peace as protesters continue to gather over the police shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, and more violent elements are drawn to the chaos – created by bad policing– to exploit it through looting.
A broader solution from Washington – in addition to the calls for peace from President Obama, and Justice Department and FBI intervention – is needed before the fallout from the police handling of Ferguson’s unrest becomes an indelible mark on our democracy. When outrage over possible police wrongdoing is met with what many see as police brutality, which is seen as the latest evidence that police nationwide are a threat to people of color, it’s a situation that has reached its breaking point. Greater federal intervention is necessary.
Here are three things Washington leaders can do right now about Ferguson.
1. Put a halt to the Federal 1033 program: The Federal 1033 program allows the Department of Defense to transfer used military equipment to local police agencies without charge. This program has led, in the assessment of many observers, to a disturbing level of militarization of local police forces, which has fueled the tensions in Ferguson. The president should announce immediately that all transfers of military equipment will be halted to local police forces with a poor record on racial profiling and police brutality. That would put any future “Fergusons” on notice, and reinforce the public’s faith in the government’s protective aims.
2. Condemn the arrests of journalists in Ferguson: America has been swift to condemn nations like Egypt, Syria and Turkey for stifling the press during political upheavals. Our leaders should take a bold stance against police control of the press in Ferguson. A House resolution signed by President Obama would send a very clear bi-partisan signal that press abuse will not be tolerated in the United States. This would also pave the way for the Department of Justice to levy more serious charges in the future, should additional related abuses occur.
3. Initiate a bi-partisan voter registration program: In a sign of bi-partisan support for the citizens of Ferguson, RNC Chair Reince Priebus and DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Shultz should send representatives to conduct a massive voter registration drive in the coming weeks. Turnout in the last mayoral election in Ferguson was less than 12%, and for the most recent municipal elections has barely scratched 15%. For all of the cries for unity coming from the governor’s mansion, Gov. Jay Nixon hasn’t been able to give anyone the confidence that he has true command of the situation. Shultz and Priebus bring that kind of gravitas, and can empower residents to vote Nixon out over his mishandling of the unrest, and generally take control of their town.
Congressional approval levels have been in the single digits since May. Plus, President Obama is facing his worst approval ratings since the fall of 2011. Ferguson is an opportunity for Washington insiders to confront a situation that now has international attention. But, these suggestions are more than just good politics in a mid-term election year. We’re watching a city burn while the federal government literally does nothing more than investigate Brown’s shooting, which is clearly not enough. It is that level of impotence that creates a cynicism towards Washington, D.C. felt all the way to Florissant Avenue in Ferguson.
Washington leadership has a chance to change that.
Let’s hope they have the political will to try.
Dr. Jason Johnson is a professor of Political Science at Hiram College and author of the book “Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell.”