Racial turmoil always has the potential to spillover into politics. The killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darrell Wilson in August had little impact on the November elections. But after the decision of the grand jury not to indict Wilson, the violence that occurred, the intense media coverage, and the nationwide protests, some peaceful, others not so peaceful, the events in Ferguson may become a divisive political issue in the upcoming presidential campaign, beginning in January.
Much will depend on how political leaders respond to the panorama of issues raised by events in Ferguson.
After the grand jury verdict, President Obama addressed the nation in a calm and rational manner, respectful of both African Americans and the police. Given the President’s apparent decision to avoid trying to cooperate with congressional Republicans, who have virtually no shared policy goals with Obama, or sympathy for him personally, the Administration may encourage Holder to bring a federal indictment of Wilson for violating Brown’s civil rights, if he can do so plausibly. Such a move would keep the case in the media spotlight, extending into the early stirrings of the next presidential campaign. It could well be the overriding issue, for a time, especially within the black community, and Democratic presidential candidates will almost certainly have to weigh in on it, probably without the restraint that has kept most prominent politicians on the sidelines of the current events.
A federal indictment of Wilson would appeal to Obama’s political base, not just African Americans but also many liberal whites, who share the view that law enforcement in this country is often stacked against black people. Moreover, such a move would be consistent with the President’s unilateral actions on immigration and on tighter environmental regulations, both popular with his base.
What the GOP response will be is unclear. Last August, shortly after the slaying of Brown, two potential Republican presidential contenders, US Sens. Ted Cruz (TX) and Rand Paul (KY), both Southerners with strong ties to Tea Party conservatives, made conciliatory statements about the case. Cruz called Brown’s death “tragic,” and urged demonstrators to reject violence. Paul was more pointed, saying he might have “smarted off” when he was a teenager, but “wouldn’t have expected to be shot.”
Since the non-indictment, only two Republicans of note have taken a stance essentially focused on the violence that occurred in Ferguson after the grand jury’s decision, essentially alleging that Missouri authorities – mostly Democrats – did not properly prepare for the rioting out of a “politically correct” concern for the rights of demonstrators. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, appearing on Fox News, came down hard on the failure of law enforcement to make swift arrests from the get-go of anyone throwing a bottle or committing any illegal act, suggesting that “cooling off” periods tend to become “heating up” periods.
Missouri’s Republican lieutenant governor, Peter Kinder, slammed Gov. Jay Nixon (D-MO) for failing to send in the national guard to protect Ferguson from the violent protesters, going so far as to suggest that the Obama Administration, perhaps through the Justice Department, discouraged a strong response to the post-grand jury decision demonstrations. Kinder also called for the arrest of Brown’s mother’s husband (“Burn this bitch down”) for inciting to riot.
Although no one has suggested it so far, in January the newly installed Republican congress, dominated by its very conservative wing, could hold hearings on the federal response to the Ferguson violence. Successful subpoenas for emails from Justice Department officials and/or White House aides to Gov. Nixon or other Missouri officials might prove embarrassing to the White House, and problematic for Democrats generally.
Complicating the situation, the riots and demonstrations of the 1960s resulted in new and effective civil rights laws that directly addressed many of the problems of segregation and discrimination. Whether Darrell Wilson unlawfully killed Michael Brown, perhaps with racial prejudice as a motive, may or may not be the case. But African Americans and others believe the problem of racially discriminatory law enforcement is widespread, and for that, there is no easy legislative fix.
Whether the events in Ferguson, last August as well as in November, will become part of the political conversation in the months to come may depend on whether President Obama’s attorney general brings federal charges against Wilson, or whether Republicans in the House decide to investigate the federal response to the violence. If either or both happen, we could see Ferguson on the political front burner for months to come. Stay tuned.