The award for Most Offensive Comment not uttered by a Senator went to the Rev. Al Sharpton, who said at one of the first rallies protesting the shooting death of Amadou Diallo that the only category of crime that has not gone down in the Giuliani years has been crimes committed by the police.
Even if police crime were up (see below), this would not be true, for the crime rate of associates of Al Sharpton has also spiked. Before the Giuliani administration, there were only the false statements uttered by Tawana Brawley and her defense team, and whatever traffic was blocked whenever Mr. Sharpton led a march over the Brooklyn Bridge. But in recent years, his partners in protest have become more dangerous, as witness the deaths at Freddy’s Fashion Mart in Harlem. What is the protocol for a black protest leader when black and Hispanic shoppers are murdered by a nut on the fringes of rallies that he himself has addressed? Does he rally against himself?
Also arriving early on the scene were Job’s comforters, bearing the balm of statistics. In a bipartisan journalistic coalition, both the New York Post and The New York Times reported that shootings by police have gone down, and that the average number of bullets fired each time an officer discharges his weapon has gone down as well, notwithstanding the fact that the police now carry semiautomatic pistols. A figure that has not appeared, but which would be easy to calculate, would be the number of black New Yorkers who are alive, rather than dead, thanks to the lower homicide rate. The obvious assumption is that police excesses rise along with the general activity level of police departments. Many of us would probably be willing to accept such a tradeoff (so long as we were not the victims of the excesses), and some of us might even be bold enough to say so. But the obvious assumption turns out to be wrong, or so say the number crunchers.
And perhaps the counterintuitive truth becomes intuitive when one thinks about the dynamics of policing. Crime would go down, the theorists of “broken windows” policing argued, not because police departments got more money, or more officers, but because the force they had was used more efficiently and more strategically. When the cops pick their shots, fewer shots end up being fired.
But no event is an aggregate, and a man, not an average, fell in a 41-bullet storm. What are his family and friends (not hearse chasers like Mr. Sharpton) to think? What are blacks to think?
These questions became pressing to me after one of the major police actions of the Clinton Administration, the siege of Waco. Here was a pretty clear case of bungling, if not excess, and its victims were white religious sectaries. About the same time, the Philadelphia police had consummated the siege of a black commune, also armed to the teeth, by dropping a bomb on the roof of its row-house redoubt, and burning down a city block. I know, from private conversations, that I was not the only conservative who saw a resemblance.
The right had three reactions to Waco, two of them analogous to the reactions of blacks now. At the more sober end was the tremor of alarm, like prickling hairs, that went through gun-owners and social conservatives. One Catholic friend of mine was particularly disturbed, even though his church is larger and older than the Branch Davidians, and presumably more secure. But he is a man who, on issues such as abortion and euthanasia, declaims against militant secularism. Had secularism, he wondered, become a notch more militant? Further out, the National Rifle Association mailed its famous description of Federal agents as “jackbooted thugs.” This was our equivalent of Al Sharpton. What exactly, George Orwell once asked, is a jackboot? I didn’t know, either, until I looked it up. But everyone knows that, whatever it is, it is worn by fascists. The third reaction, deep in the badlands, was Timothy McVeigh’s.
Justice lances outrage, so long as the outraged are amenable to reason. What happens if justice or reason are slow in coming? Recently, The Washington Post ran a front-page story on jury nullification–when jurors decide to judge, not only the facts, but the law, or even society itself. Its main practitioners, according to the article, are libertarians and blacks. Johnnie Cochran made a not-so-veiled plea for jury nullification at the O.J. Simpson trial when he urged jurors to send a signal, but it also happens when the defendants can’t hire celebrity lawyers. One of the perennials of New York journalism is the Op-Ed piece, by a writer just released from jury duty, about what an Emma Lazarus-Walt Whitman experience it was. Well, I’ve done jury duty, too, and in the end I believe that all my cases came out right, but there were some hair-raising moments. Then there are those who see a trend and call it virtue. Paul Butler, a law professor at George Washington University, argues that jury nullification is “a tool of fairness” in a criminal justice system that is “getting worse for blacks.”
It is ironic that the historic patrons of nullification have been hard-line Southern whites: the juries who let Klansmen walk during the 1960’s or, going further back, the entire state of South Carolina, proposing to nullify a Federal law before it ever went into effect. (The law in question was a tariff, but slavery was already in the background of every regional dispute.) In a country where blacks form a small, and steadily shrinking, minority, it is not wise to tamper with the rule of law.
But who can make the case? Not Senator Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, who told an interviewer that he thought the offenses of the Great White Defendant “rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors,” then added, “I can work with the President.” Let us hope that the Giuliani administration, not known for its communication skills, can do a better job.