Commentary Race

Ferguson Highlights How State and Local Governments Get So Corrupt

Amanda Marcotte

Among other things, Ferguson shows us that systemic racial injustice persists, often with “states' rights” or “local rights” as justification.

Read more of our coverage related to recent events in Ferguson here.

The fatal shooting of Michael Brown and the shocking police repression in the wake of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, are reviving a discussion that has withered in recent years about the balance of power between federal, state, and local governments when those various levels of government approach community unrest in very different ways. It’s important that this discussion continues, as it’s central to some of the biggest issues of our time, including reproductive justice.

As Paul Waldman of the Washington Post laid out, the Ferguson situation dismantles the libertarian claim that freedom is best preserved by concentrating power in the hands of local government:

So the local government, the one that’s supposed to be in touch with the people, is not only out of touch, it’s making their lives miserable. The events in Ferguson have also shown us a case of inept local government that has made the situation worse at every turn. First the Ferguson police responded to protesting residents like they were retaking Fallujah. Then when state troopers succeeded in calming things down for a night — a higher level of government trying to correct the failures of a lower level — the Ferguson police released the surveillance video from that convenience store, as though trying to make the case that Michael Brown had it coming, which enraged local residents and started a new cycle of unrest.

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None of this is surprising to people who have been doing social justice work since, oh, the beginning of this country’s history. The ideology of “states’ rights” was formulated for no other reason than to protect the institution of slavery from slaveholders’ fears that abolitionists would harness federal power to outlaw it. The “states’ rights” argument was then employed to justify segregation and discrimination, until the federal government stepped in and took measures to outlaw these practices; as Ferguson shows, however, systemic racial injustice persists, often with “states’ rights” or “local rights” as justification.

What the situation in Ferguson really drives home is how the political system is set up in a way that makes it easy for corrupt, reactionary forces to exploit the fact that little attention and resources are paid to state and local governments in order to gain shocking amounts of power. Ferguson is a town that is two-thirds Black, but, as Waldman notes, the mayor and all but one city council member are white. The white stranglehold on power there has clearly created a situation where the power brokers in the community treat the majority of people living there like they need to be controlled instead of like citizens who deserve to have their interests represented. The local government, which can hold its elections at a different time of year than federal elections—a power they take full advantage of—seems to be made up of people with malicious intent. This has created a situation that not only made the shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown—for being suspected of jay-walking—even possible in the first place. It’s a situation that allowed the local law enforcement to completely overreact to largely peaceful demonstrations, meeting protesters with military-grade equipment and a presence that definitely seemed more about suppressing rather than supporting freedom of speech.

Reproductive rights advocates know all too well the phenomenon that Waldman is speaking of, where “those lower levels of government are often where the worst problems are.” Anti-choice conservatives have long understood that the best way to deprive women and people of color of their rights is to target local and state governments. Indeed, the focus on localism with anti-choicers with regards to abortion access is such that specific clinics are targeted, both by protesters and their cronies in local and state government.

By messing around with state regulatory systems and even trying to use harassment over local zoning laws, anti-choicers have been extremely effective in chipping away at abortion access, one clinic at a time. And because it’s local, the national media often doesn’t have much attention to give to the issue. While Texas did manage to snag a great deal of national attention for the attacks on abortion clinics, for instance, in Ohio, the more backdoor methods being used by anti-choicers there has resulted in a wave of clinic closures that have barely made a ripple in the mainstream media.

It’s not a coincidence that people of color and poor people are bearing the brunt of the attacks from anti-choice politicians, as most obviously evidenced by the loss of not just abortion access but many family planning services in the predominantly Hispanic Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Conservatives know that by crafting their attacks so that the women who lose access to abortion care and other reproductive health services are the most vulnerable populations in the United States—primarily women who are poor, live in rural areas, or are women of color—they can basically get away with their attacks with less resistance than if they were attacking the rights of women with more privilege, time, and resources to fight back. But the events in Ferguson suggest that it’s more than just base opportunism. Women of color and low-income women are the primary targets of these attacks for the same reason that people of color are the primary targets of excessive policing; it’s all about using the power of state and local governments to stifle the attempts of people of color to get ahead in this country.

The conservative reactions to the Affordable Care Act crystallize the way that conservatives see state and local governments as a way to reassert the oppressive social structures they prefer. Most of the lawsuits trying to chip away at the health-care reform law are focused on trying to stop low-income people from getting health-care coverage by asserting that “states’ rights” to take that coverage away trumps the federal right to offer it. Red states have managed to leverage the concept of “states’ rights” to get out of expanding Medicaid coverage to thousands of people who can’t afford private health insurance and to get out of creating state insurance exchanges to make private health insurance more affordable. Now, with the Halbig case, red states are even angling to forcibly cut their own low-income citizens off from receiving subsidies to help pay for health care, even though those subsidies are offered by the federal government and not the states.

As the demonstrations in Ferguson continue, we have an opportunity, as a nation, to start taking a look at the big-picture politics that have led to this crisis, which was never about just this one tragic shooting but about the way that entire communities can be crushed under the heels of people whomanipulate the state and local political system, taking away the rights and protections that are supposed to be offered equally to everyone. Hopefully we will remember this lesson in the months and years ahead.

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