The most disheartening fact about the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, is that the rioters reject due process of law. Yet these same rioters are among the Americans who should be most invested in protecting the law’s protections. They are, after all, some of the chief beneficiaries of the nearly two-century struggle to achieve the very rights they now so violently want to wipe away.
The struggle to make protection of rights universal in America – that is, to extend it to African-Americans — began in the Revolutionary years with the banning of slavery in Vermont in 1777, in Pennsylvania (albeit by stages) in 1780 and in Massachusetts in 1783. It continued with exclusion of slavery from the Northwest Territories in 1787, the subsequent ending of slavery within their borders by all states north of the Mason-Dixon line and the Ohio River, the Civil War, the 13th Amendment, and Reconstruction. It languished after Union troops left the South in 1877 and in the decades that followed as the various legislative struggles between pro-civil rights Republicans and pro-segregation Democrats generally ended with no action. It returned to life with the Democratic Party’s split over civil rights at its 1948 national convention. In the following decade and a half a new civil rights movement gained steam among both a new alliance of Republicans and northern Democrats on one hand and increasingly vocal and brilliantly led African-Americans on the other. It ultimately carried the day in a series of victories – legislative and otherwise — stretching from the middle ‘60s to the middle ‘70s.
In this two-century-long struggle’s final outcome, winning the vote for African-Americans throughout the South was important. Desegregation of Southern schools and full access to public accommodation were milestones, too. But nothing was more critical than extending full reach for the rule of law and due process to all citizens in those states where they had been denied, that is, in the Southern states. No more mob verdicts. No more lynchings. No more selective justice to ensure that state penal systems maintained sufficient head counts to keep their captive industries running smoothly. More than everything else, this victory was about ensuring that due process and the rule of law were universally honored rights. No exceptions.
In recent decades we have come to use the term “rights” loosely. Anything that anyone considers desirable we label a “right”. Like the blowhard Glendower of Shakespeare’s Henry the 4th Part 1, proponents of ever more rights proclaim they can “call spirits from the vasty deep” but, again and again, whether, when called, those spirits – or rights – come into the lives of actual men and women turns out to have little or nothing to do with the calling. They usually depend on getting the economics right and unleashing, not restricting, market forces.
The exceptions are the real rights – the rights that government is capable and competent to guarantee, the rights that have to do with governance and the nature of man (that is, humanit — men and women). Freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, property. Freedom from unlawful search and seizure. Due process and rule of law, including the protections of grand juries and trial by jury. All these rights preceded the civil rights movement, the Civil War, the Constitution, the Revolution. They were the product of an earlier several centuries struggle in what is now the United Kingdom. But nothing was more critical to the final outcome of our own two-century struggle than that they were imported into our governance at the nation’s founding.
So now the rioters in Ferguson are protesting. For what? Overturning a grand jury’s decision not to prosecute? No one disputes that the grand jury was fairly selected and pulled from all parts of the regional community, including from African-Americans. No one disputes that the men and women on it addressed their task conscientiously. Readers of the court transcript report that, based on the testimony these jurors received, a guilty verdict at trial would have been impossible. But the rioters’ position is that the only acceptable outcome in the case would have been that the police officer went to trial and then, presumably, to jail.
In other words the rioters want to wipe away the most critical victory of the civil rights movement, the most essential win of the two-centuries-long struggle. And with fire bombs, gunshotsand looting, they issuing their demand in the name of the very Americans (including themselves) whose rights (those same rights) that movement and struggle succeeded after such extended effort in securing.
It is tremendously disheartening.