If Rand Paul is serious about Ferguson, this is what he'd do

DOJ's Civil Rights Division has been without a director for a year. Rand Paul could change his mind on that

Published August 15, 2014 1:24PM (EDT)

Rand Paul                               (AP/Stephan Savoia)
Rand Paul (AP/Stephan Savoia)

Attorney General Eric Holder released a strong statement Thursday on the chaos in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police killing of teenager Michael Brown -- and what the Justice Department plans on doing about it. He indicated, importantly, that his department is "deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message." He also reiterated that the federal investigation into the Brown incident continues:

All the while, the federal civil rights investigation into the shooting incident itself continues, in parallel with the local investigation into state law violations. Our investigators from the Civil Rights Division and U.S. attorney’s office in Missouri have already conducted interviews with eyewitnesses on the scene at the time of the shooting incident on Saturday. Our review will take time to conduct, but it will be thorough and fair.”

It's important for the Civil Rights Division to be getting involved in this. And hey -- you know what might help the Civil Rights Division, both now and going forward? Having someone in charge. The division has not had a leader -- titled an assistant attorney general -- since last summer. The confirmation of President Obama's nominee to lead the division, Debo Adegbile, was filibustered in the Senate earlier this year. It could be brought up again whenever, as Obama has yet to withdraw his pick.

The thwarting of Adegbile's nomination was a disgusting display from Republicans and red/purple-state Democrats up for reelection this year. Adegbile was a litigator for the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund when it supported a Supreme Court appeal in defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Senators like Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey declared Adegbile "'unfit to serve' because of his role in defending a 'coldblooded cop killer.'" So much for everyone's right to a legal defense! Sen. Tom Harkin said that Adegbile's rejection "marked about the lowest point that I think this Senate has descended into in my 30 years here."

"In the wake of the protests in Missouri," Yahoo's Meredith Shiner observed Thursday, "and new attention to a wave of shootings of unarmed young, black men by police officers nationwide, the Department of Justice has publicly committed to ensuring that justice is served. But there does not seem to be any pressure on the Senate to act to install a leader at the civil rights division."

Along with EVERYTHING ELSE, the events in Ferguson, in which a nearly all-white police force is unleashing hand-me-down military weaponry on a nearly all-back citizenry, should serve as a reminder to those in Congress of the importance of having a fully staffed Civil Rights Division. Because: look around.

Who'd be a good politician to help turn around the momentum on the Adegbile nomination? Oooh, ooh, how about Sen. Rand Paul! Paul, who voted against cloture on the Adegbile confirmation earlier this year, wrote a widely praised editorial yesterday in which he argued that we "must demilitarize the police." It was widely praised because there was much to praise about it:

When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury—national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture—we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands.

Given these developments, it is almost impossible for many Americans not to feel like their government is targeting them. Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them.

It's only when Paul laments "big government" as the problem, as a sort of political hedge, that he errs. "Big government," as in the federal government, as in the Justice Department, as in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, can and has served as a corrective to abuses by state and local authorities. It was "big government" action that defined the landmark legislative accomplishments of the civil rights era. Certain government programs -- like awarding used military equipment and weapons to local police forces who don't know what the hell they're doing but want to look scary -- can be curtailed! But let's not make that problem a full-fledged attack on how the government and everything it does is evil.

If Paul is serious about attracting African-Americans as supporters, instead of just making rhetorical moves to inoculate himself against charges of association with racists, he should recognize the activist role of the federal government in protecting the rights of minorities. He should declare himself in favor of the Adegbile nomination.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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