Rand Paul, the U.S. senator from Kentucky, has identified two troubling elements fueling the violence in Ferguson, Mo., where an unarmed African-American 18-year-old was shot and killed by police.
In a commentary written for Time, the libertarian Paul said, "Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention. Our prisons are full of black and brown men and women who are serving inappropriately long and harsh sentences for non-violent mistakes in their youth."
Paul also cited the increased militarization of police in America as a trend that must be halted and reversed: "The outrage in Ferguson is understandable — though there is never an excuse for rioting or looting. There is a legitimate role for the police to keep the peace, but there should be a difference between a police response and a military response."
Putting himself in the shoes of the dead Michael Brown, the presidential aspirant wrote: "If I had been told to get out of the street as a teenager, there would have been a distinct possibility that I might have smarted off. But, I wouldn't have expected to be shot."
Our prisons — including those in California — are disproportionately filled with black and brown inmates because of America's failed "War on Drugs" and a criminal justice system that often throws the book at convicts of color while meting out less harsh sentences and cutting more breaks for white offenders.
This combination of disproportionate sentencing, militarization of police and the failed War on Drugs is helping turn many of our cities and suburbs into ghettos where despair, violence, gangs and absentee parents have become the norm.
"Most police officers are good cops and good people. It is an unquestionably difficult job, especially in the current circumstances," Paul said. "(But) there is a systemic problem with today's law enforcement.
"Not surprisingly, big government has been at the heart of the problem. Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies — where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement.
"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."
We don't often agree with Paul, but he has astutely summed up the powder keg that was lit in Ferguson and presented all Americans with concerns that must be confronted and addressed.