Pyle: Fond memories of federal intervention

First Published Aug 16 2014 05:57PM      Last Updated Aug 16 2014 05:57 pm

Depending on when you were born, Major League Baseball is out of place anywhere west of St. Louis, Franklin D. Roosevelt (or Ronald Reagan) was the only decent president we’ve had and Tom Baker will always be the Doctor.

It has little to do with reason or logic. It’s all about formative experiences. The way things were when you first became aware of things is the way things are supposed to be. Forever.

Those of us who became aware of the political world in the 1950s and 1960s, therefore, are more likely to see the federal government as the bringer of justice and reason. That’s not so much because the feds are always right as it is the long list of cases where the states and localities were horribly wrong.

To oversimplify in the way that human memory often does, "states rights" and "local control" have meant George Wallace in the schoolhouse door, Bull Conner literally setting the dogs on the Freedom Riders and President Eisenhower sending the 101st Airborne Division (which he had had the foresight to rescue from Bastogne 13 years before) to enforce federal desegregation orders in Little Rock.

The last vestiges of Jim Crow were jealously guarded, even revered, by state and local officials, mostly in the South. They’d be there today were it not for Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy and Earl Warren declaring, in ways that might technically have overstepped their authority, that civilized nations do not behave that way.

Such feelings influence the public lands argument in Utah, with Baby Boomers, transplants and visitors more likely to believe that federal wisdom is necessary to save the land from local cretinism.

Did I just say "the last vestiges of Jim Crow"? And did I say something about the South?

The St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo. — a heavily segregated region with some Old South sensibilities — was under siege for much of last week after an unarmed black teenager was killed by a white police officer under circumstances that, while still not totally clear, seemed to justify no such act of violence.

Heavily armed, armored and camouflaged police officers from the city and state managed to make things worse for a couple of days.

But it was only a few weeks ago that white police officers in the Center of the Liberal Universe — New York City — killed an unarmed black man with a kind of chokehold that cops supposedly don’t use any more.

In Salt Lake City, meanwhile, police are under heavy criticism for killing a dog in its own back yard and a man at a 7-Eleven. But there are no racial overtones to any of that. And, like the incident in New York, the local events demonstrate that the widely denounced militarization of local police is not always associated with death at the hands of law enforcement officers.

By the end of the week, President Obama urged calm in Ferguson, federal officials began an investigation there and the Missouri governor replaced local police with a lower-profile contingent from the Missouri Highway Patrol. Cops who look like cops, when they are seen at all, and not like the Raid on Abbottabad.

All that interference from higher levels of government seemed to be helping. It will be essential if anyone in Ferguson, black or white, is going to have any faith that the truth about that shooting — and the tense aftermath of arrests, violence and arrests that included at least two journalists — is going to come out.

Of course, the feds are partly responsible for the paramilitary appearance, if not the mindset, of the police in Ferguson, and elsewhere. Ever since 9/11, federal grants and gifts have made an unholy alliance with local empire building to encourage street cops to acquire the firepower, heavy armor and swagger of a military detachment.

Even in places where a little more (local) Sheriff Andy and a little less (federal) General Patton might be appropriate.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, has been known to make a federal case out of lots of things.



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