When Rand Paul announced his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, it didn’t take long for opponents across the ideological spectrum to attack him for being either Neville Chamberlain on estrogen (the neocon Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America), or trapped in an empty box along with nonexistent libertarians (Paul Krugman), or pre-emptively for figuring to be “the worst president on civil rights since the 1800s” (Think Progress).
That last charge is particularly curious, since of all real and imagined Republican and Democratic candidates for the White House, Rand Paul is the only one who seriously questioned just what the fuck was going on last summer in Ferguson, Missouri, when an unarmed black man was shot and killed by a white policeman. “There is a systematic problem with today’s law enforcement,” wrote Paul in Time, on August 14. “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 was only a long two weeks later that Hillary Clinton, then and now the presumptive Democratic candidate, got around to weighing in on the matter with platitudes such as “we are better than that.”
Paul revisited his thoughts on police brutality as his nascent presidential campaign landed in South Carolina, where a white cop, Michael Slager, has just been charged with murder for shooting a black man, Walter Scott, who fled on foot during a traffic stop. While saying that “98 or 99 percent” of [cops] are doing a great job,” Paul said the killing of Scott was “a terrible tragedy” and called for the compiling of racial statistics when it comes to police shootings. He also added, “I’m concerned that poor people in our society may not be getting the same representation as rich people.”
The same day that Slager was charged with Scott’s death, another white South Carolina cop was indicted on a felony assault charge in the 2014 death of a black man who was stopped in a car in his driveway. The Washington Post reports that the policeman could face up to 10 years in prison.
Paul’s response to Ferguson last summer wasn’t concern trolling or a passing fancy. Beyond trying to end the disbursing of surplus military vehicles and equipment to state and local police departments under the Pentagon’s 1033 program, Paul has pushed legislation to limit the use of mandatory sentencing and restore the voting rights of felons.
Apart from underscoring the ways in which police tactics and criminal justice policies disproportionately hurt black and poor communities, he is alone among presidential contenders in highlighting the role of the drug war in turning the United States into something approaching an open-air prison. Taking to the pages of Time again last fall, Paul wrote, “I will continue to fight to end the racial disparities in drug sentencing. I will continue to fight lengthy, mandatory sentences that prevent judges from using discretion. I will continue to fight to restore voting rights for non-violent felons who’ve served their sentences.” Appearing on Bill Maher’s HBO show, he proclaimed: “The war on drugs has become the most racially disparate outcome that you have in the entire country. Our prisons are full of black and brown kids. Three-fourths of the people in prison are black or brown, and white kids are using drugs, Bill, as you know...at the same rate as these other kids.”
Despite a majority of Americans saying they think pot should be treated similarly to booze and wine, Paul’s positions are not popular within political circles, especially Republican ones. Nor do they conform to the conspicuous displays of concern preferred by the left. Progressives such as Think Progress’s Ian Millhiser worry openly (and hysterically) that because he’s criticized aspects of anti-discrimination laws in the past, a President Paul would usher in a new era of de jure segregation straight out of Jim Crow.
Not only are such fears wildly overblown, they fail to account for the issues and concerns that Paul alone is talking about. Unarmed black men are dying at the hands of often-white police. Racially divisive drug laws and indefensible sentencing guidelines punish all Americans, but they punish blacks far more often and far more intensely. There’s only one major-party person running for president who has been raising any of this since he took office, and his name is Rand Paul.
Just days into his presidential campaign, Paul is being accused of trying to satisfy all voters, from hardcore libertarians devoted to his father to Republican defense hawks to liberal drug reformers. “In Paul’s dream world,” comments FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten, “he’ll satisfy everyone. In the most likely real world, he’ll end up satisfying no one.”
That may well be true. But even if he fizzles out early, Rand Paul has helped to start a conversation that the country needs to have, but of which it is afraid.