Republican Sen. Rand Paul on Thursday tied the crisis in Ferguson, Mo., to a federally funded "militarization" of local police, meshing his signature anti-big government and civil liberties views into a message he hopes will resonate with black voters.
"There is a systematic problem with today's law enforcement," the tea party senator and potential presidential candidate wrote in Time.com.
The Kentuckian argued that years of beefing up local police forces with federal dollars --part of the fight against drugs and terrorism -- have resulted in the scenes unfolding in Ferguson "that resemble war more than traditional police action."
Protesters in the St. Louis suburb have been dispersed by police using rubber bullets and tear gas in days of unrest following the fatal shooting of 18-year-old recent high school graduate Michael Brown.
"Given these developments, it is almost impossible for many Americans not to feel like their government is targeting them," Paul wrote. "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."
Paul has increasingly linked his libertarian politics with civil rights issues in a direct effort to boost the GOP's appeal to black voters. He is perhaps the most high-profile Republican taking his message directly to the nation's African American communities, where the GOP has struggled to court black votes.
Paul has had his own stumbles, most notably when his address to students at Howard University -- a rare visit by a white Republican to the historically black college in the nation's capital -- was interrupted by hecklers.
Still, the senator's efforts have gained notice has he seeks to reduce mandatory sentencing laws for drug crimes and pursue other legislative ventures that have put him at the forefront of Republican outreach to African Americans.
"Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of civil justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention," Paul wrote Thursday. "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 noted that as a teenager, if he had been told to clear the streets as is happening in Ferguson, there was a "distinct possibility" he might have "smarted off. But, I wouldn't have expected to be shot."
That is an unusual message for a conservative Republican. But is one that may draw listeners after the events this week in Missouri.
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