Rand Paul Visits Ferguson In His New Role As Unexpected Civil Rights Activist

Senator Rand Paul has taken a recent unexpected turn in his views on civil rights, and now he's emerging as the Republican champion for race issues. Apparently. After writing an op-ed for Time on the events in Ferguson, in which he empathizes with the black community, Rand Paul visited Ferguson to meet with civil rights leaders on Friday. The likely 2016 presidential candidate voiced his support for criminal justice reform, hinting at a major component of a future campaign platform. But for someone who's paved his political career on controversial racial beliefs, can the Tea Partier be trusted?

Paul's visit comes ahead of another weekend of planned protests over the country's racial divide, catalyzed by the shooting of Michael Brown. During his round table session with local black leaders, organized by the NAACP, Paul addressed the lack of diversity in the city's police force, prevalent police brutality based on race, among other issues. When asked if the government should regulate racial representation in police departments, Paul told the leaders, which included local business owners and members of the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League:

I think there’s a role for the federal government to step in when laws are discriminatory or when there’s police action that is, frankly, discriminatory.

Why is this significant? This statement is coming from a man infamous for his staunch libertarian views and repeated opposition of anti-discrimination legislation. But this summer, Paul seemed to do a complete 180 as he entrenched himself alongside the black community. But how much of it is genuine and how much of it is based on widening support for his 2016 presidential run?

Rand Paul's New Role as Civil Rights Advocate

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In July, Paul surprised pundits by attending a ceremony commemorating the Rabb family, who had contributed significantly to the civil rights movement. Later that month, the senator spoke at an Urban League conference, where he proposed a criminal justice reform package that would set him far apart from the rest of his party. The package seeks to end mandatory minimum sentencing laws, expunge nonviolent felonies from criminal records, restore voting rights to citizens convicted of nonviolent felonies, and reevaluate the sentences of people imprisoned for crack cocaine, something that President Obama — an unlikely ally — had also supported.

The next month, Paul penned an op-ed for Time titled "We Must Demilitarize the Police," in which he denounced the way law enforcement handled the Ferguson protests and the government's role in it. He also echoed protesters' outrage over the country's race-fueled criminal justice system. 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.

Now he's personally in Ferguson, urging the black community to get out there and vote, noting after the session that the African-American community has "a great deal of power and could do anything they want if they register people to vote."

Can He Be Trusted?

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But is Paul's push for the black community to vote just a way for him to secure the minority vote in 2016? Of course you're going to vote for the person who encouraged you to vote in the first place, right? What makes Paul's recent moves so suspicious stems from his controversial past, one marked by his outspoken opposition of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin when hiring, promoting, and firing.

Paul's views are steeped with family influence. His father, Ron Paul, infamously voted against a resolution praising the Civil Rights Act in 2004 when he was a presidential candidate, claiming that the legislation "[diminished] individual liberty." In 2010, Paul defended his father and argued against the Civil Rights Act in favor of protecting private businesses. He told the the Louisville Courier-Journal:

I think it’s a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant—but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership.... this is the hard part about believing in freedom.... In a free society, we will tolerate boorish people, who have abhorrent behavior.

In other words, society must tolerate racists who want to see blacks and whites segregated because they have rights too.Even worse, Paul was called out on several occasions for employing known racists in his inner circle, including a social media director who was recently moonlighting as a neo-Confederate activist and a Senate campaign spokesperson who featured an incredibly racist comment and a picture of a lynching on his Myspace page. Images: Getty Images (2)