What it is… is all too clear
“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!”
Last month, many watched in disbelief as St. Louis DA Robert McCulloch rambled on describing in excruciating detail the circumstances of the Grand Jury’s deliberations leading to their decision to not bring charges against the white police officer who gunned down Michael Brown, the unarmed African-American teen in Ferguson, MO.
Reams of transcripts documenting their process were released and it is now clear based on a report by MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell that the Grand Jury was misinformed by the District Attorney’s office. They were instructed about the law relating to justifiable use of force which served as the framework on which to make their decisions. The law stated it was legal to use deadly force for any fleeing suspect regardless of the circumstances. Problem was… that particular law was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1985. Later on they provided a copy of the current law but never explained how it differed, thus leaving a veil of confusion on just what the ground rules were. It’s difficult to imagine this obfuscation was not deliberate.
“I can’t breathe!”
Disbelief turns to horror as we fast forward several weeks to the bombshell announcing that the white NYC Police Officer who applied a lethal choke hold to unarmed African-American Eric Garner for allegedly selling unpackaged cigarettes would likewise go unindicted. Choke holds are specifically banned by NYPD protocol and the coroner declared Garner’s death a homicide. Some have suggested mandatory video cameras for police as a way to ensure justice but this shocking murder was filmed for the whole world to see, including Garner’s desperate and repeated pleas of “I can’t breathe!” as he was being choked to death.
Yet, watching the incidents unfold before them on camera seemed to have no impact on the minds of the jurors. Because their deliberations are secret, we are left to wonder what the hell they were thinking, what guidance they received from the DA, and in fact, whether the DA was asking them for an indictment at all. The grand jury is not asked to rule on guilt or innocence, merely whether there is probable cause (i.e., sufficient evidence) that a crime may have been committed.
The System is Broken
In both these recent cases the grand juries grossly overstepped their statutory responsibilities by attempting to determine a verdict. In each case an unarmed African-American was killed by a white police officer. That should have been sufficient evidence to bring charges and allow America’s famed system of justice to do its work. The only appropriate mechanism to determine whether Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson or Officer Daniel Pantaleo in Staten Island is guilty of a crime is by trial in front of a jury of their peers in a court of law, open to the scrutiny of all, and under the supervision of a trained, knowledgeable, and impartial judge.
Our nation’s justice system is founded on the principal of innocent until proven guilty. Surely the jury system is far from perfect. There have been many instances where the guilty have been set free and worse, the innocent are inappropriately convicted. But the foundation is sound and has remained one of the important ways we honor our democracy. Regardless of the ultimate outcome that might have resulted from jury trials for these particular cases, the victims’ families (and in fact all of us) were denied the right to due process.
The members of the grand juries did not reach the proper decision but the blame for these failures must fall with the local district attorneys. In Ferguson the proceedings were released and in fact shed light on inappropriate DA actions. But as in Staten Island, these proceedings usually don’t see the light of day and we have no way of assuring that the process was conducted properly. This is a national disgrace and cannot be allowed to continue unchecked. The incestuous relationship that exists between district attorneys and local police departments is well-known and is sufficient reason to automatically convene an independent special prosecutor in such cases. Local politicians should have used their power to insist on this and thus avoid such obvious and egregious miscarriages of justice.
Tip of the Iceberg:
And these systemic judicial issues are just the tip of the iceberg. Floating below the surface are the issues of why our police forces are not more representative of the communities they serve to protect, why there is such a disproportionate number of young people of color slain by white policemen*, why people seek to blame the victims as if stealing a cigar, selling a loose cigarette, or being overweight, are capital offenses that justify a government sponsored homicide, and why people continue to be deaf, dumb, and blind to the persistence of racism in the 21st century. Recognition of these issues is the first step in avoiding a collision that threatens the integrity of our ship we call democracy. Some may make the case that the hull has already sustained significant damage and we’ve taken on water while White America complacently ignores the reality as the band plays on.
And on and on…
Rumain Brisbon, another unarmed black man was slain earlier in the week (Dec 2), this time in Phoenix, AZ. He was allegedly dealing drugs in his car and when police tried to apprehend him he fled and was gunned down. He was carrying one bottle of oxycodone. The same day, Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old African-American boy was laid to rest in Cleveland. He had been playing with a toy gun in a local park when a patrol car rushed to the scene. Two white policemen jumped out with guns drawn and two seconds later Tamir lay dead. Black twenty-eight year old, Akai Gurley was on his way to a party with his girlfriend on Nov. 22 when he was gunned down by a white NYPD police officer in the dark stairwell of his Brooklyn apartment building. The NY Daily News reported that while Gurley lay dying, rather than report the shooting, stabilize the victim, and call for help, the officers ignored attempts from their dispatcher to reach them and the shooter was texting his union representative to ask how to cover his ass.
*Analysis of the 1,217 deadly police shootings nationwide from 2010 to 2012 show that 15 – 19 year old black males were more than 20 times more likely to be slain by police than their white counterparts; 31.17 deaths per million, compared with just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police. http://www.boulderweekly.com/article-13690-deadly-force-in-black-and-white.html