Notes on Ferguson, the Criminal Justice System and the Tar Baby of Race
This Thanksgiving, we were blessed with the usual assortment of family, friends, football, turkey and dressing, sweet potato pie and German chocolate cake. As is the norm, we each ate to wretched excess, far beyond the point of being full. But the food was great and it was Thanksgiving so what the hell?
But no family gathering is complete absent a ‘great debate’. And the subject of this year’s contest was the situation in Ferguson, Missouri. Citing racism and the long, shameful and undeniable history of similar incidents, one side bemoaned the grand jury decision not to indict white Police Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown, a young black male.
Others responded that while the death was tragic, Mr. Brown put himself at risk via a series of dumb decisions, e.g., the reported altercation in a convenience store over a cigar, walking in the middle of the street shortly thereafter, refusing the officer’s command to move to the sidewalk and fighting with the officer as he sat in his police car. They further argued that the post decision rioting and destruction of property was indefensible and beyond stupid. Eventually the debate subsided with no one budging from their previously held positions. And we resumed eating with plate numbers two and in some cases three.
It comes as no surprise that the Ferguson Grand Jury declined to indict Officer Wilson, who has reportedly resigned his position. The legal standard for the justifiable use of deadly force by the police is decidedly low, i.e., whether the officer in the performance of his duties, reasonably feared for his safety. Nor are we shocked by the flawed police procedures.
Officer Wilson left the scene of the shooting unescorted, washed the blood off his hands at the police station and placed his recently fired pistol into an evidence bag thereby breaking the chain of custody for a crucial piece of evidence. In addition, the Ferguson police failed to tape his post shooting statement, there was an absence of police personnel present during said statement and the county medical examiner’s failed to take measurements at the crime scene.
That the criminal justice system has a racial problem is an understatement. But the issue is far greater than Michael Brown or Darren Wilson. It is also larger than Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman or the 12-year-old black child in Cleveland who was shot and killed by the police for the unpardonable sin of playing with a toy gun. They are but symbolic of a greater pattern, a sad history of racial injustice committed and sanctioned under the blood-red color of law.
The larger question is what do we do about it? How do we prevent the racist application of the law and persuade African-American males to avoid putting themselves in harm’s way by engaging in conduct which is anything but productive?
Many prefer to stew in their hatred and animosity rather than bridge the racial divide. This observation applies to both blacks and whites. Blackacre however is decidedly different. We therefore offer the following remedies for consideration.
• First, turn down the heat. History teaches that no matter the issues, regardless the situation race generates guilt, hostility and a bitterness that lay just below the surface, rubbing and chafing emotions that are already raw and hardening positions that are by now set in stone. Race clouds and complicates matters so that dispassionate dialogue and reasonable compromise are all but impossible. Add race to the equation and an already bad situation becomes infinitely worse.
Our response to any racially charged situation must therefore be cool, calm and collected. Acting out emotionally in the form of riots, arson and looting or over reacting with military hardware and martial law are the last things we should do.
• Second, understand that true nature of the criminal justice system. John Hope Franklin’s “From Slavery to Freedom, A History of African-Americans” documents that “80% to 90 % of all inmates in Alabama in the 1880’s and 1890’s were black. In Tennessee more than 60% of the prison population was black.”
Today little has changed. African-Americans make up roughly 13% of the U.S. population but 65% of the U. S. prison population. In the southern states of Georgia, Louisiana, South and North Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama blacks make up as low as 22% of the state population and as high as 76% of the prison population. Delaware is even worse with a black population of 19% but a prison population of 63%. See for example, The Sentencing Project, Research and Advocacy for Reform or the U. S. Department of justice, Bureau of justice Statistics.
Thus, the criminal justice system is not the New Cotton the new Jim Crow, the new slavery or the new anything else. The criminal justice system is the old slavery, the same slavery of our ancestors only updated to meet the requirements of the 21st century. And its prime objective is to enact the exact words of the 13th Amendment, i.e., “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crimes whereof the party shall be duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to its jurisdiction.”
• Third, hold the system and ourselves accountable. The legal system cannot expect law-abiding behavior if it breaks the law. It cannot require that we obey protocol if it flagrantly disregards protocol. And it cannot expect that we be nonviolent when it relishes violence in the form of barbaric jails/prisons and trigger happy cops who shoot first and asks questions latter. ‘This is how the police are trained’ is no excuse for murder, the grand jury process was and is not fair and Officer Wilson did in fact receive special treatment.
Still, family can no longer demand the least of us but the most of everyone else. We cannot look for trouble and then complain about the trouble we get, place ourselves in harm’s way and grumble about being harmed, or play with the devil and harp about being burned. Nor can we destroy our own communities merely because we are angry or frustrated.
Michael Brown may not have deserved his fate. But his hands were unclean, as are ours via violence and criminal behavior. Rioting diminishes our cause and reinforces the absolute worst in racial stereotypes. Even those who are persuaded that the shooting was unjustified are repulsed by this behavior. African-Americans will secure justice if and only if our hands are clean.
The hands of the criminal justice system are likewise dirty by way of the above referenced ‘irregularities’ and the intentional targeting of black males for abuse and incarceration. This too undermines trust for and faith in law enforcement which is felt by blacks, whites and every color in between.
The USA on-line article, Local Police Involved in 400 Killings Per Year”, reports that “according to the most recent accounts of justifiable homicide reported to the FBI, nearly two times a week … a white police officer killed a black person during a seven-year period ending in 2012.” Even this number is open to debate.
According to an on-line article by the Washington Post entitled, “How Many Police Shootings a Year? No One Knows”, “criminal justice experts note that, while the federal government and national research groups keep scads of data and statistics— on topics ranging from how many people were victims of unprovoked shark attacks (53 in 2013) to the number of hogs and pigs living on farms in the U.S. (upwards of 64,000,000 according to 2010 numbers) — there is no reliable national data on how many people are shot by police officers each year (the above referenced USA article notwithstanding).
Officials with the Justice Department keep no comprehensive database or record of police shootings, instead allowing the nation’s more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies to self-report officer-involved shootings… That number…only includes self-reported information from about 750 law enforcement agencies… But the department stopped releasing these numbers after 2009, because, like the FBI data, they were widely regarded as unreliable.
The government does, however, keep a database of how many officers are killed in the line of duty. In 2012, the most recent year for which FBI data is available, it was 48 – 44 of them killed with firearms.”
There is every reason to believe that the number of “justifiable homicides” by the police is underreported and intentionally so. There is even more reason to believe that there is no reliable national data on how many people are shot by police officers each year because politicians and law enforcement officials don’t want to know and more importantly, don’t want you to know this figure. These forces realize that disclosing this information would further undermine trust and faith in the system.
Fortunately, the means of holding the system accountable lay in the power of the vote. On the local level, judges, district attorneys, county sheriffs and mayors are elected officials. Police chiefs and commissions are appointed by these officials. If the good people of Ferguson or any other community dislike these officials or how they enforce the law, the remedy is to either vote them out of office or to remove them by recall petition.
As to family, the remedy is a little more complicated but equally straight forward. Demand as much of ourselves as we do of others, insist upon law-abiding behavior and stop making excuses for the inexcusable.
In conclusion, from the nation’s very inception, the putrid cling or race has always been and continues to be America’s tar baby. The Ferguson incident and our reaction to it evidence that the tar has never been more adhesive; more rancid. We free ourselves by realizing that the problem of race and the criminal justice system is not our fault or their fault. It’s both.
Leo Barron Hicks, Founder and CEO
Blackacre Policy Forum