I say this despite not being on the grand jury and not being there the day Eric Garner was choked to death by a New York City policeman -- a choke hold that is against police procedure in New York and illegal, a death ruled a homicide by the medical examiner.
But maybe calling the grand jury's decision inexplicable misses the point. It is, after all, all too explicable, given the way the law is structured, given the deference we show police and the racial animus that underlies so much of our day-to-day interactions.
I don't use the phrase "racial animus" lightly. Race infects everything we do, at least on some level. It is there in our language -- see this interesting piece on seven common, racially coded expressions that we think are harmless, but that carry subtle and not-so-subtle messages. It is there in our hiring practices, our politics, our policing. It remains a central fact of American life.
Consider this screen grab of a Facebook discussion from yesterday -- I blotted out the names and icons of the people involved. This is a fairly typical conservative/white response to the protests against police abuses triggered by the Ferguson grand jury and intensified in the wake of yesterday's announcement in Staten Island. (I am not saying that all whites or conservatives think this way, but this seemed to sum up the tenor of many of the conversations I've been hearing over the last two weeks -- both from politicians and the conservative blogosphere, and people I talk with live or on social media.)
This argument creates a false equivalency, which gets to the heart of the different ways in which blacks and whites view the criminal justice system. I say false equivalence because:
- The accused were indicted and there is a pretty good chance they will be convicted, while the officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner were not.
- The Virginia case is a rarity when compared with the Brown and Garner cases.
- Police are state agents acting on behalf of us, meaning their actions reflect our values. It's why shootings deaths like Brown's, or Tamir Rice's in Cleveland, and why Garner's death literally in the hands of a police officer are more than tragic, and why African Americans see police shootings not as an anomaly -- as many whites do -- but as an extension of a lived history.
We can say the criminal justice system did its job -- and that is probably true. But that is only because the system is rigged in favor of police, in favor of power, in favor of maintaining the status quo.
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