“We Can’t Breathe”

Times Square protestFor the second time in two weeks a grand jury has refused to indict a police officer involved in the needless death of an unarmed Black American male.

Two weeks ago a grand jury decided not to take any action against Officer Darren Wilson who shot and killed Michael Brown on the streets of Ferguson, Mo. It was an unusual hearing with many blatant irregularities that called the entire judicial process into question and kept justice from being served.

Then on Wednesday of this week a grand jury in Staten Island, N.Y. decided not to pursue charges against Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner. A video, now widely circulated, clearly showed the officer holding Garner in an illegal chokehold and disregarding Garner’s pleas saying, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”

New York protestsTo these two deaths, we can add many others:

Twelve year old Tamir Rice who was gunned down on sight by a police officer two weeks ago while playing with a toy gun in a park in Ohio.

John Crawford III who was shot on sight in August while holding a packaged BB gun in a Walmart store near Dayton, Ohio.

Levar Jones who was shot by a trooper without provocation in his car for a seat belt violation in Columbia, S.C.

And the list goes on and on. These are not isolated incidents. An analysis of FBI data shows that

White officers kill black suspects twice a week in the United States

In addition, the ACLU has documented a disturbing pattern in which

SWAT teams and other heavy-handed tactics are much more likely to be used against minority suspects than white ones

I have commented on the scope of this targeting of minorities by police in other posts

4 Disturbing Revelations in the Wake of Ferguson

Still Waiting for Justice in Ferguson and Beyond, and

[5 More Revelations Following Ferguson], so will not go into further detail here.

We should note that this blatant miscarriage of justice in now receiving international attention. In August, the U.N. Committee on the elimination of Racial Discrimination urged the U.S. to halt the excessive use of force by police in dealing with racial minorities. And last week the U.S. Committee Against Torture harshly criticized the U.S. over “police brutality and excessive use of force by law enforcement officials.”

With such widespread and persistent abuse of police authority in the U.S. the real casualty is not just the racial minorities who are targeted, but Justice itself.

Justice - I can't breatheWhen I was a kid growing up in the U.S. I would recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day in school:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible. with liberty and justice for all.

These days the last part of that pledge rings rather hollow.

Photo credit: Julia Cortez/AP

Still Waiting for Justice in Ferguson and Beyond

Ferguson protestsThe streets of Ferguson, Missouri erupted in violence last night with the announcement that following a three month investigation, a state Grand Jury had decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, on Aug. 9, 2014.

As Ben Casselman noted in writing for FiveThirtyEight that same evening, it is incredibly rare for a Grand Jury not to indict a defendant. Casselman wrote,

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.

Andrew D. Leipold, a University of Illinois law professor who has written critically about grand juries, added,

If the prosecutor wants an indictment and doesn’t get one, something has gone horribly wrong, It just doesn’t happen.

But it does seem to happen when an on-duty police officer is involved in a killing. Casselman notes that,

A recent Houston Chronicle investigation found that “police have been nearly immune from criminal charges in shootings” in Houston and other large cities in recent years. In Harris County, Texas, for example, grand juries haven’t indicted a Houston police officer since 2004; in Dallas, grand juries reviewed 81 shootings between 2008 and 2012 and returned just one indictment.


 Separate research by Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson has found that officers are rarely charged in on-duty killings.

In his defence, Wilson’s attorneys claimed that Wilson had “followed his training and followed the law” in the shooting death.

The kind of training police officers receive was an apparent factor in the police shooting of John Crawford III just five days earlier, on August 5, 2014, in Beavercreek, Ohio. Crawford was seen carrying an unpackaged BB/pellet rifle in a Walmart store when police officers, responding to an emergency call from another shopper, shot him on sight.

According to the family’s attorney,

Surveillance video showed Crawford facing away from officers, talking on the phone, and leaning on the pellet gun like a cane when he was “shot on sight” in a “militaristic” response by police.

surveillance footageIt was later revealed that just two weeks prior to this incident the local police had received a training “pep talk” in what to do when faced with an “active shooter threat.” Instead of evacuating the area and calling in a SWAT team, the officers were encouraged to “engage first” and ask questions later.

tamir-riceThen there is the alarming story from just this week of police in Cleveland, Ohio fatally shooting Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old black boy, who was playing with a fake gun in a city park. According to the reports, police fired on him “despite the fact the suspected weapon was not pointed at them and no threats were made.”

The ugly fact is that according to seven years of FBI data,

White officers kill black suspects twice a week in the United States, or an average of 96 times a year.

An analysis of 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 shows that

Young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than their white peers, mainly at the hands of white police officers.

hands up … don't shootAs Tom McKay recently reported on News.Mic,

the number of white cops shooting black people is just part of a larger problem. Black people across the United States are more likely to face discrimination in the criminal justice system and be harassed, arrested and shot by police. Sadly, even the most extreme cases of police excess often end in little punishment.

In a country where “open carry” laws allow white citizens to walk through their neighborhoods and enter businesses and even churches armed with assault rifles, it can be a death sentence for a black person to be seen with a gun even if it is a toy.

The Scope of the Problem

There is a great deal of truth in Zeeshan Aleem’s statement in Policy.Mic yesterday that in much of the U.S.,

race determines whether you’re viewed as a citizen or a problem.

To illustrate this point, I return to the statement of Paul Waldman cited in a previous post [4 Disturbing Revelations in the Wake of Ferguson] whre he recalls that as a white person,

in all my years I’ve never been stopped by a cop who just wanted to know who I was and what I was up to. I’ve never been accused of “furtive movements,” the rationale New York City police use for the hundreds of thousands of times every year they question black and Hispanic men. I’ve never been frisked on the street, and nobody has ever responded with fear when I got in an elevator. That’s not because of my inherent personal virtue. It’s because I’m white.

This is in stark contrast to Jonathan Capehart’s recollection of the crucial lesson his mother drilled into him as a black youth of

How I shouldn’t run in public, lest I arouse undue suspicion. How I most definitely should not run with anything in my hands, lest anyone think I stole something. The lesson included not talking back to the police, lest you give them a reason to take you to jail — or worse. And I was taught to never, ever leave home without identification.

The systemic oppression faced by black individuals – especially male black youth – in the U.S. is almost unimaginable to white Americans. Zeeshan Aleem reports that,

Black men not only encounter constant surveillance, violence and shockingly high chances of correctional supervision for matters that the rest of the population does not, but they also then face discrimination in housing, employment, financial services and political rights after they exit prison.

The following shocking statistics reinforce this claim:

  • the U.S. currently incarcerates a far greater percentage of its black population than South Africa did under apartheid.
  • more than half of the young black men in many large American cities are currently under the control of the criminal justice system (or saddled with criminal records)
  • more black adults live under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole —than under slavery in 1850.

It is no wonder that many African-Americans seriously mistrust the American system of justice. Under current laws and legal practices systematic injustice has become the norm.

For many white onlookers, the recent events in Ferguson have helped to lift the veil on this sordid side of American life. But for black Americans it was no revelation at all. It was a reality they were all too familiar with.

Photo credits: AP. CCTV