The United States of America prides itself on being a nation of laws. We elect our leaders by popular vote (mostly). Our government (federal, state and local) creates laws and regulations that aim to serve to better our lives and community. Yet, as we peel back the veneer on which we base our pride, we see a multi-tiered system that seems to serve a privileged few at the expense of those at the bottom. No where is this tiered system more sinister than in our justice system.
Our justice system is comprised of several pieces that are supposed to work together to provide a civil society for all.
- Law Enforcement. We have law enforcement agencies which include police, sheriff, state police, the FBI and other agencies such as Homeland security (not really sure where they fit in our law enforcement mosaic) that provide the physical presence in our communities to physically enforce that myriad of laws that our legislators create.
- Lawyers. We have prosecutors and defense attorneys who work to represent the two “opposing” sides in any legal dispute. They are usually hired to represent their side in the dispute, but in some cases they work for a government body to provide legal services to those that can not afford an attorney.
- Judges. Judges are the arbiters of court proceedings and they impose sentences on those found guilty at criminal proceedings.
- Juries. Guilt is determined by juries “of our peers” or in some cases by the judge overseeing the proceedings themselves.
- Prisons. Sentence is carried out, normally in a jail or prison, where the person sentenced to a term receives an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves before they are released.
But at every level, we see evidence that this system works differently for people based on, primarily, income and social status. I’m going to start with my thoughts on Law Enforcement and how it is used in a prejudicial manner against the poor, and as a result, people of color.
Law Enforcement Shootings
In 2014 and 2015 (so far) we’ve encountered many examples of what appears to be an institutional bias against people of color visible when there are police / community interactions. There have been some high profile cases that serve to point out some discrepancies in how law enforcement is used in trying to enforce laws.
Many states have an “open carry” policy toward firearms. This should mean that any law-abiding person is able to openly carry a firearm in public (generally). However, it is plainly obvious that law enforcement agencies apply this law differently to people who appear to be “white” and those who appear to be “people of color.”
The most striking example of this involves the killing of John Crawford III (22) in Dayton, Ohio on August 5, 2014. Crawford was shopping in Wal-Mart where he picked up a toy gun and continued shopping in the store. A white couple saw him and called police. When police responded, Crawford was shot and killed.
There are many, many examples of people exercising their right to open-carry in places such as Home Depot and Target. Which there have been calls for these stores (and others) to deny access to people openly carrying firearms, pro-gun-rights organizations such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) have successfully lobbied against these calls for action. Police departments generally abide by these laws, presumably because some officers are themselves run-rights proponents.
Yet, John Crawford III is dead.
Supporters of open-carry in Ohio protested at the Wal-Mart in support of Crawford’s open-carry rights. No one got killed. Yet John Crawford is still dead. What was the difference? Most of the protesters were white and John Crawford was black.
Most people of color know, that if they were to open-carry a firearm, they would become the subject of a police response and would likely be arrested and (over) charged with a myriad of charges.
But this different response is nothing new. Nor is it confined to uniformed law enforcement. In 2012, the United States was forced to confront the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin. A Florida youth who was killed walking to his father’s home by a non-uniformed (but armed) neighborhood watch vigilante named George Zimmerman. Zimmerman was put on trial and was acquitted. He based his defense on Florida’s “Stand-your-ground” law which, Zimmerman claimed, and the jury mistakenly agreed, allowed Zimmerman to kill Martin because Zimmerman “feared for his life.”
Yet what was overlooked, is that Trayvon Martin also had stand-your-ground rights. So when he saw Zimmerman approach him, Martin had the right to defend himself with deadly force. Yet, neither the prosecutors, judge, nor jury ever considered that Zimmerman was the aggressor in this case and therefore should not have been allowed defend his action using the dubious law. Here too, we saw that people of color are treated differently under the law. “Stand-your-ground does not apply toward black people” was the statement heard from the jury when the verdict was read.
And so it goes on.