From Ferguson to Staten Island, Justice and Accountability Are Nowhere in Sight
December 4, 2014
In New York City yesterday, a grand jury failed to indict the officer who killed Eric Garner in Staten Island.
The grand jury decision isn’t just disappointing, it’s downright alarming.
Grand juries aren't supposed to find innocence or guilt - they're
supposed to decide whether there is enough evidence to accuse someone
and bring them to trial.
The killing of Eric Garner was caught on camera and the video went
viral. The coroner ruled the death a homicide. In the face of such
compelling, awful evidence, the Garner family and communities across the
country reasonably expected some accountability.
In refusing to indict the officer who choked Eric Garner to death,
the grand jury is saying the loss of Garner’s life doesn’t require even
the most basic inquiry and process of a trial. Once again, the deep
flaws with our broken criminal justice system are exposed.
Unfortunately, these flaws are found not only in New York City, but
across the country. Last week in Ferguson, MO, a different grand jury
refused to indict the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown.
From discredited stop-and-frisk practices, to the controversial “broken
windows” policing, to the indefensible racial disparities in drug law
enforcement, systemic racism – long a part of the failed war on drugs –
is clearly a standard feature in our criminal justice system.
Yet because this racism is about systems and not individuals, it
makes it harder for some people to see and understand. In her
bestselling book The New Jim Crow,
law professor, Michelle Alexander, popularized the concept of systemic
racism by outlining the long history of racial subjugation in the U.S.
and its modern manifestations, wherein policies, institutional practices
and politics combine to criminalize, stigmatize and devalue people of
Yesterday, my colleague Yolande Cadore wrote
about these connections from Ferguson, where she’s marching for justice
along with faith leaders from around the country. She wrote:
“Many may ask – what does the death of Michael
Black lives matter. And other than slavery and Jim Crow laws, no other
social policy has served to devalue Black lives more than America’s drug
In August, when nationwide protests erupted after the killing of Michael Brown, another DPA colleague, Sharda Sekaran, wrote about
how the war on drugs “fuels the underlying thread of judgment, stigma
and marginalization that permeates how we value human life and it
enables acts of violence.”
These connections are becoming ever-more apparent in the light of
these tragedies and the subsequent absence of accountability or justice
for those who have lost their lives. A recent report by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement found that every 28 hours, a Black man is killed by police in the U.S.
Too often, those in power attempt to justify these killings by
engaging in character assassination of those who lost their lives.
Authorities will claim, for instance, that the person who was killed was
using drugs – both Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were accused of
marijuana use, as if this somehow justifies a death sentence.
Eric Garner was accused of selling cigarettes, as if this somehow
justifies a death sentence. These vulgar efforts at character
assassination, coupled with the tired calls to "respect the process" in a
broken criminal justice system, represent petty attempts to obscure the
brutal, ugly reality of systemic racism. In the wake of this latest miscarriage of justice, there are again
calls for reform. The president has promised change, the Department of
Justice has launched an investigation into the Garner case, and elected
officials in New York have promised action.
What will make these promises and investigations lead to justice and
accountability? The pressure brought by peoples movements – like those
that are growing now across the country.
We know that Black lives matter, regardless of what a grand jury
concludes. We know that our country can do better – and we must.
In the midst of our frustration, despair, and anger, let’s redouble
our effort to build vibrant movements for real change, dismantle the New
Jim Crow, and advance justice, equity and human rights for all.