The Day After the Verdict, Round 2: Yup, Still a Joke

Maybe this time, I thought before yesterday’s grand jury decision was announced.

Because Daniel Pantoleo, the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death on July 17, has a history of alleged race-related misconduct.

Maybe this time.

Because the NYPD forbids its members from using chokeholds — a rule that went into effect 21 years ago, long before Pantoleo was ever a cop.

Maybe this time.

Because the New York City medical coroner ruled Garner’s death a homicide.

Maybe this time.

Because the entire incident was filmed.  Because you can see in the tape, as the New York Times stated, that Garner was “not acting belligerently, posed no risk of flight, brandished no weapon and was heavily outnumbered.”  Because you can hear him say “I can’t breathe” 11 times before he dies.  Eleven.  Times.

Maybe this time.

But then the news broke.

As I tried to make sense of the decision, stunned and sad and outraged (a luxury, I recognize), I also felt foolish for thinking that the outcome might be different this time.

Because after all, the grand jury proceedings took place in Staten Island, a borough that’s long been sympathetic to police officers, in large part because so many of them live there.

Because we don’t know what charges, if any, the prosecutor recommended to the grand jury — though we do know that prosecutors are generally reluctant to put police officers on trial, perhaps because they work so closely together and don’t want to risk hurting those relationships.

Because time and time again, grand juries decline to bring charges against police officers who shoot unarmed civilians.

And given everything that this case had going for it — the officer’s history, his use of a prohibited chokehold, the medical examiner’s ruling, the tape (the TAPE!) — I had to face some deeply unpleasant realities:

That even though police body cameras are a good first step (see how public opinion largely favored an indictment in this case, as opposed to the Darren Wilson case, which had no tape and conflicting eyewitness testimony), maybe they won’t fix the problem.

That maybe our society isn’t interested in holding police officers accountable for killing unarmed black civilians, and they’ll continue to do so with impunity.

That maybe our criminal justice system is even more of a joke than I thought it was last week.

Something has to change.

The Day After the Verdict: Is This a Joke?

Like many others, I have been asking this question for months.

First, back in August, when news outlets reported that Bob McCulloch, the prosecutor for St. Louis County, had a long history of siding with the police; that his father, a St. Louis cop, was killed on the job by a black man; that his brother, uncle, and cousin were cops as well; that his mother had worked as a clerk in police headquarters; that he himself had wanted to be a cop until one of his legs was amputated in high school.  His office would be responsible for presenting the case of Darren Wilson, a Ferguson cop who shot and killed Michael Brown, before a grand jury.

Is this a joke?

And then when McCulloch said he would let the jury of 12 civilians figure out what charge to bring, if any, instead of making a case for a specific charge, as prosecutors usually do.  And instead of selecting a few key witnesses and experts to testify, he would give them “every last scrap of evidence” — essentially drowning them information that they did not have the skills to parse.  As former federal prosecutor Alex Little told Vox, “So when a District Attorney says, in effect, ‘we’ll present the evidence and let the grand jury decide,’ that’s malarkey. If he takes that approach, then he’s already decided to abdicate his role in the process as an advocate for justice. At that point, there’s no longer a prosecutor in the room guiding the grand jurors, and — more importantly — no state official acting on behalf of the victim, Michael Brown.”

Is this a joke?

And then last week, when Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency in anticipation of the grand jury’s findings — more than a week before the results were actually announced.  This announcement was one of many portents of what the decision would be; after all, if they thought an indictment was coming, they would not be anticipating riots, and they would not preemptively bring in the National Guard.  (As Michael Che said on Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update, “Deploying the National Guard before the verdict is like your lawyer telling you to show up in court in something orange.”)  Not to mention that bringing in such force has a way of escalating tense situations — especially when said force takes a stance that’s aggressive instead of containing, as it did when it was first called to Ferguson in August.  (Many military veterans criticized their behavior.)  Not surprisingly, a self-fulfilling prophecy ensued, because when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  So everything, even peaceful gatherings, even journalists observing the situation, was perceived as an actionable threat.  So not only did the National Guard exacerbate the situation in Ferguson in August, but Nixon decided last week that it would be a good idea to preemptively bring them back.

Is this a joke?

And then yesterday morning, when news circulated about yet another African American child killed by police — this time a 12-year-old in Cleveland, Tamir Rice, who had been wielding an airsoft gun at a park.  When police arrived, he was swinging on a swingset.  Minutes later, they shot him dead.  The timing was ominous.

Is this a joke?

And then when McCulloch finally took the podium last night and started his announcement with a longwinded, defensive preface, lashing out at the 24-hour news cycle and social media, as though concerned people wanting to know what happened were somehow culpable for Brown’s death.

Is this a joke?

And then when McCulloch finally announced that the grand jury did not make an indictment — a statistical rarity, as grand juries almost always indict.  But prosecutors can get grand juries to do pretty much anything they want (as former New York state Chief Judge Sol Wachtler said, a prosecutor can persuade a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich”), so the fact that they did not — coupled with McCulloch’s tactics in presenting the case, as described earlier — suggest that he got exactly the result he wanted.

Is this a joke?

And then when McCulloch proceeded to drone on, in excruciating detail, why no indictment was made.  The prosecutor became a defense attorney, discrediting eyewitness testimony, declaring that no one should ever have to be in Wilson’s position.  Wilson’s position.  Not the position of the unarmed teenager staring down the barrel of a police officer’s gun.

Is this a joke?

And then when the statement from Michael Brown’s parents, Michael Sr. and Lesley McSpadden, was released in the middle of the interminable announcement — already prepared, as they too probably anticipated the worst — which was infinitely more gracious and hopeful than I could have ever been in their shoes.  As Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times said, their statement offered the most constructive words of the evening, that police officers should be equipped with body cameras.  Of the two parties center stage, the ones who made more sense were the parents of the deceased victim, who were probably beside themselves with grief.

Is this a joke?

And then when President Obama made a statement, looking nothing like the impassioned orator we know him to be, especially in times of distress; he looked tired and frustrated, making bland statements about how incidents like this are an ongoing problem in communities of color.  He acknowledged that, at least.  But the president has been a lawyer, a law professor, and a community organizer in predominantly black neighborhoods; surely he has more to say about this situation than that it’s an ongoing issue and “we have made enormous progress in race relations over the past decades” and “there is never an excuse for violence.”  I wanted him to rise to the occasion and be the leader that we need right now, to help us make sense of this, to tell us what we should do now.  At the same time, I felt sorry for him, that he probably has so much to say that he cannot — because if he brings up race, his opponents will accuse him of playing the race card, and because his administration has been beleaguered by troubles in the last few months and cannot really sustain any more vulnerabilities.  I felt sorry that directly acknowledging the realities of racism in our justice system would open him up to attack, but Hillary Clinton can do it and no one accuses her of playing the race card.  Because, you know, white privilege.

Is this a joke?

And then the hypocrisy of this:

And the hypocrisy of declaring it okay for Darren Wilson to use violence when he felt threatened but not for the community to do the same.

Is this a joke?

Yes, it is.  Our criminal justice system, for all of the well-meaning people in it, is a joke.

When black teenagers are 21 times more likely than white teenagers to be killed by cops — the system is a joke.

When Marissa Alexander is in prison for shooting no one while Darren Wilson gets half a million dollars but no charge — the system is a joke.

When 14 people have been killed by police in St. Louis County in the last decade and not a single one of the cops was charged — the system is a joke.

When black and white Americans have comparable rates of drug use but black people are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for drugs and get 13.1% longer sentences, and drugs that are more often used by black people have far weightier punishments than those more often used by white people, and SWAT teams are more likely to target black neighborhoods than white neighborhoods — the system is a joke.

It’s been a gutting 24 hours, with these painful reminders that the world is a terribly unfair place, that W. E. B. DuBois was right when he said that “a system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect.”  And I am one of the fortunate ones, that I can look at these facts and feel sadness and outrage instead of absolute terror.

Something has to change.