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“A Police Officers Mouth Ain’t No Prayer Book”: Blacks And Whites Need To Wake Up To Racial Injustice

In September, I received an email that should have left me feeling vindicated.

It was in response to the non-fatal shooting of Levar Jones, an unarmed African-American man, by Sean Groubert, a white South Carolina state trooper. Groubert would later claim he shot Jones because Jones came at him in a menacing way. But this lie was unmasked by Groubert’s own dashcam video, which shows Jones complying with the trooper’s orders until Groubert inexplicably panics and starts shooting.

That video moved a reader named David to write the following: “Think I FINALLY get what you’ve been saying all along. That cop just shot him down for doing nothing more than compiling [sic] with his commands. No offense to black people, but I SURE AM GLAD I’M NOT BLACK IN THIS COUNTRY! Re-evaluating my opinions of the last 50 years.”

As I say, it should have felt like vindication. But it only made me sad. I kept thinking that, had there been no camera to prove Groubert lied, had there been only testimony from witnesses and whatever forensic evidence was gathered, Groubert would likely still be making traffic stops and David would support him, his opinions of the last 50 years unchanged.

My point is not that cameras are a panacea for justice — they weren’t for Oscar Grant in 2009, they weren’t for Rodney King in 1991, they weren’t for Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp in 1930. No, my point is that the bar of proof is set higher when white people — police officers in particular — kill black ones. My point is that rules change and assumptions are different when black people seek justice.

Knowing that, who can be surprised at what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, Monday night? Who can be surprised that a prosecutor who didn’t seem to want an indictment did not convince a grand jury to return one in the August shooting of Michael Brown? Who can be surprised that Officer Darren Wilson now goes on with his life after firing 12 shots, at least six of which struck home, at an unarmed teenager while said teenager remains imprisoned by the grave? Who can be surprised people in Ferguson and around the country convulsed with shock, sorrow and disbelief? Who can be surprised some vulturous knuckleheads saw the calamity as an excuse to break windows and steal beer? Who can be surprised at pictures showing that the “injuries” Wilson sustained in his scuffle with Brown, injuries that supposedly made him so terrified for his life that he had to shoot, amount to a small abrasion on his lip and a reddened cheek?

I’m glad that video helped David to “FINALLY get” what I’ve been “saying all along,” i.e., that a police officer’s mouth, to use one of my mother’s expressions, ain’t no prayer book; no source of infallible truth the way too many of us think it is. And that benefit of the doubt is something black people are often denied. And that America devalues black life. But if we have to go David by David to those realizations, each requiring a dashcam video before he gets the point, we are doomed to a long and dreary future of Fergusons.

Last year, when the thug George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Trayvon Martin, I wrote that black people need to “wake the h–l up” — organize, boycott, vote, demonstrate, demand.

But black people aren’t the only ones sleeping. Too many — not all, but too many — white people still live in air castles of naivete and denial, still think abiding injustice and ongoing oppression are just some fairy tale, lie, or scheme African-Americans concocted to defraud them. Or else that these things are far away and have no impact on their lives. The fires in Ferguson Monday night suggest that they continue that delusion at their own peril.

I still think black folks need to wake the h–l up.

But white ones do, too.

 

By:Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, November 26, 2014

November 28, 2014 Posted by | Ferguson Missouri, Law Enforcement, Racism | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Re-Purposing The Grand Jury”: The St. Louis County Prosecutor Implicitly Conceded The Need For A Trial

Here is the irony of St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s announcement Monday night that a grand jury had declined to indict officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown: The entire presentation implicitly conceded the need for a trial.

McCulloch was at pains to persuade the public that the grand jury had extensively weighed all the available evidence, and that it pointed to the conclusion that Wilson had not committed a crime. He talked about witnesses who changed their stories once they were presented with knowable facts that contradicted their original claims. He discussed the forensic evidence suggesting that Wilson’s initial shots against Brown occurred during a struggle in or near Wilson’s police cruiser, and that Wilson only began firing again after Brown, who’d initially fled, began moving toward him again. He talked about the lack of agreement over the position of Brown’s hands when Wilson fired the second, fatal barrage of shots.

So far as I know, McCulloch was under no obligation to discuss this evidence publicly. Nor was he under any obligation to release the evidence into the public domain following his remarks, as he repeatedly pledged to do. He presumably did these things to assure us that the decision not to prosecute Wilson was arrived at fairly and justly.

The problem with this is that we already have a forum for establishing the underlying facts of a caseand, no less important, for convincing the public that justice is being served in a particular case. It’s called a trial. It, rather than the post-grand jury press conference, is where lawyers typically introduce mounds of evidence to the public, litigate arguments extensively, and generally establish whether or not someone is guilty of a crime. By contrast, as others have pointed out, the point of a grand jury isn’t to determine beyond a shadow of a doubt what actually happened. It’s to determine whether there’s probable cause for an indictment, which requires a significantly lower standard of proof. That McCulloch appeared to turn the grand jury into an exercise in sorting out the former rather than the latter suggested he wanted no part of a trial.*

And, in fairness, it would have been extremely difficult to convict Wilson in a trial. But that’s a separate question from whether or not the verdict would be seen as legitimate after the fact. If McCullough was truly as concerned as he suggested tonight that the public accept the process that’s allowed Darren Wilson to walk away a free man, he had an obvious way to help ensure that this would happen. That he chose to avoid it demonstrates a rather appalling level of cynicism.

UPDATE: Some readers have argued that it would have been unethical for McCulloch to go to trial with a case he didn’t believe in. Two points in response: 1. Well, he went to the grand jury with a case he didn’t believe in, and it’s pretty unusual for that to happen, too. Clearly, the reason he did that was to make the process of letting Wilson off the hook look fair–again, not the typical purpose of grand juries, which are about establishing probable cause for an indictment. My point is that there’s a much better venue for establishing the fairness of the process (and for nailing down what actually happened)–a trial. Conversely, if this were simply about assessing probable cause, then the platonically correct move would have been to avoid a grand jury altogether, since McCulloch clearly didn’t think it exists. 2. Yes, it would have been hard to convict Wilson. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a case to be built. That McCulloch didn’t believe in the case says as much about him and his biases as it does the underlying facts. A different prosecutor could have easily come down differently.

 

By: Norm Scheiber, The New Republic, November 25, 2014

November 26, 2014 Posted by | Darren Wilson, Ferguson Missouri, Robert McCulloch | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Why Even Pretend?”: There’s No Humane Way To Carry Out The Death Penalty

No one who supports the death penalty should have the slightest problem with the way Clayton Lockett died.

Lockett, a convicted murderer, spent 43 minutes in apparent agony Tuesday night as the state of Oklahoma tried to execute him by injecting an untested cocktail of drugs. Instead of quickly losing consciousness, he writhed in obvious distress and attempted to speak. Witnesses described what they saw as horrific.

Prison authorities halted the procedure — they were going to revive Lockett so they could kill him at a later date, presumably in a more aesthetically pleasing manner — but the condemned man suffered a heart attack and died.

The state postponed a second execution that had been scheduled for the same night, but I wonder why. We fool ourselves if we think there is a “humane” way to way to kill someone. Sure, the second inmate, Charles Warner, probably would have suffered an equally agonizing death. But isn’t this the whole point?

When I read about the crimes Lockett committed, I wish I could support capital punishment. When I read about what Warner did, I want to strangle him with my own hands. But revenge is not the same thing as justice, and karmic retribution is not a power I trust government to exercise. The death penalty has no place in a civilized society.

Lockett raped, brutalized and murdered a 19-year-old woman who had graduated from high school just two weeks earlier, shooting her and then burying her alive. Lockett and his accomplices also beat and robbed a 23-year-old man and raped an 18-year-old woman. The crimes took place in 1999; Lockett has been awaiting execution since 2000.

Warner, the other man who was to die in the Oklahoma execution chamber Tuesday, was convicted in 1999 of raping and murdering an 11-month-old child who was the daughter of his live-in girlfriend. The baby suffered unspeakable abuse.

The question is not whether Lockett and Warner deserve to die; clearly they do, as far as I’m concerned. The question is whether our society, acting through the instrument of government, should kill them. I believe there is no way to impose capital punishment without betraying the moral standards that our justice system is theoretically designed to uphold. Put simply, when we murder we become murderers.

Perhaps the most powerful argument against the death penalty is that it is irreversible. Sometimes, judges and juries make honest mistakes and innocent people may be condemned to death. Some studies have shown an apparent racial bias in the way capital punishment is meted out, with blacks who kill whites more likely than other defendants to end up on death row.

Put all this aside for the moment and assume that both Lockett and Warner committed those heinous crimes and that each was convicted in a scrupulously fair trial. The judgment of the state of Oklahoma is that both men must die. How, then, are they to be killed?

What about a public beheading, like in Saudi Arabia? No one would seriously suggest such a thing. Yet a razor-sharp sword surely would have been less agonizing — or at least much quicker — than the drugs injected into Lockett’s bloodstream.

The general idea of lethal injection is to give the condemned a powerful sedative followed by one or more lethal agents. But the sole manufacturer of one of the commonly used drugs stopped making it in 2011. Drug makers in Europe, where the death penalty is considered barbaric, refuse to export drugs to the United States for use in executions. As a result, there have been shortages. Oklahoma was using a new, unproven cocktail to kill Lockett.

Reportedly, Lockett’s vein “blew” shortly after the execution began, meaning that he was not getting the full doses. But his was hardly the first lethal injection execution in which the condemned showed visible signs of great pain.

I would argue that there’s no reason to believe lethal injection is a more humane way to end a life than electrocution, poison gas, hanging, firing squad or even guillotine. Of course, we’ll never know. We can tell ourselves any story we want about how quickly and painlessly death arrived, and the one person who could prove us wrong will never speak again.

But why even pretend? Clayton Lockett was a bad man. Those who believe it was right to kill him have no reason to be ashamed of the way he died — and no right to look away.

 

By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, May 1, 2014

May 2, 2014 Posted by | Capital Punishment, Death Penalty | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“3 Enemas Later, Still No Drugs”: Inequality Is Also About Dignity, Humanity And Access To Justice

If you think that protests about overzealous law enforcement are over the top, listen to what unfolded when the police suspected that David Eckert, 54, was hiding drugs in his rectum.

Eckert is a shy junk dealer struggling to get by in Hidalgo County, N.M. He lives a working-class life, drives a 16-year-old pickup and was convicted in 2008 of methamphetamine possession.

Police officers, suspecting he might still be involved in drugs, asked him to step out of his pickup early last year after stopping him for a supposed traffic violation. No drugs or weapons were found on Eckert or in his truck, but a police dog showed interest in the vehicle and an officer wrote that Eckert’s posture was “erect and he kept his legs together.”

That led the police to speculate that he might be hiding drugs internally, so they took him in handcuffs to a nearby hospital emergency room and asked the doctor, Adam Ash, to conduct a forcible search of his rectum. Dr. Ash refused, saying it would be unethical.

“I was pretty sure it was the wrong thing to do,” Dr. Ash told me. “It was not medically indicated.”

Eckert, protesting all the while, says he asked to make a phone call but was told that he had no right to do so because he hadn’t actually been arrested. The police then drove Eckert 50 miles to the emergency room of the Gila Regional Medical Center, where doctors took X-rays of Eckert’s abdomen and performed a rectal examination. No drugs were found, so doctors performed a second rectal exam, again unavailing.

Doctors then gave Eckert an enema and forced him to have a bowel movement in the presence of a nurse and policeman, according to a lawsuit that Eckert filed. When no narcotics were found, a second enema was administered. Then a third.

The police left the privacy curtain open, so that Eckert’s searches were public, the lawsuit says.

After hours of fruitless searches, police and doctors arranged another X-ray and finally anesthetized Eckert and performed a colonoscopy.

“Nothing was found inside of Mr. Eckert,” the police report notes. So after he woke up, he was released — after 13 hours, two rectal exams, three enemas, two X-rays and a colonoscopy.

The hospital ended up billing Eckert $6,000.

When I came across this case, it seemed far-fetched to me — more like rape than law enforcement. But the authorities, hospital and doctors all refused to comment, and, a few days ago, the city and county settled the lawsuit by paying Eckert $1.6 million.

This wasn’t a unique case. A few months earlier, a man named Timothy Young who lives nearby says that police officers pulled him over, forcibly strip-searched him in a parking lot and then took him to a hospital for a forced X-ray and rectal examination while he was handcuffed. Nothing was found, so he was released — only to receive a hospital bill.

And a few weeks before Eckert’s ordeal, a 54-year-old American woman crossing from Mexico into El Paso was strip-searched and taken to the University Medical Center of El Paso. She says in a lawsuit that, over six hours, she was shackled to an examination table and subjected to rectal and vaginal examinations — with the door open to compound her humiliation. After a final X-ray and CT scan, all of which turned up nothing, she was released — and billed for the procedures.

Joseph P. Kennedy, Eckert’s lawyer, notes that such abuses are not random but are disproportionately directed at those on the bottom rungs of society. “It’s a socioeconomic issue,” he said. “It’s the indignities forced on people who are not articulate, not educated and don’t have access to legal services.”

Police are caught in a difficult balancing act, and obviously the abuse of Eckert isn’t representative. But it is emblematic of something much larger in America, a kind of inequality that isn’t economic and that we don’t much talk about.

It’s the kind of inequality that lies behind police stops for “driving while black,” or unequal implementation of stop-and-frisk policies, or “zero tolerance” school discipline codes that lead many low-income children to be suspended.

This inequality has a racial element to it, but it is also about social class (Eckert is white but struggling financially). This is about Americans living in different worlds. If you’re a middle-class reader, you probably see the justice system as protective. If you’re a young man of color, you may see it as threatening.

So as we discuss inequality in America, let’s remember that the divide is measured in more than dollars. It’s also about something as fundamental as our dignity, our humanity and our access to justice; it’s about the right of working stiffs not to endure forced colonoscopies.

By: Nicholas D. Kristof, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, January 25, 2014

January 27, 2014 Posted by | Civil Rights, Inequality | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Denying And Ignoring The Realities”: For Some, The Name “Obama” Has Become A Code Word

Racial tensions in the United States have changed since Obama’s election as president, and for the worse. As judicial opinions since 2008 have revealed, both the word “Obama” and the president’s image have become tools for harassing and otherwise discriminating, in the workplace and in places of public accommodation, against blacks and against whites in romantic relationships with blacks.

For instance, while at a company picnic, one white employee sat down next to his co-workers, held a watermelon slice in his hand, and asserted, “I’m going to sit down to eat my ‘Obama fruit.’” In a different court case, a plaintiff complained that the company’s C.E.O. once said he had a “gift for you for all the Obama people outside” — while handing a rifle to another employee. In yet another case, a white employee derided an African co-worker, calling the co-worker “boy,” threatening his life and telling him he should take Obama back to Africa to vote for him.

For other individuals, President Obama’s election has become a basis for denying and ignoring the realities of racism, both conscious and unconscious, in our country. Soon after Obama’s election, conservatives such as Gregory Coleman, a Texas lawyer, argued that the election demonstrated the obsolescence of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — a point reiterated by the U.S. Supreme Court in its June decision invalidating a section of the act.

In fact, the results from three experiments by Stanford University researchers suggest that endorsing Obama enables some whites to feel more comfortable in favoring other whites at the expense of blacks. The Stanford researchers contended that, for these whites, supporting Obama seemed to reduce their fears about appearing racially prejudiced, giving them the “moral credentials” to exhibit favoritism toward other whites.

At least one case showed this phenomenon affecting the legal process. After admitting that he based his decision in a criminal matter upon the race of the defendant, a white juror later denied his admission. His decision could not have been racially motivated, he argued. Why he was incapable of racial bias? Because, he said, he voted for Obama.

 

By: Angela Onwuachi-Willig, The Charles and Marion Kierscht Professor of Law at the University of Iowa College of Law, Opinion Pages, The New York Times, November 20, 2013

November 21, 2013 Posted by | Racism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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