At the surface, the tensions over the failure of grand juries in Missouri and New York to indict cops who killed unarmed suspects in a pair of recent petty-crime cases have been directed at police.
Dig down a layer, and the issue is fundamental to our notion of how justice is to be delivered, and ultimately our very constitutional experiment.
Think about what happened in both of the cases that have our attention in the here and now. In both, cops confront suspects in petty crimes. In Missouri, Michael Brown had stolen a pack of cigarellos from a convenience store before getting into a physical confrontation with officer Darren Wilson, who shot Brown multiple times. In New York, Eric Garner was accused of selling loose cigarettes and was wrestled to the ground by a group of cops, one of whom employed a chokehold that the medical examiner said was the cause of his death, which was officially ruled a homicide.
Clearly, obviously, the actions of the cops in both cases directly caused the deaths of the two suspects.
Now, think about what would have happened had the circumstances been turned. Let’s say Michael Brown had wrestled the gun from Darren Wilson and shot him several times as Wilson pleaded for mercy. Let’s say Eric Garner had choked out one of the cops.
Would those cases have gone to grand juries, which would have been given months to pore through the evidence, conflicting testimony, medical reports, and the rest?
We all know the answer to that question. Hell, no, they wouldn’t. If Brown or Garner would have survived the scene of the crimes, they would have been arrested immediately, or as immediately as possible, indicted, likely without any need for a grand jury, and we would be reading right about now about how pre-trial discovery was going in their upcoming death-penalty cases.
So why is it different when it’s a cop killing a civilian? Why the presumption of innocence, even at the basic level of whether to arrest or not arrest, for cops, but not for, well, anybody else?
This double standard is the injustice. If only the rest of us could live with the kind of immunity that cops enjoy as a matter of course that comes with their badges.
The criminal-justice system, of course, would bog down to the point of being irreparably broken. Every case having to go to a grand jury that would have to consider reams of conflicting evidence and testimony before even an arrest could be executed, yeah, wow.
Talk about America becoming a Wild, Wild West, a favorite conservative talking point these days in defense of the immunity given to killer cops.
America isn’t backsliding into a Wild, Wild West because cops might have to start thinking before shooting or choking out petty-crime suspects; the backslide that is a-comin’ is a function of our increasing public awareness of a system delegitimized by justice not being meted out fairly and equally.
And this isn’t just a black/white thing, either. It happens that the two cases in the public spotlight right now involve white cops walking after killing unarmed blacks amidst evidence that would get anybody not wearing a badge arrested, indicted, convicted and sentenced to long stretches in prison if not death, but don’t think if you’re white and middle class that you’re insulated.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote those words from a Birmingham jail in 1963. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly, King wrote in the letter, though I’d argue that he understated that part of how injustice allowed to persist has an impact.
We’re allowing ourselves to use the Brown and Garner cases to debate endlessly about whether or not cops have a hard-on for killing unarmed blacks, which is obfuscating the fact that a public precedent has been set.
There is one system of justice for cops, and a second system of justice for the rest of us.
Conservatives love to parrot the talking point about how public-policy pushes by liberals on climate change or social welfare or healthcare or insert the cause of the day here are efforts to turn America into a freedom-suppressing, fascist nanny state.
Where the truth is that we, the people, conservative, liberal, progressive, moderate, agnostic, the rest, have sat idly by at the creation of our new police state, freely giving up our civil rights in the name of fighting terrorists, and supporting efforts to militarize local police to protect us from ourselves.
Now we’re being tasked with a response to a new legal precedent that is being established in full public view. The state and its officers have access to their own system of justice, and we’re told that it’s necessary that this separate, unequal system of justice is necessary to protect the state and its officers.
We acquiesce in the codification of this precedent, and we allow the last strains of the democratic republic that we’ve been able to hold onto for the past 227 years to begin to unravel.
Shame on us if we do so.
– Column by Chris Graham