The Best Way To Honor Tamir Rice is by Reforming Our Broken Justice System

Memorial for Tamir Rice, 12-year-old shot dead by Police in Cleveland

Michael Brown – no indictment.

Eric Garner – no indictment.

Sandra Bland – no indictment.

And now Tamir Rice.

How many times will our justice system refuse to charge police with killing unarmed black people?

What will it take for our courts to accept the responsibility for at least attempting to seek justice?

When will our judicial system deem the death of people of color at the hands of law enforcement to at least be worthy of a trial?

Brown had no weapon but was shot to death by law enforcement.

Garner had no weapon but was choked to death by police.

Bland had no weapon but was found hanged in her jail cell after being assaulted by police during a traffic stop.

Rice had a legal pellet gun that was not pointed at anyone yet he was shot to death two seconds after police arrived.

This is not justice. This is a national travesty that continues to be played out daily. How many more human beings will be ground under the boot of a system that finds no value in their lives?

And don’t give me any of your excuses! Police were just doing there job! These people should have listened to law enforcement! Rice shouldn’t have had a pellet gun!

Listen to yourself. Lethal force is the only option!? Police have no tasers anymore, no pepper spray? Their guns only fire death strokes? They can’t hit non-vital areas meant to incapacitate but not kill?

What a bunch of cowards we are if we don’t demand police publicly explain themselves when they kill another human being – especially someone who posed them no bodily harm! How morally and spiritually bankrupt a nation we are not to weigh the evidence and decide guilt or innocence! “Freedom and justice for all!?” What a sham! What a lie! What a farce!

I don’t know about you, but I am sick of it. I refuse to put up with it for even one more day.

But what can we do?

No. Really.

When reading about these government sanctioned murders, I feel helpless. I’m just one person. What can I do to stop it?

Here are a few suggestions:

1) Ban Grand Juries in Fatal Shootings by Police

Connecticut and – most recently – California already have laws to this effect. District attorneys should have to decide whether officers face criminal charges when they kill people in the line of duty. This decision should be made in the light of day in full view of the public and not behind the closed doors of a grand jury hearing. These hearings involve no judges or defense attorneys and the transcripts of these proceedings are almost always sealed.

The problem is that district attorneys work closely with police and depend on them for political support. Sending cases like these to a grand jury gets the DA off the hook so he or she doesn’t offend the officers.

If the decision had to be made in public, voters could hold DAs accountable. With the grand jury system, there are no consequences because we have no concrete evidence about what happened during the proceedings, what arguments were made, by whom and who made what decisions. That’s a poor breeding ground for justice.

2) Construct a National Database on Police Killings

Right now there is no way to tell exactly how many people are killed by law enforcement in this country every year. Moreover, there is no way to tell if officers involved in these killings were ever charged.

Information can be compiled state-by-state, often through unofficial and anecdotal sources. However, this does not nearly give the full picture of what is going on. The people of this country deserve to know the full scope of the issue. That’s why apologists often claim these sorts of incidents are relatively rare and blown out of proportion by the media. But are they? A national database would prove the matter one way or the other.

Federal law from 1994 already calls for just such a database, yet it has not been funded. This may be due in part to the cost. A pilot study found that it would take a decade and cost $1 billion.

Certainly this is not a quick fix. But don’t we deserve to know this information? And isn’t it suspicious that nothing is being done to compile this data now?

3) Overturn Graham v. Connor

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to seeking justice for those unnecessarily killed by police is a precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court 25 years ago. Graham v. Connor effectively ruled that police can kill you if they feel you present a “reasonable” threat to their own lives.

The problem is the word “reasonable.” What does that mean? In court, it can be almost anything. It’s a “Get Out of Jail Free” card to police for wanton murder. Justice Sonia Sotomayor calls this a “Shoot first, think later” approach to policing. She says this violates the Fourth Amendment which stipulates what counts as “probable cause” for police actions including arrests. However, Sotomayor is the only sitting justice publicly to take this stance.

This is why without more robust protections for citizens and more realistic expectations for law enforcement, even when cases like these go to court, they rarely result in police convictions.

But courts change. Public opinion can move mountains if given enough time. We need to start putting on the pressure.

Organize, people. Start writing letters. Write petitions. Hold rallies. Meet with your Congress-people. Make some noise.

In the meantime, let us grieve for all the Browns, Garners, Blands and Rices.

Their lives matter. And the best way to prove that is to get off our collective asses and do something about it.


NOTE: This article also was published on Commondreams.org.

 

Hypocrisy: Democrats Criticize Trump but Not a Peep Against Emanuel

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So Donald Trump is a narcissistic, bigoted, fascist.

Not exactly a surprise.

He’s also the Republican front runner for President. I’ll admit to being mildly shocked by that.

However, much more astonishing are the chauvinistic and possibly illegal actions of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel – and the fact that no major Democrat of note is calling him out for any of it.

Let’s review.

Trump made a name for himself during this election cycle calling Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers. Then he insulted women and the disabled. He proposes surveillance of mosques and registering all Muslims. He even incites supporters at his rallies to beat Black protesters.

And every time this happens, his poll numbers rise.

Predictably Democrats have decried this state of affairs. They have pointed their fingers accusingly at a Republican base that would champion such an odious figure for leader of the free world. And rightly so!

By contrast, Emanuel isn’t currently a candidate for anything. He’s a second term Democratic Mayor of one of the most populous cities in the country.

During that time, he has closed 50 public schools46 of which serve mostly black students. Southside residents had to resort to a month-long hunger strike to keep their last neighborhood school open. In addition, his economic policy consists of closing public health clinics for the poor and installing red light cameras to increase fines – none of which has actually boosted the economy.

But perhaps worse than all of that is the recent revelation that Emanuel’s administration with full knowledge of the Mayor may have actually covered up the police killing of an unarmed black teen!

In October, 2014, Officer Jason Van Dyke shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times. Most of those bullets went into the teenager after he was already flat on the ground and the officer was at least 10 feet away.

As usual, the police story includes all the usual racist clichés – a trained and experienced officer of the law fears for his life from a black teen. Van Dyke says he was attacked. The dashcam video, however, shows no such thing. McDonald did not lunge at the officer. The young man was walking away when Van Dyke shot, and after he fell, the officer unloaded a barrage of bullets at his prone and seemingly helpless body.

Then the cover-up began. Emanuel allegedly was told about the incident in February, 2015, while he was in the midst of a contentious re-election bid. His administration quickly issued a $5 million settlement to McDonald’s family on the condition they keep quiet about the incident. It wasn’t until May, after Emanuel had won re-election, that an independent journalist asked for the dashcam video to be released. It took the full power of the media and a lawsuit to accomplish this. Last Thursday, a Chicago judge ordered the video be disclosed and Van Dyke was quickly charged with first degree murder.

It seems impossible to deny that Van Dyke would have been charged a year ago if not for the cover-up. The officer had already received 17 citizen complaints including that he had made racist remarks and three excessive force complaints over four years. Only Emanuel’s protection kept him out of jail.

So which is worse? Trump loudly champions prejudice and bigotry without the power to do anything about it. Emanuel protects an actual racist, stops him from being charged for what may well be a racially motivated murder, but makes no flashy public comments about it.

Yet only one of these two politicos gains the ire of the supposedly progressive and enlightened Democratic party.

How can this be? If we accept Fox News to represent a realistic presentation of the Republican platform, the party is often regressive, counterfactual, and rife with prejudice. On the other hand, media representations of the Democrats present them as the exact opposite. They propose progressive policies based on facts and a much more pluralistic view of society. They’re just much more inept at achieving this vision than their GOP counterparts.

But if that were true, how could one of their anointed, one of the most powerful Democrats in the country, a man who had been White House Chief of Staff at the beginning of President Barack Obama’s first term, a former U.S. Representative, senior adviser to President Bill Clinton, how could HE be perpetrating so many repressive, bigoted, “conservative” policies? How could so many leading Democrats support him? Why are so few criticizing him now?

It makes one question the perceived wisdom about the two parties. Is there really a difference, or are the left and the right wings just two parts of the same bird? When you look at what Democrats do – I mean when you actually examine the policies they enact when they’re in office – they really aren’t much different than those proposed by Republicans.

Perhaps there are a few far left Democrats like Bernie Sanders who actually represent a real progressive movement. Or perhaps there is no  major progressive party anymore in the United State.

We  must keep our eyes on Chicago. If there is any fight left for the soul of the Democratic party it will be here. Will the party call for Emanuel’s resignation? Or will it continue to side with one of the most regressive politicians currently holding office while it congratulates itself for condemning clownish Trump?


NOTE: This article also was published on Commondreams.org, the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association Blog.

Blame the Victim – America’s Favorite Pastime

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I watched a little girl at school refuse to get out of her seat and get pounded by the police.

I watched a teenager in his car try to zoom away from a cop and get shot dead through the driver’s side window.

I watched all of these things and more from the safety of my cell phone. I wasn’t there in person, but I felt like I was.

And I am not alone.

It seems these two events were on everyone’s lips yesterday.

This is one of the fruits of self surveillance – the selfie, the dashcam, the youtube video. Events that would have been shrouded in the haze of he-said-she said are now public domain. The shadowy corners and back alleys are now just as flooded with spotlights as the most crowded theater on Broadway.

In some ways, that’s a really good thing. So many events that only a decade ago would have been hidden forever are now open to public view.

You’d think that would solve a lot of our society’s problems. No more secrets. No more lies. Just objective facts. THIS is what happened. No denying it. We’ll need context, but facts are facts. Now we can come together and decide with clarity what really happened, why it happened and who’s to blame.

However, things don’t always work out as you’d expect.

We can – in fact – agree on the facts but not necessarily on their meaning.

We all see the same images but we somehow don’t see the same things. The same light enters our eyes and forms the same images, but our brains process those images very differently.

We all see a little girl forcibly removed by an officer of the law. We all see a victim and a perpetrator. But which is which?

We all see a police officer exit his car, approach another vehicle which flees from him before he draws his gun and shoots. But who is to blame – the cop or the driver?

We come to different conclusions. And I think the reasons why depend on deep human truths about each of us.

Which side you take says something about you. It shows what kind of person you are, what you value, what assumptions you make about human nature.

When I watch that South Carolina police officer violently grab the little girl and throw her from the room, I focus on the child. Here is a 16-year-old black teen. She apparently was told to leave the room and refused to do so. She was wrong. But my heart won’t let me side against her.

Maybe she hit the officer. Maybe she was verbally abusive. It doesn’t matter. I don’t think a police officer – or any adult – should manhandle a child. If she had a gun, a knife or some weapon, that would be different. But she was just sitting peacefully in her seat. She probably deserved some sort of punishment for insubordination – but not one that would cause her physical harm. I’d be furious if someone treated my daughter that way. And so I am angry at this police officer and all the bystanders who took pains to ignore what was going on.

In a similar manner, when I watch another South Carolina officer approach 19-year-old Zachary Hammond’s car, I begin on the adult’s side. When the teen starts to drive away, I’m with the police officer. The teen is breaking the law. He should listen to the cop who is reasonably asking to question him. However, when the officer draws his gun, things get muddy for me. As the car drives away and the officer shoots into the window, I demand answers. All ambiguity disappears when I discover the teen was unarmed. He wasn’t pointing a gun at the officer. As you can clearly see, the car was not pointed at the cop. The adult was obviously in no danger.

The officer overstepped his bounds. Despite his claims of self defense, despite prosecutors siding with him, I cannot. It seems to me this 19-year-old boy out on a first date was victimized. Yes, he may have had drugs in his system. Yes, he may have possessed drugs with the intention of selling them. None of that justifies murder by a public servant who is charged with protecting and serving society. It may justify arrest, but it does not give the officer the right to be judge, jury and executioner. Imagine if death was the consequence for your own 19-year-old misdeeds! Far too high a price.

However, there are many who disagree. They side in both cases with the adult, with the police. And I see their point to an extent. Police have very difficult and dangerous jobs. They put their lives on the line to uphold laws that are sometimes ambiguous and of dubious value. But there needs to be limits to their authority.

What I find even more troubling is the dynamic between adults and children. Too often grown ups act as if they can do whatever they want to young people. They can touch, hit, belittle. And all in the name of discipline and order.

But maybe this says more about me than anything else. I care deeply about children. Not only am I a parent, I’m a public school teacher. I’ve devoted my life to helping young people get a good start in life. As such, I think violence against children is the most heinous thing anyone can do. It is despicable beyond words. Harming or killing an adult is bad. But do the same thing to a child and it is much worse.

This should be a shared value. It should be a tenet upon which our society is built. But instead too many of us blame the child or the parents. We’re presented with facts but lapse into assumptions about the child’s upbringing and the parents shortcomings. If the youngsters parents had done this or that, things would have been different. And – heck! – that may even be true! However, unlike our infinite surveillance of moments, the facts are not there. We have no record of mass parental neglect. We have just the opposite. In so many cases parents work multiple jobs to feed and clothe these children. They work night shifts. They take classes to improve themselves. So they can’t be present to the degree they’d like. But here we are passing the blame with nothing to support our assumptions but a feeling in our bellies. And we’re so deadly certain about it.

It’s sad really. We all can see the same events but remain unclear about the blame. We share the same senses and most of the same values. But our life experiences and prejudices make all the difference.

When an adult looks at these situations and sides against the child, I think it shows a terrible blindness. When some people look at the student roughed up in the classroom, they automatically side against her for a variety of reasons – race, gender, age, etc. among them. They have preconceptions about how black people act. Preconceptions about little girls. Preconceptions about poor children and their parents. And frankly it shows their moral judgment to be sick, diseased and untrustworthy.

Likewise, when some people see the teen gunned down in his car, they have preconceptions about the police and young people. Anyone on the other side of a police officer’s barrel is wrong simply by virtue of the direction in which he is pointing his gun, they might say. Police are defined as right. Suspects are defined as wrong. This is deeply troubling. It’s counterfactual. It’s untrue. Police are just humans, too. They can be wrong. They have been wrong. If we always assume they are correct in every situation, we are being morally lazy and willfully blind. We’re refusing to look at the facts and then judge accordingly. We stop at who is involved and not at what they did.

It’s so easy to blame the victim. It’s reassuring and safe. It means nothing is out of sorts with the world. Everything is just as it should be. Only this one person who was beaten by the police or shot dead – only that person is to blame. The social order remains intact and proper and good and justified.

It takes a kind of intellectual and moral honesty to look the world in the face and accept that which is uncomfortable but true. Sometimes those charged with protecting us actually do harm. Sometimes adults know less than children. Sometimes actions are racially motivated.

Because when we watch the world, the world looks back. We reveal ourselves. And sometimes we show the world exactly how ugly and depraved we can be as a nation.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.