American justice is NOT the same for everyone

Don’t think so?  Ask Chris Hayes, who recently said this about his experience with drugs and law enforcement officials

“I can tell you as sure as I’m sitting here before you that if I was a black kid with cornrows instead of a white kid with glasses, my ass would’ve been in the back of a squad car faster than you can say George W. Bush.

It’s not just with drugs, however that this disparity in justice between black and white is evident, it’s also about perception.  There is this notion that crime is only committed by people of color and only they deserve the attention of the justice system.

On April 29, 2012, I put on a suit and tie and took the No. 3 subway line to the Junius Avenue stop in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville. At the time, the blocks around this stop were a well-known battleground in the stop-and-frisk wars: Police had stopped 14,000 residents 52,000 times in four years. I figured this frequency would increase my chances of getting to see the system in action, but I faced a significant hurdle: Though I’ve spent years living and working in neighborhoods like Brownsville, as a white professional, the police have never eyed me suspiciously or stopped me for routine questioning. I would have to do something creative to get their attention.

As I walked around that day, I held a chipboard graffiti stencil the size of a piece of poster board and two cans of spray paint. Simply carrying those items qualified as a class B misdemeanor pursuant to New York Penal Law 145.65. If police officers were doing their jobs, they would have no choice but to stop and question me.

I kept walking and reached a bodega near the Rockaway Avenue subway station. Suddenly, a young black man started yelling at me to get out of Brownsville, presumably concluding from my skin color and my suit that I did not belong there. Three police officers heard the commotion and came running down the stairs. They reached me and stopped.

“What’s going on?” one asked.

“Nothing,” I told them.

“What does that say?” the officer interrupted me, incredulously, as the other two gathered around. I held the stencil up for them to read.

“What are you, some kind of asshole?” he asked.

I stood quietly, wondering whether they would arrest me or write a summons. The officers grumbled a few choice curse words and then ran down the stairs in pursuit of the young man. Though I was the one clearly breaking a law, they went after him.

Eventually the writer of the piece above was arrested and inordinately punished for bringing attention to the differences people of color face when confronted by America’s judicial system.  But this isn’t news….merely an affirmation of what has been said repeatedly and unfortunately hasn’t changed very much since.


Another massacre, absent a terrorist Muslim

We still don’t know who killed four young police officers as they gathered at a local eating establishment during their shift in Washington state.  We do know they were killed as they sat talking, eating or comparing notes together sometime during their shift early Sunday morning by a lone gunman, and typically as yet, no link to “terrorism” is known.  That’s an interesting part of the American vernacular these days, as if to imply the deaths of these officers is either easier to take or more heinous if it was done by a terrorist versus a non-terrorist.  We have become used to such insertions into language regarding death….it’s coded to tell us whether we should recoil or merely shrug our shoulders and thank God it wasn’t us; for example the use of the term ‘hate crime’ which has racial overtunes, is the trigger for whether we should really reflect on not just the death of an individual but the status of where we are as a society versus the everyday violent deaths of  scores of people as things beyond our control.

So we now precede reports of violent deaths, and especially those against symbols of state power with whether the perpetrator was a terrorist or not.  Usually, as we have come to expect, that designation is supposed to tell us if the criminal is a “Muslim”, because as the common perception goes, every terrorist is a Muslim, and therefore worthy of the entire population’s ire and revulsion.  Unfortunately, this allows us to more easily accept violent death, while at the same time focusing our anger on the perpetrator of the crime and not on the nature of the crime itself.  If it’s a non-terrorist crime we tend to focus less on either the victim or the criminal whereas for “terrorist” related crimes we are obsessed with both in an entirely unhealthy way as a society.  This is the cheapening of human life through the politicization of “terror” and it serves pundits, policy wonks and others well as they shape policy for all of us around the value terror gives to human life, but it doesn’t help us much when we are left with the senseless slaying of people like the four officers above.  I won’t bother to get into the blame game and say that the proliferation of handguns in a violent society is responsible or that Mike Huckabee is responsible for the deaths of these officers because he let the “person of interest” everyone is now looking for out of an Arkansas prison prematurely.  That was the rational that sunk a Michael Dukakis campaign in 1988…the old Willie Horton ads, remember them?  It’s interesting to see how even now Huckabee, who might be looking to run in 2012 is back pedaling on the import of his commutation by saying, ‘should he (the person of interest) be found responsible for this horrible tragedy, it will be the result of a series of failures in the criminal justice system in both Arkansas and Washington state’….a typical political statement if there ever was one.  At some point, the buck has to stop being passed, the race/ethnicity of the perpetrator becomes insignificant and the application of the rule of law becomes paramount absent these “mitigating social circumstances” of which governor released him, the ethnic/religious persuasion, the gender, etc, etc, ad nauseum…..  In fact the American system supposedly took all that into account when it said all people are equal under the law so that regardless who commits the heinous act of murder, the equal application of the rule insures justice.  That’s the way it’s supposed to be right?