By: Adam James
The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice – Theodore Parker
Black America and its allies heard on Thursday (December 7, 2017) the word they have wanted to hear for many years, guilty. The stark reality of the two Americas came into focus in the years between the deaths of Trayvon Martin in 2012 to Walter Scott in 2015. Young black men and a 12 year old Cleveland boy have been gunned down in the street and the police, who failed to deescalate, escaped prosecution for their reckless abuse of force. But the case is South Carolina was a different situation altogether. Officer Michael Slager pulled over Walter Scott and Scott ran. Unarmed and fleeing, Scott was shot multiple times in the back and the scene was caught on camera.
On Thursday, Slager was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 20 years to pay for taking Walter Scott’s life. Scott’s life mattered. In the years since George Zimmerman gunned down Trayvon Martin for taking a walk at night in his fathers gated community and was acquitted in all charges, it was easy to see why this would come as a surprise. Outlets like CNN led with an assault on the 17 year old victim’s character (information his killer couldn’t have had). But much like the lynching of Emmett Till, it sparked a new awareness of how different the justice system works for Blacks than Whites.
It wasn’t the first day Black America learned you could shoot a black male dead and walk away but once that verdict was read an incalculable number of White Americans suddenly got a glimpse of what that looks like. I spoke to two police sergeants at a police department right outside one of the fastest growing cities in the United States, Nashville, TN. The Music City is just 6 hours from St. Louis, MO where a police officer shot and killed Black teenager, Michael Brown under dubious circumstances. The killing led to the rise of what would become the Black Lives Matter movement. Unsurprisingly the organization would later become a target of the political right wing who objected to African Americans demanding that the American justice system finally treat them equally under the law.
These two public servants were acutely aware of the tensions created by the killing of Michael Brown and others. Nashville police had just spent an evening protecting protesters who temporarily shut down Interstate 65. There was no pepper spray, no violence. The police officers I spoke to, one man, one woman-both White, spoke with obvious cautiously, asking that their names not be used. Their town’s demographics are fairly similar to the national demographics: 70/20 Caucasians/African American vs. a national numbers of 72/12. The police in middle TN try not to obsess over racial tension nor ignore it. While they wouldn’t expressly say it, the goal was to do the opposite of some police around the country-they choose to be proactive instead of reactive.
As a trainer, the first sergeant explained that when training his officers he stresses courtesy in all situations-no matter how obstinate a citizen gets. He recalls a citizen getting up close, swearing and spitting, but his response was to remain calm and respectful. He trains his officers to never stop using their manners. The police do community outreach and are encouraged to patronize local businesses. Since some police officers don’t live in the community they serve, they do everything they can to immerse themselves in it. The goal is to build a level of trust between the department and the citizenry.
Unfortunately, these efforts are not duplicated around the country and an unbalanced relationship between largely White police departments and the largely Black communities they serve. The need to acknowledge that Black lives matter didn’t suddenly arise as the body of Michael Brown lay on the street exposed for four hours. Black America is sent a very clear message that they don’t matter when nearly half of the prison population in the United States is Black while African Americans only make up 15% of the overall population.
Seeing serial offenders going in and out of the system, it’s understandable why well-meaning public servants, and even everyday citizens, would want mandatory sentences and three-strikes rules. But it is part of an almost paradoxical situation. Convicted of minor offenses, one could find themselves getting a sentence more appropriate for a major crime, yet the conservative Wall Street Journal reported that from 2005-2012, when judges’ discretion in sentencing was restored, the disparity between sentences resulted in 20% longer sentences for Black offenders over Whites.
It seems as if the system is simply rigged against people of color. So, the next time you see a Black Lives Matter group marching down a street, picture your son or daughter having just made a mistake that has put them in front of an officer who may simply withdraw their right to due process by shooting them where they stand or if they’re taken into custody, standing before a judge who is 20% more likely to give them a tougher sentence than the person beside them based on the color of their skin. What message does that send? Is that justice?
How do we turn the tide? Empowerment and opportunity.
Part of the problem is that existing disparity in housing and education make it more difficult to build equity. An in depth study was conducted in Pennsylvania where it was concluded that the state has a track record of dispersing funds in a way that gave White-majority schools an unearned advantage. The results have been seen all over the country and instead of focusing on a solution, the only national response to what has been called the school to prison pipeline has been the militarization on the police.
Here are some suggestions for moving the country forward:
1) One of the greatest things possible to start the course correction would be for every governor in the United States and the President to come together and publicly acknowledge that the problem exists. Robert Taibbi writes, “Define the problem as concretely [and as] specifically as possible.” To accomplish this our institutions need to recognize the explicit and implicit bias that leads to uneven implementation of the law and prevents unequal distribution of education funding. By breaking them down into manageable bites, Taibbi suggests, it makes it more likely that solutions can be found.
2) Work with Congress and state legislatures to dismantle the War on Drugs. “The drug war has produced profoundly unequal outcomes across racial groups, manifested through racial discrimination by law enforcement and disproportionate drug war misery suffered by communities of color.” says the Drug Policy Alliance. It’s time to convert a TBD percentage of prisons to rehabilitation and recovery centers and turn the revolving prison doors into a prison to jobs pipeline. And if the private sector is going to be used for prisons and the new rehab centers-incentives must be developed for inmate success not paying to keep people in the system.
3) It’s time to end a tax system that results in funding for schools to be based on the communities where they are built. By transitioning all funding-minus the 13% provided by the federal government- to the states, school funding will be more evenly distributed. A school properly funded tells students they matter, pays teachers who can perform their duties and produce students who are ready for college, trade school or even to enter the competitive job market right after graduation. Schools that are properly funded break the cycle of school to prison pipeline.
4) Make a portion of Publicly funded housing available to law enforcement. A police officer, like any human being, is less likely to use lethal force or be disproportionately rough to people they know, to their neighbors. Additionally, funding would follow as the officers will identify government’s failures to maintain the housing. Crime is also like to fall as a police presence tends to discourage criminal behavior.
5) Members of Congress need to have more county by county town halls. In my interview with Randy Bryce, a Democrat in the primary for Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District, he committed to having a town hall in every county once a year during his time in office should he win. Politicians should all commit to doing that and inviting city and local officials to join them. Talk to citizens in ways that acknowledge the reality on the ground, meet them where they live. It will shape better public policy.
To shore up disadvantaged communities it will likely require increased levels of investment and security. It will take determination and know-how. But it’s important to tackle America’s issues on all fronts with vigor and enthusiasm. We are stronger if we are partners, as opponents-we are stronger if we disagree respectfully, we are stronger if we honor people with our listening skills as much as we speak. As a people, we do not decide to which heights people can rise to, but we can decide as a people where the floor is. Let’s get to work.