Maryland state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that, after three acquittals and one hung jury, she was dropping charges against the cops indicted in the death of Freddie Gray. At trial, a prosecutor is required to provide proof beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime was committed, and the defendant committed the crime. It’s just a matter of evidence, not passion, not justice, not feelings.
There were the expected cries, that Freddie Gray didn’t kill himself, that cops walk, that cops can kill unarmed blacks with impunity. All of this may be true, but doesn’t suffice to provide the evidence needed at trial. This gave rise to questions posed by Charles Blow, which I undertake to answer.
Yet another black man’s body broken without anyone’s being called to account, another soul lingering on the other side of the grave without justice on this side of the living. No officer has been convicted in the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and dozens more. Indeed, according to Mapping Police Violence, “only 10 of the 102 cases in 2015 where an unarmed black person was killed by police resulted in officer(s) being charged with a crime, and only 2 of these deaths (Matthew Ajibade and Eric Harris) resulted in convictions of officers involved.”
What are we to make of this? What are we to take from it?
Into what frame am I supposed to position this to make it palatable? How can I wrap my head around it in a way to make it rational and right?
Blow borrows a metaphor from James Baldwin, that he’s “incandescent with rage.” It’s an odd choice, as it suggests both burning and shedding light. There are two answers to Blow’s questions, one from the sky and one from the trenches. The former informs his burning with rage. The latter sheds light.
Blow’s vision is from a great distance away, the big picture, and he sees that with surprising clarity.
I have been to two national party conventions in as many weeks and with everything I hear, my cynicism grows.
Last week in Cleveland, the Republican Party delivered an unabashed affront to the movement for black lives as it took every opportunity to diminish black loss, as if there was an inherent conflict between valuing police lives and valuing the lives of the black and brown people who are policed. Donald Trump himself delivered a heavily coded speech in which he repeatedly asserted that he would be the “law and order” candidate, but never spoke of the equally important issue of imposing some order on the law.
If anything, Blow understates the message. When Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke was given the podium, he didn’t speak in code. He said it outright. A black sheriff told black men that their lives are secondary to cops’. Comply or die. It doesn’t get much clearer than that.
The Democratic convention has been different and better in many ways — particularly about elevating the issue and using proper language — but even here I remain leery of empty platitudes over actual policies.
The Mothers of the Movement — black women who have lost children to gun violence — took the stage on Tuesday night and delivered a powerful and moving address to those in the hall and across America. But even this makes me a bit uneasy.
While I applaud and commend the mothers for taking every opportunity to campaign for justice for their children and to champion policies that would prevent other mothers from ever being thrust into their position, I’m also incredibly aware of the using nature of politicians and how they try to politicize other people’s pain for their own self-aggrandizement.
It was not merely unseemly to capitalize on tragedy, using mothers as political props, but disingenuous when they, like their president in office, flagrantly play both sides of the fence.
Justice doesn’t live on the left or right side of the ideological spectrum. Justice lives on the side of righteousness.
And then, Bill Clinton, who I found more beguiling than many, apparently, took the stage and shifted the burden of dismantling oppression from the shoulders of the oppressors to the shoulders of the oppressed, saying:
“If you’re a young African-American disillusioned and afraid, we saw in Dallas how great our police officers can be. Help us build a future where nobody is afraid to walk outside, including the people that wear blue to protect our future.”
They may fight for transgender bathrooms, but they won’t stop cops killing unarmed black men. Politicians are great at platitudes, but if the past eight years and the Bill Clinton presidency have taught us anything, it’s that their sweet platitudes don’t mean anything. How many people did President Obama pardon?
But from the trenches, each of those names, those human beings, died under a set of facts and circumstances that, if a crime, must be proven through competent evidence in court. In some of those deaths, Eric Garner’s for instance, the failure was a prosecutor who sabotaged his grand jury presentment to assure there would be no indictment. That District Attorney, Daniel Donovan was punished by being elected to Congress.
In Freddie Gray’s case, the evidence failed. This happens sometimes, when an outcome, a needless and inexplicable death, has no explanation but for wrongdoing, and yet there is no proof of what that wrongdoing was or who did it. Did Mosby botch the prosecution? It’s a fair conclusion, and yet, even the best prosecutor can’t make evidence magically appear where it doesn’t exist.
There is bad law, terrible law, like Graham v. Connor, that enables the police to escape responsibility. The Supreme Court, the one with Justices Kagan, Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and some other guys, on board could have called the law bad and wrong in Mullinex v. Luna. Instead, they signed on to a per curiam opinion. Rage all you want over which candidate will stack the Supreme Court with ilk of his or her own, but they all spoke as one when they had the chance to do something about it. It was truly colorblind: they all backed the cop.
From 30,000 feet, you can be incandescent with rage. From the trenches, you can shed light. You asked for a frame? Here’s your frame. The law will not be your salvation. Screaming about justice conflates the problems. There is good law. There is bad law. There are the people who execute the law. There are the people who rule on the law. And then there are the people who are incandescent with rage, who know nothing of the law and don’t care to learn what can be done, should be done, to fix the problems in the trenches that produce the results that make you burn from 30,000 feet.
Since you started with a light metaphor, let’s finish with one. It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. I hope that helps, Charles.