A Nation that betrays its own
Law is the house that justice built but no longer occupies.
BULLED into deep complacency by the election of Barak Obama, the political conscience of Black America has finally begun to stir to life. Sadly, it took the daytime killings of Black men by White police officers to revive the community back to political life.
Protests have occurred in major cities throughout the nation. Black people have been jolted by the realization that their lives remain less valuable than they should be, than what they had been told to believe. They hoped racial discrimination had become a residual breach of the national contract on social equality. The painful lesson relearned is that Black Americans are disposable byproducts of a political economy with little need for most of them and one that affords diminishing living space for that beleaguered majority of Black America.
The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson was one thing. The strangulation of Eric Garner in New York was quite another. In the Brown case, conflicting interpretations of that day’s events abounded. The shooter said one thing, Brown’s friend said another. Witness accounts varied on important points. Although the aggressor police officer’s testimony remains highly implausible, it cannot be ruled impossible. The possibility that he was being truthful is slight but the possibility nonetheless exists.
(In a telling postscript in the Brown case, a witness whose testimony was cited by the prosecutor has been discovered to be a mentally unbalanced racist. Moreover, this witness may not even have been at the scene when the shooting occurred. She has previously inserted herself in other cases, giving unreliable testimony. The prosecutor in Brown should have been aware of her flagrant history; yet, he still presented her to the grand jury without informing them of her habit of bearing false witness. For this alone, the prosecutor should be investigated for professional misconduct.)
The cloud of factual discrepancy and differing versions of the fatal encounter do not haunt the Garner case. What haunts that case is the episode was videoed for the world to see. Yet, the picture made no difference to the New York prosecutor and the grand jury he selected. Normally, a picture is worth a thousand words. This video encapsulated more than a thousand words. It showed all that is wrong in the racial history of the nation claiming to be the world’s finest democracy. As long as the legal system affirms killings like Garner’s, the claimed greatness of the American political economy is as true as it is false.
Mr. Garner was a large, burly Black man living in New York City. Estranged from the world of prosperity and steady employment, the man did what millions of city dwellers across the nation do. He street-hustled. Among his money-making ventures, the man would at times buy packs of cigarettes then resell individual cigarettes to people. The area was a poor neighborhood where many people could not afford an entire pack; they would muster coins for one or two cigarettes at a time. Garner was doing no harm; that same day, he even helped resolve an altercation. However, his street hustle was illegal because all cigarette sales are to be taxed.
The day of the encounter, Garner may not even have been selling the loose cigarettes. Had he been guilty of such sales that day, his transgression was de minimis. A loose cigarette probably sold for no more than a dollar each. The city tax on the tobacco sales is 10 percent. Had he sold five cigarettes, he owed the city 50 cents (90 kobo) in taxes. For this small indiscretion, a swarm of police officers descended on him like a small army corralling a thief who had pinched the national treasury and the crown jewels.
Gardner had no chance. While a number of officers pinned him to the ground, one officer administered a choke hold unauthorized by the police department that hired him. Adding indignity to impending death, another officer placed his hands on Garner’s head, using his full weight to press the man’s face into the hard, cruel New York City pavement. The man pleaded roughly a dozen times that he could not breathe. A dozen times, his uniformed assailants ignored the desperate alarm. His last moments on earth were with his face pressed to the ground that he might take in the foulness and grime of the urban sidewalk as his life’s breath was slowly stolen from him by those hired to protect him.
As he lay dying, no officer sought to revive him. They walked around his body nonchalantly as if walking around an animal struck by a passing car. There was no urgency in their actions, no remorse on their faces. They felt they had done their job. What they had done to Garner was so disproportionate to his alleged wrong; no logical excuse can be assayed for this ending. At most, they should have given Garner a citation as they do any traffic offender or errant merchant. The reason for lethally attacking him for less than a dollar remains cloaked in racism.
The coroner properly ruled the outrageous death a homicide. Yet, the grand jury and prosecutor thought otherwise. Upon seeing video, they did not see Garner as a human being. All they saw was black and his blackness obscured any sight and sense of justice they might have otherwise known.
Had Garner lived during slavery, he would still be alive. The law enforcement officers would have been more careful with him because he would have been the property of a White man. They would have acted with due care in returning the valued property to his owner. He would have been tussled a bit but not executed. Strange how the worth of a Black man’s life is not established by the mere fact of being a human being. It is established by how closely associated he is to White society. To exist outside the social mainstream, makes a Black man a dreaded superfluity, a victim transmuted into the villain in his own execution. Police men who kill him will be excused because they serve a function in society. While you, the Black man, do not.
Garner and Brown have not been the only casualties of this dynamic. The average White racist feels the nation is slipping from their control due to Obama’s presidency and to demographic changes that see Blacks and Latinos becoming larger percentages of the overall population. Perceived change prompts a backlash. The average racist joins the Tea Party or sends anonymous cant to rightwing blogs. Those racists in blue police uniforms are more apt to pull the trigger when the face on the wrong end of the barrel is Black or Brown.
In Ohio, a Black man, walking in a store while holding a non-lethal pellet rifle, was gun downed by police with no reasonable warning. Ohio law allows people to openly carry lethal weapons. Thus, the man committed no crime. Yet, he was killed and the offending police officers were given no reprimand. It boggles the mind and makes a farce of justice when an innocent man can be executed and those who committed the misdeed are exonerated. He did no wrong yet he is gone. They wronged him yet they suffer not even minor sanction. When such partiality occurs in a foreign nation, America criticizes and writes annual reports condemning it. When it happens in America, the power establishment protects if not celebrates the transgression as a necessary function of law and order. In the process, justice is disinherited.
Protests against these attacked were organized in major cities throughout the nation. Had this been the summer and not the advent of winter, more people would have been taken to the streets in a greater number of cities. The best aspect of this wave of protests is that they were organized by grassroots activists and not the normal servitors who inhabit the Black establishment. The youthful organizers’ first plank is to halt the street executions by the police. But they will not stop there. They will see that defending the right to life is insufficient in itself. That is where the Civil Rights Movement left off.
Today’s protesters hopefully will assume the mantle of true leadership the current Black Establishment now deploys for their narrow elitist interests. These new leaders will discover the incompleteness in securing the right to life if unaccompanied by demanding the right to live not merely survive on the social periphery. They will demand jobs, education, economic reform and justice. This will attract a backlash much as the Civil Rights Movement did. The most vocal segment of the backlash will be the right-wing conservatives. The most dangerous element of that backlash will be the falsely liberal establishment.
That establishment has given their Black surrogates marching orders to stop the genuine young leaders from organizing more people’s marches. The Black establishment did not need to be given the directive. They already felt the heat. They realized their positions were placed in jeopardy. No one was bounded by quandary more than President Obama. If Black people started to display independent action, his job would be on the line. No, not the White House job. Whether for good or bad, his mark there has mostly been made.
The position jeopardized by the young Black leaders is the post-White House sinecure the establishment has designed for him – that of the unofficial leader of Black America. For the past six years, he had proven his worth by keeping Black activism in deep freeze despite the hardtack policies he has initialed resulting in the deterioration of community institutions, particularly Black universities, and a growing disparity between average Black and White per capita wealth and income. During the Obama years, the Black community has been weakened willfully by establishment policy and practice. The establishment hired Obama to smile and pontificate his people all the way to the poor house. He was doing an excellent job of it until the unruly police began to exhibit a deadly overt racism that would cause the somnambulant Black community to awaken. Obama’s slickness was undone by the gratuitous violence of the new praetorians.
A delicious twist of irony is in the making. Black political consciousness may reawaken under the very watch of a man endorsed by the establishment to keep the Black community politically dormant. Sensing things were going awry, Obama went into gear. He sent fellow Black elitist, Attorney General Eric Holder, to Ferguson to express concern in hope that a tactful display of implied solidarity would keep the natives from turning restless. Holder announced his feckless Justice Department would investigate the Ferguson Police Department as a way to soothe community anger. The people realized this Justice Department has a nose for privilege and not a resilient sternum when it comes to protecting the weak and under from the rich and powerful above. Holder’s Justice Department refused to prosecute Wall Street for the visible criminality resulting in the 2008 financial crisis and will not take account of those who tortured and terrorized detainees in the alleged war against terror. That same department will not reform the police.
It is part of the same federal government that militarized the police by providing the surplus military equipment that has transformed local law enforcement into a paramilitary agency unsuitable for democratic society.
The protests continued. Then the First Couple took to the media to demonstrate their blackness by citing they had been victims of racism because they had been ignored by taxi drivers or mistaken as store clerks by White shoppers. If these trite remarks were supposed to evoke a sense of solidarity with the average Black, they missed the mark. If this is all the Obamas have experienced, no wonder they are out of touch. They should consider themselves fortunate, then open a listening ear that they may learn the realities of the everyday lives of everyday people. (In part, they cited these inanities so as not to offend their White sponsors. If the President testifies that racism is limited to such innocuous inconveniences, it means that racism did not cause dire condition of the Black community.)
Raising these trivial incidents insults the millions of Black men and women who have felt the heavy intimidation and have been scarred by the instruments of this unjust system. The bones of thousands of Black men lie in the woods, swamps and along the back roads of the south. So many of us have been stopped along isolate stretches of road by policemen with their hands twitching at their holsters or brandishing their billy clubs, waiting and wanting to draw their pistol or swing that club. As rivulets of sweat swim down your back, you tell yourself to be still and don’t move, no matter the provocation or meanness of the man. They await merely one odd movement or angry word and they will pounce. You will be found guilty of causing the assault against you.
When their trite examples did not work, Obama summoned a white House meeting of the young activists. His advice was to take it slowly as change comes gradually. This advice was not commended by any true interpretation of history. Change may come slowly but those who succeed in bringing reform rarely seek it piecemeal. They ask for the whole thing then take as much as they can get. The young activists should have retorted that, since the bullets did not kill Brown gradually and the stranglehold did not gradually asphyxiate Garner, they see no reason why their pursuit of justice should march gradually.
Next, Obama deployed mercenary cleric Al Sharpton to confuse and sidetrack the grassroots movement by holding a march on Washington of his own. During the Obama presidency, Sharpton has visited the White House an extraordinary 60 times. He has become Obama’s man Friday just as Obama is Wall Street’s man Friday. Sharpton is the servant of the servant. However, this tack did not work well either. The people are on to Sharpton. They know he has been an FBI informant, ratting on other Black leaders. He may still be. He refused to allow activists from Ferguson a place in his orchestrated rally. He feared they might say something incendiary or anti-Obama. The crowd began to shout him down. Eventually, some activists managed to seize the microphone and speak their piece.
Establishment backlash against the protests went into full gear when a mentally unstable Black man killed two police officers in New York, afterward killing himself. The New York Mayor called for protests to be suspended until the burial of the fallen officers. Former Mayor Giuliani criticized Black leaders for inciting hate. Police officials declared that their department had gone on “war footing.” To that declaration, most Black men would respond, “That is nothing new. You have always been on war footing against us.”
The murder of the two police officers is a tragedy but no greater than the killing of Brown, Gardner and others. The protests did not lead to the officer’s death. The proximate cause of the officers’ demise was that police nationwide had been too lethal. When a White supremacist executed two police officers earlier this year and draped the corpses in racist flags, the establishment did not rail that White supremacists should disband their racist campaign and organizations. Police officials did not assert they needed to be on war footing against White hate groups. White establishment politicians said little or nothing about this episode. Now that a Black assailant is involved, they shout to the rafters and quake with self-righteous indignation. It is all part of the ploy to keep Blacks in a lowly place.
The protesters smartly refused to stop demonstrating. To do so would have been a wrongful, coerced admission that their actions prompted the killings of the officers. What they should do is expand the scope of the protests. While protesting police brutality, they should also advocate tighter gun control so that unstable people cannot get easy access to weapons. The spirit of the expanded protests would be that neither the police nor the populace needs to be on war footing. Both should take intelligent steps toward peace.
Finally, perhaps the Black community is awakening. Theirs must be a dual arising. First, they must come to grips with the fact that the current ways of the political economy work against them. Second, they must realize that the established Black leadership is wedded to the current ways of the political economy. The people must seek reform as well as reject those who claim to be their leaders. Perhaps, just perhaps, the son of the Civil Rights Movement is being born out of the deaths of Brown and Garner.
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