I’ve been thinking about when state prosecutors fail to do their jobs in police-involved killings of unarmed individuals, that is, fail to get indictments – though we all know, those of us who have studied the criminal criminal justice system, how easy it is for prosecutors to get indictments: as former, disgraced New York State chief judge Sol Wachtler said, “a grand jury would ‘indict a ham sandwich,’ if that’s what you wanted” – how we either request a special prosecutor or after the police officers are not indicted how we request Federal intervention. Since the overwhelming majority of police-involved killings of unarmed individuals are perpetrated by white police officers against young Black males, of course there’s an historical connection.
Many things in America, unfortunately, can be traced back to slavery. Many white people don’t like to hear this. In fact, this part of American history these whites want to remain silent. Yet when we look at the killings of unarmed Black males by white male police officers, we can trace this behavior to the U.S. Constitution and various Acts, e.g., the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and of 1850. Both of these Acts implemented rules requiring citizens to aid in the return of escaped slaves to their owners. These individuals that attempted to escape, when returned to their owners, faced harsh punishments, including amputation of limbs, whippings, branding, and other horrible acts, as an example to others who might entertain the idea of running away. The most important part of this, by 1850, Federal Marshals were returning runaway slaves to their masters.
The long and short of this: in the United Sates, law enforcement has been used as a repressive force against people of color. On the other hand, crimes committed by white people against Black people were oftentimes not punished by the government. Indeed, agents of the state, especially Southern sheriffs, turned a blind eye or participated in violence against Black males for crimes real and imagined, forming posses and deputizing vigilantes. Additionally, the Ku Klux Klan’s reign of terror against Black people has been part and parcel of this country’s ethos, since the birth of the nation, and mostly went unpunished.
Right after the Civil War, Federal troops occupied the South for twelve years, from 1865 until 1877, the Reconstruction Years, where Blacks realized political power in the South and a dramatic decrease in violence against them. In 1877, the Hayes-Tilden Compromise ended the Federal occupation. With the Federal troops gone, wholesale violence against Blacks and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan followed. This brand of violence against Black people continued until 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and Richard Nixon ran a successful campaign for the presidency, declaring that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was “lawless.” Once again, agents of the State cracked down on Black people in the name of “law and order” and the era of mass or hyper incarceration began.
It is ironic that Black activists are calling on the Federal government to intervene in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two unarmed Black men killed by white police officers in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, respectively, because grand juries, despite the evidence, refused to indict the police officers. This is 2014 New York City, not 1955 Mississippi. Still, county grand juries refuse to indict white police officers when they kill unarmed Black males and we are once again looking to the Federal government for justice, an admission that at the local level the wheels of justice don’t turn for Black folk. More likely, they are run over by it.