In case after case of police officers being accused of shooting unarmed suspects and/or using excessive force, the black community has walked away angry, offended and tired. This country’s democracy is under assault now by the current administration, but the fact is, its democracy has never served black people well, nor was it ever intended to.
A story told by Anthony Ray Hinton, a black man in Alabama who spent 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit brings to the fore all of the elements of how this “justice” system treats people of color, and poor people of any race. When Hinton was arrested by police officers, he recalls, he asked why he was being arrested and the officer said it was for murdering two managers of fast food restaurant during a robbery. A third restaurant was robbed and the manager was shot, but survived. He identified Hinton as the perpetrator and Hinton was arrested, although he was at work in a warehouse 15 miles away at the time of the shooting.
Hinton protested when he was arrested, telling the officer that he was innocent, but he recalls that the officer told him that he was going down. “You are accused of killing two white men, you are being arrested by a white police officer, you will be tried in front of a white judge by a white prosecutor in front of an all-white jury. You are going down.” (https://eji.org/anthony-ray-hinton-exonerated-from-alabama-death-row)
The officer was right. And even though the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) was able to prove that Hinton had not in fact committed the crimes, he sat on death row 15 years more after that revelation. He was finally released, the charges dropped, but not before his entire life was ruined.
The story was riveting and compelling to listen to, but it was troubling because in this, the 21st century, black, brown and poor people are still fighting to get justice from the justice system, and any gains made in an attempt to procure justice are being eroded by the current administration. In Columbus, Ohio, the Fraternal Order of Police issued a no-confidence vote toward the city’s mayor, Andrew Ginther, as a protest against the firing of Officer Zachary Rosen, who was shown on videotape kicking and stomping on the head of a suspect in his custody. This incident followed his having been exonerated of using excessive force in the shooting of an African American male suspect just two weeks earlier.
The structure of our justice system is such that it makes us believe there is “justice for all,” but the fact of the matter is that justice is elusive for far too many. From the grand jury to jury by trial, the system is slanted in favor of those who have money, many to most of whom are white. If history is to be believed, our “justice system” has been in violation of the United States Constitution for generations by too often not granting speedy trials, equal protection under the law, and trial by a “jury of one’s peers.” There is no way anyone can declare that an all-white jury is the “peer” of an African American or any person of color, and yet, the system persists.
In this country, politicians lift up the Constitution as a sort of holy grail, but in the case of it being respected and followed in the pursuit of justice for those who need it most but who can least afford it, their words ring hollow. And now, this nation has an attorney general who is touting his belief in “law and order” which has historically meant the imposition of white supremacist beliefs onto the justice system, resulting in far too many African American males being locked up in prisons for the rest of their lives.
People are concentrating on the tweets being pushed out by the current president, but our energy would be much better spent learning how the grand jury works in our states and teaching people about it, keeping tabs on the prosecutor and working not only to get a troubling prosecutor out of office but a prosecutor more aligned with a belief in real justice into office. All politics is local. It is “we the people” in the cities and states who have to be vigilant in electing prosecutors, judges, and sheriffs who will be more apt to follow the Constitution than their white supremacist ideology.
Someone said in a recent interview “I wish we had never had the coloreds come over and pick our cotton. I wish we had done it ourselves.”
We do too.
But since you did bring us over, and since we are citizens of this country who by our sweat and labor built the economy which makes you comfortable, “you,” the American justice system, need to get on the job and follow the Constitution and the words of the Pledge of Allegiance, which clearly says that in this country, there is “liberty and justice for all.”
Rev. Dr. Susan K Smith is a writer, author, preacher and lecturer on the tension between the Bible and the Constitution. You may book her by contacting her at firstname.lastname@example.org