America Can't Breathe

Yesterday I was dismayed, but sadly not all that shocked, to hear that a grand jury on Staten Island in New York City announced that they would not deliver an indictment of Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the killing of Eric Garner, an unarmed man suspected only of selling loose cigarettes. When Mr. Garner was choked to death on July 17, 2014, it was caught on video in broad daylight. We saw a struggle. We saw Officer Pantaleo choke him. We heard his final words, "I can't breathe." The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide -- yet yesterday, a grand jury indicated that it did not find sufficient reason to indict.

While the case of Eric Garner's killing without a doubt reflects on the need for improved law enforcement practices, it also calls into question our legal system, and demonstrates the need for reforms throughout the entire legal process. When a grand jury considers whether to indict a suspect, they are held to a standard of "probable cause," which is the same standard to which an officer is held when making an arrest. This is far lower than the "reasonable doubt" standard that must be met to secure a conviction at trial, and is generally considered a relatively low standard -- particularly when looking at the nature of many arrests. Yet, just like the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, the grand jurors in Staten Island again returned a decision of no indictment. Another black man is dead, and the man who killed him will not be held accountable.

Why is this continuing to happen? Is it a reflection of the close relationship between district attorneys' offices and local police, and thus a conflict of interest when the DA is asked to prosecute an officer? Is it a reflection of a legal framework which is unduly deferential to the actions of police? Or is it a reflection of a general, pervasive racism in society? Is it an illustration that America believes black lives do not actually matter? We need to take a long, hard look at our criminal justice system and implement reforms necessary to ensure that it truly is just.

Reforms must be multi-layered and comprehensive. The Howard University School of Law community recommends that every Mayor and City Council establish an independent police accountability review board made up of diverse people of all ages, race, gender, sexual preference, education levels and expertise who are willing to work together to monitor the relationships between people of color and law enforcement officers. Appointing independent prosecutors when police are suspected of a crime is also another way. Another would be passage of the End Racial Profiling Act at the national level, and prohibiting the criminalization of entire groups of people based entirely on their race, religion, gender identity, or national origin. But we also need our government and our courts to take into account race, rather than ignoring it, when viewing laws and policies that impact our communities differently, in order to ensure that "equal protection under the law" is not just a platitude, but a practice.

As a Sikh American, as a mother, as a person of color, as a member of Howard Law School's community, and simply as a human being, I am horrified and dismayed by recent events -- by the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and so many others. Yesterday's grand jury announcement sent the message that our justice system does not value all lives equally. If we are a country truly governed by the rule of law, this law must be applied and enforced fairly and justly. Let these miscarriages of justice bring forth an era of change, and not just an era of hope.