Freddie Gray died in Baltimore police custody after being arrested last April without any good reasons. The 25-year-old African-American man suffered what turned out to be a fatal spinal injury after being shackled and laid on the floor of a police wagon without a seatbelt. His injuries from the "rough ride," as they are sometimes called by the police, led to the death of the young man a week later.
So far, nobody has been held accountable for the death of Freddie Gray.
This week, a judge found Baltimore police officer Edward Nero not guilty of four misdemeanor charges for his role in the events that led to the death of Freddie Gray. A Baltimore circuit court judge decided that Nero wasn't directly involved in the arrest and that the particular charges against him could not be finally proved. Last winter, the trial of another officer in the case ended in a hung jury. Four more officers involved in the tragic and deadly events that killed Freddie Gray are yet to be tried.
While I am no legal expert on the details of the court decision yesterday or whether the charges against him and each of the other officers were carefully made or effectively prosecuted, nor a spiritual expert on Nero's motives, nor an administrative expert on Baltimore police training, one fact continues to remain clear: No one has yet to be held accountable for the death of Freddie Gray who was alive and well before being detained and put into that police wagon.
That same fact still applies to almost ALL of the young African-American men and women who have been shot or choked or beaten to death by police or who have died in police custody --despite all the publicity about these police crimes. And that is why there is so little trust in communities of color for the police that are supposed to serve them and keep them safe. There are always reasons -- or technicalities, or decisions not to indict or have trials, or other complications or distractions, or blatant police or city cover-ups -- to explain why no police or local officials who have done wrong have been prosecuted and sent to jail. The end result: Nobody is held accountable.
On the book tour I am still on with America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to A New America, the question always comes up, "What is white privilege?" In the town meetings we've been having in more than 20 cities so far, that discussion goes deeply into systemic and cultural issues. But white privilege has to also always be made very personal. So here is another personal story for me about young men being killed -- or not.
Last Christmas, my family went to England to visit with my wife Joy's family and friends. Our son Jack was warmly greeted by everyone with acclamations about what a big 12-year-old he had become. "Jack, you've grown so tall," "You look so athletic," "What an impressive young man you are becoming," etc. He kept telling smiling faces that he, at 12, was 5 foot 7 (and a half!) inches tall. Nobody said, "Jack you look so threatening and scary." Brian Stevenson, lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy, reminds us that African-American men, and boys, are assumed to be "guilty" and "dangerous" from the start. But not my white son Jack.
While we were in the U.K., the news came across the Atlantic that the Cleveland police officer who had shot and killed young 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014 would not face charges. The decision meant that there would be no trial for the officer who killed Rice or his partner -- despite the fact that a local judge had found probable causes of murder, involuntary manslaughter, reckless homicide, negligent homicide, and dereliction of duty. The prosecutor, Tim McGinty, was widely criticized for acting more like the defender of the police involved rather than his proper role of advocating for a crime victim. I vividly remember reading assistant prosecutor Matthew Meyer's words that the Cleveland boy was "much larger than the average 12-year-old" -- he was "five foot seven."
Let's be honest. Would these white police officers have driven up on my white 5 foot 7 1/2 12-year-old son and shot him in two seconds, before giving him verbal commands and time to respond -- even if he too was playing with a toy gun like 12-year-olds do?
Nobody has been held accountable for the death of Tamir Rice.
Until police officers and local officials are held responsible for wrongdoing in the unnecessary killings of young African Americans, there will not and cannot be confidence for law enforcement in communities of color. Plain and simple.
Until punishment and privilege are no longer the results of skin color in our American criminal justice system, there will be no trust. Put most simply, no accountability means no trust. And until such accountability is a demand from both white and minority communities, all our children will not be safe.
Unaccountable must become unacceptable for the police.