Not long after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, I was at a meeting with other faith leaders. We were meeting to figure out the most effective way for faith leaders to respond not only to Brown’s killing by Officer Darren Wilson, but also to the seething anger amongst black people not only in Ferguson but in cities all over the United States.
It was during an afternoon meeting that we heard that the grand jury in New York had declined to render a true bill for the indictment of Officer Daniel Panteleo in the death of Eric Garner. Garner died after reportedly being put in a chokehold by the officer, in spite of his cries that he could not breathe.
The room was deathly quiet. These were black and white faith leaders, many evangelical, who had revealed a desire to seek a way to wade through the morass of the American judicial system. We all knew that the Grand Jury was meeting, but, perhaps naively, we expected at least an indictment of Panteleo.
Nobody moved until a young man on the opposite side of the room from me got up, walking quickly toward the exit. Tears were streaming down his face. When he got outside of the main meeting room, he broke down and sobbed loudly.
“They had a video!” he kept saying. “How could they not indict the officer? They had a video! They saw it and it still didn’t matter!”
The clergy by now had come out into the vestibule and tried to comfort the distraught young man, who declared between sobs that he could not possibly bring any children into this world. There was no justice, he said. None for black people.
That day has never left my mind; it comes back to me every time a grand jury finds that a police officer has not used excessive force even though the force used has too often resulted in the death of someone, too often unarmed. It is the system that allows police officers to do what they do with little worry of being held accountable. The road to accountability begins with the grand jury which, it seems, is very reluctant to indict a police officer.
MSNBC journalist Joy-Anne Reid wrote a compelling piece about her experience as a grand juror. What she experienced, she wrote, was enough to make her understand why black people have so little chance for justice when their cases go before the grand jury, especially if that person accused of bringing violence or death to an individual is a police officer.
Writes Reid, “The system is very good at producing convictions when it wants to, and even better at protesting the people empowered to administer justice. Due to a series of Supreme Court rulings…cops have no duty to protect the public from attack. They can gun down the mentally ill with impunity. They can use excessive force and even overkill with a free pass not accorded our soldiers in war. They can blow away your 12-year-old, choke you out on the street, chase your teenage son into your house and blow him away in front of your mom and your 6-year-old and yes, mow you down in the passenger’s seat of your girlfriend’s car on Facebook Live with barely any likelihood of being convicted.” (http://www.thedailybeast.com/philando-castille-and-this-savage-system)
There are too many people, black and white, who have no faith in our judicial system; it is not set up to assure justice for “the least of these,” but is rather designed to protect law enforcement officers who too often break the law themselves. All an officer has to do is say he or she was “in fear for” his or life and indictment is pretty much assured of not happening. The system has for the most part dehumanized the people it is supposed to protect and the result is a lack of confidence and trust from individuals in police officers, and visa versa.
Reid says in her piece, “The only people in our country who are truly safe from the system – besides the rich and the famous – are the cops.” Poor people in general and poor people of color don’t have much of chance for justice in our judicial system because it wasn’t designed to protect them. Race and class and political corruption play a huge part in who goes to jail and who doesn’t.
As our political system seems fraught with the hint of blatant and arrogant corruption at this point, it is ironical and painful to hear anyone from the current administration talk about “law and order.” As Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative said, “It is better for a person to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent.”
That would be the truth, and is the reason why so many people just do not have faith in the system. In the end, it has proven far too often to be unable to render justice to the truly innocent, and far too ready to let alleged wrongdoers with money – go free.