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UPDATED: December 5, 2014 Web Exclusive
'Black Lives Matter!'
Why are we still talking about racial injustice in America? Because no one should be above the law, especially those who are sworn to protect it
By Corrie Dosh

CALLING FOR JUSTICE: Protestors lay down in Grand Central Station in New York City during a protest on December 3, 2014 after a grand jury decided not to charge a white police officer in the choking death of Eric Garner, a black man (XINHUA/AFP)

"Hands up, don't shoot!"--a rallying cry spreading across America this week following two high-profile cases in which white police officers will not face trial for killing unarmed black men. First: Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and now, Eric Garner on Staten Island, New York. The cases have exposed simmering tensions over racial equality, corruption in the justice system and the militarization of police departments throughout the nation.

What happened? Why are we still talking about equality and justice in this day and age when we have a black president sitting in the White House, and the "post-racial" era of American culture has supposedly dawned? Because these two deaths at the hands of police officers have become the symbol of a criminal justice system that has been unfair and hostile toward minorities and particularly toward young black men.

According to a recent Gallup Poll, 59 percent of Americans believe racial profiling is widespread and more than four out of 10 black respondents said they had been stopped by police officers simply because of their race. One in three black men nationwide can expect to go to prison at least once in their lifetime, compared with one in 17 for white males.

In the case of 18-year-old Michael Brown, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson testified he shot Brown after an altercation. Some witnesses identify Brown as the aggressor, others say Wilson shot Brown in cold blood after the teenager attempted to surrender. Though a federal investigation is pending, Wilson was cleared by a grand jury of any wrongdoing in the case.

In the case of Eric Garner, a video of the incident shows police officers putting the 43-year-old in a chokehold while attempting to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes. Garner is heard to say "I can't breathe" before collapsing and an autopsy found that compressions to the chest and "prone positioning during physical restraint by police" were the cause of death. The chokehold maneuver that killed Garner has been banned by the New York Police Department since 1993. Again, no charges were brought against the officers involved.

It would be a mistake to view the riots following these two high profile cases as isolated disturbances. Demonstrators say that these cases are part of a larger pattern of racial bias in police shootings. At least five unarmed black men died at the hands of police the month Brown was killed.

"Unfortunately, the patterns that we've been seeing recently are consistent: The police don't show as much care when they are handling incidents that involve young black men and women, and so they do shoot and kill," Delores Jones-Brown, a law professor and director of the Center on Race, Crime, and Statistics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, told the Mother Jones magazine. "And then for whatever reason, juries and prosecutor's offices are much less likely to indict or convict."

Probable cause

Both the Brown and Garner cases involve grand jury decisions not to bring charges against the police officers involved. Grand juries are used to determine whether there is probable cause to bring charges against accused criminals. The juries, made up of 12 to 23 citizens, hear evidence and review documents to determine if a case should go to trial. It is extremely rare for a grand jury to decide not to support an indictment--after all, a grand jury decision does not determine guilt, it only determines whether a case merits a full trial. In cases that involve police shootings, however, "police have been nearly immune from criminal charges," according to a recent Houston Chronicle investigation.

This perception, that police officers have special protection by the justice system that allows them to use unjustified lethal force without consequence, has fueled the protests.

Why do grand juries seem to be biased in favor of police officers? Police officers, who are entrusted with protecting the peace and are seen as having a difficult and dangerous job, are often given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to use of lethal force. Prosecutors are also accused of not pursuing charges as vigorously as they would against average citizens.

"We have no confidence in the state grand juries, whether in Ferguson or in New York, because there is an intrinsic relationship between state prosecutors and the police; they depend on the police for their evidence, they run for office and depend on the unions for endorsements," civil rights leader Al Sharpton told The New York Times.

The prosecutor heading the Michael Brown investigation, St Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McColloch has deep family ties to the local law enforcement. His father, a police officer, was killed in the line of duty, and his mother, brother, uncle and cousin also work for the department.

The lack of indictments adds insult to injury. Not only are black men more likely to be killed by law enforcement, they are also victimized by a legal system that refuses to hold the police accountable to the law.

Stopping the pattern

It's not that racial relations are getting worse in America; young black men here have always faced a legal system stacked against them. We've been talking about stop-and-frisk for years and rioting has followed many high-profile cases of police injustice against minorities--Rodney King in the 1990s comes quickly to mind. Has anything changed in these latest cases? Will this pattern keep repeating?

Political leaders have pledged to find ways to end the cycle of prejudice against minorities in the legal system. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he took the news of Eric Garner's death personally, heightening fears for his biracial son Dante.

"A good young man, a law-abiding young man, who would never think to do anything wrong, and yet, because of a history that still hangs over us, the dangers he may face--we've had to literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him," De Blasio said.

While urging protesters to demonstrate peacefully, the mayor acknowledged the fundamental injustices that are the basis for the riots.

"This is now a national moment of grief, a national moment of pain. You've heard in so many places people of all backgrounds utter the same basic phrase: 'Black lives matter.' And they've said it because it had to be said. It's a phrase that should never have to be said, it should be self-evident. But our history, sadly, requires us to say that black lives matter."

President Barack Obama acknowledged "deep unfairness" in the way laws are enforced in America and pledged to improve relations between law enforcement agencies and the people they police.

"Beyond the specific issue that has to be addressed--making sure that people have confidence that police and law enforcement, prosecutors are serving everybody equally, there's the larger question of restoring common purpose," he said. "And at the heart of the American ideal is this sense that we're in it together, that nobody's guaranteed success but everybody's got access to the possibilities of success."

Last week, the president requested $263 million in federal funds to "help restore trust" between communities and their local police departments. The funds will go toward the purchase of 50,000 body cameras to provide evidence about incidents involving police interactions and the creations of a task force to address community policing. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced he would soon unveil new federal guidelines aimed at ending racial profiling.

Are these measures enough? Not even remotely; but one lesson from the civil rights movement has been that far-reaching federal protections are needed to fight institutionalized racism like we see in local law enforcement. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and the failure to bring the officers involved in the Brown and Garner cases to trial is a threat to the American ideal that no one is above the law, especially those sworn to protect it.

The author is a contributing writer to Beijing Review, living in New York City

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