In the wake of the non-indictments in the deaths-by-cop of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the national conversation has been rightly filled with anger at the police, at the district attorneys and their bosses, at the U.S. criminal justice system, all the way up the ladder to President Obama. We are right to be filled with fury at just the latest example of systemic racism and woeful practices that remain far, far too common in 21st-century America. Yet one version of the argument says that these are not flaws in our justice system, but that this is the way our system is supposed to work and has been working since our founding. Such an argument is both historically inaccurate and politically counterproductive.
The murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Sam Shepherd, and countless thousands of others at the hands of American law enforcement are not aberrations, or betrayals, or departures. The acquittals of their killers are not mistakes. There is no virtuous innermost America, sullied or besmirched or shaded by these murders….Policing in America is not broken. The judicial system is not broken. American society is not broken. All are functioning perfectly, doing exactly what they have done since before some of this nation’s most prosperous slave-murdering robber-barons came together to consecrate into statehood the mechanisms of their barbarism.
I suspect that those “slave-murdering robber-barons” would be surprised to learn that it was their intention to “consecrate” a justice system and society that now has a black president and a black attorney general, not to mention black chiefs of police in cities around the country.
I also suspect that the police officers of the late 1800s and early-to-mid 1900s wouldn’t recognize our justice system. They were used to one where 50 to 100 blacks were lynched every year, where officers could kill civilians and be lauded by their communities, and where police departments across the country routinely assisted whites during race riots.
To claim that this is the system, that nothing will change, ignores that police fatalities, while finally facing a measure of the universal outrage they should have sparked ages ago, have declined (if haltingly) over the past several decades. In 2012, for example, New York City police officers killed 16 people. That was at least one too many: The dead included an unarmed 18-year-old named Ramarley Graham. But it is also an 83 percent decline from 1971, when NYPD officers killed 93 civilians. And where once many (though not all) of these incidents were openly celebrated by a majority of Americans, their perpetrators now try to hide their actions after the fact, even as civilians gain unprecedented tools for recording and broadcasting the truth. (Before the Garner video came out, for example, the original police report of his death did not mention the chokehold.)
If this were the way the American justice system was supposed to work, then how do we explain the changes over the decades? The fact is that it is easier to say “there is no hope” (or “everything is fine”) and stay home than to recognize that we are still in the midst of a long, long battle for progress, and the victories come only during the times when a majority of the people put their shoulders to the wheel. Just because racism didn’t magically die with Obama’s presidency doesn’t mean that his win is part of “business as usual.”
These are small victories, and they only barely outweigh the defeats, but they are victories nonetheless. I am reminded of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech, in which he explained why, given the choice to live anywhere in human history, he would want to live in his present time.
And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it.
You may well throw up your hands and say, “But that was nearly 50 years ago. If we’re still ‘grappling’ with them, why not believe this is the way things are supposed to be?” Yet consider how long it took us to reach this point in history — thousands of years of blood and tears, of martyrs and defeats. Perhaps the cruelest truth of progress is that it almost always moves too slowly for any one of us. But that doesn’t mean people — especially those who aren’t directly affected by the system’s failures — should stop pushing the cart of progress down the tracks. This is our era, and we’re stuck with it.