I have told friends that my mistrust of the police comes legitimately. I grew up in Birmingham, Ala., during the 1960s, when the city became infamous for the brutal way that civil rights demonstrators were treated by policemen who used snarling dogs and pummeling blasts of water from fire hoses to disperse protesters. A 9-year-old classmate was one of the youngest demonstrators arrested.
Back then, black people saw the police as appendages of a racist judicial system that more often than not protected, rather than prosecuted, whites accused of harming African-Americans. Today, many think the same thing about the white police officers in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., who killed unarmed black men and managed to avoid prosecution.
My family didn’t even think about looking to the police for protection after the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed by racists in 1963, killing four little girls, including an 11-year-old who attended my school. Instead, my father and other black men armed themselves anticipating more violence.
Over the ensuing years, the relationship between police and Africans-Americans seemed to get worse, not just in Birmingham, but also in other U.S. cities with no similar connection to the civil rights movement. The distrust had more to do with heavy-handed police tactics used during the “war on drugs,” which has put a disproportionate number of African-Americans in prison. Even in Iowa, a state with a population only 2 percent black, African-Americans are more than 13 times as likely to be imprisoned as whites, according to the Sentencing Project. That’s more than twice the national average.
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I am a very careful driver, having never received a traffic ticket, because I dread any encounter with the police. Their propensity to lock up African-Americans is at least in part due to a tendency by too many police officers — black and white, but especially white — to see any black male as a potential criminal. This is especially true in high-crime neighborhoods, which are almost always low-income neighborhoods, and African-Americans are also disproportionately poor.
The relationship between police and residents of poor neighborhoods can be compared to how prison guards and inmates treat each other. Integration since the 1960s has allowed blacks and whites to form closer personal relationships. But even when patrolling officers try to make friends in a black neighborhood, there is an underlying tension that suggests neither fully trusts the other. When an incident occurs to justify those barely repressed feelings, the result can be unsettling, if not tragic.
Such an incident occurred Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo., a town I’m slightly familiar with. My daughter and her husband lived there when she was finishing optometry school at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. I remember it as a quiet, leafy exurb, close enough to the big city to share some of its urban ills on a smaller scale, but far enough away from St. Louis to enjoy a picnic at a lakeside park.
Driving along Ferguson’s streets several years ago, I never envisioned it as one day becoming the setting of racial turmoil. Igniting the firestorm was the shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. The policeman stopped Brown and a companion for jaywalking in the middle of a street. He said he fired his weapon after Brown, who was also suspected of stealing a handful of cigarillos from a convenience store, tried to take the gun.
There was no trial for Officer Wilson after a grand jury decided not to indict him. That decision didn’t compute among those of us who recall the old saying that a good prosecutor can persuade a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich.
Typically, only enough evidence is presented in grand jury proceedings to obtain an indictment. No contradictory evidence or argument by the defendant is allowed. But that was not how Wilson’s case was handled. St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch in essence asked the grand jury to decide Wilson’s guilt or innocence, rather than whether the case should be heard by a jury and judge in an open trial. McCulloch gave the grand jury all the case’s evidence and testimony. His unusual actions suggested that the prosecutor didn’t want Wilson to be indicted.
That was also the suspicion weeks later after a New York grand jury refused to indict Daniel Pantaleo, a white police officer accused in the choke-hold death of an unarmed black man suspected of selling illegal, untaxed cigarettes on a city street. Eric Garner, 43, the overweight father of six children, can be heard on a video taken of his July arrest pleading that “I can’t breathe.” Those words have since been emblazoned on T-shirts being worn by celebrities and others to protest not just the way Garner died, but how black people too often get treated by police.
A medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide, but a grand jury did not return an indictment. Staten Island, N.Y., District Attorney Dan Donovan mirrored the St. Louis prosecutor in essentially asking the grand jury to adjudicate the case. Like McCulloch, Donovan also gave the panel all the evidence and testimony. And once again, justice did not appear to be served.
The Ferguson and Staten Island prosecutors tried to suggest they had been fair, but the impression they left with me was that they had unfairly done their best to avoid indictments. Given the close ties between prosecutors and police in any municipality, it would have been better for McCulloch and Donovan to step aside so special prosecutors could be appointed to avoid any conflicts of interest.
It’s possible that even if the white officers were tried in open court before a judge and jury, neither would be found guilty of a crime. In fact, that could be the outcome of pending federal civil rights investigations into the deaths of Brown and Garner. But had actual trials been held, with all the evidence and testimony aired in public, it’s also possible that the now daily protests against police behavior would have ended by now, regardless of the verdicts.
Those of us who remember the civil rights demonstrations of 50 years ago lament the tragic deaths of Brown and Garner. But just like in the 1960s, it’s heartening to see people of all ages, colors, and creeds come together to seek positive change. Their struggle is for equal justice. That was our parents’ struggle, too. Sadly, it also must be our children’s struggle, and most likely their children’s as well. The struggle won’t end until white police officers and the black people they are supposed to protect and serve can achieve a higher level of trust.
Harold Jackson is editor of the Inquirer Editorial Board. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.
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