Yesterday’s decision by a Staten Island grand jury not to prosecute the officer who murdered Eric Garner feels like a decision handed down by a grand jury in bizarro world. It’s inconceivable that you can have video evidence of a murder and choose not to indict, and it makes me sad — immeasurably so.
Now that this decision is out, video evidence and all, a lot of people say that we should move past Michael Brown’s death and focus on Garner — because with Brown there was obvious evidence of crimes and Garner allegedly committed a crime way less severe than Brown’s, after all. While I am glad that people are now seeing what I and a lot of black people witness almost every day, what the people who say this do not realize is that these cases are very similar and reveal sad, universal truths about our society. One shouldn’t be cast off in favor of another. Although the circumstances of these mens’ respective deaths are different, both of these cases make it abundantly clear that when it comes to Blacks, for whatever reason, a double standard exists within the criminal justice system in terms of perception of guilt and sentencing. It is guilt by association, and that association happens to be skin color.
Don’t believe me? Just a couple of weeks ago, news spread that local California rapper Tiny Doo could be facing life in prison for recording music. Yep. Recording music. The man has committed no crime, and yet prosecutors are using a 14-year-old law that has never been used before to try him for gang conspiracy. Also in recent news was a kid with a toy gun shot dead in Cleveland. As shown on video, the cop on patrol shot him 1.6 seconds after he exited his car. No calls to put hands up. No words at all. He pulled up and shot him like it was a scene out of “The Godfather.” If you want more, look at the way Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were smeared and vilified in the media based on things that were either not true or not germane to their respective cases.
Beyond anecdotal evidence, the data is clear. According to USA Today, at least 70 departments scattered from Connecticut to California arrested Black people at a rate 10 times higher than people who are not Black. USA Today also reported that Blacks are more likely than others to be arrested in almost every city for almost every type of crime. Nationwide, Black people are arrested at higher rates for crimes as serious as murder and assault, and as minor as loitering and marijuana possession.
On page eight of a report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, you’ll find that Blacks are imprisoned at a rate of 4,618 per 100,000 U.S. residents at midyear 2007. The same study showed that whites were arrested at a rate of 773 per 100,000 U.S. residents. Perhaps the most damning stat was revealed by TIME Magazine in 2011. They found that young African Americans are actually less likely to use drugs and less likely to develop substance use disorders compared to whites, Native Americans, Hispanics and people of mixed race. And yet, Black youth are arrested for drug crimes at a rate 10 times higher than that of whites.
People use excuses like “better safe than sorry,” or “look who he associates with” to justify gross negligence (killing unarmed teens) and ignorance (policies like “stop and frisk“) motivated by race. But the question is, and has always been, “Do I really have to give up my peace of mind and risk embarrassment just to make you feel safer?” These policies and views on race are shaped by the notion that those in power don’t want to really figure out who is actually guilty, so they just treat everyone they think looks guilty as though they are. It’s a quick and ineffective solution to a problem they’d rather not solve.
I actually don’t think the justice system has to drastically change to prevent these wrongs. It would be nice to implement for-profit prison reform and to do away with truth in sentencing laws, among other things. But the system inherently is meant to ensure that everyone is treated equally in the eyes of the law. The reason why the double standard exists in the criminal justice system is because the perception of Black guilt in this country seems to always trump due process, common sense and, often, the truth. Coupled with this is a perception that has existed in this country since it’s inception: that Black lives do not matter as much as white ones do. Whether it’s the Three-Fifths Compromise implemented by this nation’s founding fathers or the cases of both Brown and Gardner, this is something that is proven and deeply embedded in American society.
The real story of Ferguson and of Eric Garner’s murder should be that the worst aspects that belong to part of a group should not be attributed to the entire group. Being Black in this country already comes with deep-rooted baggage of its own — built-in red flags aren’t necessary.