The American Justice System Is Not Broken

I’m going to be honest here: I don’t quite know how to begin talking about this. I don’t know how to begin talking about this because I never thought I’d have to talk about it.

I never, not once, not in a million years, never thought that I’d be sitting here trying to make sense of the fact that Eric Garner was choked to death by an NYPD officer, the whole scene was caught on camera, and not only did the cop get off, he didn’t even get charged. Not even after the coroner ruled Eric Garner’s death a homicide and the NYPD acknowledged that the cop (Daniel Pantaleo, lest we forget his name and he’s allowed to tiptoe his way back into anonymity) used a banned chokehold on Garner. That’s about as open-and-shut as it gets: Pantaleo choked a man to death and was caught on video doing it, all for the heinous crime of selling loose cigarettes. And yet, he is free and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future, while Eric Garner’s wife and children have to spend the rest of their lives carrying the burden of the death of a husband and father who should still be with them. That’s why I’m having a hard time unpacking my thoughts on this: this case has been so astoundingly mishandled from the beginning that logical thought simply doesn’t appear to apply.

I’m biracial: my dad is black, my mom is white, and I’ve always been fiercely proud of my background. In fact, I self-identify as black, even though I don’t look it in the slightest. Perhaps it’s because I don’t look black that I am able to treat it as such a point of pride- I don’t have to see the other side of the coin. I don’t have to worry about being falsely accused of a crime because I “match the physical description of the suspect.” I don’t have to worry about being stopped by the police when I’m doing something as innocuous as walking down the street. And if I am stopped, I don’t have to worry that my encounter with the police will end with my pleading with them to let me breathe before I die at their feet. These are worries that I simply do not have to entertain solely because my skin is the right shade for the police. I am free to look at police officers as in the most charitable light possible: as men and women whose role in society is to uphold the law and make day-to-day life safer for everyone who lives in the neighborhoods they were sworn to protect. I am free to complain if a police officer is being disrespectful to me, and my complaints will be heard, acknowledged, and rectified. I am free to treat the American legal system as a safeguard for my rights rather than an obstacle.

Albert Burneko at Deadspin wrote a great piece about our failings as a society, and one thing that stood out to me is this:

If the institutions of white American power taking black lives and then exonerating themselves for it is understood as a failure to live out some more authentic American idea, rather than as the expression of that American idea, then your and my and our lives and lifestyles are distinct from those failures. We can stand over here, and shake our heads at the failures over there, and then return to the familiar business, and everything is OK. Likewise, if the individual police officers who take black lives are just some bad cops doing police work badly, and not good cops doing precisely what America has hired and trained them to do, then white Americans may continue calling the police when black people frighten us, free from moral responsibility for the whole range of possible outcomes.

Our society pretends that black men being killed by the police is an aberration. We blame black men for “resisting” and “not respecting authority” and “having the gall to demand the same rights afforded their white countrymen.” We make excuses when it happens, and when we can’t find fault with the victims’ actions, we search for flaws in their character to justify their demise. And when none exist, our society projects flaws onto them based on their sartorial choices, their social media presence, their taste in music, as though any of these factors make their deaths not only tolerable, but acceptable.

A couple years ago, I was arrested. I went to a concert in Chapel Hill and took a cab back to my apartment in Raleigh, but the cab driver refused to accept my credit card as payment and demanded cash. I didn’t have any cash on me, so he called the police, and seven cops showed up. I was standing at an ATM trying to take cash out when the cops ordered me to turn around, then offered me a chance to explain my side of the story. They weren’t sufficiently satisfied, so they arrested me for “Hiring with intent to not pay,” and I did not go gently into that good night. I was rude, argumentative, and disrespectful. I mocked their course of action and, quite literally, laughed in their faces when they told me why they were arresting me. I vocally refused to offer even a modicum of respect for anything they do on a daily basis and taunted them with the knowledge that the charges would be dropped (they were). And because I look the way I do, I’m still here to tell that story. If I looked like Eric Garner or Michael Brown, the only possible reason I would have avoided being assaulted (at the very least) by those cops is because the cab probably wouldn’t have picked me up in the first place.

Due to a genetic anomaly, I am bestowed with more freedom than the average black man in America. I don’t deserve this freedom any more than anybody else, yet due to circumstances beyond my control, that freedom is automatically granted, no questions asked. And I am ashamed of that. I’m ashamed to admit that I feel like a tourist in black culture because I get to experience all the positives without having to share any of the burden that comes with being black in America. I can hide in plain sight, in my own skin, when the situation calls for it. I self-identify as black, but I don’t have enough faith in our society that I can do it wherever and whenever I please. I’ve heard too many stories about the price of being black, and my instinct for self-preservation outweighs my sense of pride in my heritage. It disgusts me that those two concepts are at odds with one another.

I wrote about Michael Brown a few months ago, and in that piece I questioned why we were so up in arms about an occurrence that is all too common in this country. Even then, I had a sinking feeling that there were just enough questions surrounding the events of that day in Ferguson to allow Darren Wilson to walk away without having paid the penalty for what he did, and that’s exactly what happened. We’ve seen this happen before, and in the three months since then, we’ve already seen another black child gunned down by police. Tamir Rice was walking around a park in Cleveland with a BB gun when a concerned onlooker called the police. In his 911 call, the onlooker expressed doubt that the gun was real, a doubt that was never relayed to the officers who responded. When the officers arrived on the scene, one of the officers (who had already been fired by another police department in Independence, OH for displaying a profound lack of the emotional and mental stability required to be a police officer) shot him less than two seconds after arriving on the scene. Tamir Rice died the next day. Tamir Rice was 12 years old. I think the officer who shot a 12 year-old boy who was playing with a BB gun will be brought up on charges. I also think the officer will be acquitted of all charges. That’s about as much progress as I can hope for in cases like this.

Eric Garner’s death is different. What happened to Garner at the hands of the NYPD and subsequently the justice system was, quite literally, criminal. This is as clear-cut a case of police brutality as I’ve seen since the beating of Rodney King, but for all the progress we claim to have made in bridging the racial divide in the intervening 23 years, the song remains the same. This country does not value the lives of black or brown men and women the same way it does those of white men and women. It never has, and in all likelihood, it never will. The argument that we live in a “post-racial society” can now be put to rest, because for all the progress black men and women have made in this country, there will always be an alarmingly large subset of the population who refuse to see them as equals. Barack Obama is our President and the leader of the free world, but to far too many people, that doesn’t matter. He’ll always be just some nigger. To far too many people, my father will always be just some nigger. To far too many people, I will always be just some nigger.

When I was younger, I always thought I would be doing my black ancestors a disservice if I didn’t marry a black (or at least biracial) woman so my kids could have the same cultural background I have. I wanted them to acknowledge their heritage and wear it as a badge of honor. But with every new story of police harassment of black men and women, I’m forced to admit to myself that my kids will have it a lot easier if they come out looking like me. If it means they won’t get the full experience of being black, that’s fine by me, because I’ve seen the parts of the black experience I get to avoid, and I wouldn’t wish them on anybody. Nobody deserves to live their life acutely aware that at any time, through no fault of their own, their life can end at the hands of the very people who are paid to preserve it.

Eric Garner was murdered. Daniel Pantaleo is free. In spite of this, I’m proud to be black. But I’m terrified that my wanting to pass my genes onto my children so they can feel that same pride might one day lead to their death.