On September 24th, 2014 a Greene County, Ohio Special Grand Jury, after hearing from 18 witnesses and considering both audio and video evidence, failed to indict Sean Williams for the fatal shooting of 22-year-old John Crawford III, gunned down in a Walmart. Because he was carrying an (unloaded) air rifle, which he’d picked up off the shelf a short time earlier, the jurors ruled that the officer who fired the two shots that killed Crawford was not guilty of any crime and that the officer was “justified in doing what he did” due to ”active shooter protocols”. But Crawford was neither active nor a shooter. He was merely a young, Black shopper, talking on his cellphone to the mother of his children. Menacing no one yet evoking “fear” in highly-trained officers.
Once again the outcomes of our justice system leave much to be desired, and rubs like salt in the still fresh wounds of the families and loved ones of those whose lives have been taken by apotheosized police. Rather than seeing these parents offered a pittance of consolation for their loss, we watch as they grapple with yet another travesty of justice. The story is all-too familiar: John Crawford III, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown; those that rally around these figures in the hopes that thousands upon thousands of voices raised to the heavens will eventually be heard are asked, in dulcet tones, to toe the line, to believe that justice will eventually be done via the court system. They comply in the face of mountains of empirical evidence, beneath the weight of which is nearly impossible to have faith in the supposedly colorblind Lady Justice. We are left with ecumenical prayer vigils, choruses of Civil Rights songs sung in Slave Song tenors: “We shall all be free someday.”
This can hardly be a balm for the mothers and fathers whose children’s lives were snuffed about by the sinister arms of the leviathan, whose calls for justice—even when joined with black communities around this country—went unanswered, still and ever unanswered. Thanks in no small part to the widespread media practice of intentionally conflating blackness and criminality, the wheels of justice move swiftly (even in the absence of evidence) when the victim is white and the alleged perpetrator is black; when the roles are reversed, America’s fear of the dark becomes manifest in victim blaming and, almost inevitably, complete exoneration.
As I stand with the mourning families and hear the pleas—vacillating between outrage and heartbreak—from the communities that embrace them, I’m struck dumb by the platitudes well-intending sympathizers frequently offer in the name of objectivity. I’m tired, so tired, of being reminded each time something like this happens of how far we have come since slavery and Jim Crow. We were once chattel, and now we can hold our heads high and come together as a broad community to air our grievances with human rights to shield us from abuse. This is true. It is also true that white men can no longer legally chain and maim black bodies or hang them from trees; no man or woman in this country can be refused goods or services to anybody based on the color of their skin; our country, it is true, has changed. Our president is constantly invoked as example of this—and, indeed, he does exemplify a more inclusive America, but these continued miscarriages of justice, these constant reminders that we are not, as yet, an equal society, these persistent structures of inequality and institutionalized racism are albatrosses that we can’t seem to shake in the present; and, as far as we have come, I will not be content until blackness and criminality are no longer conflated in the media or by law enforcement officials. This pigeon-holing of the black male allows courts of law and of public opinion to spare the perpetrator and to blame the victim, even when he is beaten with baton-wielding cops while he is lying prone on the ground, when he is shot point blank by a neighborhood watch member, when he, unarmed and with his hands in the air, is shot six times by a white police officer.
Our victories ring hollow when those armed by the state kill, stalk, abuse young black men and women with impunity and, in some circles, are celebrated as heroes. Sharlton Wampler- Antonio Villegas- Darrin Wilson- Daniel Andrew -George Zimmerman- Sean Williams- David Darkow- Daniel Pantaleo- Laurence Powell- Timothy Wind- Stacey Koon are some of those heralded in annuls of American history. America’s long (and frequently bloody) history of fear and violence when confronted with black bodies continues in the manifold practices whereby these bodies are rendered invisible through death or incarceration. Though it must be admitted that the wheels of justice begin to turn at our behest just as they do at the behest of the white establishment and that the law itself as it is written is not prejudicial (there are, for instance, no written guidelines distinguishing black criminals from white ones), the outcomes—overwhelmingly unbalanced incarceration rates for young black men and the use of force (deadly or otherwise) deemed justifiable even against the unarmed—suggest that America’s perhaps most stubborn prejudice (its hatred of blackness) is perverting, time and again, the course of justice. Though the system itself, allowing, as it does, for outcomes that so baffle common sense, is deeply flawed, its operators are the true heart of the problem.
Prosecutors can argue until they’re blue in the face, but such arguments mean little when they are presented to those who sympathize more with the killer (inevitably portrayed as frightened for his or her life) than with the victim; justice will ever be at arm’s length when the margin granted to law enforcement’s admittedly human fallibility is wide enough to engulf the sanctity of black life. What happened in Ohio was not so much a sign of an unjust system, but, rather, an abomination of individual and collective conscience. Instead of railing against a failed system, we have to hold the people who rendered its verdict accountable for the injustice they have done in failing to uphold the justice system’s promise of equal treatment for all. Railing against the abstraction itself gets us nowhere, and it is impossible to address claims of conscience to a system that has none. Rail instead against the thousands of judges and jurors who are filling our jails with black bodies; rail instead against those who fail to indict thanks to their indifference to the plight of black America; rail against those who use deadly force without warrant. By failing to lay blame at the feet of those who have abrogated their duty to punish the guilty and spare the innocent and critiquing, instead, the disembodied system of justice—as though it could be held in any significant way accountable for its outcomes—we waste our energies.
Julius Bailey, PhD, a Christian Existentialist, teaches in the Department of Philosophy at Wittenberg University. He is a philosopher, cultural critic, social theorist, and diversity lecturer. Recent publications include: The Cultural Impact of Kanye West , Philosophy and Hip-hop: Ruminations on Hip-Hop as Postmodern Cultural Form , and Jay-Z: Essays on Hip Hop’s Philosopher King. More information can be found at www.juliusbailey.com