I want you to tell me how I can trust the justice system.
Mister Attorney General, the question is for you. And you, Ms. Police Officer, Madame District Attorney and Mr. Judge. It is also for you, Mr. and Ms. Average Citizen. I realize this will be an engraved invitation for crackpots who get their jollies flouting their hatefulness and ignorance on electronic message boards, and I’m willing to live with that because the question, I assure you, is in earnest.
Somebody tell me: How can I trust the justice system?
You will think this is about Sean Bell, the unarmed black man who died in a fusillade of 50 bullets from New York police on what was to have been his wedding day; the shooters were acquitted April 25. But the question isn’t about Bell, at least not solely.
Rather, it’s about the fact that the justice system so often seems to have less justice in it where black people are concerned. It’s about Amadou Diallo, shot at 41 times – hit 19 – by New York police while reaching for his wallet. It’s about Rodney King, beaten to pieces by L.A. police for a traffic violation. It’s about Arthur McDuffie, beaten to “death” by Miami police for a traffic violation. It’s about Jeffrey Gilbert, bones fractured by police who broke into the Greenbelt, Md., apartment of his girlfriend and pounced on him as he lay nude in bed because they mistakenly thought him a cop killer. It’s about L.A. police manufacturing and planting evidence. It’s about my son, stopped by police for driving with an “obstructed” windshield – he had an air freshener in the shape of a Christmas tree dangling from his rearview mirror. It’s about studies documenting the enduring racial bias in our justice system so that, for example, blacks account for 13 percent of all regular drug users, but 35 percent of those arrested, 55 percent of those convicted and 74 percent of those imprisoned for possession.
And it’s about knowing the foregoing will be greeted with blithe indifference by those who find it convenient to believe the unjust treatment of blacks is somehow excusable, understandable, merited or required.
I need no lectures to remind me that good people inhabit the system; my cousin is a federal prosecutor. Nor do I need any lectures on the heroism of cops; I’ve ridden with police, been protected by them and yield to no one in my admiration for those who do that job with honor.
So save the lectures and just give me an answer: How can I trust a system whose biases against people who look like me are simultaneously well-documented, yet happily ignored by those who resemble me not at all?
The question matters because without trust the system doesn’t work. Everybody came down, and justifiably so, on the idiot rapper who said last year that he would not call police even if a serial killer were living next door. Unfortunately, fewer people bothered to ask where such profound distrust comes from. Fewer still bothered to ask what it leads to.
People don’t participate in systems they don’t trust. They don’t come forward; they don’t testify. So criminals go uncaptured and crimes, unpunished. Yet some black people apparently find that preferable to participating in a system they believe is rigged against them. I don’t agree with them, but before you condemn them, ask yourself: Would you play in a game refereed by someone who hated you? What’s the point?
In games as in life, you may not like an outcome, but if you believe it was fairly derived you can at least live with it. Small wonder black people often find it difficult to live with this system. Last week’s acquittal will do nothing to change that.
So I’m serious. Somebody tell me how I can trust American justice. Somebody tell me why I should even try.
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