Combating Racism – Standing For Justice

Lady Justice, originated from Justitia, the goddess of Justice in Roman mythology. She is intended to represent the morality of the justice system. Many modern depictions of Lady Justice show her holding the sword in her left hand and scale in the right hand. The pair of balance scales represent the obligation of the law to weigh the evidence presented by both sides while the unsheathed double-edged sword signifies that justice is transparent and can rule against either side to protect the innocent. Lady Justice is blindfolded to show that she is unbiased and doesn’t let outside factors influence decisions, representing the impartiality and objectivity of the law. She is stepping on a snake to show that she can crush evil or lies under her feet.

Lady Justice smiled this week, after the verdict in the Derek Chauvin case.

When I heard the verdict on Tuesday, I felt a jumble of simultaneous emotions. Primary was my joy that justice had been done . . . finally. And gratitude that bystanders and police officials had shown the courage to stand up for what is right—that, thanks to courageous witnesses, police accountability was achieved. I felt elated—this is a historic moment for our country. At the same time, I felt optimistic that this verdict will mark a new chapter in American history—one in which those who are charged with protecting citizens are accountable for killing unarmed Blacks. Hopefulness that the family of George Floyd will find some relief in this verdict. Next was relief—relief that, given the verdict, the country wouldn’t face nationwide rioting. And then, a giant exhale. Many Americans, particularly our Black brothers and sisters, have been holding our collective breath for weeks.

Then I sobered. I listened to Black friends and commentators who reminded me that it shouldn’t be historic to punish someone for such a heinous crime – especially if the person wears a police uniform. And that this one case does not wipe out a history of systemic racism.

Then I remembered.

In August, 1955, the body of 14-year-old Emmett Till was found dead in the Tallahatchie River. On September 19, the kidnapping and murder trial of Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam began in Sumner, Mississippi. Five days later, on September 23, the all-white, all-male jury acquitted the two men of murder after deliberating for little over an hour. In January 1956, Look magazine published the confessions of the two white men and paid a reported $4,000 for their participation in the article.

And I remembered witnessing the beating of Rodney King in March, 1991. Like the case of George Floyd, a bystander videotaped the incident. The video, which was later shown on national television, showed four white officers using an electric stun gone to subdue King, then clubbing and kicking the prone Black man 56 times as he begged for mercy. A witness said she did not see King fight with the police, as officers claimed. But in that case, even though the four officers lost their jobs, they were acquitted in criminal trial.

In researching the history of convictions of White police officers for killing innocent Black civilians, I found only four cases:

  • Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times in October 2014 as he walked away from police while holding a knife. Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm, one for each shot fired at the Black teenager. Van Dyke was sentenced to 6¾ years in prison.
  • Michael Slager, a South Carolina police officer, stopped Walter Scott, 50, an unarmed Black man, for a broken brake light. Scott was shot in the back as he ran away from the officer in April 2015. The officer fired eight shots, hitting Scott five times. In December 2017, a federal judge sentenced Slager to 20 years in prison.
  • Amber Guyger was sentenced to 10 years in prison after a jury found her guilty of murdering Botham Jean in September 2018. Guyger entered Jean’s apartment, claiming she mistook it for her own and thought he was a burglar, and shot the unarmed Jean, a 26-year old Black accountant with PriceWaterhouseCoooper who was sitting on his sofa eating ice cream.
  • Mark Bessner was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to five to 15 years in prison in 2019, nearly two years after killing 15-year-old Damon Grimes.

Meanwhile, an investigation of thousands of pages of job applications, personnel records, use-of-force reports, citizen complaints, court records, lawsuits, news releases, witness statements and local and state police investigative reports by NPR found that, since 2015, police officers have fatally shot at least 135 unarmed Black men and women nationwide, often without consequences. At least 75% of the officers were White. For at least 15 of the officers, the shootings were not their first. More than a quarter of the killings occurred during traffic stops, and 24 of the dead — 18% — suffered from mental illness.

I have written extensively about the murders of innocent Black Americans at the hands of Whites throughout our history [1, 2, 3, 4 ,5] and the ways people watched lynchings as a form of entertainment, rather than horror. At least during George Floyd’s murder, bystanders were horrified by what they witnessed and had the courage to stand up and testify to what they saw.

This feels different to me.

Before I could reconcile all my mixed feelings, I read the initial police press release following George Floyd’s death. The police report was based on information that the Police Department received from the officers on the ground, who didn’t initially log any use of force.

Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction

May 25, 2020 (MINNEAPOLIS) On Monday evening, shortly after 8:00 p.m., officers from the Minneapolis Police Department responded to the 3700 block of Chicago Avenue South on a report of a forgery in progress. Officers were advised that the suspect was sitting on top of a blue car and appeared to be under the influence.

Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40’s, in his car. He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.”

And then outrage. The police report was a lie. If it weren’t for 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, who had the wherewithal and the courage to stand still and videotape George Floyd’s murder in front of four armed policemen, the police would have escaped accountability.

My emotions were mixed again. I felt gratitude to and awe at Darnella Frazier for her clear video and her poignant testimony. I was grateful for the courageous testimony of regular citizens, and those in authority positions, who stepped forward and did the right thing.

Yet even as we heard the evidence in the Derek Chauvin case, at least three other Black and Brown citizens were killed by police violence this month: Daunte Wright, 20, Adam Toledo, who was just 13, and Ma’khia Bryant, 16.

This does not, by any means, disparage the hundreds and thousands of good men and women in uniform in our country. As I used to tell my workshop participants, “one bad apple in a bunch doesn’t make the bunch bad.” According to Peter Scharf, a criminologist and professor at Louisiana State University, “Many officers will go their entire career without shooting — sometimes without pulling their gun out at all."

After the verdict was announced, Philonise Floyd, brother of George Floyd, said, “It’s up to all of us to build on this moment. . . . It’s time to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and begin the work of transforming policing in the United States.”

So if you are wondering, “What can I do?” George Floyd’s brother gave you an answer: You can lobby your members of Congress – Representatives and Senators -- to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

This bill aims to end certain police techniques, including chokeholds and carotid holds, two forms of potentially deadly force. Such practices would be banned at the federal level, and federal funding for local and state police agencies would be conditioned on those agencies outlawing them. The bill also seeks to improve police training and invest in community programs designed to improve policing and promote equitable new policies.

Other provisions in the bill would:

  • Ban no-knock warrants in federal drug cases and, as with chokeholds, encourage local and state agencies to comply by tying bans to federal funding.
  • End “qualified immunity,” which protects law enforcement officers from most civil lawsuits.
  • Make it easier to prosecute police officers accused of misconduct by lowering the legal standard from willfulness to recklessness.
  • Prohibit racial, religious, and discriminatory profiling by law enforcement agencies at the local, state and federal levels and mandate training against such discriminatory profiling.
  • Require local and state police agencies to use existing federal funds to ensure the use of body cameras, require all federal uniformed officers to wear body cameras, and require all marked federal police vehicles to use dashboard cameras.
  • Create a national police misconduct registry to prevent police officers who are fired or pushed out for bad performance from being hired by other agencies.
  • Use federal grants to help communities establish commissions and task forces to study police reforms.
  • Address police militarization by limiting how much military-grade equipment is awarded to state and local law enforcement agencies.
  • Enhance “pattern and practice” investigations of police departments by granting the Justice Department subpoena power and establishing grant programs for state attorneys general to conduct their own probes.

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In the Jewish tradition, we are in the middle of the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot, a period that holds a special spiritual quality. We are called to envision ourselves capable of transformation—to believe that our actions today will impact tomorrow and future generations.

On this week of the verdict in the George Floyd murder case, may we envision the world we wish to live in and the world we wish our future generations will live in. May we endure the steps in the long and difficult journey it will take to make that vision a reality—a vision in which Black lives matter and in which we see every life as one of inherent value. May this moment be one of transformation for our nation and may George Floyd’s memory be a blessing to all who loved him. Amen.

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