Even for Walter Scott, Justice is Illusive
On April 4, 2015 Officer Michael Slager shot a black motorist named Walter Scott as Scott ran away from him after being tasered. When the shots were fired, Scott was 17 feet away from Slager and running as fast as his 50 year old body would allow. 8 shots were fired, 5 striking Scott. Slager walked over to Scott’s body and planted a taser. He then called in to report that Scott had taken his taser, forcing him to discharge his weapon in self defense. Slager was unaware that the entire incident was caught on cellphone video by a nearby citizen.
Due to the video evidence, the shooting of Walter Scott seemed to be an open and shut case. Much like the shooting of LaShawn McDonald in Chicago in 2014, even pro-police pundits positioned this case as proof that they were not feckless in their support of officers accused of using excessive force, reluctantly conceding that Walter Scott was murdered. Slager was quickly indicted in June 2015.
Yesterday it was reported that the judge presiding over the trial of Michael Slager is close to declaring a mistrial. Reports say that one juror refuses to convict Slager. In his letter to the judge he/she wrote that, “I cannot in good conscience consider a guilty verdict. I respect the position of my fellow jurors, some of which oppose my position. I expect those who hold opposing views not to change their minds.” It is worth noting that North Charleston, the municipality in which the shooting occurred is over 60 percent black, yet the racial makeup of this jury is 11 white and one black.
Perhaps the jury will return a guilty verdict after all, or there will be a new trial and Michael Slager will be convicted, but maybe not. Requiring 12 jurors to come to consensus is problematic when racial bias is pervasive. What if 3 jurors had dug in instead of 1? What if they were bullies? What if the other 9 wanted to get home for the holidays? What if there wasn’t so much public attention on this case? What if there were no video? These scenarios are not far fetched. This case epitomizes the fundamental problem of implementing democracy within a racist paradigm. Our systems are built on the supposition of equality and are therefore ill-equipped to enforce it.
America’s self image is buoyed by a false narrative predicated on a willful ignorance of history. The ideals set forth in the work of the founding fathers belie a contradictory reality and ambition. Throughout our history, egalitarian ideals converted to assumptions have served to both inspire progress, and to rationalize and obfuscate our most horrifying failures. The systematic and enduring oppression of African Americans falls firmly into the latter category.
Over time, slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration have served the same racist dehumanizing purpose and have been introduced and enforced by similar agents within our society and government. We stubbornly dismiss the preponderance of evidence that should serve to indict our racism. As Americans, our belief in equality should make achieving it our collective ambition. Instead, we falsely claim its presence, thus implicating those left behind by design.
Embracing this perspective requires that we disregard history. Racism and discrimination are by definition, patterns of behavior by individuals and institutions. When every interaction and exchange is viewed in isolation, patterns become imperceptible. Only history can reveal the repetition, placing our current condition in context. Let’s return to the practical example of police shootings and physical abuse of unarmed black men. Each case is treated as an isolated incident. With the killings of Walter Scott, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling and others we watched as predictably, the character of each victim was called into the question. Video footage was analyzed for the faintest of possibilities that these unarmed men sealed their own fate. We were urged to consider the fear and stress under which each officer toiled.
There is an enduring reluctance to view historically the role of state sanctioned violence in the oppression of African Americans. Police shootings serve the same purpose as lynchings — perpetuating fear of the state. Similarly, mass incarceration aligns with Jim Crow, depriving black citizens of fundamental rights and dignities.
Recent events show that this is not a condition at stasis. Progress, no matter how hard fought, is more easily lost than gained. Moving forward requires a true understanding of racism and the role that our institutions, both cultural and political play in shaping our society. This cannot occur without an honest look at our history. It is in that spirit that I recommend reading the following books. I’m sure many of my friends have already read them all, if it’s been awhile, it can’t hurt to read them again. Please reach out to me with your recommendations.