On its face, the law is equal. State robbery statutes make no mention of race, and they promise to prosecute offenders regardless of what they look like. All that matters, it seems, is the offense and the offender's criminal history. In reality, the system operates much differently.
Mike Brown died because the law is mobilized against people that look like him. It's an intentionally designed system that offers the benefit of the doubt to a certain sub-set of the population, while conferring upon others a presumption of dangerousness. To understand, one needs only to study both the history and modern application of those pillars upon which the law stands.
Find yourself suspected of a crime today and there are a few different ways your arrest will play out. The 1960s was a time of significant social strife in California. The Watts Riots occurred in response to red-lining and other racially discriminatory housing policies that kept Los Angeles's minority population from ascending to the middle class through home ownership. Likewise, black people were restricted from renting in certain areas under an informal arrangement that looked very similar to the de jure segregation of the American South. Cesar Chavez was busy organizing the United Farm Workers in hopes of securing fair working conditions, and the Black Panther Party was protesting both police brutality and other forms of racism in that part of the world. The Los Angeles Police Department, under the guidance of inspector Daryl Gates, took an idea from Philadelphia and ran with it. The "Special Weapons Assault Team" featured military-style weaponry and training. Gates determined that the unit's name might provoke a negative public response, so he shortened it to SWAT, and the modern para-military police troop was born.
It was deployed in a limited nature to keep the peace in response to Chavez's strikes, but it was deployed for a purpose truer to its collective heart in response to the "threat" of the Black Panthers. In December of 1969, a four-hour standoff between SWAT and the Black Panthers ended with six people injured, and a few years later, SWAT was an accepted part of the police's potential power.
Jacob Hedden, in a piece on the rise of SWAT, wrote of this initial confrontation:
"The Black Panthers resisted the raid and engaged the SWAT team in a four-hour gun battle. During the shootout, the LAPD and SWAT maneuvered themselves into surrounding the Panther’s headquarters as the two sides exchanged over 5,000 rounds of ammunition. The fighting resulted in the wounding of three Panthers and three SWAT officers. As the battle continued, the remaining Black Panthers realized the headquarters was surrounded in a hopeless 11-versus-hundreds fight and finally surrendered themselves to the SWAT officers. The SWAT teams first mission had ended as a monumental success for the Los Angeles Police Department."Setting off the confrontation was the assassination of Fred Hampton, a rising Black Panther Party leader in Chicago. Not wanting the leadership of the BPP to strengthen, and in retaliation to statements that Hampton had made about State Attorney Ed Hanrahan, state officers swarmed Hampton's apartment, intent on serving a warrant for illegal possession of guns. Hampton had been drugged during dinner by an FBI informant, and the storming officers littered his sleeping corpse with automatic gunfire. Finding him undead, officers fired two shots at point blank range into his skull, killing the unarmed Hampton.
Following the incident, FBI Special Agent Gregg York was quoted as saying:
"We expected about twenty Panthers to be in the apartment when the police raided the place. Only two of those black niggers were killed, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark."The Los Angeles Black Panthers planned to meet lawlessness with lawlessness of their own, and the LAPD responded by creating, for the first time in America, a tactical police force worthy of an American occupation of Middle Eastern country de jour.
It should come as no surprise that tactical units created for the purpose of controlling "unruly" black people are still used much the same way today. A limited study from Chicago found that in a sampling of 63 SWAT raids, where the subject's race was listed, 90-percent of subjects were black. While national numbers are difficult to ascertain because many departments refuse to release full incident reports, the ACLU found in investigating 800 tactical raids around the nation that black and Latino households were far more likely to experience a raid than the standard white household.
A recent commenter on an article here at DailyKos expressed some distress at the mention of race in Mike Brown's case. The hyper-aggressiveness of police, he argued, is the primary issue in this case. Even if one believes that to be true, it's impossible to ignore the connection between a militarized police force and the desire to control minority populations.
Small towns are arming themselves with tanks and other pieces of discarded military equipment. Does anyone think that in places like Florence, South Carolina, the majority-white population would approve of the Florence County Sheriff's Department buying this tank if they had any inkling that it would be used against anyone other than "thugs" and "criminals?" The militarized police, even if it's finally receiving some push-back in America, has persisted for decades only because of perceptions of minority dangerousness by those in control.
This concept has been modeled in a recent study by Stanford University, in which Rebecca Hetey studied the responses of white people to learning of the justice system's racial inequalities. As Marcie Bianco describes the study:
That's according to a new study out of Stanford University, that tested how increasing white people's awareness of disproportionate incarceration rates for whites and blacks would affect their views on incarceration laws. Two experiments, one conducted in San Francisco and the other in New York City, showed white subjects a series of mug shots. Those who saw more black faces among the mug shots were less likely to sign petitions advocating prison reform.In short, when white people are told that black people are disproportionately jailed, they are less and not more likely to believe that the justice system needs changing. Rather than responding to the inequality, the subjects of this study responded to their fear, noting that if more black people are arrested, it is evidence that black people are dangerous, and thus, a harsh justice system is necessary. The same effect powers the appetite for a militarized police force in many American towns.
The Drug War, which is closely tied to police militarization, has its own racist roots, and serves as more evidence that the law is meant as a sword against some. America's first drug laws were surprisingly passed in the late 1800s on a local level in perhaps America's least likely locality. San Francisco outlawed opium, which was the favored drug of Chinese immigrants, in a direct attempt to disadvantage that specific population. Later, the federal government banned the drug while not banning substances favored by white Americans.
The better known drug laws have their roots in fear of black Americans. Cocaine was a primary focus of American drug policy early in the 20th century and again in the middle part of the century when Reagan and Nixon amped up their Drug War efforts. But why was it so important to pass these laws and later enforce them with such vigor?
The headline from a 1914 New York Times article states:
"Many of the wholesale killings in the South may be cited as indicating that accuracy in shooting is not interfered with - is, indeed, probably improved - by cocaine. For a large proportion of shootings have been the result of drug taking. But I believe the record of the 'cocaine nigger' near Asheville, who dropped five men dead in their tracks, using only one cartridge for each, offers evidence that is sufficiently convincing."
According to an op-ed by federal judge Frederic Block in the Huffington Post, a Literary Review article from the same year claimed that "most of the attacks upon women in the South are the direct result of the cocaine-crazed Negro brain."
That same article goes on to quote an early 1900s Texas police chief as fear-mongering on the issue of marijuana by saying:
Under marijuana Mexicans [become] very violent, especially when they become angry and will attack an officer even if a gun is drawn on him. They seem to have no fear. I have also noted that under the influence of this weed they have enormous strength and it will take several men to handle one man while, under ordinary circumstances, one man could handle him with ease.
"There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others."Can there be any doubt why crack cocaine users received sentences many times worse than users or powder cocaine, when crack use in the 1970s and 1980s was associated with the black community? The Drug War was billed as a policy to protect America from the effects of narcotics, but a deeper dive into its history suggests that like many aspects of the criminal justice system, this policy effort was a sword used against minorities and designed for the "protection" of white America.
“Reefer makes darkies think they're as good as white men."
The law, of course, can be used to prosecute a person of any race, but its origins reveal its intent, and its results should not be surprising. Some reports suggest that black Americans and white Americans use illegal drugs at roughly the same rate. According to DrugPolicy.org, black Americans comprise roughly 14-percent of the country's drug users. At the same time, this community comprises roughly 37-percent of people arrested for drug offenses. Selective policing gives a facially neutral law its discriminatory effect, with police officers spending significantly more time in urban centers than anywhere else. Put in another way, police simply aren't trolling suburban neighborhoods and college frat houses for potential drug arrests, even though drug use is just as likely to happen in those settings than in places where minorities more commonly frequent.
Things don't get any better either when we turn out attention to the part of the process after the police have busted down the door. This is especially true for young people like Mike Brown.
America has a very bad habit of transforming young people into grown adults for the purposes of criminal prosecution. Though Brown was of age, a young black male a few years younger than him is much more likely to be tried as an adult than a young white male. Boys will be boys, it seems, unless those boys are black, in which case they'll more often be tried as monsters of men.
Regionally, the evidence is in the court-cooked pudding. A Toledo, Ohio judge recently admitted that when it comes to the certification process - that is, converting juveniles to the adult justice system - black kids are much more likely than white kids to experience this transformation. Journalist Robin Erb reported:
Four of five local juveniles who were sent to Lucas County Common Pleas Court last year to be tried as adults were minorities - a fact that troubles but doesn't surprise Lucas County's chief juvenile court judge.Of course, this study does not note the racial breakdown of total cases that came to juvenile court, but one can easily speculate that the number of white defendants was somewhere north of 18-percent.
And while Judge James Ray said, “We don't choose the kids who come before us,” he acknowledged that the system may be so subtly racist that its people don't realize they sometimes see cases differently based on a defendant's skin color.
"I think unfortunately there is institutional racism,” he said.
The juvenile court recently studied files of 115 juveniles who were certified to stand trial as adults from 1994 to 1999. Of those, 94 youths, or 82 percent, were African-American or Hispanic.
A study from Cynthia Levine, Carol Dweck, and Jennifer Eberhardt suggests that when people think about black juveniles, they are much more likely to believe that juveniles should be treated as adults. As these authors summarized in a New York Times article:
"In our own work, we find that race can have a sweeping effect even when people consider the same crime. Prompting people to think of a single black (rather than white) juvenile offender leads them to express greater support for sentencing all juveniles to life without parole when they have committed serious violent crimes. Thinking about a black juvenile offender also makes people imagine that juveniles are closer to adults in their blameworthiness. Remarkably, this was true for both people who were low in prejudice and those who were high in prejudice and for both liberals and conservatives."Certain conclusions can be drawn from this study and its demonstrated truth in juvenile courts around America. Namely, young black boys in America are drained of the presumption of youth. They're assumed dangerous, so dangerous, in fact, that they need to be dealt with harshly by the criminal justice system. This can be contrasted with the treatment of young white boys, who, according to the numbers, are more likely to receive sentences that reflect society's sense that those boys both pose no danger to society and have an opportunity to grow past the poor decisions of their youth.
For Mike Brown and others slain, this evidence is particularly powerful and important. The same mindset that purports to use the adult legal system as a weapon against young black boys at a disproportionate rate supports the presumption that Brown was dangerous. While the facts of the case are still blurry, some facts are known. An officer fired something close to ten bullets into the body of an unarmed black male, who, before being approached by police, had committed, at the very least, the crime of jaywalking.
The law and those who uphold it assume the worst, and they're acting under the implied stamp of approval of a society that's designed its criminal justice system to reject the notion that young black males deserve the benefit of the doubt. It's a slick slope that leads to the de-valuing of black life. When our juries, our voters, and our citizenry collectively embraces a justice system built on the premise of black dangerousness, is it any surprise that the men commissioned with executing that "justice" are all too often executing in the literal sense? Viewed in light of the whole, it seems downright predictable.
Black life is not as valuable as white life. That's the conclusion you'd get if you viewed the justice system through the lens of its final act, the death penalty. More and more, the death penalty is applied not according to who did the killing, or even what the killing looked like, except insofar as a rich person will find himself effectively insulated from a death sentence. Rather, the death penalty is a reflection of who's killed.
In order to deal the ultimate penalty, society must manufacture enough outrage to justify state-sponsored brutality. The sentencing phase of a death penalty trial will feature witness impact statements, which come from the family and reflect the level of loss that they've suffered. Considered in the decision of whether to seek death is a political calculation of just how sympathetic the victim happened to be. You won't see many, if any, prosecutors seeking death when a homeless black man is killed. Murder a white teenager, however, and you'll be on the fast track to the gurney.
A North Carolina study conducted by Michael Radelet and Glenn Pierce took a look at more than 15,000 homicides in the state between the years of 1980 and 2007. The researchers found that those who killed a white victim were almost three times more likely to receive the death penalty, regardless of the race of the killer. Other studies have found that black murderers are more likely to receive the death penalty, regardless of the race of the victim.
This is not to say that white people are not executed or that killers of black victims are not executed. They are, and if one uses a magnifying glass with enough power, she might even find a case where a white person is convicted for killing a black person. Just make sure you don't conduct that study in Florida, where, in the almost four decades since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the state has not yet executed a white person for killing a black person. Still, the existence of a limited set of examples of those outcomes no more invalidates the overall claim than the occasional arrest of a white crack user invalidates a claim that cocaine laws were designed as a sword against black users. The law's principal purpose seems to be the protection of white life, often at the expense of black life, and if the occasional black victim is protected in that process, then no one will complain.
Of course, many parts of America have a long, ugly history of protecting young white life while ignoring the value of young black life. The youngest person executed in the modern era was George Junius Stinney, Jr., who, at age 14 and too small for his death mask to fit, was sent to South Carolina's electric chair in 1941 after a kangaroo court trial for the murder of two white girls. His guilt remains in doubt so much so that an effort to re-open his case after more than seven decades. Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi for the "crime" of wolf-whistling at a white woman. His killers were acquitted in a trial as illegitimate as the one Stinney faced. Looking back at the history of the death penalty, it becomes quite easy to see that this relic of the American justice system was, too, designed as a weapon to be used against black people for the protection of whites. Around half of the more than 15,000 executions that have taken place between 1600 and 2002 in the Americas have listed an occupation on the death report. Of those more than 7,000 executions, 1,748 were listed as "slaves." That's 11.5-percent of the total American executions that have reported an occupation. it's more than possible that a full one-fifth of American executions were committed against slaves, even though the country hasn't had legalized slavery in more than 150 years.
Mike Brown is dead, slain in a killing that's a symptom of a bigger problem. From SWAT teams designed in response to the righteous anger of oppressed black Los Angeles residents to drug laws based on the fear of crazed black killers, the principal arms of the justice system have long been designed not for equal protection, but for the protection of comfortable white society against those they've perceived as threats. Disproportionate arrest rates, disproportionate sentencing, and the tendency to treat young black men differently than young white men suggest that the justice system is for my protection, not the protection of Mike Brown.
America's criminal justice system is much more reminiscent of the systems used in the Middle East, some more horrid parts of Asia, and in various parts of Africa. It bears little resemblance to the more evolved systems of Western Europe and Scandinavia. There may not be a simple answer for why that's the case, but it's clear that one reason why Americans allow their system to remain so drastically harsh, unequal, and penal is because that system's used as a sword toward minority populations and a shield toward those who look like me. Have a young, rich white man fall into the trappings of the criminal justice system for drunkenly driving his car over a family, and he'll be treated with a level of leniency that the cleanest cut black defendant could never dream of. Watch young people like me and my friends get picked up for firing a paintball gun, which looked very much like a real gun, at a car in broad daylight, and you'll see small-town cops bend over backward to allow us off with nothing more than a stern talking to.
But let Mike Brown commit the crime of walking in the wrong part of the street, and the ensuing police action will be applied with such force and ferocity that it'd have been a miracle if he made it out alive. It's a reality I'll never have to experience, and that's a good thing. But Mike Brown and those who look like him deserve a system that's not designed to eliminate them like a perceived threat.