Nonviolence as Compliance

Officials calling for calm can offer no rational justification for Gray’s death, and so they appeal for order.

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By Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic

Rioting broke out on Monday in Baltimore—an angry response to the death of Freddie Gray, a death my native city seems powerless to explain. Gray did not die mysteriously in some back alley but in the custody of the city’s publicly appointed guardians of order. And yet the mayor of that city and the commissioner of that city’s police still have no idea what happened. I suspect this is not because the mayor and police commissioner are bad people, but because the state of Maryland prioritizes the protection of police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview.

The citizens who live in West Baltimore, where the rioting began, intuitively understand this. I grew up across the street from Mondawmin Mall, where today’s riots began. My mother was raised in the same housing project, Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was killed. Everyone I knew who lived in that world regarded the police not with admiration and respect but with fear and caution. People write these feelings off as wholly irrational at their own peril, or their own leisure. The case against the Baltimore police, and the society that superintends them, is easily made:

Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson ….

And in almost every case, prosecutors or judges dismissed the charges against the victims—if charges were filed at all. In an incident that drew headlines recently, charges against a South Baltimore man were dropped after a video showed an officer repeatedly punching him—a beating that led the police commissioner to say he was “shocked.”

The money paid out by the city to cover for the brutal acts of its police department would be enough to build “a state-of-the-art rec center or renovations at more than 30 playgrounds.” Instead, the money was used to cover for the brutal acts of the city’s police department and ensure they remained well beyond any semblance of justice.

Now, tonight, I turn on the news and I see politicians calling for young people in Baltimore to remain peaceful and “nonviolent.” These well-intended pleas strike me as the right answer to the wrong question. To understand the question, it’s worth remembering what, specifically, happened to Freddie Gray. An officer made eye contact with Gray. Gray, for unknown reasons, ran. The officer and his colleagues then detained Gray. They found him in possession of a switchblade. They arrested him while he yelled in pain. And then, within an hour, his spine was mostly severed. A week later, he was dead. What specifically was the crime here? What particular threat did Freddie Gray pose? Why is mere eye contact and then running worthy of detention at the hands of the state? Why is Freddie Gray dead?

Read more at The Atlantic

The Eric Garner case’s sickening outcome

 Pallbearers carry the casket of Eric Garner at Bethel Baptist Church following his funeral service, Wednesday, July 23, 2014, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (John Minchillo/AP)
Pallbearers carry the casket of Eric Garner at Bethel Baptist Church following his funeral service, Wednesday, July 23, 2014, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (John Minchillo/AP)

Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post

I can’t breathe.

Those were Eric Garner’s last words, and today they apply to me. The decision by a Staten Island grand jury to not indict the police officer who killed him takes my breath away.

In the depressing reality series that should be called “No Country for Black Men,” this sick plot twist was shocking beyond belief. There should have been an indictment in the Ferguson case, in my view, but at least the events that led to Michael Brown’s killing were in dispute. Garner’s homicide was captured on video. We saw him being choked, heard him plead of his distress, watched as no attempt was made to revive him and his life slipped away.

This time, there were literally millions of eyewitnesses. Somebody tell me, just theoretically, how many does it take? Is there any number that would suffice? Or is this whole “equal justice before the law” thing just a cruel joke?

African American men are being taught a lesson about how this society values, or devalues, our lives. I’ve always said the notion that racism is a thing of the past was absurd — and that those who espoused the “post-racial” myth were either naive or disingenuous. Now, tragically, you see why.

Garner, 43, was an African American man. On July 17, he allegedly committed the heinous crime of selling individual cigarettes on the street. A group of New York City police officers approached and surrounded him. As seen in cellphone video footage recorded by an onlooker, Garner was puzzled that the officers seemed to be taking him into custody for such a piddling offense. He was a big man, but at no point did he strike out at the officers or show them disrespect.

Read more at The Washington Post

The Laws That Killed Eric Garner

From Ferguson to Staten Island, America’s Failure of Justice

No Justice, No Peace: Demonstrators protest a grand jury’s decision not to indict a New York police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner.
No Justice, No Peace: Demonstrators protest a grand jury’s decision not to indict a New York police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner.

By Jay Michaelson in The Jewish Daily Forward

My hands are quaking with rage right now, but I will choose to write rationally. I can’t believe this has happened again, and happened here, in my own backyard.

“This” being a grand jury failing even to indict a white police officer for killing an unarmed black man. Not even a trial. Not even a public hearing of the evidence.

And this time with a video of the entire incident, which is your moral responsibility to watch.

But I fear that my own city is soon to be engulfed in violence, and the violent people are right. So for that reason, I will try, if I can, to take refuge in reason, and in law.

It’s true that the forces that killed Eric Garner include white supremacy, racism, anger, violence, fear, a broken criminal justice system, a broken healthcare system, and ignorance. And yet another overreacting white police officer.

But I want to focus on law, because it’s something we can do something about. Right after the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, after all, the Bible famously goes into a thousand tiny details of mishpatim, laws. By detailing everything from rules of evidence to the damages for a stolen lamb, the book of Exodus makes a strong claim: that the lofty moral imperatives of Sinai only have meaning if they are translated into just laws. The God is in the details.

American law, however, helped kill Eric Garner – and it will kill more black men like him in the future. Specifically, there is a lethal nexus between judicial deference to police officers on the one hand, and the expansion of police power on the other. Each alone is problematic, but together, they make justice nearly impossible.

Read more at The Jewish Daily Forward

Righteous Indignation in Ferguson

By Simon Waxman in the Boston Review

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I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence. —Malcolm X

The grand jury’s decision to forgo indictment of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown compels us yet again to recognize that there is more to violence than its dictionary definition.

In clinical terms, violence is physical force intended to cause injury. But when officer Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown this past August, he did not engage in violence. He engaged in self-defense. He was justified.

After the jury’s decision was announced, black Americans and their supporters, who see in the non-indictment a form of impunity, took to the streets of Ferguson and St. Louis. Their righteous indignation amounted to a “night of violence,” according to The Guardian and USA Today. KSDK, a St. Louis NBC affiliate, used a common volcanic metaphor: “Violence erupts in Ferguson: Fire, looting, arrests.” Look at any of the major news outlets—shattered store windows and overturned police cruisers. That is violence, and there need be no inquiry into its justification.

Violence is a moral category, not an act. Where aggression is presumptively unjustified, it is violent. Where it is deemed acceptable by the norms of the community in which it occurs, it is not violence.

It is perilous to extrapolate too greatly from a single case, but that peril is not at issue in Ferguson, where Brown’s shooting reflects a widespread and historically endless pattern of white lawmen, and white men acting under cover of law, injuring and killing black men without engaging in what the society calls violence. Here again, the court asked what the victim did to warrant his fate. But the political problem, which courts can’t consider, is who has access to justification.

Read more at the Boston Review

Simon Waxman is the managing editor of the Boston Review.

Also by Simon Waxman: Zimmerman: The Criminal Trial Is a Privilege of Whiteness