Photo credit: AFP Photo/Sean Rayford
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The Democratic presidential contenders will hold a second debate in Detroit, July 30-31. I challenge one or more of the contenders to say this, “If elected I will confront the issue of the police killing of unarmed Blacks.” To boldly say this is far different than putting forth a set of proposals for criminal justice reform as South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg did. Or decrying the iniquities in the criminal justice system. Democratic presidential contenders Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have done that.
That’s admirable. But it’s simply not the same as declaring I will do everything in my power to see that justice is served when police want only to kill unarmed Blacks and state prosecutors and local district attorneys absolutely refuse to bring charges against them.
The need and urgency for a Democratic contender to say this is apparent in the aftermath of the grotesque refusal of the Justice Department to bring federal charges against the Daniel Pantaleo who choked to death Eric Garner on a New York street. The Garner killing was seen by millions courtesy of viral video.
Prior to the DOJ’s decision, state prosecutors refused to prosecute, a grand jury refused to indict. A police trial board has yet to rule on whether he violated any procedures in the slaying Garner. He’s still on paid assignment with the PD.
This follows an etched in stone pattern when police slay Blacks. There’s initial anger and outcry, demonstrations, a promise by police officials to investigate, and then weeks or months later, a decision that no charges will be filed. The Garner case fit the pattern to a tee. Aggrieved families of the victims, civil rights groups are left with only recourse: the Feds. The demand is almost always that the Justice Department bring civil rights charges against the cops who want only to kill.
As Attorney General William Barr bluntly proved once again with his flat refusal to bring charges, the chances of this happening are slim to none. It makes little difference how blatant, outrageous, and plainly visual through videos the killing is, the outcome is always the same: no charges.
The litany of excuses is always the same. Prosecutions, if any, should be handled by local prosecutors. The bar is impossibly high in trying to prove intent to kill. It’s virtually impossible to get a jury to convict police officers under any circumstances. There is no written code, rule, or guideline for what exactly reasonable belief is or means. It’s purely a judgment call by the officer the moment he or she draws his or her pistol and opens fire.
The storehouse of “reasonable beliefs” can fill up a small phone book. The suspect was reaching for a knife, gun, toothpick, holding a cell phone, tugging at his waistband, had his hands in his pocket, there was sudden movement of his vehicle. In the case of Garner, the defense was that he was resisting arrest and the officer used “reasonable force” to make the arrest. The bitter reality is that there is no ironclad standard of what is or isn’t acceptable use of force. It almost always comes down to a judgment call by the officer.
If this sounds like a virtual license to kill, it is. And this is the way departments play it to ensure that their officers beat most raps involving the slaying of unarmed Blacks.
Democratic presidential candidates should be put on the spot on this issue because that license to kill in effect is a license to perpetuate legalized state terror against citizens strictly based on color and the vagueries of the law and whims and biases of those who are sworn to uphold it. If a class of citizens in a nation can at any moment be singled out by police and subjected to violence for which there is almost recourse, then the terror has for all practical purposes been codified in both law and public policy. This makes it a dire and compelling policy issue that can’t and shouldn’t be submerged under the rubric of criminal justice reform. It’s also not a matter to be left in the hands of locals. It is a national issue.
Former President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder took a mild stab at trying to put the federal government behind reforms to reduce the deadly level of violence by police against unarmed Blacks. This followed the slaying of Michael Brown and a slew of other young Blacks. Holder’s successor Attorney General Loretta Lynch gave hope that charges would be brought against Pantaleo. Barr predictably squashed that.
The Democratic presidential contenders can change that. They are now on the big stage in front of millions. They can do what no other Democratic president or presidential candidate has done and that’s frontally and without equivocation tackle the one issue that has past and present been the single biggest source of fear and terror among Blacks. That’s the police slaying of them. I challenge the candidates to Say these words “I pledge to stop it.”
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of Who Can Beat Trump?: America’s Choice 2020https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07KVM86C6 He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.