By PATRICK HUNTER
First the fear. Two years ago, there was a very serious tragedy in Connecticut, in the United States. A lone gunman shot and killed over 26 children and teachers at Sandy Hook elementary school. One would have thought that the outcomes of this tremendous tragedy would be some very serious action taken on gun control. And, for a while it looked like it might.
Today, it seems like very little has changed in that department. The debate raged on but the power of the pro-gun lobby managed to keep reforms – in my mind, anyway – to the bare minimum.
Race did not play a part in this massacre. But the fact that so many children were killed should have been a motivating factor in placing more controls on the availability of guns.
Now we are staring at the entrails of two high-profile cases of the killing of Black men by the police – Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York. In neither case did the grand jury indict the officers involved on any charge.
In the case of Eric Garner, in Staten Island, the medical examiner had ruled that his death was a homicide. The grand jury did not agree. Even with what I believe was compelling evidence of a phone video, the grand jury thought otherwise.
So, as it stands now, in the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, and Eric Garner’s in New York, no one is charged with contributing to their deaths.
The anger and the demonstrations that have followed not only the actual events of their deaths but now the grand jury findings have crossed racial lines, although some would still deny that racism was at its root. The prevailing theme that has emerged from these and other subsequent engagements between the police and Black men is that “Black lives matter”.
The Obama administration has moved to conduct a Civil Rights investigation into these two killings. It is a gamble. What if the outcomes failed to confirm any civil rights contravention? What then?
In May 1992, in the face of videotaped evidence, the Los Angeles police officers who were involved in the severe beating of Rodney King were found not guilty. The response was not unlike what Ferguson saw in the wake of the Michael Brown killing.
Rage and anger have always played a part in the freedoms gained by Blacks, particularly in North America. One could almost say that very few rights have been acknowledged by the relatively peaceful means of diplomacy and negotiations. In some cases, these “negotiations” followed a period of “unrest”.
The Sandy Hook tragedy and other mass shootings have netted very little results because of the confusion around the constitutional guarantee of the “right to bear and keep arms”. Any attempt to change that provision has always been thwarted.
At one time, the U.S. Constitution had Blacks as less than human. That was amended, but the reality is that the treatment of Blacks has marginally been better. Thus, in 2014, there is a slogan that seeks to remind the powers-that-be that “Black lives matter”.
The grand jury system has been around for years. Not being a lawyer or a student of legal philosophy, I am not prepared to debate the merits of the grand jury system. In some cases, it serves to protect the innocence of the person being investigated – under the heading of “innocent until proven guilty in a court of law”. It is a system by which the prosecutor asks regular people if there is enough evidence to charge the target of the investigation. The process is confidential, thereby protecting the innocence of the person being investigated.
Not every state in the union uses the grand jury system. Instead, they go through the “preliminary hearing” – an open court proceeding where the evidence is presented and a determination on its merit is made.
In a number of articles following these two grand jury findings, the writers have indicated that quite often, the grand jury process favours police officers in fatalities. A New York Times article on December 7 quotes Eugene O’Donnell, a former prosecutor as saying: “The whole process is really reluctant to criminalize police behavior (sic).” The article also suggests that many states give wide discretion in the use of force by police. One possible interpretation is that killing of an unarmed suspect is very much within that discretionary zone if, for any reason, the officer feels threatened. It then comes down to how convincing the officer can be in stating that “reasonable threat”.
Here in Toronto, we have seen officers not charged, or have had charges dismissed, even without a grand jury system, in the deaths of Black people and people with mental disabilities. So, it is perhaps not so much the grand jury system itself that is at fault. It perhaps is not so much the justice system as well. It is the assessment by the powers-that-be that, in the grand scheme of things, Black lives are still expendable.
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