Keeping Racism in Sight
Terry H. Schwadron
March 5, 2022
Amid attention on international conflict over freedoms, we should not lose sight of two court cases ending in guilty pleas this week, weighting justice scales just a bit towards civil rights, but mostly keeping the important but elusive issues of race on the agenda.
In Minneapolis, three former city police officers were found guilty of federal crimes for failing to intervene former Sgt. Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd by pressing his knee on his neck for more than nine minutes. As news accounts noted, it was a rare example of Justice Department prosecution of police officers for inaction while another officer used excessive force.
In Georgia, the trio of Georgia men found guilty this week of federal hate crimes and attempted kidnappingalready were already facing life sentences on state charges of chasing down and murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger in the wrong neighborhood.
There was no joy in hearing that a mixed-race jury of 12 found that the Georgia men had done so because Arbery was Black or that the former police officers had willfully violated Floyd’s constitutional rights by not providing medical care as he lost consciousness.
But there was an acknowledgment that while it takes time, justice is still possible in race-based questions and that we should be able to nail hate as the legal sin it is.
In Georgia, Racist Posts
Gregory and Travis McMichael, father and son, and their former neighbor William Bryan, said they would have chased and killed Arbery, then 25, in that Brunswick, Ga neighborhood regardless of his race. The defense argued the men were hypervigilant about protecting their neighborhood and went after Arbery after he had been seen on surveillance video entering a home construction site without permission.
The final guilty package added a firearms charge, interfering with rights and attempted kidnapping for running Arbery down with a truck, beating and shooting him.
But the meat of the trial was the airing of racist messages and social media posts filled with racial slurs and invective against Blacks. For four days, witnesses recounted racist interactions with Greg and Travis McMichael, and hours reviewing racist and sometimes violent content from including offensive texts and videos. Those racial attitudes were behind the “pent-up racial anger” that motivated the shooting, prosecutors argued.
For making it all a hate crime, they face a maximum of a second life sentence,
For something now being portrayed as a moral thermometer, it was a trial that had trouble getting to be a trial. It was family demands for a full airing of the crime and the judge who rejected a plea deal with the three that forced this trial. And the original state charges only came about after the neighbor’s video of the killing went viral in May 2020, sparking national anger.
What has not been brought to trial yet is a pending charge involving the local district attorney, Jackie Johnson, who had known and worked with Greg McMichael for years, and who allegedly told police officers on the scene not to arrest the now-convicted murderers. Johnson has maintained she did nothing wrong.
In Minneapolis, Looking Away
The Minneapolis case against Tou Thao, 36; J. Alexander Kueng, 28, and Thomas Lane, 38, centered on the ignored responsibility to act as Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck while the suspect was in custody and on the ground.
The price of deference to their police sergeant is up to the judge but could result in life sentences.
As legal experts told the The New York Times, the issue at the heart of this case is a more widespread problem than a single officer’s act of violence — the tendency of officers to stand by when they witness a fellow officer committing a crime.
Jurors accepted prosecution arguments that the officers knew in the moment that Floyd was in distress and rejected the defense argument that the officers simply deferred to Chauvin as a superior officer.
The question here is whether these verdicts will prompt changes in policing to pay more attention to civil rights as juries may become more willing to convict not just officers who kill people on the job, but also those who watch them do it.
What’s to Learn
Of course, what will never be eliminated in a courtroom proceeding is the deep-seated racial hatred that we see raise its ugly head daily, whether the encounters are violent or not.
There seems no way for one or two courtroom trials to eliminate our insistent racial resentments and anger. Neither can a law nor a mandate, though U.S. Senate inaction on policing changes on partisan lines seems irresponsible.
By coincidence, just this week, the House, citing the 1955 death of Emmett Till, voted 422–3 to declare lynching a federal hate crime, willing to mark this heinous act illegal. But acting to erase hate shouldn’t be defined by the shape of the noose.
We have to want to lose and bury racial resentment as a society if we ever expect to move past this point. Faux concerns about teaching kids that “critical race theory” are not only untrue but should indeed make people uncomfortable about calling out just how ingrained our racial prejudices are.
Criticism for Joe Biden about naming a Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court as somehow racist overlooks that without intention to address race, the selection of 106 of 109 justices since our founding just happened to be white, and all but four have been men.
Still, Biden managed an hour’s worth of State of the Union talk to Congress this week without much fervor about race and equality being a top-drawer concern.
And another jury in Kentucky delivered a not-guilty verdict in the case of the sole police officer involved with the wrongful shooting of Breonna Taylor after a no-knock raid on an apartment at the incorrect address.
No one could think it coincidental that setting aside the Voting Rights Act is prompting new legislation aimed at curbing the votes of people of color, nor that there are disparities in education, housing, hiring and pay based on race and gender, nor that we still have reports of high school basketball games with racial catcalls or someone calling the police in Central Park when coming across a Black birdwatcher.
It shouldn’t take a criminal trials to have to prove hate is alive and well in these United States.