It should come as no great surprise to Americans that Baltimore City Police officer William Porter, a man who was clearly on some level responsible for the death of Freddie Gray, wasn't convicted of a crime. It is the rare exception in America when law enforcement officers are held accountable for the death of a person who is homeless, mentally ill, or a member of a minority group. In fact it is only in the rarest of exceptions, such as in the case of a social uprising that threatened destruction of a city, that charges are brought against police officers for lethal force.
I believe that the issue at hand in these cases is the nearly taboo subject of Americas' hierarchy. The stratified social, and subsequently political, system that determines even the most basic and fundamental rights. One of those basic rights relates to standing or locus standi. In a legal sense, “standing” refers to the capacity of a party to bring an action in court. Simply put, does the party pursuing action have a right to seek redress? Will they have their “day in court” to seek justice or a remedy for harms suffered?
Lack of access to the courthouse has always been the principal impediment to those individuals who belong to classes trapped in a lower social status, obstructing their search for justice. However, the issue of standing in the social arena has traditionally had a far different meaning for Black people. Under slavery, people attempted to hold slave owners legally accountable for atrocities against slaves, only to find that slaves lacked standing to bring action against their masters. Courts repeatedly found that slaves had no more standing in court than did pigs, cows, or any other live stock.
Eventually, the infamousDred Scott decision cemented the social hierarchy into case law and Black Americans’ place in society was clearer than ever. The Supreme Court ruled that Black people, as a group, lacked the legal standing to take action against white people. Regardless of the facts of the case, if either of the parties was of African descent, then the race of the relative parties involved was the only factor to be considered.
Though this legal precedent was eventually overturned, this had been the prevailing practice and social rule prior to the Supreme Court decision and so it persists. Lack of law enforcement efforts to protect Blacks from lynching, as well as energetic enforcement of Jim Crow segregation laws, demonstrated that sorry legacy. Today, particularly in the case of police violence and abuse, this systemic injustice seems to hold firm today.
Whenever an institution of law enforcement is involved, the race of the accused police officer is almost irrelevant if the civilian victim is part of a socially disrespected class: Black, homeless, Latino, woman, LGBT, or mentally ill. A Black officer is considered a representative of the institution and is afforded most of the same protections as a White officer, as long as the victim is a member of one of the ostensibly “lesser” social classes. In an extreme case of police criminal violence, the obvious murder and subsequent planting of evidence during the shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina, a GOFUNDME page for the shooter had raised nearly 400 dollars the first day before it was taken down by the site’s administrators. Clearly, there were people who supported the officer independent of the facts of the case.
The donors supporting a man who casually killed a fleeing man and then calmly obstructed justice by tampering with the crime scene made their views clear. The paradigm through which they viewed American criminal justice—and our hierarchical system itself—held that Walter Scott and his survivors lacked standing to bring any legal action against a police officer. By putting their money up, they declared that the officer was worthy of their support despite graphic and horrific video evidence of his wrong-doing. Why? Simply because his victim was a Black man.
I was personally hoping that the page would have been left up to expose the environment of racism and hostility towards people of color in which we attempt to litigate these cases. Sadly, we need such stark evidence to remind us of the state of social hierarchy—especially regarding race—in America today. A Baltimore jury delivered another such reminder this week. Recognizing that the Freddie Gray jury would be roughly one-third white, it wasn’t hard to predict a hung jury. This even though the determinative facts of the case aren't difficult to understand:
• The prisoner wasn't seat belted as required by Baltimore City Police policy and was subsequently injured.
• The prisoner asked for medical attention and the attending officer refused.
• The prisoner died of the injury sustained during the ride.
So why the hung jury? Unfortunately, there appears to be a significant number of white Americans who still refuse to recognize Black Americans’ rights—their standing—to bring a legal action against any person acting within the scope of any institution of Law Enforcement. Repeatedly, the public, prosecutors, media, and juries ignore and countermand the facts of a case in favor of the system predicated on strict social hierarchy. When a victim of police violence falls low on the social hierarchy, the officer is seldom investigated, and almost never indicted, much less convicted. Regardless of evidence, only a perfunctory review—if any—is allowed.
A system of social hierarchy practices “arbitrary application of the law,” in which legal decisions are made based on the identity of the parties involved. In this paradigm, a persons' expectation of rights are hierarchical. Their race, religion, economic or social standing or some other factor unrelated to the facts of the particular case creates the context for—and often determines—the outcome of the legal inquiry. This system of status-based outcome shamefully permits easy predictions like the hung jury in the Freddie Gray case, and countless other miscarriages of justice.
By contrast, a system of social equality practices “rule of law” in which legal decisions are decided by the facts of the case and their relationship to legal statute. In this system, a persons' expectation of rights are universal, fair, and egalitarian. The facts of their particular case are weighed without regard for their social standing. In other words, justice for all. The statue of a blindfolded figure is the symbol of such “blind justice.” Not blind to the facts; blind to the social status of the litigants.
Cell phone video cameras have provided countless evidentiary records that make it impossible to deny wholesale, systematic abuses, cover-ups, and other violations of law by those duty-sworn to uphold the law. Now comes the truly difficult part of challenging the foundational institution upon which our Country was built. The only way to overcome this foundational system of hierarchical rights is to expose its injustice and directly challenge it. This challenge—a long time coming—is finally underway. We’ve made some progress, but as the hung jury showed this week, we have a long way yet to go.