Despite video evidence of his killing, the case ended in a mistrial. It is a reminder that American law simply does not value black life
Like most black people I know, I wasnt especially surprised that a jury was unable to convict white South Carolina police officer Michael Slager for killing Walter Scott, despite shooting him multiple times in the back and on video. The people I know who live in black and brown skin were also relatively unsurprised to learn last week that a white man in Louisiana, Ronald Gasser, was initially released from custody without charges after shooting and killing former NFL player Joe McKnight. He was charged with manslaughter on Tuesday.
Are we hurt by news of tragedies like Scotts killing and a lack of justice for it? Yes. Are we sad to know Joe McKnights killer was walking around free after the shooting? Of course. Humiliated to know that Gasser could have emboldened other people to shoot black men with impunity? Very much so.
But are we surprised? Not at all. American society assumes black guilt at all times, especially from men who are deemed large. The reason why you read the description of people like Scott and McKnight as unarmed so much in news stories is because police and readers alike assume black men to be armed and dangerous at all times even though black Americans killed by police are more likely to be unarmed than white Americans.
This brings us to how American law does not value black life. Rather, it is an oppressive force which keeps black Americans from having access to education, wealth, employment, freedom and even life. If black fathers like Scott or Eric Garner had access to wealth and employment, they might not end up in the informal economy or struggling to make child support payments. But American law keeps men like them shut out, and enables police to stop, harass and kill them.
White people are often assumed to be innocent, while black people are assumed to be guilty. And this is built on outcomes like the Slager trial. The maintenance of white innocence, even in a clear shooting of a black man like Scott, is what the American legal system is designed to do. As the New York Times noted yesterday, the prosecutor charged with putting Slager away acknowledged from the beginning of the trial that she thought Mr Scott had contributed to his own death by running away.
If Walter Scott had stayed in that car, he wouldnt have been shot, the prosecutor told the jury she was supposed to convince: He paid the extreme consequence for his conduct. He lost his life for his foolishness. The person allegedly seeking justice on Scotts behalf blamed the dead black man for his own death.
I talked to several white people yesterday who were shocked by this behavior from the prosecutor, but I was not. In 2015, I covered a trial where a white public defender stood in front of a jury pool and said that her own black client had to be considered guilty until proven otherwise. American law always presumes black guilt and white innocence in insidious ways.
Yesterday, I could not bring myself to watch the video of Scotts killing again watching these snuff-like films have nearly driven me insane. I did, however, watch a video the New York Post published of an encounter between police and a man who looks white and who the Post says is a suspect accused of having murdered his wife before going on a car chase. The video is absurd.
In it, the suspect crashes his car into a gas station, creating a fiery explosion. As a police officer approaches the car with a gun drawn, the large man jumps out and lunges towards him, forcing the police officer to run backwards across the street. Its like a Three Stooges routine. The suspect eventually tackles the police officer, and the Post dryly and passively says that The cops subdued him after the fiery incident.
I have watched this video over and over again, maybe 100 times. I tried watching it while listening to the Benny Hill theme song. It is comically absurd to me how much danger and harm a man who looks like theyre white can get away with, while a child like Tamir Rice can get shot for playing with a toy. It must be something else to be white and to be able to wreak such havoc with impunity and still be alive!
That a jury couldnt convict Slager isnt an issue of a lone juror holding out, nor is it an anomaly. It is representative of American policy, law and justice, none of which value black lives.
This is why I am so proud of Colin Kaepernick kneeling in defiance of the American flag and how it represents a system that lets killers go free. This is why I doubt I will ever put my hand over my heart during the National Anthem or say the pledge of allegiance myself ever again.