In New York City yesterday, a grand jury failed to indict the officer who killed Eric Garner in Staten Island.
The grand jury decision isn’t just disappointing, it’s downright alarming.
Grand juries aren't supposed to find innocence or guilt - they're supposed to decide whether there is enough evidence to accuse someone and bring them to trial.
The killing of Eric Garner was caught on camera and the video went viral. The coroner ruled the death a homicide. In the face of such compelling, awful evidence, the Garner family and communities across the country reasonably expected some accountability.
In refusing to indict the officer who choked Eric Garner to death, the grand jury is saying the loss of Garner’s life doesn’t require even the most basic inquiry and process of a trial. Once again, the deep flaws with our broken criminal justice system are exposed.
Unfortunately, these flaws are found not only in New York City, but across the country. Last week in Ferguson, MO, a different grand jury refused to indict the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. From discredited stop-and-frisk practices, to the controversial “broken windows” policing, to the indefensible racial disparities in drug law enforcement, systemic racism – long a part of the failed war on drugs – is clearly a standard feature in our criminal justice system.
Yet because this racism is about systems and not individuals, it makes it harder for some people to see and understand. In her bestselling book The New Jim Crow, law professor, Michelle Alexander, popularized the concept of systemic racism by outlining the long history of racial subjugation in the U.S. and its modern manifestations, wherein policies, institutional practices and politics combine to criminalize, stigmatize and devalue people of color.
Yesterday, my colleague Yolande Cadore wrote about these connections from Ferguson, where she’s marching for justice along with faith leaders from around the country. She wrote:
“Many may ask – what does the death of Michael Brown and America’s war on drugs have in common? My answer is simple: Black lives matter. And other than slavery and Jim Crow laws, no other social policy has served to devalue Black lives more than America’s drug war.”
In August, when nationwide protests erupted after the killing of Michael Brown, another DPA colleague, Sharda Sekaran, wrote about how the war on drugs “fuels the underlying thread of judgment, stigma and marginalization that permeates how we value human life and it enables acts of violence.”
These connections are becoming ever-more apparent in the light of these tragedies and the subsequent absence of accountability or justice for those who have lost their lives. A recent report by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement found that every 28 hours, a Black man is killed by police in the U.S.
Too often, those in power attempt to justify these killings by engaging in character assassination of those who lost their lives. Authorities will claim, for instance, that the person who was killed was using drugs – both Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were accused of marijuana use, as if this somehow justifies a death sentence.
Eric Garner was accused of selling cigarettes, as if this somehow justifies a death sentence. These vulgar efforts at character assassination, coupled with the tired calls to "respect the process" in a broken criminal justice system, represent petty attempts to obscure the brutal, ugly reality of systemic racism.
In the wake of this latest miscarriage of justice, there are again calls for reform. The president has promised change, the Department of Justice has launched an investigation into the Garner case, and elected officials in New York have promised action.
What will make these promises and investigations lead to justice and accountability? The pressure brought by peoples movements – like those that are growing now across the country.
We know that Black lives matter, regardless of what a grand jury concludes. We know that our country can do better – and we must.
In the midst of our frustration, despair, and anger, let’s redouble our effort to build vibrant movements for real change, dismantle the New Jim Crow, and advance justice, equity and human rights for all.
gabriel sayegh is the managing director of policy and campaigns for the Drug Policy Alliance.