The deaths of two unarmed Black men – one in Staten Island, New York, the other in Ferguson, Missouri – at the hands of police has incited new debate about America’s racial divide.
In this episode of Agora, The National Herald Executive Editor Constantinos Scaros and anarchist/historian/author Dan Georgakas go at it again from different points of view.
SCAROS PRESENTS HIS POINT OF VIEW
Dan, in this installment I focus not so much on the specifics of the recent fatal deaths of black victims at the hands of white police officers in Ferguson and Staten Island – but instead on a related but broader problem: the mainstream media’s irresponsible fanning of the flames of racial tension.
Irresponsible in two ways: first, in the worst manner of all, the motivation of attaining ratings – readers, viewers, advertising dollars. Second, in a misguided if well-intentioned effort to generate social change (or “social justice” as is often their expression of choice) by selectively tailoring information to serve as fodder for perpetuating their agenda.
I say this because when it comes to grand jury indictments, it is not about black and white – it is about blue: i.e., the police. Although almost all grand jury hearings result in indictments, almost all grand jury hearings involving police officers do not.
An examination of the anatomy of grand jury hearings involving police officers points to this conclusion: it is a process of policing the police. In other words, a prosecutor’s goal is to convince a grand jury to indict, and then, at trial, to convince that jury to convict.
But why would prosecutors give it their all when it comes to prosecuting their staunchest allies – the very officers who partner with them on a daily basis to fight crime?
First, the officers apprehend wrongdoers on the streets, and then the prosecutors send them to jail in the courtroom. Considering both professions – police officer and prosecutor – there is arguably a great deal of passion involved in choosing to enter either field.
A cop’s life is on the line every day – were there no passion involved in fighting crime, surely there are easier and safer ways to make a buck.
As for prosecutors, the pay is paltry compared to what they can earn as attorneys in the private sector – yet the competition for working in the district attorney’s office is intense.
Given such passion for fighting crime, then, it makes sense that one partner (the prosecutor) would not thwart the whole process by making the other partner (the officer) look bad. Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that grand jury indictments are so scarce.
Just as a prosecutor could convince a grand jury “to indict a ham sandwich,” as the saying goes, so could a prosecutor convince a grand jury to exonerate a ham sandwich.
None of this is to say that this is or should be acceptable, nor does it necessarily mean these exonerations lack merit. But if the media wants to focus on the real story – this is it.
Not some hodgepodge of manipulated facts to purport some myth that juries are comprised entirely of white folks – some of them hateful racists, others clueless well-to-do suburbanites sheltered from the complexities of inner-city living – who think that all young black males who listen to hip-hop, wear oversized pants with no belts, and are resentful of the police are guilty.
The facts reveal otherwise. Even though most grand jury hearings result in indictments, only about 1 percent of police officers involved in on-duty fatal shootings are indicted. Of those, only 20 percent involve white officers who shoot black victims. About 25 percent of police officers are persons of color, and white victims outnumber black victims 2 to 1.
Based those statistics, which are so extreme even accounting for any reasonable margin of error, here is what happens with 1000 grand jury hearings involving fatal police shootings:
• 990 of the 1000 police officers who fatally shoot victims are exonerated
• 660 of the 667 police officers who fatally shoot white victims are exonerated
• 330 of the 333 police officers who fatally shoot black victims are exonerated
• 247 of the 250 police officers of color who fatally shoot victims are exonerated
• 163 of the 165 police officers of color who fatally shoot white victims are exonerated
• 84 out of 85 police officers of color who fatally shoot black victims are exonerated
• 519 of the 525 white police officers who fatally shoot white victims are exonerated
• 272 of the 275 white police officers – including Darren Wilson in Ferguson and Daniel Pantaelo on Staten Island – who fatally shoot black victims are exonerated.
All of these statistics point to the fact that it is extremely rare for a police officer of any color to be indicted in the fatal shooting of a victim of any color.
Yet much of the media chooses to focus only on the very last statistic. Such tactics are irresponsible and inexcusable. And they breed even more substandard journalism, because conservative media outlets like much of Fox News and talk radio, in an attempt to level the playing field, disproportionately present the opposite view, thereby tainting their own objectivity with a form of “conservative affirmative action.”
Meanwhile, because millions of impressionable Americans get their views from only one source, they are easy prey for falling into one of these two extremist camps: the “America is a racist nation” camp, or the “all blacks are a bunch of thugs” camp – both views, of course, woefully oversimplifying and therefore grossly distorting reality.
Does racism in America, despite all the progress made over the past two centuries, still exist? Yes.
Does such racism at times extend to law enforcement’s treatment of persons of color? Yes.
Are some grand jury exonerations based on racism? Yes, but in the case of police officers, it much more likely that it is not about black or white – it is about blue.
Dino, you are right; events in Ferguson and Staten Island indicate real problems with the men and women in blue. These problems go beyond the police-inflicted deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner to touch on basic issues regarding the rule of law.
Whether the unarmed Brown was holding up his hands when confronted by Office Darren Wilson or was moving forward menacingly may never be determined. Witnesses attest to both versions. What is not disputable is the reaction of the Ferguson police to non-violent protestors led by clergy.
The Ferguson police were based in armored vehicles and used lots of tear gas to disperse the crowd. This succeeded in turning the non-violent demonstrations into a riot. This episode illustrates the problem of the growing militarization of local police departments. Some police departments now have tanks and other advanced military hardware. Such armament is inappropriate for enforcement of local laws. We need to question this ominous development.
When there are hurricanes, rioting, or other calamities, the National Guard is available. Unlike the local police, the National Guard has strict rules regarding control and command. Moreover, these citizen soldiers have had no daily contact with the local population, meaning there is no standing list of grievances. In contrast, the police are in the community every day. When they look like and behave like an occupying militia, resistance is inevitable and can easily turn violent.
The killing of Eric Garner exposes another set of law enforcement issues. Garner was selling cigarettes illegally, not the most heinous crime. When challenged by police, rather than threatening them, he tried to run away. Officer Daniel Pantaelo wrestled him to the ground. Getting Garner handcuffed and into custody should have been routine. What followed and was recorded on video was not routine.
Pantaelo placed Garner in a chokehold, a practice prohibited by the New York Police Department. On the videotape, a desperate Garner repeatedly states: “I can’t breathe.” The chokehold was not loosened and the other police who were present took no action.
When the coroner determined Garner’s death was a homicide, the State Island prosecuting attorney was compelled to call a grand jury to consider an indictment of Pantaelo.
A grand jury does not judge whether a person is guilty or innocent, but only if there is probable justification for a trial. Grand juries almost always indict, but as you document so well, when the case involves police, the indictment rate is so marginal that it resembles the justice of a totalitarian state.
Prosecuting attorneys usually only present the negative facts in a requested indictment. What happened in Ferguson and State Island is that the prosecutors presented both sides of the case and used other legal but questionable confusing tactics. The result was that both grand juries failed to indict.
The reason for this unusual legal behavior is that prosecuting attorneys have a close, ongoing relationship with the police. Check out some episodes of “Law and Order” to see this process in action. Consequently, prosecuting attorneys are hesitant to take any action that will rile the police. A suggested solution to this problem is to import prosecuting attorneys from outside the local area when the case involves police.
The underlying problem, of course, is the continuing tensions between police forces and the ten percent of our population that is African-American. The role of mass media is secondary. Newspaper editors have long believed that “if it bleeds it leads.” Television networks follow the same pattern. This phenomenon speaks to the declining standards of journalism in America, but that topic merits its own discussion.
WHAT’S YOUR OPINION?