No Place of Justice for the Masses

As an American who absorbed the civic lessons about the government – its three branches which were put in place by the framers of the Constitution to insure that our government would be a democracy of the highest order – I grew up thinking that when all failed for people who were looking for justice, there would always be the United States Supreme Court. I grew up believing that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was a place where anyone in trouble could find justice. Even the titles of these federal agencies brought a sense of comfort. When all else failed , there would always be something in our government which would protect the poor, the innocent and the forgotten.

But as I have grown older, I have been disappointed, over and over again, as I have watched the Court, for the most part, protect the interests of the government. In spite of the banter about the justices not being partisan, they have seemingly too often been aligned with the government and particular political parties.  I was stunned when I read that U.S. Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote, in the Dred Scott decision that there “were no rights of a black man that a white man is bound to respect.” I was stunned and hurt to learn that in the Buck v. Bell case, where a attorneys were fighting the right of an institution to forcibly sterilize people whom powers that be thought to be “feebleminded” that a former president of the United States, William Howard Taft, served as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the constitutionality of states carrying out the procedures. In that case, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, considered by some to be this nation’s finest legal mind, aligned himself with his opinion that eugenics was a right thing in order to create a perfect race of people, and he wrote against Buck and her case. Buck was poor and a victim of the heinous belief system of eugenicists, which was popular in the 1920s, and Holmes wrote, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

There have been times, for sure, when the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on behalf of a marginalized group of people. Brown v. Board of Education is probably the best known, when the Court ruled that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional, and the ever controversial Roe v. Wade ruled on behalf of women who declared that they, not the state, have a right to choose what they do with their bodies, but for too many cases, there has been no legal protection for the marginalized, not in local and state courts, and certainly not in federal courts.

If it is true that the Constitution was and is a magnificent document – and it really was – it is also true that too often, the tenets of that document have been woefully ignored. Among those tenets is the principle that all Americans were entitled to have speedy trials tried by a “jury of their peers.” And yet, in case after case, American courts have tried African Americans in trials which have had all-white juries, where black people have been deliberately excluded – and that is, if they have had a trial at all. Far too often, black people have only had to have been accused of a crime and a lynch mob has come and dragged them out of jail cells before a trial was ever held, killing them on the lawns of court houses or sometimes, in the deep woods – and none of these people have ever been arrested or held accountable.

It is a scary and real thought that there is no place where you might find justice in this land which some say is a “nation of laws.” It would be better to say that it is a nation of laws for those who can afford to pay for justice. Adam Cohen, in his book Imbeciles: The Supreme Court,American Eugenics and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, notes that the justice system in many cases has failed to adhere to the principle contained in the Hammurabi Code, which teaches that “the purpose of law is tonsure that the strong do not harm the weak.” That has not been the case, not in this country or elsewhere. Those who apply the law have been in too many cases totally biased and blind to the justice desired by “the least of these.” As Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said that it is true that life is better for an individual if he is “rich and guilty” than “poor and innocent.”

That fact leaves little room to believe in the justice system. In fact, that fact belies the reality that the ideal and the real too often do not intersect, and that despite the lofty words contained in our written documents, justice for many is simply not going to a reality. The poor, the left out and the left behind are just out of luck in this “land of the free and home of the brave.”

A candid observation …

 

Sandra Bland and the Perpetual Absence of Justice for Black People

This morning, I am mourning.

It is the day after Sandra Bland has been buried, and the police department in Hempstead, Texas, and other authorities, have decreed that Sandra killed herself. This 28-year-old black woman, who was about to begin a new life in a new job, has been tossed aside as a reject by the state. Her body, her talent, her very being was not worth saving and is apparently not worth the honor of a just investigation. To say her death was a suicide is easy; it is an “oh, well!” type of response which relieves the police from having to look further, dig deeper and perhaps own responsibility for the result of what happened after this young woman was arrested for something that clearly was not an arrestable offense.

I am in mourning, not just for Sandra, but for all of the other black people who have been likewise thrown away by the system called justice. I say it that way because it has not provided justice for black people in so many instances. I found myself thinking last night about the Constitution and how it is always lifted as the benchmark for all “right” decisions, and yet, the words of the U.S. Constitution, when it has clearly said that people are entitled to a trial with a jury of their peers, have so often been ignored when it has come to black people. So many times, too often, black people, many of them innocent of the crime for which they’ve been accused, have been tried by all-white juries, filled with people who have had disdain for black people and who had no regard for throwing them in prison and whenever possible, giving them the death penalty. Our justice system has allowed white people to kill or maim black people without fear of reprisal, while at the same time, historically, prevented black people from testifying against white people. No justice. No peace. None.

The police have been on the trails of black people since the days of slavery, when people could hunt down escaped black slaved and kill them if they felt like they wanted to. No reprisal. The Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 authorized governments to seize and return escaped slaves and meted out severe punishments for anyone who impeded their capture. (http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/fugitive-slave-acts) Though those laws were repealed, the spirit of those laws never died, and what police do today in their treatment of black people feels like those acts are still hovering over and inside the halls of justice everywhere in this country. Black people are no longer slaves, technically, but they are slaves in terms of how they are treated and regarded by the justice system.

I am in mourning.

I am mourning for the loss of Sandra and John and Trayvon and Jordan and Renisha and Michael and Freddie and so many others. I am mourning because they are gone and there has been no justice and I am mourning because their parents and loved ones have been left to fend for themselves as they manage their pain in light of the lack of justice. Could I handle it, were it one of my children who had been so unjustly dealt with by the justice system? I think not.

When Emmett Till was lynched, his mother gathered strength from somewhere I still cannot grasp in order to make the world deal with what had been done to him. .It is said that the people in Money. Mississippi wanted to just bury young Till’s body quickly in Mississippi but that Mamie said, “Oh, no.” She traveled to Mississippi and it is said that she could smell the stench of her son’s body as it lay in a local funeral home some blocks away as soon as she got off the train. She pulled strength …from somewhere. She marched to that funeral home and made herself look at her son’s mutilated and decomposing body. He was swollen and nearly unrecognizable as the young kid she had sent to see relatives …but she stood there and looked at him and recognized the ring of his dad he had put on before he left Chicago. She took her son back to Chicago and had an open casket and allowed the media to take pictures of her son as he lay there, because she wanted the world to see what “they had done” to her son. When the two men accused of the crime were put on trial, she traveled back to Mississippi and was in the court every day of their trial …and had to pull that strength …from somewhere …when they were acquitted.

No justice. No peace.

Black people are killed and have so often been said to have committed suicide. In working on a project with Ruby Sales of the SpiritHouse Project, I read report after report of black people who ended up dead while in police custody and so many of the reports said the victims had committed suicide. I had to stop periodically and, as my grandmother would say, “gather myself,” because the tears would not stop flowing. They were tears of pain, of anger and of incredulity. The justice system offered these reports as truth, and expected parents and family to just accept their words as truth. How could they? How could they offer such insulting explanations and expect us to just get over it and accept it …and move on?

There’s a reason the chant is “no justice, no peace,” and that’s because for anyone, when there is no justice, there is no peace. Fred Goldman, whose son, Ronald Goldman O.J. Simpson was accused of murdering, had no peace when Simpson was acquitted. The nation had no peace, and has no peace, as the killer of Jon Benet has not been apprehended. No justice. No peace. Had the killer of John Lennon not been apprehended, and convicted, there would have been no peace.

So, why are black people, who so frequently have no arrests, no convictions of the people who kill their loved ones, supposed to have peace in spite of there is so often …no justice?

This nation has a huge swath of people who are in perpetual mourning. Not only are there people in mourning, but there are parents and relatives who are uptight whenever their young ones are out. Black people are not safe here. Black people cannot count on the police or the justice system to protect them and make sure there is justice for them. There is too often no justice; there is no peace.

The parents and family and friends of Sandra Bland are crying this morning not only because Sandra is gone but also because now they have to deal with this system which has the reputation of casting black bodies away and not seeking justice. The families of Michael Brown and John Crawford and Trayvon Martin are left holding their grief in check while justice slides through the sieve into which their loved ones’ cases have been placed.

No justice. No peace.

All we can do is keep on trying, keep on pushing for justice. It ought not be this hard, but it is and has always been. As exhausting as it is to fight, African-Americans have to stay on the battlefield. Power concedes nothing without a demand.

There is a demand. Justice. Without it, no peace.

A candid observation …