The Price Of Black Life

When the State Attorney General of Kentucky, Daniel Cameron, announced at a press conference two weeks ago that no charges would be filed against the three officers for the death of Breonna Taylor who was brutally murdered after they shot up her Louisville apartment in March following a botched no-knock raid of her home, the decision was met with swift condemnation by African Americans and others from across the country.

Yet, even among those most outraged by that verdict from the grand jury, there was a sense of weariness from the predictable, yet shockingly cruel news delivered by the self-described conservative Black Republican attorney general.

The callous disregard for the life and death of the 26-year-old EMT was predictable because African Americans in the U.S., through both individual and collective experiences, learned not to have too high of expectations for fairness from a criminal justice that has consistently failed to deliver justice when Blacks are the victims of systemic police violence.

And yet, it was shocking because this miscarriage of justice felt particularly cruel coming on the heels of such well-publicized murders this year of African Americans at the hands of cops and racist white vigilantes. The fact that a Black attorney general overseeing the case and the grand jury was so callous as to only indict one officer not for Taylor’s death, but on three counts of wanton endangerment for endangering a white neighbor with his shots, seemed particularly grotesque, especially when the two other officers involved in the raid were not indicted.

With many of these types of cases, settlements are eventually won; in the case of Breonna Taylor, a 12 million-dollar settlement along with an outline of police reform by Louisville Metro Police Department was the price given for her life. Sadly, this narrative has become normalized, families of victims, including Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, George Floyd, and William Green, are forced to subsidize justice.

But Gregory Vincent, J.D., Ed.D, a civil rights attorney and Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, said tragically, the situation illuminates a painful dichotomy inherent within the American criminal system justice system where what is “legal” versus “just” is often mutually exclusive concepts.

“The Holocaust, slavery, apartheid, and Jim Crow were all committed under a legal regime,” he said. “So, just because something is legal doesn’t mean that it is just. This is a tangible reflection of how Black lives are valued in general and Black women’s lives in particular.”

It also fits into a tragic historical pattern of policing in America that scholars note has served to maintain the country’s racial hierarchy by controlling not just the spaces Black people occupy but also their very bodies.

Brian Pitman, an assistant professor in sociology at the University of Maine, said policing and the criminal legal system reflect this country’s tortured racial history. Black communities and the police themselves well understand that they are often perceived as a violent, occupying force in Black and Brown communities all over this country.

“Early police departments are the direct descendants of slave patrols and militia units designated to terrorize Indigenous, Black, Mexican and other people deemed by the elite class as racially inferior, poor, or not abiding by gender or sexual norms,” he said. “Throughout the country, the police participated in or stood by while Black people were lynched. They terrorized organizers of the civil rights movement, outright assassinating Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton and attempting to blackmail Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide.”

And just as the police violence against Black people continues, with the recent shooting of Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wis., and the killings of Trayford Pellerin, Anthony McClain, and Jonathan Jefferson, all since August, Pittman said police also terrorized poor communities and communities of color during the war on drugs that we are still in today…

“Police, utilizing civil asset forfeiture and fees and fines, essentially loot poor communities and communities of color from their wealth and material resources,” he said. “They take community wealth through massive police budgets. They disrupt homeless encampments routinely in places like Seattle and the surrounding areas. And, as seen with Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin, police can empower white supremacist vigilantes to act on their behalf.”

Indeed, in August, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University reminded us of this very fact. In a special report titled¬†Hidden in Plain Sight: Racism, White Supremacy, and Far-Right Militancy in Law Enforcement,¬†they pointed out in 2017, the FBI reported that white supremacists posed a “persistent threat of lethal violence” that has produced more fatalities than any other category of domestic terrorists since 2000.

“Alarmingly, internal FBI policy documents have also warned agents assigned to domestic terrorism cases that the white supremacist and anti-government militia groups they investigate often have “active links” to law enforcement officials,” the report states.

The report grimly notes that since 2000, law enforcement officials with alleged connections to white supremacist groups or far-right militant activities have been exposed in Alabama, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and elsewhere. And research organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama and the Anti-Defamation League in New York have uncovered “hundreds of federal, state, and local law enforcement officials participating in racist, nativist, and sexist social media activity, which demonstrates that overt bias is far too common. These officers’ racist activities are often known within their departments but only result in disciplinary action or termination if they trigger public scandals. (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/hidden-plain-sight-racism-white-supremacy-and-far-right-militancy-law)

“The harms that armed law enforcement officers affiliated with violent white supremacist and anti-government militia groups can inflict on American society could hardly be overstated. Yet despite the FBI’s acknowledgement of the links between law enforcement and these suspected terrorist groups, the Justice Department has no national strategy designed to identify white supremacist police officers or to protect the safety and civil rights of the communities they patrol,” the report emphasized.

Stacy Scott, Ph.D., MPA, a Toledo-based public health expert specializing in Black women and children’s health, has been closely following these news stories. She said she was not surprised by the FBI report because it’s so evident in the daily treatment of African Americans and Breonna Taylor’s death by the system; including by a Black attorney general and failure to provide justice for her family is yet another example of the chronic dehumanization of Black women’s lives and worth by the criminal justice system.

“The mere state of being a Black woman living in the United States is a public health hazard,” she said.

 

 

 

 

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