From the start, Americans have been inspired by the idea of “equal justice under law.” The phrase is on the pediment of the U.S. Supreme Court, the temple of our faith in the rule of our precious Constitution.
And so it is agonising, or worse, to see that noble idea once again undercut by our own contradictions and hypocrisy on race.
They produced a civil war, and continue to provide the core narrative tension in our public life. Yes we elected Barack Obama – twice – but that was hardly the end of the story.
The conflict between justice under law and racial torment is on display again this week in St. Louis, Missouri. The world is watching, as it should be. Can we live up to our ideals?
It’s in our DNA to try, but we still have a long way to go.
By now people across the globe know the essence of the episode. A police officer, a white man on a force made up mostly of white men, shot and killed a young black man in a neighborhood made up primarily of African-Americans.
On Monday night a local prosecutor in suburban St. Louis announced that officer Darren Wilson, would not be prosecuted because of state law and the available testimony.
Wilson, the prosecutor said, was deemed to be acting reasonably, within the scope of his official duty: Wilson had reason to believe that the victim, Michael Brown, was a robbery suspect, and one who might have posed a deadly danger to the officer and to others in the area.
Stated blandly and without context, the decision sounded fair enough. But it produced violence on the streets of St. Louis and elsewhere in America. Vandals and looters were part of equation, but most of the outrage was genuine.
Because there IS a context.
Critics noted that state law and its use in this case were weighted against police victims in general and Michael Brown specifically.
In U.S. law, local prosecutors have much freedom to decide whether a suspect should stand trial. In this case, a prosecutor widely known for his sympathetic treatment of police cases, declined to make that decision by himself.
Instead, he asked a secret preliminary jury (a “grand” jury) to do so. Normally prosecutors present just enough evidence to this kind of jury to allow it to make a decision. It’s almost always in favour of calling for a full trial.
But in this case the prosecutor, Bob McCullough, gave the preliminary jury ALL the evidence that police and the FBI had collected.
He did so, apparently, to get himself off the hook and to guide the preliminary jury in the direction he wanted to go.
In essence, he conducted a full “trial” on the merits of the case, and one in which (according to transcripts that were released later) the prosecutor was friendly to Wilson and his best witnesses and harsh on those with a different view.
Wilson also had state law on his side. Missouri’s law on “use of force” by police is broadly written to protect officers. It’s broader than a U.S. Supreme Court case’s rules set down in 1985. States are supposed to rewrite their laws to follow the high court, but Missouri hasn’t fully done so.
It would be nice to think that none of this has a racial motivation. In places such as St. Louis, disproportionate amounts of shootings by police have a white-on-black profile.
The St. Louis region combines the history of the slave-holding South and the order-loving towns of the Midwest. The city and its suburbs are starkly segregated for the most part; even adjacent neighborhoods can vary vividly.
It would be nice to say think that St. Louis was the exception, but it’s not. Many other cities, including Washington, DC, are just as segregated, racially and by income.
In 1776 we declared our faith in the idea that “all men are created equal.” We say that we believe above all in the rule of law, written by elected representatives and justly applied.
Including in St. Louis.