By Patricia Lee Sharpe
The protests stemming from the failure of a grand jury to indict the Ferguson, Missouri, policeman who shot and killed an unarmed Black man continue. In fact, demonstrations tied to this and recent similar shootings are blocking traffic and livening up the night in cities from coast to coast. The people in the street insist the evil they wish to put an end to goes far beyond the tragic death of a handful of young Black men; it’s pervasive, systemic, intolerable racism. The indignation may fizzle. It may build to a new civil rights movement. Can we make that happen?
How easy it was to represent the U.S. abroad while I was still in the Foreign Service! Having grown up in a massively White suburb—there was one Black girl in my high school graduating class—I nevertheless craved dignity and justice for all, in my own lifetime, and so I rejoiced as the civil rights movement seemed, at last, to be eradicating the remnants of the original sin that cursed the founding of the United States and dogged it decade after decade thereafter. It had taken too long for slavery to give way to segregation and segregation to less systematic forms of injustice, but surely we were approaching the goal of full equality under the law.
Advising Grantees Then and Now
And so I felt quite comfortable telling that part of America’s story to foreign contacts. I even counseled students and other exchange participants en route to the U.S. for a month or a year at Uncle Sam’s expense that they could trust the police if they needed help. America isn’t a police state, I assured them. Americans, in uniform or not, are helpful. Just tap a shoulder or knock on a door or ask to use a phone if you’re lost or there’s been an accident.
Would I do the same today? Ha! After the latest horrendous sequence of white-on-black police killings (and related stand-your-ground civilian killings), could I be so blandly reassuring to Nigerian or Tanzanian or Sierra Leonean grantees? For that matter, given the problem of racial profiling vis-à-vis the fear-mongering attached to the “war” on terrorism, could I be confident that grantees from India or Pakistan would be treated with respect? The answer to both is the same: absolutely not. (For that matter, America’s biracial president gets little respect from a large percentage of American Whites.) These days, therefore, I would have to take the dear things aside and—sigh!—tell them the facts of life in contemporary America. I’d have to urge them to be cautious and prudent because, in the U.S. today, you never know when you’re going to be shot. There are too many guns around, and a lot of them belong to trigger-happy police officers who seem to believe in execution before trial. To say nothing of the lethal weapons in the hands of neurotics or psychopaths or unhappy teenaged boys who shoot up schools and movie houses and malls.
The Myth of the Good Cop
I suppose I should note that, with the proliferation of guns in civilian hands, guns often legally concealed, a nervous policeman may be tempted to shoot first and ask questions later. I suppose I should also note that most police officers conduct themselves responsibly. But that’s no excuse for the rash of police thugs who are exonerated by the system. If there’s a vast moral majority, why don’t these good eggs demand punishment for the bad eggs who give the whole force a bad name? Until the men with conscience do speak out, it seems to me, they get no credit for being nice at heart. They’re part of the problem, which is that American police are disproportionately and lethally suspicious of Black suspects.
The police force in Cleveland has been severely censured by the Justice Department. Retraining has been mandated. Meanwhile, the people of Albuquerque, New Mexico, desperately want something done about their own lawmen who kill much too cavalierly. Here in the Southwest the ethnicity problem is a little different, however. For Blacks substitute Hispanics as perennial suspects. The Justice Department has promised to look into the Albuquerque situation, too.
As if the possibility of racially-tainted police violence weren’t bad enough, the Ferguson incident has precipitated a long-simmering, more open questioning of the fairness, read color-blindness, of the criminal justice system itself. Because the prosecutor presented the Ferguson case in a prejudicial way, it’s claimed, the grand jury failed to indict the officer who killed James Brown. Not for murder, which might have foundered on murky issues of intent. Not even for manslaughter, which carries no risk of the death penalty anywhere. Such an indictment would have allowed for a full public airing of the evidence as well as rigorous public cross examination of all witnesses. Even though a jury might still have voted for acquittal, the process would have been transparent and thus trustworthy. (News flash: after a federally-conducted, second autopsy, the death has been classified as a homicide. Civil trials may ensue.)
Some legal experts have ridiculed the grand jury process as mere puppetry under the control of police-favoring prosecutors, but based on my own service on a grand jury in New Mexico, I wonder. We refused to endorse a prosecutor’s demand for a murder charge in one case, insisting that only a charge of manslaughter was reasonable. We also refused to indict in cases involving drugs found in cars that shouldn’t have been stopped. Often, as we passed from case to case, we demanded documents and asked to read the text of applicable law. Far from being infinitely malleable putty in the hands of the prosecutor’s office, we would never have indicted a ham sandwich! But Missouri law may be different, so I cannot be sure whether or not the Ferguson grand jurors had the same independence that we in New Mexico legally enjoyed and fully exercised.
The Taint Seeps Upward
At any rate, the proof of unacceptable racism in the American justice system is quite visible: our prison population is monstrously, disproportionately Black and there for all to see, which must make it rather difficult for my old colleagues to promote those jolly old exchange programs involving judicial reform. What precisely are these foreign visitors going to learn from a visit to the U.S.? Unfortunately, the likes of this: if you’re black, there’s a target on your back, and, if you’re rich, the Supreme Court says it’s perfectly fine for you to control the system by legally pouring millions of dollars into elections and then pulling the strings of the legislators you’ve bought. Free speech reduced to dollars and cents! Talk about puppeteers!
So much for those wonderful old exchange programs on rule of law, transparency and democracy. Unless you can say this with a straight face: do what I say not what I do.
Which brings me back to those activists in the streets. Two years ago the prevalent theme was Occupy Wall Street, which started a conversation about economic justice that is far from dead, thanks partly to the compelling data in a tome by the French economist Thomas Pikkety. Today the visible rage involves Blacks and many Whites calling for race-blind justice. Once upon a time I would have insisted that voting is far more important than marches and die-in demonstrations in a functioning democracy. But are we a functional democracy anymore? The Supreme Court has drowned the right to vote in a sea of money. As government by the people gives way to the rule of the rich and greedy minority, we validate Aristotle’s ancient insight: democracy naturally dissolves into oligarchy which, in his scheme of things, inevitably gives way to tyranny.
Must Ballots Give Way to Feet?
With our votes rendered increasingly meaningless, it would seem that all we the non-rich can do is to take to the streets as the powerless always, eventually, do. Anarchists, those cowards in the black balaclavas, will no doubt use the cover of peaceful demonstration to smash and pillage, but it’s hard to see why a little violence should bother anyone in power. Contemporary capitalism loves the concept of organizational disruption. (Shades of little boys smashing Lego towers and sandcastles, which is why we need more women in leadership.) Disruption being the new norm, we can only hope that the 90% who aren’t benefitting from today’s soaring stock market will be able to disrupt the system of rule by obscene wealth that suffocates and corrupts the U.S. these days. (The ocean-going yacht business is flourishing, and the US. position on the corruption index has deteriorated.)
Now that’s something I’d love to tell my old foreign contacts: if we Americans, against all odds, can reclaim our democracy from the plutocrats, you too can built a just society.
In the good old days, we American public diplomats proudly told the story of our country, warts and all, because we believed—we really did!—that, warts or not, the U.S. offered a very special paradigm that was worth copying. Maybe, with the Senate’s cleansing release of the (heavily censered) torture report, the U.S. has turned a corner. If we can begin to be honest with ourselves, openly repudiating a reprehensible past, sincerely working to eliminate deep-seated racial prejudice once and for all and severely mitigating the role of wealth in politics, we’ll regain the soft power we need to regain at least some of our former status in the world.