If you believe in the fundamental principals of American justice, you should be outraged by the shootings of black men in America.
It’s really that simple. Regardless of how you feel about guns, police, or race.
Even if I could set aside the personal, empathic shudders of horror that run through my body when I watch these videos, read these stories and hear these accounts, I would still be outraged. Because these deaths are an index of the utter failure of one of the most important principals in our country, enshrined in our Fifth Amendment (and shored up in the Fourteenth): the principal that everyone in our country, citizen or not, is innocent until proven guilty.
If you’re a Trump supporter, you like this clause, especially since he has been accused of child abuse twice now – but that’s just an accusation, not a sentence – he’s not a child molester, because he’s never been tried or found guilty of that crime. If you’re a Hilary supporter, you like this clause, because it underpins the fact that, no matter what anyone says about email or Benghazi, she has not been found guilty in a court of law. If you are a Sanders fan, you believe in this, because so many of his righteous causes demand the extension of this right to every member of society. If you are a Libertarian, you love it because it is about one of the fundamental freedoms. Politics don’t enter into it.
Alton Sterling was innocent. Innocent of the accusation made on the phone to 911 minutes before his death, when a homeless man called to report that a man was brandishing a gun. Even if it happened. Even if that homeless man believed it. Even if all events indicate that he did it. Keep that in mind. Even if Sterling had chased that homeless man, who was hassling him for money, off with a gun, he was innocent. He had not been arrested, tried or convicted of any crime whatsoever. He had not been proven guilty of any crime. Which is, by the dictionary, the definition of innocent. And now he’s dead.
I’m not even going to get into the fact that Louisiana is an open carry state, which makes it no crime at all for Alton Sterling to own a gun. Because that doesn’t matter. Under the same law that keeps Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton out of jail, that required Bernie Madoff to stand trial, that allowed Bill Cosby to walk the streets and granted Cliven Bundy a trial rather than being a shooting by the FBI, Alton Sterling was innocent. Tamir Rice was innocent. Freddy Gray. Sandra Bland. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. The list goes on and on. Saying their names, creating rituals, building memorials – it makes the pain go down, but the underlying cancer grows stronger by the day.
The Washington Post is tracking police shootings in America. I clicked on it when I woke up this morning and they had confirmed that the police had killed 500 people. When I clicked on it after I put the laundry in, it was 505.
And let’s just suppose, for the sake of the police (and yes, I know there are lots of good cops out there – just like there are lots of good swimmers who don’t rape unconscious girls behind dumpsters), let’s be generous. Lets say as many as 75% of those 505 people were endangering the lives of others. Let’s be generous and suggest that, of those 505 dead men, women and children, 379 of them had to be shot to protect everyone else’s rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
That still leaves 126 horrifying violations of the constitution. 126 times when an innocent was declared guilty without a trial, then sentenced to death without a judge, protected by no lawyer. In 189 days.
Of course, that’s a made-up number, right? Just a guess at what is actually happening out there. You know why? Dead people don’t get a trial (aside from the one that happens in the press every time a person of color gets killed by police.) The horror is this: we will never know. We will never know just how often this fundamental underpinning principal of American justice, the very Constitution on which all of our laws stand, has been ignored.
And that should offend every patriotic, flag waving American I met on the 4th of July. It should offend every liberal intellectual I hang out with on the regular. It should offend every immigrant, every lawyer, every politician, every mother, father and child, every citizen of this country. I’d say it would offend our founding fathers but I can’t speak for them – they’re dead. I can read their words, though. And we’re violating the hell out of those.
Somewhere along the way, a Dirty Harry culture grew up in lieu of a beautiful legal system. Police became judge, jury and hangman. And, for those without the buffer layer of lawyers, money, bodyguards, white skin, and a clean-cut, harmless appearance, America itself has been lost.