By Robert Mann
Was there any doubt the U.S. Justice Department would absolve the Baton Rouge police officers who killed 37-year-old Alton Sterling last July? I never expected federal prosecutors would vindicate Sterling’s death by charging one or both of the two officers with violating his civil rights. And I cannot imagine anyone thought otherwise.
The Sterling incident speaks volumes about police-community relations, but also the powerlessness of people of color (especially if poor) when confronted by police or sucked into the justice system.
Indulge me a time-travel thought exercise. Take me back to July 5, 2016, and put me in Sterling’s place for his encounter with police. An officer would not jam his gun to my head and bark, as one of the Sterling family’s lawyers reported, “Bitch, I’m gonna kill you.” No one would die. That’s not because of my superior survival skills. It’s, rather, because I am white.
Over the 40-plus years I have owned a car, I’ve been pulled over by police a few times. Early on, I was fearful I couldn’t afford to pay the ticket; in more recent years, I’m fearful of the impact on my auto insurance rates. Never once, however, have I worried the officer emerging from his squad car would harm me. That’s because white people don’t have such fears. Black people do every day.
Even if police don’t kill them, impoverished black people know the consequences of an arrest — on a minor charge — can be life changing.
Haul me into court for a misdemeanor criminal charge (or even a felony), and I can afford a competent lawyer. If a jury heard my case, the panel would have only a handful of black members. A majority-white jury would likely give me the benefit of any reasonable doubt. In other words, my race or social status would be, at worst, a neutral factor, and, at best, an advantage. And, if convicted of a minor charge, I could afford to pay whatever fine the judge imposed.
This is not the experience of most black people tossed into our nation’s jails. Waiting months or years to face a jury, almost a half-million Americans — most of them poor and black — rot in state and local jails awaiting trial or formal charges (and 75 percent of them are not suspected of any violent crime). Most are kept in jail because they cannot afford bail. A speedy trial is a fantasy to most of them.
In Cook County (Chicago), Ill., a writer for The American Prospect wrote this month about observing 276 hearings in 10 bond courts. “Across all judges observed, the slim majority of defendants with private attorneys got an average of 166 seconds in front of a judge,” reporter Kamil Ahsan wrote. “By contrast, the vast majority of people with public defenders got an average of a mere 22 seconds.”
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