today in black history

May 23, 2024

Actor and musician Benjamin Sherman "Scatman" Crothers was born on this date in 1910 in Terra Haute, Indiana.

We need a Justice Resurrection

POSTED: March 27, 2016, 7:00 am

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It seems that on a daily basis the weaknesses and flaws of our nation’s justice system are exposed, revealing the deep biases that continue to undermine the public’s trust in our government. These incidents have a number of effects; from eroding public trust in the jury system and confirming the suspicions of citizens, particularly African-Americans and Latinos, that the cozy relationship between law enforcement and prosecutors undermines the administration of justice. In recent weeks we have witnessed episodic injustices that make a mockery of a judicial system that was once widely admired in the international community, but now appears no better than a banana Republic.

Senate Republicans refusal to hold hearings for President Obama’s nominee to fill a vacancy on the United States Supreme Court has reached a new low in the politicization of the judiciary. It is one thing for a political party to object to a nominee through a rigorous hearing process; quite another to refuse outright to fulfill a constitutional responsibility. By taking this tact, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has permanently soiled the nomination process and laid bare the childishness that passes as leadership in our country today. What conservative Republicans conveniently forget is that their token Black appointee, Clarence Thomas, would not be on the Court today had not 11 Democrats voted for his confirmation. What is clear is that McConnell’s opposition to Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court is not ideologically rooted. Garland, the chief judge of the United State Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, is deemed highly qualified by the American Bar Association, having been thoroughly vetted and supported in the past by Republicans, and is a moderate with a track record to prove it.

What really irks McConnell, and has gotten under this southerner’s skin from the outset, is the good fortune that has befallen the nation’s first Black President. McConnell is a racist, pure and simple. And your garden variety racist at that; someone so deeply absorbed by race that he cannot hide his hate. Much like his political lineage, those Dixiecrats of the mid-20th century, McConnell has reserved a special place of derision when the history of this period in our nation is recorded.

It’s not just in Washington where the warts of our judicial system have flared. After securing a conviction of a former New York City police officer, Peter Liang (pictured above), in the killing of an unarmed African-American male, Akai Gurley, in the stairwell of a city housing building; a jury now hears the prosecutor is recommending the officer receive no jail time. What’s more distressing is that the prosecutor, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson, is African-American. Thompson has recommended that Liang perform 500 hours of community service, five years’ probation, and be confined to his home for six months. As one juror expressed in a New York Daily News article in reaction to the DA’s decision, “What was the point of prosecuting him?”

Adding insult to injury in the Liang case is that the city’s Asian-American community protested his conviction; claiming in part he was singled out, discriminated against while other officers involved in shootings in the city were not charged. In raising race, Asian-Americans fail to understand that many of us have always claimed that blue is the color that matters in instances of the use of deadly force by police and that victims have been disproportionately African-American and Latino, and male. Liang was convicted not because he was Asian-American but because he wore the blue of the NYPD and acted irresponsibly in the discharge of his duties, resulting in the death of a Black man and father.

The betrayal by Thompson in the Liang case cuts deep. For decades African-Americans have watched as prosecutors cut deals and absolved officers who used excessive force against Blacks. With no expectation of racial solidarity simply because the DA is Black, there is a reasonable expectation on the part of the Black community that justice will be administered when the evidence is clear, has been presented to a jury, and that jury comes back with a conviction. To recommend community service, for what is the equivalent of 21 days, is an affront to decency and a grave injustice to the family of Akai Gurley, and gives the community reason to dismiss Thompson’s fitness for office. Outrage is the minimal reaction that should be expected from Blacks, while organized rebellion against Thompson’s tenure should be the ultimate response to his dereliction of duty. The presence of a Black prosecutor is a cruel joke upon the African-American community if the lawmaker preserves the tradition of excusing wrongdoing against Blacks. The recent videotaped handcuffing by NYPD officers of Glen Grays, a Black mail carrier in Brooklyn, trying to do his job seems to be just another day at the office for New York City's 'finest.'

While jurors in the Liang case acted responsibly and delivered a measure of justice, the same cannot be said for citizens who sat in the jury box in trials involving sportscaster Erin Andrews and wrestling personality Hulk Hogan. Both plaintiffs received the type of paydays that I would hear people rail against when I was director of public affairs for the New York Trial Lawyers Association. Where the public was once incensed by a $2.6 million jury award to a woman who received significant injuries and was scarred by an excessively hot cup of coffee, a drink so hot jurors determined it was not a “consumable” liquid; juries are now gifting plaintiffs for the baring and exposing of skin. Andrews was awarded $55 million for having her privacy invaded by a peeping Tom in a hotel, while Hogan was awarded $115 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages for the posting of a sex tape of the wrestler on the social media site Gawker.

Meanwhile, the many cases of wrongfully convicted Black men who have had years taken away from them unjustly in a prison cell are not accorded the same sort of ‘justice.’ In fact, these cases of wrongful imprisonment are rooted in bias; racial profiling, witness intimidation, poor legal counsel, mistaken identity, overzealous and politically motivated prosecutions, and biased judges. Just this past week the Detroit Free Press reported on the decade-long effort of a Flint Michigan (of all places) Black man to represent himself after having received poor and ineffective counsel, and how his diligence resulted in him being freed.

Still, when these injustices are uncovered the victims are not compensated to the degree of Andrews or Hogan, and are treated as though they should simply be thankful they were released and did not rot away in a jail cell. The bias and sloppiness that results in the imprisonment of the Black innocent is merely dismissed as ‘unfortunate’ and their release is then arrogantly declared as the effectiveness of our judicial system. Were it not for advances in the use of DNA, there is no telling how many innocent people would remain incarcerated, or worse, be wrongly executed. It is why the continued support of capital punishment is morally reprehensible.

The same hypocrisy can be seen in the hyper-sensitivity over animal cruelty and the callousness shown toward the lives of African-Americans. Where repentant professional football player Michael Vick is demonized for his role in harming dogs, imprisoned and branded a menace by a mostly white pets’ rights lobby, there is no equivalent outrage over the Black lives, many being children, lost to police brutality or gun violence in communities that have been flooded with firearms and starved of jobs. The loss of Black life is regarded as an acceptable cost to maintain social order. We witnessed this in the case of the Pennsylvania judges, Court of Common Pleas Judge Mark Ciavarella, Jr. and his boss Judge Michael Conahan, who sent children to a for-profit youth detention facility in exchange for payments from a facility operator. The “kids for cash” scheme is estimated to have wrongly imprisoned 2,500 children, and included a victim who committed suicide.

By contrast, any legal dispute that is perceived to offend white dignity or violate white humanity, is dealt with decisively and offenders are punished. It is why after so many years the name O.J. Simpson sparks such a hateful reaction. The verdict in the criminal trial of Simpson is seen by many whites as a violation of the expected deference of the system toward whites.

The veneer of justice has been stripped and what has been exposed is a judicial system that works for the wealthy, penalizes the poor and seeks to dispose of Blacks and Latinos who dare demand justice for their injuries. It is an institution that is now so heavily politicized at all levels that there can be little faith that the system works fairly and when it does, it is the rare exception and not the norm. The mistrust of Blacks toward our judicial system, and the role of the media in exacerbating bias, has been validated time and again. We must stop pretending that our courts provide anything that even approximates justice. The system is biased, structurally flawed and provides too much opportunity for political manipulation. Any talk of ‘social change’ must include a revolutionary overhaul of our judicial system.

Walter Fields is Executive Editor of

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