In 1991 several Los Angeles Police Department officers were caught on film brutally beating an African-American taxi driver, Rodney King. At the end of a long car chase several policemen surrounded King — several beat him while others watched — all on film!
Four officers were tried: all were acquitted in spite of the videotape evidence. The acquittals are believed to have triggered the 1992 Los Angeles riots, where 53 people were killed and over 2,000 injured. Only after the federal government intervened and brought federal charges against the officers was any measure of justice achieved.
In the pre-social media world of “He said – He said,” what police said happened was almost always the determinant factor: the Rodney King case was an anomaly because of the videotape. Prior to cell phones and social media there was often no independent evidence to counter official testimony: even multiple witnesses for the defense, if the defendants were people of color, were often disregarded.
Upheavals in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland and Baltimore have heightened tensions between America’s communities of color and the agencies charged with law enforcement, and video evidence — sometimes supportive of law enforcement, sometimes not — have cast a spotlight on how law enforcement impacts communities of color, often disproportionately.
Recently, while speaking in Baltimore, Rand Paul, a 2016 Republican presidential candidate referred to the recent suicide of 22-year-old African American Kalief Browder: “White kids don’t get the same justice.”
Browder, arrested at age 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack, spent three years in jail on Rikers Island, including two years in solitary confinement. Brutally beaten by jail guards and other prisoners, he was released after three years without a trial, without ever having been convicted of anything. Unable to get his life back together, he committed suicide, hanging himself by an air conditioner cord.
“Am I saying they did nothing wrong and it’s all racism? No,” Paul said. “What I am telling you is that white kids don’t get the same justice.”
Rand Paul is right: They don’t!
Part of justice is the presumption of innocence. Recently, in McKinney, Texas, as a group of mostly African-American teen-agers gathered together for a pool party, it didn’t take long for white neighbors to drop a dime and call the police. Upon arrival on the scene, one policeman manhandled a bikini-clad teenager, roughly threw her to the ground, and immobilized her by putting his knee in her back.
Although cooler heads prevailed and the situation was diffused before more grievous harm could occur, videos of the encounter shows not only the white policeman assaulting the teenager but white adults, presumably from the neighborhood, disparaging the teenagers. The officer, Eric Casebolt, captured in video attacking the teenager, shouting obscenities and drawing his gun, has since resigned, but the images of black teenagers being verbally and physically assaulted raise questions about the persistence of racial bias — bias that would be ignored by many if it were not for social media recording the transgressions.
Adding insult to injury Karen Fitzgibbons, a fourth-grade teacher in Wolfforth, Texas, was thankfully “relieved of her teaching duties” after posting a racist Facebook rant in response to the McKinney pool party. Angry that officer Casebolt had resigned she posted, “…the blacks are the ones causing the problems and this ‘racial tension… I’m almost to the point of wanting them all segregated on one side of town so they can hurt each other and leave the innocent people alone…”
But recording the transgressions and seeing them are two different things: Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina recently signed a state law mandating that all SC law enforcement agency officers must wear body cameras — that’s the good news. The bad news is that the recordings won’t be available to the public.
The law that Haley signed reads, “Data recorded by a body-worn camera is not a public record subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.”
That means that, in the same state where policeman Michael Slager killed an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, earlier this year by shooting him eight times, the public would not be entitled to see that footage under the Freedom of Information Act. Indeed, if there had not been independent footage of the Walter Scott killing Slager might never have been, as he is now, charged with murder.
We shouldn’t have to live in the shadow of a Jim Crow America where a fourth grade teacher, a police officer or a prison system actively suppress the rights of any American. We shouldn’t have to live where rights to an education, equal employment, housing, civil and voting rights, and even the right to gather around a swimming pool is contested.
“White kids don’t get the same justice”
Both within our law enforcement agencies and civilian population the vast majority of people are law-abiding citizens, faithful to their neighbors and to The Constitution. What must be now challenged is the decades-old institutionalization of bias that created a two-tiered justice system that oppresses us all.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.