With Liberty And Justice For Y’all

On Walter Scott, Joe McKnight, and white violence

Dorsey Montgomery II, the jury foreman in the murder trial of Michael Slager, says we got it all wrong. We thought that there was one stubborn juror who provoked a mistrial on Monday by refusing to convict the former North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer who was caught on video last year shooting and planting evidence on unarmed black motorist Walter Scott. Montgomery, the only person on the 12-member jury who wasn’t white, told NBC's Today that there were five additional jurors who were "undecided."

I didn't think I could possibly get angrier, but here we are. The jury didn't need to prove ill intent. The trial judge allowed them to consider the lesser charge of manslaughter for Slager, who had pulled Scott over for a broken taillight on April 4, 2015. They just needed to decide whether a police officer discharging his weapon directly into the back of a fleeing citizen was a crime. That reality is more difficult to explain away than a mistrial on behalf of one juror who couldn't "in good conscience" convict a killer. One lone holdout in such an obvious miscarriage of justice is frustrating enough and symbolic of the depth and permanence of racial prejudice in this country; six out of 12 jurors being unsure whether Slager should go to prison hints at a messier, more painful truth. Where on earth did that doubt come from, when the evidence could not have been clearer?

You've likely seen that evidence yourself: Scott was shot in broad daylight, in front of a cell phone camera. We can require officers to wear body cameras, but it's clear that seeing the problem isn't solving it; America now seemingly witnesses a new Rodney King video every other night. We can debate the effect that seeing so much death has on the American public at large, but we know black Americans live in fear in our country — not only of the Michael Slagers, but also of the George Zimmermans, the volcanic vigilantes who don't wear a badge but don't think twice about taking our lives. White disregard for black personhood, and the violence that stems from that neglect, has always been an epidemic in America. But the lack of accountability for such violence cuts just as deeply. These issues remain unaddressed, as we were reminded this week.

Should we expect that Ronald Gasser will end up any different than Michael Slager? The 54-year-old white man shot 28-year-old former NFL running back Joe McKnight three times on December 1 in New Orleans after a road-rage argument that Glasser instigated. Glasser shot McKnight from inside his own car. After the shooting, he stuck around at the scene and turned in his gun to officers. He was able to go home that same night. It would be another four days before he was arrested and charged — and even then, not with murder, but with manslaughter.


Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand vehemently defended that sequence of events at a Tuesday press conference. Before even getting to the details of the shooting, he ranted for more than 20 minutes about citizens who questioned his choice to let an admitted killer go and the mean things some of them had said about his officers. He argued that by jailing Glasser, the sheriff's office would've discouraged witness cooperation — something that is counterintuitive and ridiculous. And after saying "this is not about race," he said that so-called "black-on-black" crime ought to be the primary concern of his critics, not men like Glasser who might kill you if you drive in a way they don't like. "Statistically, your fear is misdirected," he claimed.

I don't think so. "Black-on-black" crime is a canard, intended to make it seem as though the troubles African-American communities face are entirely of their own doing. I've lost a family member to black murderers, yet somehow I manage to know that I also need to keep an eye out for the police officers and white citizens who see my blackness as inherently dangerous and possibly as a justification for taking my life. And as the racial imbalance of our mass-incarceration crisis proves, the problem isn't locking us up when we commit crimes. It's not applying a fair standard to white people.

I wrote earlier this year about Duane Buck, a convicted black murderer sitting on death row only because his blackness was judged to be threatening by a testifying psychologist. I wondered then if we might ever apply to men like Buck the standards that Glasser and Slager benefited from this week. They were both given the benefit of the doubt that their lives really might have been in danger from the unarmed black men they killed. We're supposed to believe that McKnight and Scott were so scary that it justified taking their lives in an incredibly cowardly fashion. The light touch these white men have been given by the justice system only signals to others that they'll likely get away with this if they put themselves in a similar situation.

What did we learn — or, more accurately, what were we reminded of by all this? That even if a white person shoots and kills a black person without sufficient provocation, the former's first defense will come from law enforcement itself. It tells folks who look like me to do absolutely everything possible to avoid upsetting a white person. With the return of white nationalists to the White House, a newly bleak era for American racial conflict is dawning. It is heartbreaking to know that this is where we will begin.