COMMENTARY: Time to fix the legal, judicial systems from within

David Gray

OFFICER-INVOLVED KILLINGS of unarmed Black men–including Oscar Grant, Michael Brown,John Crawford, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice–is not a new phenomenon. Police have used deadly force against Black civilians nearly twice per week between 2005 and 2012, according to FBI records.

Accusations that Black males like Grant, Brown, Crawford, Garner and Rice would be alive today if they merely complied with police officers’ commands are erroneous–and fail to truthfully acknowledge stereotypes towards Black men that
are prevalent throughout the legal and judicial systems.

Black men are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested and given longer sentences than any other demographic group–despite there being no evidence showing that they commit more crimes than anyone else.

This disproportionate policing has resulted in more Black men being incarcerated or on parole today than were in slavery during the 1850s. Law enforcement is not the only segment of society that racially profiles Blacks. In several academic studies of first-person shooter tests (where participants must rapidly decide whether to shoot individuals holding either guns or harmless objects), civilians taking the tests were consistently more likely to shoot unarmed Black men than unarmed White men. These studies highlight the fact that society is not colorblind. We see color, and we see it clearly.

Prejudices towards Black men are deeply rooted in stereotypes that are not supported by facts and statistics. But facts and statistics are not likely to change the opinions of people who hold deep prejudices and racial biases towards Black men. Ignorance, bias and privilege tend to obstruct logical reasoning. It is only possible to help someone who wants to be helped. And many people do not want to be helped. But that does not mean society should stop trying to improve the legal and judicial systems.

One of the most direct ways to ensure that unarmed Black men are not denied justice is by serving on a jury. After all, it was a jury that decided not to indict the police offi cers involved in the deaths of Brown, Crawford and Garner. Additionally, it was a jury that decided to convict the officer who killed Grant with involuntary manslaughter instead of murder, and a jury will determine the faith of the officer who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

Since jury pools are culled from voter registration lists and active voter lists, it is imperative that people register to vote and participate in every election–not just the presidential elections. Mayors, city councils, judges, district attorneys and other local elected officials play a significant role in shaping the laws that govern society.
Ensuring that elected officials are responsive to the community’s needs and demands is of paramount importance.

The situation in Ferguson, Mo., magnifies the significance of voting in local elections. Ferguson’s population is more than two thirds Black, but the mayor and five of six city council members are White. While Blacks in Ferguson overwhelmingly believe their local government treats them unfairly, very few participated in the most recent election (52 percent of voters were White). To turn the tide, Black voters need to participate in future elections and elect representatives that are willing to respond to the community’s needs.

History proves that marches and protests (both peaceful and not) have their place in changing society, too. For example,
the (non-peaceful) Boston Tea Party, the Selma to Montgomery March, and the march on Washington
to protest the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War have all shaped today’s laws and systems of government.

Marching and chanting about the importance of Black lives fits within this historical narrative,but it is imperative that advocates for change work to fix the legal and judicial systems from within, too.

David Gray is a New Orleans native and has spent the majority of his professional career at the nexus of political advocacy, social innovation and community service.