THE BLOG
12/11/2014 11:56 am ET Updated Feb 10, 2015

Garner Chokehold Grand Jury Only the Latest Case of Justice Turning a Blind Eye to People of Color

There is a persistent image tied to last week's shocking grand jury decision coming out of Staten Island. With release of that panel's determination that that there is no probable cause to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in last summer's chokehold death of Eric Garner, the public disbelief has been represented most often by the iconic Goddess of Justice. Blindfold and all.

It's only natural, right? Especially with the public shock and awe at a grand jury that seemed to turn a blind eye to the weight of the evidence -- weight that was pressed down on Garner's throat and on his chest against the sidewalk, as he began to suffocate. In plain view. On video.

Seeing is believing. But what we are seeing in response to what we are seeing is unbelievable. Totally.

Whether people have seen the editorial cartoonists' depictions of the Goddess of Justice peeking through her blindfold, or holding a video camera or standing with a racist seeing-eye dog ready to be unleashed or lying prostrate on the sidewalk -- in chalk-mark pose -- gasping for air, whatever the representation, the take-away is the same. It is the view that we will see no justice in cases of excessive police force used against people of color. But that is not where this story begins. Sadly, as we can see so clearly now, it is not where it ends.

It is a nightmarish déjà vu. A message only underscored by the repetition. The Staten Island determination comes on the heels of the St. Louis County grand jury decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed 18 year-old Michael Brown.

Black eyewitnesses are not believed by juries when they swear to what they have seen. When they contradict white authority. This is no new thing. African Americans were not believed in 1955 when they testified in a Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, courtroom. When they fingered the white killers of 14-year-old Emmett Till. Those killers were acquitted by an all-white jury and then went on to brag about the killing. In print. Look magazine.

Black witnesses were not believed just weeks ago when they said they saw Michael Brown put up his hands in surrender just before he was shot to death by Wilson, the cop who says he was threatened by the unarmed teen. Apparently, the grand jury found that story -- the white cop's story that the unarmed Brown needed seven bullets to take him down -- apparently, jury members found that story more believable.

The problem is our cultural split screen. We can see the same things and we draw different conclusions. In a way, what we believe is only reinforced by what we already think we know. What we think we know is a function of how our view of the world -- and, of course, all the people in it -- has been formulated by family and friends and then refined by all the institutions in our lived experience. The schools. The houses of worship. The legal system. The media.

The grand jury in Staten Island reviewed a video of the confrontation between Garner and the police and apparently saw a righteous take-down. Thousands of the rest of us all across the country -- beginning with the coroner -- saw something that looked a lot more like homicide.

Sadly, what we are beginning to see now is business as usual.

For example, the first word put out by the Cleveland police in the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice just before Thanksgiving was that he went for his waistband. They were answering a call about a "black guy" brandishing a gun in a local park. It was a pellet gun. Tamir was playing in the park. He was 12 years old, after all. But the cops saw a 20-year-old black guy who made his move. A threat. Shortly after that, the rest of us saw the park's surveillance video. It shows police driving up to Tamir, who was shot immediately. No hands-up command. No time for that. One of the cops jumped out shooting.

As shocking as the video recorded deaths of people like Eric Garner and Tamir Rice might be, the real shock is in how many other allegations of excessive -- as in unnecessary, extreme, deadly, maybe even wrongful -- police force we never even hear about in cases involving African American victims.

A recent Wall Street Journal study of police data showed hundreds of reported police killings were missing from national statistics collected by the Department of Justice. While local law enforcement agencies tend to report most police killings as justifiable, how do we know that? How can we trust this self-policing when we have seen the video of policing on the streets? Clearly, the need for transparency -- as in national oversight -- is needed.

Consider the alternative. A breakdown of order. If young African Americans respond in Ferguson with property crimes -- arson and looting -- it just might be that they perceive lawlessness all around them. By the very people who are supposed to enforce the law. The police. That is not to say arson and looting are justifiable reactions by a minority of demonstrators to the bad acts of a minority of cops. But it does become more understandable when you consider the context.

Certainly, young African Americans see a lack of fairness and evenhandedness in the justice system. How can they not? It is pervasive up to and including unjustified police killings. For example, black men are much more likely than whites to have police contact, even though "white stops" are more likely to reveal criminal activity, according to a recent report by the Sentencing Project.

What's more, a January 2013 report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission shows that the racial divide in sentencing is widening. Black men are given sentences 19.5 percent longer than those served by white men for similar crimes. The report also found that black males were 25 percent less likely than whites to receive a sentence for less time than what is set out the sentencing guidelines.

Beyond all this, even while the cases of Emmett Till and Michael Brown, and even Trayvon Martin (where black "earwitness" testimony also appears to have been discounted in verifying Trayvon's cry for help), even while cases such as these suggest that African-Americans are not seen as credible witnesses, white witnesses are given far too much credit in cross-racial identifications.

Nowhere can the consequences of that be seen more clearly than in the wrongful Illinois conviction case of Anthony Dansberry, who is serving a 75-year sentence in Danville Correctional Center for the 1991 mugging of 77 year-old Edna Abel. She later died, and the State of Illinois sought to put Anthony to death, despite questions raised over the conflicting eyewitness testimony.

Studies show these cross-racial IDs are inherently defective, which raises questions about whether justice is served -- certainly for the wrongfully convicted, like Anthony Dansberry, and arguably for the victims and their families whose cases are never resolved. Not really.

If seeing is believing, then what should we see in our future? What should we believe as a result? Belief, after all, is the mortar that holds together the building blocks of our social structure. If we don't see justice as a reality for African-Americans from street level on up through the system, from the unwarranted stops to unfair arrests to uneven sentencing, wrongful conviction and unjustifiable homicide, then how can we believe justice is possible? If we can't believe as the protesters still are asserting that "Black Lives Matter" in our justice system, then the whole thing falls apart. Brick by brick by brick.

There is so much narrative in that statue of justice. The Goddess. The Roman Iusticia, taken from the Greek Themis, inspired by the Egyptian Maat. From one ancient culture to the next and finally down to us in our contemporary moment of decision. The statue as narrative text. Themes of balance and fairness and justice, represented by scales and a sword and a blindfold.

Narrative filled with irony.

After all, for too many people now, that blindfold has come to mean just the opposite of what was intended. Not impartiality at all. When it comes to seeing a just outcome for people of color, the Goddess of Justice most certainly is blind.