Are we living in a post-racial society?


Citizens of Ferguson, MO march down West Florissant Ave. in protest of the death of Michael Brown.

Senad Besic, Opinion Editor

There are a plethora of controversial topics that will rile up our student body. Most recently it has been feminism and gay marriage. However, my ignorance over these two topics is immeasurable, so I’d like to talk about another big topic, racial social status and the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

As you read this, please keep in mind that I was not there to witness the death of either of these men, nor was I actively involved with the judicial process of these cases. I am simply a high school student writer who is interested in these developments and is worried about the social standings of our minorities. Also keep in mind that the only way to really research these topics was to find information off the internet. I got my information from three different sources and compared all their facts together to see if the data was consistent. I am excited to say that I did not find any major inconsistencies within these sources.

Now, in case you have been living under a rock; Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American male, was shot to death after an altercation with Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old white male police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Eric Garner, an unarmed 43-year-old died in the Tompkinsville neighborhood of Staten Island, New York, after police officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in an apparent chokehold for about 19 seconds after Garner was approached for suspicion of selling single cigarettes from packs without tax stamps.

These two cases are the facilitators of a national outcry for an end on police brutality and discrimination against blacks and other minorities. Protests occurred all throughout the nation. Some in Los Angeles, Seattle, Philadelphia, Chicago and even a few here in Iowa. Yet the majority number of peaceful protests and riots happened in Ferguson and New York, the locations where Brown and Garner were killed.

With all this turmoil around Ferguson and New York, there seemed to have been an overshadowing of other deaths with possible race-related motives. Kajieme Powell, Vonderrit Myers Jr. and Tamir Rice are just a few other African-Americans that were killed by police officers. As you can probably guess, police and witness allegations were conflicting.

In two of the three above cases, the police shooting could be seen as justified. Rice was holding a very realistic looking toy gun, and Powell was holding a knife and was literally asking for the police to shoot him. However, Myers was, well, according to family and others, holding a sandwich. Possibly the least menacing of things to be holding while being gunned down by the police but hey, the police claimed he had a gun and was shooting at them.

Yet, just like the rest of America, let’s put aside those cases and focus on the two that made the most noise, Brown and Garner.

Now, the issue with Brown’s case is the inconsistencies in the shooting and grand jury trial itself. Half the time eyewitness testimonies are misremembered or inaccurate. There were data inconsistencies throughout many of the testimonies, some slight, some very contradictory. Some said Brown was on his knees and had his hands raised in the air, submitting himself to Wilson. Others said Brown charged at the police officer, with intent to harm him. As you can see, this clearly would cause some confusion among the St. Louis county grand jury. Who could they trust?

Psychologically, this misinformation effect can be explained. Psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus tested his memory encoding by trying to remember nonsense syllables, like ‘XOJ’ and ‘DPW’, and measured how much he retained when relearning each list, from 20 minutes to 30 days later. He then developed his famous forgetting curve: forgetting is initially rapid, then levels off with time.

This can be applied to all the eyewitnesses. The St. Louis county grand jury met at the courthouse on 25 separate days. Over these 25 days, they heard from about 60 witnesses. Applying the forgetting curve, it makes sense that their testimonies would be conflicting, since they would forget most of their information within the first couple days after the incident.

Therefore, I see why the grand jury chose not to indict Brown’s killer, Darren Wilson. The evidence presented to them was very, very conflicting.

Yet, if another case were to arise with less paradoxical evidence, like, video evidence for example, surely a grand jury would be able to make a decision that would satisfy a verdict the evidence strongly hints at, correct?

Eh, don’t get your hopes up.

To cut to the chase, the New York grand jury did not indict anyone in the Garner case. Not even officer Pantaleo, the officer that was caught on camera putting Garner in a chokehold, a maneuver banned by the police department in 1993.

A piece of conflicting evidence in the case was the actual cause of Garner’s death. Some say it was solely the police’s fault for constricting his ability to breathe, while others claim it was a mixture of his asthma, weight and body position he was put in. Yet, an autopsy by the city’s medical examiner found that Mr. Garner’s death was a homicide resulting from the chokehold and the compression of his chest by police officers.

The grand jury in Garner’s case were shown three videos of the encounter, and in his testimony, officer Pantaleo sought to characterize his actions as a maneuver taught at the police academy. However, chokeholds are banned by the NYPD, therefore there is nothing to characterize. If you are a NYPD officer, you aren’t allowed to choke people. It shouldn’t take the death of a grown man for them to realize this.

This is why Garner’s case really confused me. All the evidence admitted to the public points towards a reason to indict. I’m no grand jury member, but I feel like video evidence of Garner being unlawfully choked, being forcefully brought to the ground and having his airflow constricted to the point of death would suggest the usage of just a tad bit of police brutality. And when I say ‘tad’ I mean a gratuitous amount.

Also, there are many ways to subdue someone. There was no need for a myriad of police officers to take Garner down. Even if he was resisting arrest, putting him in a banned chokehold should be one of the last things the police should think of doing. The police should be able to arrest people in the most harmless way possible, especially if they outnumber the arrestee four to one.

Another way to thwart situations like this is for all police to be equipped with body cameras. This initiative could start in cities that have the highest rates of police complaints, and if there is a drop in those complaints, then this could potentially become a nation wide change. On the bright side, some cities are deciding to equip their police with cameras, and the police complaint rates have plummeted. On the down side, it can be an expensive switch. And if they buy cheap cameras, they sacrifice video quality, which would likely cause even more problems in the courts. Yet, if a police department decided not to cop out on cameras, they could save themselves a lot of money by having fewer lawsuits and lower insurance costs from riots or bodily injury. This hopefully would cancel out the costs of the cameras in the long run, acting like a long-term investment.

Underneath all this chaos, I sense corruption. That may seem like a brash comment, but let’s look at this whole jury set-up. First off, there are two main types of juries, a grand jury and a trial jury. Usually when you hear adults complain about jury duty, they are talking about a trial jury, which is held in the courtroom and they decide if someone is either guilty or innocent. A grand jury helps the prosecutor decide whether to bring criminal charges against a suspect in a crime. These two are similar in the sense that they are completely composed of randomly chosen members of the community that have no affiliation with the case whatsoever. The main difference between them is that grand juries meet for months longer than normal trial juries.

Anyway, my issue with this whole ordeal is how these grand juries are set up. Typically, it is composed of the prosecutor and the jury. The prosecutor presents evidence and witnesses to be reviewed by the jury. Normally, these witnesses do not have attorneys present, so the setting is different, to encourage the witnesses to speak freely and to protect the suspect if the grand jury decides not to bring charges. Yet that’s one of the things I see wrong with this system. If I have to talk to a trained prosecutor by myself without any previous instruction by my lawyer, I would probably misinform the jury because of the prosecutor’s specifically worded questions that are designed to get certain answers out of witnesses. Also, commonly, the police are not the ones under investigation. Regularly, the grand jury decides to press charges on civilians that are under investigation for a crime, not the police. Therefore, prosecutors usually work on the same side with the local police, trying to indict civilians that broke the law. This builds a relationship between the prosecutor and the police, a relationship the prosecutor probably does not want to disrupt, which raises the question; doesn’t this seem corrupt? As former New York Chief Judge Sol Wachtler once famously remarked, it’s so easy to get a grand jury to indict, they’d indict a ham sandwich if that’s what the prosecutor wanted. So if that’s true, why have the most recent major grand jury cases ended up with no indictment?

What’s even more shocking is the data behind this; According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010 and grand jurors declined to indict in 11 of them. It is true though that Wilson and Garner’s cases were heard in state courts, not federal, so the numbers aren’t directly comparable. Still, legal experts agree that it is extremely rare for prosecutors to fail to win an indictment.

People who are in opposition of these recent outcries for racial equality post things on social media and say that more whites die every year by the police than blacks do, so they don’t see why the black community is reacting the way they are.

Now, this may be true, however, blacks only make up 13% of the USA’s population, so statistically it is no wonder more whites die every year. And the reason blacks and supporters of racial equality are speaking up is because there is still work to be done for those races. If you’re white and living in this country, you already possess all the rights you could possibly obtain. Other races are not as lucky. And I’m not talking about your everyday, run-of-the-mill, constitutional rights. This extends way past that. Sure, the right to vote is one thing, but how about the right of being able to walk down the street without feeling anxious when you see a police officer? Or the right of not being instantly criticized for your skin color when applying for jobs, schools or programs in general?

Over the years I have heard minorities also be referred to as second-class citizens. Not because they statistically have a lower annual income than the white majority, or are averagely worse off than their first-class counterparts, but because they are constantly discriminated against. The term itself carries a discriminatory connotation. It’s time to start thinking of this cultural “melting pot” of a country exactly as it was nicknamed. A single melting pot. Not 100 different pots each segregated into their respective minority.

We won’t be able to kill racism, whether it be within our police, society or culture. You can outlaw undesirable actions, but you can’t outlaw undesirable opinions. If that were to happen, the very beliefs that America was created and built around would become nullified and undermined. Yet, as new generations take over positions of power and the public in general, hopefully we’ll all see that we aren’t so different after all. We’ve made a lot of progress over the last couple decades. Let’s make some more.