At Bloomington’s Black Lives Matter rally (organized by high school students!), I walked by an older man holding a Sharpied sign with “START PROSECUTING KILLER COPS.” I nodded at him and smiled. My daughter, riding on my chest in a giraffe-patterned carrier, craned her neck to see what I was smiling about, then tucked her head back in to sleep.
I considered enjoining the man for a brief political conversation, but the rally was crowded and at that moment a loud band was playing on the soundstage. So I left it at a smile.
But I feel that a somewhat more alliterative sign, “START PROSECUTING KILLER PROSECUTORS,” would send a more powerful message.
Rightly or wrongly, police officers are often sincerely fearful during the events that end in tragedy. Our nation is awash in guns, and it takes very little time for an officer to get shot.
Not that I think police officers shouldn’t be held accountable. They should. There’s no excuse for shooting an unarmed, fleeing man in the back. And if you’re so fearful that you shoot a man who’s simply reaching for his wallet — which you asked him to do — you’ve probably chosen the wrong career. But it’s worth acknowledging that our society is so permeated with racism that even good cops, even good black cops, react more quickly and more violently when dealing with young men of color.
Police officers shouldn’t murder innocent people. When they do, there should be consequences. But — and this is my contention with the man’s sign — when police officers do it, they act quickly. Decisions are made in seconds, or fractions of seconds.
When officers shoot people, they may very well regret their decisions a moment later. Whereas our nation’s racist prosecutors are killing innocent people — or sending innocent people to prison for egregious lengths of time — in cold blood.
Each day, each month, each year, or each decade, in some cases, a racist prosecutor could reconsider. Unlike a fearful cop reacting wrongly, a prosecutor who buries exculpatory evidence, who offers black men wretched plea deals in comparison with equivalent white offenders, who knowingly pursues false charges, is acting from a position of safety.
This requires a conscious, continually-renewed commitment to do evil.
Black lives matter, and it’s horrific to look at the news again and read about another person slain by the police. I agree.
I just worry that the problem is like an iceberg. The people killed by the police are now-visible evidence of our nation’s failings. But the problem is far bigger than hundreds of young black men killed by police officers each year, the dozens of unarmed young black men killed by police officers each year. We should all feel disgusted. I did smile at the man with that sign, after all. But far more young black men have their lives taken away by racist prosecutors. I don’t just mean the few who have the misfortune of interacting with the prosecutors and judges who seek the death penalty avidly and exclusively for young men of color. Sending someone who shouldn’t be there to prison — yanking him from his family for ten, twenty, thirty years — is a significant fraction of a murder.
Some of these young men have violated some law or other. Prosecutors quell sympathy for their victims by labeling them “criminals.” But these young men have often violated our nation’s vicious tangle of laws no more egregiously than white people, yet they suffer disproportionately.
And the degree to which they suffer is the prosecutor’s undocumented choice. One of my friend’s roommates ran into legal trouble — he’s squeezed between poverty and addiction and made a night’s worth of rotten choices — so she called the prosecutor and said, “I’ve looked over the charges you filed and noticed you included ‘Assault on an officer,’ but that didn’t happen, and I have a copy of the police report here…” She was cut off. She was told, “The police file their report, but, when it comes to the legal charges, we decide what to include or not to include.”
Reality has little bearing until a trial.
But most cases don’t go to trial. It takes gutsy brinkmanship to risk it, given the absurdly long sentences that prosecutors can pursue. And if you ever accept a plea deal, then next time they’ve really got you. Now you’ve got priors.
And it’s always the prosecutor’s choice.
I, too, have broken laws. But I was given a second chance where others were not, solely because of the way I look.
Young men murdered by the police should make headlines. Their lives should be remembered. I simply wish that it were easier for us to also celebrate those whose lives were stolen by prosecutors.
Better yet, set them free.