I think it is fair to say that all too often, justice is not blind. At least it isn’t blind in terms of race, sexual orientation, or other factors. Too often, the color of the people involved in an incident helps determine who is guilty and who is not. There are exceptions of course, but I think that race plays a big role in determining who is to be arrested and who is not. Who is allowed to “fear for his life” and who is not.
Wednesday, Matt Zoller Seitz shared a story to illustrate how white privilege kept him from getting arrested or otherwise harmed by the police after he started a fight on the street. The piece is worth reading. But, it is really interesting the conversation he had with the police when they arrived. Matt Seitz admits in his story that he instigated the fight with an Hispanic man outside a deli.
After telling the two white officers that he had confronted the guy and punched him in the face after the stranger jabbed him in the chest with his fingers, the cops asked Zoller Seitz if he wanted to press charges for assault:
“I don’t think he actually meant to touch me, though,” I said, while a voice deep inside me said, Stupid white boy, he’s making it plain and you’re not getting it.
“It doesn’t matter if he meant to touch you, he hit you first,” he said. He was talking to me warmly and patiently, as you might explain things to a child. Wisdom was being imparted.
“You were in fear of your life,” he added.
By now the adrenaline fog seemed to be lifting. I was seeing things in a more clinical way. The violence I had inflicted on this man was disproportionate to the “assault,” and the tone of this exchange with the cop felt conspiratorial.
And then it dawned on me, Mr. Slow-on-the-Uptake, what was really happening: this officer was helping me Get My Story Straight.
Understanding, at long last.
Zoller Seitz even admitted that when the police arrived, he had the stranger on the ground in a chokehold. Which most reasonable people might conclude that he was the attacker. But, while Zoller Seitz was speaking with the police, the stranger was being held face down on the sidewalk and handcuffed. In the end, Zoller Seitz was allowed to go home. He does not know what happened to the stranger he admittedly attacked.
This is important to remember. There is a grand jury being seated in the Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Wilson. If this case does go to trial, it would be apparent that at some point the notion that Wilson could have reasonably feared for his life during his confrontation with Brown. Witnesses at the scene have said that Brown had his hands in their air to surrender. Others, mostly other police officers, hint that Brown charged Wilson so the resulting shooting was a result of physical confrontation.
I wrote in an earlier piece this year that the called “stand your ground” laws would cause more trouble than they were worth. Remember the case of George Zimmerman, who is white and Latino, after he killed Trayvon Martin? His lawyers got him off by using the “afraid for his life” argument. In the case of Theodore Warfare, the jury came back with a different result. In that case, Renisha McBride, who had arrived on his porch seeking help after a car accident was shot and killed through a locked screen door. The defense in that case claimed that the loud knocking so alarmed their client that he felt he had no other choice but to shoot her. Fortunately, this jury didn’t buy the “afraid for his life” argument.
Then there is the case of Marissa Alexander, a black mother in Florida. A man with a documented history of physical violence, a man who told Alexander that he was going to kill her, did not present a credible threat. Alexander’s husband, Rico Gray, broke down the door of the bathroom where she was hiding during a domestic violence incident. He grabbed her by the throat, and choked her as he held her against the floor. Alexander then tried to escape through the garage, but found herself trapped when the door wouldn’t open. She returned to the house having retrieved her handgun from her car and fired at a wall near where Gray stood. No one was harmed. But when Alexander tried to invoke Florida’s “stand your ground” law in her defense, she was denied. Twice. According to State Attorney Angela Corey, Alexander was “not in fear” but “angry” when she fired the warning shot. She now faces up to 60 years in prison.
It isn’t just color that defines who is allowed the “fear for his life” argument. Luke O’Donovan, a white queer activist in Georgia, was last week sentenced to two years in prison and eight years of probation after he used his pocket knife to stab five men who had confronted him in an alleged anti-LGTBQ hate crime in 2012. Donovan was stabbed three times. Apparently if you are gay in Georgia, being stabbed three times is not a sufficient “fear for his life” argument.
These are just a few examples of how our justice system is not as blind as people would have us believe. Color, sexual orientation, race, even religious beliefs are all factors in determining who is being blamed and who gets off. Zoller Seitz’s story is very telling. Especially when compared to these other incidents. The straight white guy got a break. The others did not. It makes us wonder just how the case in Ferguson will turn out. But, one thing is for certain. As long as white privilege is a reality, more Fergusons will happen.
Until we, as a society, come to terms with this phenomenon nothing will change. If we do come to terms with it, then maybe we will have a society where justice was truly blind!