My last living aunt recently told me about her remembrances of “Sundown Towns,” areas in America through at least the mid-20th century known to black people as places they should avoid being seen outside after dark because the threat of harm coming their way was real.
I didn’t know it, but my hometown, St. Stephen, S.C., was considered one of those places. When my mother was 2 years old, in a small town seven miles south of St. Stephen, a group of white men opened fired on a busload of black people returning from church for seemingly violating that sundown edict.
The threat came in two forms, the potential physical harm, and the psychic harm that came from knowing there was little chance of repercussions — little chance the justice system would hold the perpetrators accountable, no matter the amount of evidence, no matter the severity of the attack.
My aunt and mother are in their 70s, and I take full measure of the courage and steadfastness it took black people of their generation, or their parents’ generation, to make it through an all-too-cruel world. My generation has benefited greatly from the undeniable racial progress they helped make possible.
But when I reflect on what happened yesterday — when it became official that no officer involved in the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore would be held accountable — it is hard not to feel some of the helplessness I know my mother and aunt sometimes felt.
I feel that way even while understanding why Baltimore prosecutor Marilyn Mosby felt compelled to drop the remaining charges against the officers who had yet to be tried, and I even get the arguments made by experts that from a strictly legal, clinical assessment, the cases may have not been strong enough to reasonably expect a conviction in any of them.
But I know this: that Gray was stopped under dubious circumstances and suffered a severe spinal injury– which would ultimately kill him — while in the sole custody of police, that police defenders were quick to condemn the dead man through character assassination, that those professing to call for more law and order condemned Mosby for even trying to bring justice, that those in the audience in Cleveland at the Republican National Convention last week cheered when a speaker bragged that another officer would go free.
I know that that’s the way these things typical unfold. Police officers are hardly ever criminally charged when they kill someone, or when someone dies under circumstances like the one Gray faced. I know that for millions of Americans, the presence of a badge on a man or woman’s chest absolves him or her of just about any kind of wrongdoing, and that even though that badge confers an outsized level of power — the legal right to detain and kill and seize property — it comes with a lower, not higher, level of responsibility.
Police unions throughout the country have made it possible for officers to avoid having to make statements for hours, sometimes days, after a killing. And they are protected in other ways from having to face the kind of scrutiny the everyday accused endures.
That’s why cases like Gray’s sting even more than George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the Trayvon Martin killing. Zimmerman’s acquittal can be somewhat downplayed because he wore no badge, because he was a disturbed individual doing a dastardly thing, and he happened to get away with it, in part because officers and prosecutors didn’t fully investigate what happened until pressured by protesters, when it was too late.
That high profile outcome hit many black parents the way O.J. Simpson’s infamous acquittal hit the families of victims Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman. It was awful and the pain it caused them won’t ever go away, but the hope was that maybe, just maybe, such injustice was an aberration.
But we know without doubt that the Gray verdicts are not only not aberrations, but are par for the course, the most likely outcome any time someone is killed the way Gray was.
That’s why it’s always galling to be preached to about the need to trust the system, to not resist authority when the system feels designed to only protect the “authority,” even in situations like these.
The coroner ruled Gray’s death a homicide, the evidence shows that he did not have a nearly-severed spine when he was taken into custody, that he was with police officers when he suffered fatal injuries — and yet the system has proclaimed that no one is responsible for that killing.
That same system imprisons innocent, everyday citizens every year and treats people of color more harshly than white people at every level, even when they face similar charges for the same crime and have similar backgrounds.
What’s worse, though, is the callousness that so many Americans express about results like these. A basketball arena full of Republicans cheered, not because Gray got justice, but because he wouldn’t.
They demand that we be horrified and mourn the death of any officer — and we all do, because we should — while not giving a damn about Gray and others like him, then have the gall to wonder why an entire movement sprung up around the idea of forcing people to remember that black lives matter, too.