Every time US police kill another civilian – and in 2022, a very good year, they killed an average of more than three a day – there seems to be a subtle tendency to highlight the aspects of life a victim that would make them look. especially not worthy of their fate.
Look at the portrayals, in articles and infographics and murals, of Tire Nichols as a friendly, artistically inclined skateboarder, or George Floyd as a “gentle giant” and Gianna’s doting father, or Breonna Taylor as a dedicated EMT, or Atatiana Jefferson as a caring father families, or Philando Castile as a beloved school cafeteria worker compared to “Mr Rogers with dreadlocks”, or Eric Garner, who famously cried, “I can’t breathe,” memorials in a poem as a gardener making the air cleaner for may all breathe in peace.
Of course, families and communities are entitled to remember and honor their loved ones as they see fit. And the media has a long and ugly history of reinforcing prejudices about people of color that are intrinsically linked to criminality and tragedy. These stereotypes affect how individuals, including the police, treat people in real life, so sharing positive stories is not only understandable but vital.
What I submit, especially to those who are fortunate enough to process these events as pure observers, or who are considering police violence for the first time, is the idea that there is such a thing there is even a person who is “worthy” of excessive force, or that there is any connection between a person’s personality and history and how the police should treat them.
It doesn’t matter if you are white or Black, liberal or conservative, innocent or guilty of a crime, even a serious crime. By law, you have the right to avoid police contact with your life unless you are an immediate threat to those around you.
That is the purpose of justice. We have decided as a society, at least on the books, that police are not allowed to be judge, jury or executioners. Although they often act that way, we can’t accept to think of police interactions as purely personal.
It’s the kind of unsystematic thinking that breeds the conservative trope of a “few bad apples” on the police force, rather than a tree with serious rot. The shallow argument that because Tire Nichols is Black, and the five main officers who shot him to death are Black, that police racism in Memphis is a cause for concern is a narrow view.
Far from it. Even in a majority black city with a Black police chief, black people in Memphis yet defines disproportionate police violence.
We should apply a similar big-picture lens to thinking about other areas of the criminal justice system.
As a civil rights reporter for The Independent, I have seen and written plenty of stories focusing on the most egregious cases of the death penalty gone wrong or police abuse, with the most innocent victims, the most outrageous prosecutors, the most racist juries, and the most tainted evidence. But this, too, obscures the larger point. Even guilty people deserve a fair shake in the justice system.
Influential litigants may look for the “perfect victim” to launch a test case, based on a compelling story, to challenge some fundamental injustices, but as a society at large, we cannot engage in such a search.
If there is any sense of justice that can be preserved in US policing, in the courts, or anywhere else where the government has the power of life and death, that justice must be blind.