News that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has resigned brought sadness from some quarters but as one of few original cabinet members for Barack Obama prepares to leave office, there is a raging problem that will not go away and that requires federal intervention.
The problem is rampant police abuses and, in particular, the targeting of young Black people. The killing of Michael Brown, 18, in Ferguson, Mo., has brought the small, majority Black suburb to the brink and the country is watching a case and conditions mirrored across America.
As the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam has warned, mishandling the shooting of the unarmed Black teen by a White police officer, including what a forensic expert for the victim’s family called a kill shot, could literally ignite the country.
The problem of brutality and police violence are not limited to Ferguson and anger over harassment, humiliation and mistreatment by police officers runs deep in Black neighborhoods. Officers often have little respect or regard for these communities and act as an occupying army charged with keeping enemies in their place as opposed to serving and protecting citizens.
The tension, distrust and dysfunction runs so deep that Black parents early and often train their children in how to deal with the police. One basic rule often recited to children: Make a judgment call. Consider the situation and whether you can escape it or resolve it before consulting police officers. The real life lesson taught is involving police officers may bring more problems and escalate injury instead of saving the child or lessening injury. There are countless examples of those who called police for help but ended up arrested, beaten or worse.
Mr. Holder was the 82nd U.S. Attorney General and first Black person appointed to the post. Since he took charge in 2009, the respected lawyer has faced many challenges, including assaults from Congress and the right wing as part of efforts to derail and destroy the Obama presidency. He was even held in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over documents demanded by Republicans looking into a Justice Dept. operation involving guns, crime and Mexico.
What Mr. Holder enjoyed, however, was a reputation and the perception that he might be one to deal fairly when it came to serious problems like police brutality. Though a trip to Ferguson was almost secret when it came to media access and a “public meeting” appeared to be little more than a drop in on a selected audience, there was hope he would diligently pursue what was right in Ferguson–after all protection of voting and civil rights is seen by many as part of his legacy.
But will hope for some measure of justice leave the department with Mr. Holder’s departure?
The president has shown great reluctance to deal forthrightly with issues of race and justice in America. His lectures to Black America to be responsible, hard-working and the best it can be are too many and his charges to America to be just, fair and equitable have been too few. His gentle forays into the treacherous racial waters of this country have brought swift and immediate responses from the White Right and Whites generally fed up with any talk of racism or racial justice. So the president can make unequivocal denunciations of domestic violence, mistreatment of gay people, the broken U.S. immigration policy and respect for women in an appeal to White female voters. The president has not delivered any scathing, unapologetic condemnation of racism and anti-Black behavior in all its forms. We don’t expect him to.
What we should expect is for the federal government, the Justice Dept., and the nation’s top executive to address a crisis that endangers not just Black lives but the entire country. According to a report by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, every 28 hours a Black person is killed by a police officer, security officer or vigilante in the United States.
“If not for our investigation, this gruesome reality would largely be ignored. The United States government has no interest in revealing these facts and police unions actively suppress them. The corporate media is so permeated with White supremacist and capitalist assumptions and rationalizations that reporters and editors deem these killings unworthy of note. With one important exception: They use the stories of ‘officer-involved killings’ to reinforce a stereotypical, but strategic depiction of the most dispossessed sectors of the Black working class as criminal commodities, fit for disposal,” said the report, “Operation Ghetto Storm: 2012 Annual Report on the Extrajudicial Killings of 313 Black People by Police, Security Guards and Vigilantes.”
One of the major reasons these killings and abuses continue is the failure of local authorities, review boards, prosecutors and politicians to hold police accountable for their actions. This reluctance to prosecute officers, who are always called singular bad apples, allows for abuses to go virtually unchecked and for officers to operate with no fear of consequences. The result is extreme arrogance and wrong action executed with impunity. Blacks in Ferguson and the family of Michael Brown have already shared their lack of confidence justice will come from local officials. When the Ferguson police chief recently apologized for their son’s body lying in the street for over four hours, the parents of the slain youth said actions not words are what count here. Campaigns are underway to oust the White county prosecutor, who has tossed the case to a grand jury, the mayor of Ferguson and the local police chief. Such warranted skepticism about the prospects for justice should make this country feel deep shame and less willing to try to police the world and exert “moral” leadership.
The key to getting justice from the American system lies in Washington, D.C. and that need doesn’t change no matter who holds the post of U.S. attorney general. Mr. Holder may be leaving but justice is still needed at the Justice Dept.