Justice, Justice

November 25, 2014

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף

Justice, justice, you shall pursue! – Deuteronomy 16:20

My children grew up in Oakland, CA. They are two white men, and because they’ve grown up in Oakland, they have many friends who are African Americans or Latinos. Since they were in middle school my sons have seen how their friends are treated by the police and as a result, they are distrustful of law enforcement. Conversely, I tend to trust the cops, because I’m white and grew up in the Southeast. We’ve had many interesting discussions on our differences of perception; over time I’ve come to realize that I’ve lived a very sheltered life in this respect.

We have a crisis of confidence in the USA today, one that undermines our system of laws. People of color believe that they are harassed unfairly by police, that they are arrested more often than white peers, that they are convicted more often and spend more time in prison than white peers. In states that permit the death penalty, they are executed far more often than white peers. In short, many African Americans believe that the entire system of justice is geared to treat them unfairly and that they cannot expect justice from it.

One could write this off as paranoia, except that the statistics bear it out. In “Fourteen Examples of Racism in Criminal Justice System” Bill Quigley has assembled a horrifying list of examples of studies which conclude that the US criminal justice system treats people of color unfairly. While African Americans are only 13% of the US population, they comprise 37% of those arrested for drug offenses, even though studies have shown that they engage in drug offenses at rates comparable to the white majority. That’s just the first item on his list – click the link and read the rest of it.

So when an unarmed African American youth is shot dead in the street by a white police officer in broad daylight, it should not surprise us at all that his family and many others believe that there might be something amiss. Given that his is the latest in a string of highly publicized deaths of unarmed young men of color, it should not surprise us that many people are angry and demand justice. And now that a grand jury has returned from its deliberations behind closed doors with no indictment, it should not surprise us that parts of this nation are overwhelmed with anger and grief.

Judaism teaches us that justice is an essential value. Justice is not only punishment meted out to the wrongdoer; it is also the assurance that the innocent will not be punished. Justice is even-handed towards all classes of people: “You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment; you shall not favor the poor, nor favor the mighty; but in righteousness shalt you judge your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:15) Maimonides insists that judges must have stainless reputations; they must conduct themselves in such a way that not only is justice done, but so that it is seen to have been done. Appearances count: a judge or judicial process which smells fishy is a problem.

President Obama said tonight that “we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make.” In other words, he said we have to accept the verdict of our legal system. In practical terms, yes, the grand jury is over and Officer Wilson will never stand trial in a criminal court. But today’s events say loud and clear to me that we must deal with the injustices in our system, precisely because so many people distrust not only this verdict, but the entire system that produced it.

If you are unhappy with the demonstrations, if you are unhappy with today’s verdict, no matter what “side” you are on, surely we can all agree that we should have a system of justice that is truly just, to which every law-abiding person can appeal with confidence. People are out in the street because they believe they cannot trust the legal system or law enforcement. They are not crazy. Again, if you haven’t looked at the list of studies Mr. Quigley offers in his article, I beg that you do so.

The only way to improve our situation is to improve the statistics. For example:

  • We need an end to traffic stops that target black drivers. When black drivers are stopped, they should get exactly the same treatment as a white driver in the same circumstances.
  • If whites and blacks engage in drug offenses in roughly equal proportions, then arrests should also match those proportions.
  • We need to improve the public defender system and insure that every person gets a fair trial, because any individual might be innocent.
  • There should be no difference in the length of prison sentences for black and white offenders.

I am sure there are other things that need to be done, and experts who have ideas how to get there. My point is that what we have right now is not a good system of justice, because too many people believe it to be unjust. We must work towards a perception of fairness and justice by all citizens, not just certain privileged groups of citizens.

There is no quick or easy fix. “Justice, justice you shall pursue” cannot be reduced to “chase the bad guys.” Guns won’t fix it, Humvees won’t fix it, slogans won’t fix it, and riots definitely won’t fix it. What we need is a national renewal of dedication to the proposition that all men and women are created equal, that in our nation, justice is indeed for all.

 


We Measure Our Days in Various Ways

August 25, 2014

Yahrzeit candle

Yahrtzeit candle for Jewish mourning.

Oy. I just stumbled onto a new measure of how difficult this summer has been.

I get statistics from WordPress, the nice people who make my blog work, and discovered that one of my old posts has been getting a lot of traffic this summer: Baruch Dayan Emet – Why Do We Bless God when Someone Dies? 

It didn’t get much interest when I first posted it on December 7, 2013, only 7 views. Then it was mostly ignored until June 30 of this year, when suddenly it got 187 on-site views. It seems that when you Google “Baruch Dayan Emet” one of sites on the first page of Google is my post. Suddenly everyone needs to know what that phrase means and why we use it.

Death is persistent in the news this summer. It is with us in the news from Israel and Gaza. It is with us in the news from Missouri and Los Angeles and the Ukraine. It is with us in news about earthquakes and hurricanes. It is with us in news about murders and suicides. So Jews are saying “Baruch Dayan emet” more often, and hearers are going to the Net to find out what that means.

I think I need to post about some phrases for rejoicing, just so that those explanations are waiting for their moments, too.


Blogging While Black: Yeah, It’s a Thing.

August 19, 2014

 :לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ

Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor. – Lev. 19:16

Yesterday, I posted a link to a blog post by Michael W. Twitty from Afroculinaria.com. He titled it #Ferguson: My Thoughts on an American Flashpoint, and it is a moving piece. It began with an image someone sent via Twitter to him: a racist manipulation of the image of Michael Brown’s dead body lying on the pavement.

I’ve received a share of hate messages via social media. They were nasty bits of Jew-hatred, woman-hatred, or fat-hatred, and occasionally a rancid mix of the three. But none were as violent, as personal, as those sent to my friend. I deleted them and blocked the source, if I could. Then I tried to push the image, or the words out of my head: easier said than done.

But Michael Twitty took this ugly, hateful, personal image and used it as a starting point to talk about the dignity of human beings. He made use of his own experience as an illustration, but it wasn’t “all about him.” He took a very personal attack and turned it into a lesson on social justice. It was a raw, truthful piece of writing, his hurt and anger quite visible in it, and it moved me to some serious thinking about what I was going to do about the dignity of human beings.

Tonight I learned that in the first 24 hours after posting the piece, Michael Twitty has received death threats in response. One message suggested that he should be lynched.

What has happened to us?

The names keep piling up: Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Ezell Ford, John Crawford III, on and on and on. What they have in common is that they were unarmed and unresisting when they were executed. They had no due process, no trial, no appeals. They were assumed dangerous because they were African American males.

Fifteen years ago, in Oakland, California, I attended a meeting about a couple of break-ins on my street. My neighbors, mostly elderly and white, talked nervously about “those kids from the high school.”  The police had given us no idea whom to blame for the burglaries; the assumption was that “those kids” were to blame. No one needed to say “black kids” – that was a given. We discussed the pros and cons of hiring a security service, since the Oakland cops were never seen on our street.

I was on the fence – private security? really? – when an elderly gent leaned over to me and whispered, “Don’t you worry, honey, I see any of those black boys on our street and I’ll shoot them before they get to your house.” My stomach twisted. My sons had friends that came and went from our house, some of them African American.

“Don’t you dare,” I hissed. “They’re my sons’ friends. I swear I will testify against you if any such thing happens.”

That decided my vote. Naively, I thought it was better to have a private security service than to have Mr. Green running around playing vigilante. In retrospect, I see that instead I was voting to PAY someone to play vigilante. They were still going to be a danger to any young dark-skinned man who came our way. The sickness in our society runs very deep.

[Added note: At the time, I thought I was being a nice liberal person, pretending not to notice that everyone in the room was talking about black men, until someone said “black.” I knew darn well what they were talking about, and I didn’t say anything until it was unavoidable. By making that choice I was complicit in their racist talk and behavior. Mea culpa. That was wrong. I will not do that again.]

News flash, America: you cannot tell if a man is dangerous by the color of his skin. And even if he IS “dangerous” in your opinion, he has the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that every other person has. Until he breaks the law, under the law he’s exactly like you and me. And if he does something to break the law, then he’s still innocent until proven guilty.

We in the US seem to be able to hold onto those ideas when a person has fair skin. We seem totally incapable of it when a person has dark skin. Heck, we don’t even want a dark skinned man to express an OPINION. Hence the horrible mail that Mr. Twitty has been getting since he wrote that post.

The Holiness Code in Leviticus 19 tells me that I may not stand upon the blood of my neighbor. Look where we are standing, America: our shoes are covered in blood.


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