Defending Who?

I hate a lot of things about the criminal in-justice system. One of the reasons I wanted to be a lawyer was to reform the system. I don’t think I’ll ever come close to actually doing that, but if I practice law one day, it will be as a public defender. I think people should be held accountable for their crimes against others, but not treated as less than human, either in prison or out. I absolutely agree with Michelle Alexander and the premise of her book “The New Jim Crow”: the criminal justice empire is modern day American apartheid. The other day, I tweeted my support for the prisoners in Pelican Bay who are enduring a hunger strike to protest their living conditions in prison. It looked like this:

while i’m not a prison abolitionist, i am for humane treatment. indeterminate solitary confinement is cruel & unusual.
7/18/11 7:53 AM


I tweeted this on the same day that this young black man was shot to death┬áby the San Francisco Police in the middle of the afternoon in the Bayview, a small but solid population of black folks: (WARNING: THIS IS VERY GRAPHIC – IT SHOWS A PERSON DYING IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STREET)






The original reports were that the young man was unarmed, running from the police because he didn’t pay his $2 transfer fare on the bus. The early reports, and certainly what was believed by the people on the street at the time, was that the police shot the boy for no reason whatsoever, simply because he was running. The scene, caught of course on cell phone video, was reminiscent of the New Year’s Day killing of Oscar Grant, and brought back to memory for all black folks (and I’m sure others) of the racial tensions between Bay Area Police and a small, but present, black minority population.

Evidence quickly came to light, however, that this young man’s death – 19 year old Kenneth Harding – may not have been the work of trigger-happy racist police. A witness – a black man – came forward with a cell phone video in which a small silver gun could be seen only 25 feet from where the man lay dying after being shot by the police. The police allege that the man shot at them first as he ran, and the video appears to confirm that there was a gun at the scene. He also had gun residue on his hand. The video also shows another man picking up the gun at the scene, perhaps in an attempt to hide it. Later, however, the police recovered the small gun. Witnesses have said that they saw the young man shoot at the police from a gun he held under his arm, and technology that measures gun shots recorded, at the time of the incident, a single shot fired, followed 2 seconds later by 9 shots in rapid succession, evidence that the young man got one shot off before the police took him down.

Furthermore, reports say that the young man was wanted as a person of interest in the murder of a woman in Seattle from just the week before, giving some credence to the idea that he would have a gun, and would also run and shoot at police in an attempt to not be apprehended.

The thing is, it seems that none of this evidence against calling the police racist pigs really matters to anyone. At first, there was this outpouring of anger coming from everywhere. My twitter timeline was filled with angry tweets about how unjustified this killing was, how the police are racists pigs, how wrong it was for them to just stand by and watch the boy die. I got emails from colleagues, the whiter the more angry, who in no uncertain words expressed empathy for black communities like the Bayview, and how it was now all too clear why certain communities can’t trust public institutions like the police, or even schools. But once people got more information, instead of continuing the conversation, what did I hear instead?

Muthfvcking crickets.

This bothers me, despite my natural inclination to cast a wary eye toward the justice system. Why? One, because in my heart of hearts, I do believe that had this man been white, he would have been shot too. In my experience, living in a big city: You shoot at cops, you get shot. Period. The end. Would the cops have let him lay on the street and die? It’s hard to say, because I don’t know if the black folks in the community would have rallied around saying, “Fvck the police!!” and “Your career’s is over!” and “Where’s the gun?” Perhaps the cops would have been able to attend to him had there not been the making of a riot around his dying body. Would the mayor be forced into having a community meeting with the Bayview community about this shooting, of someone who is not even from the community, if this had been a white man where there is ample evidence that he shot at the police first? I doubt it.

And what really bothers me the most is this: Where is the outrage that this young man thought it okay to whip out a gun at 4:45 in the afternoon and start shooting in a crowded transit area? Where is the outrage that someone tried to cover up the real facts in this case, by removing the gun and shell casings, attempting to create more animosity between the people of this community and the police they desperately need to protect them against their own people who are trying to destroy them? Why are we not thanking the police department 1) for trying to keep Muni fares low by making sure everyone pays like they are supposed to and 2) for shooting a man who had no such regard for anyone else’s life as evidenced by him pulling a gun to save HIMSELF in the middle of the damn afternoon?

Why does someone have to die – and in this case, perhaps “justifiably” because police must protect themselves in order to protect us and our children – in order for us to rally and hold folks accountable, including ourselves?

While I understand the hurt and pain of the long legacy of police brutality in this country, sometimes wrong is wrong. That’s what we should be teaching our children, no matter what color they are. I was so glad my children were far away from our morning ritual of watching the news Monday morning. I couldn’t have them see Black people yelling at Black cops while a Black man lay in the middle of the street dying because he pulled out a gun and shot at police. So much is so incredibly wrong with that picture, both on the surface and below it.