Just Because a Thing is Legal….

I gave a version of these remarks at New Britain, CT’s  Ferguson/Staten Island solidarity march on Saturday. 

The crowd at Trinity on Main  in New Britain, CT for the "Journey to Justice" Ferguson/Staten Island solidarity march

The crowd at Trinity on Main in New Britain, CT for the “Journey to Justice” Ferguson/Staten Island solidarity march

There’s a lot of ferment in the nation right now. We’ve arrived at a moment in which we, as a nation, have an opportunity to make extraordinary change. It shouldn’t have required the police killings of two unarmed black men—Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY—but the nation is listening in a way it hasn’t listened in decades.

I say it shouldn’t have required these killings because people have been naming racism for decades. People in this room have been naming racism for decades. We’ve been naming racial profiling. We’ve been naming mass incarceration. We’ve been naming the failures of the war on drugs. We’ve been crying out about urban gun violence. We’ve been screaming about the race-based educational achievement gap. We’ve been demanding humane treatment and civil rights for undocumented people. And yet the nation hasn’t listened like it’s listening now. And thus we have an opportunity to make extraordinary change.

Of course, not everybody experiences this moment in that way. Quite a few people see what has happened—the murder of Eric Garner in Staten Island and the subsequent grand jury decision not to indict Officer Pantaleo; the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and the subsequent grand jury decision not to indict Officer Wilson—as completely acceptable. They challenge us:  “unless you were on the grand jury and reviewed all the evidence, how do you really know what happened?” or “Why do you think you can second guess a grand jury decision?” or “How do you really know what went on between that officer and that individual? Videos don’t tell the whole story. Eye-witnesses don’t have photographic memories. Their stories change over time.” We’ve heard this line of argument. And the people who make it can’t understand why we’re so angry. They can’t understand why people are protesting, why people are marching, why people are rallying, why people all across the nation are literally going into the streets, blocking traffic, shutting down interstate highways. They can’t understand why some—not many, but some—are looting and rioting and burning buildings to the ground.  They can’t understand.

To all those who can’t understand why we march, my message is this: Just because a thing is legal, doesn’t mean it’s moral. The St. Louis County grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Wilson essentially says he was legally justified in shooting Michael Brown at least six times—but that doesn’t mean Officer Wilson acted morally. And the Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Pantaleo essentially says he was legally justified in choking Eric Garner to death—but that doesn’t mean Officer Pantaleo acted morally.  It doesn’t mean that the institutions that trained, certified and supervised either officer have acted morally. It certainly doesn’t mean Michael Brown or Eric Garner deserved to die. Remember, slavery was legal. Segregation was legal. Countless Indian wars were legal (except when the US government violated its treaties—then the wars were illegal!) .The Trail of Tears was legal. Japanese internment camps were legal. Voter disenfranchisement was legal, and I’m deeply concerned that the Supreme Court has made it legal once again by gutting significant portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The War on Drugs is legal. Mass incarceration is legal. In some high schools putting students in cells is legal. All of it was or is legal. None of it met or meets any criteria for moral. That’s what we’re talking about: the gap between what is legal and what is moral when it comes to the lives of young Black and Brown men.  We have an opportunity to close that gap now. The nation has an opportunity to close that gap now.

No, it shouldn’t have taken two high profile police killings to bring us to this moment. But here we are. The nation, whether it likes it or not, whether it understands or not, is listening. We have an opportunity to make extraordinary change. And we need to take this opportunity. So, I want to make sure that none of you are here just for this march. None of you are here just for this one event, right? Today is just the beginning. Today is just the prelude. You, along with people in cities and towns all across the country, are going to come back, right?

Turn to your neighbor, look them in the eye, and assure them that you’re going to come back!

When the NAACP organizes community conversations with the police to find ways to improve policing in relation to communities of color and to build trust between police and those communities, you’re all going to be part of that, right?

And when the call goes out for advocates to fight for an end to drug free zones and an end to mandatory minimums for non-violent offenses in order to end the mass incarceration of people of color in our prisons, you’re all going to be part of that, right?

And when the calls goes out to transform our criminal justice system from one that prioritizes punishment to one that prioritizes healing, wholeness, treatment and public health, you’re all going to be part of that, right?

And when people organize not only for a $15/hour minimum wage but for the creation of real middle class jobs and real job training to help people secure those jobs, you’re all going to be part of that, right?

And when the call goes out to work on structures and laws that treat immigrants with respect and compassion, you’re going to be part of that, right?

And when the call goes out to work on the quality of education in our public schools, increasing graduation rates, increasing college attendance rates, decreasing in-school suspensions, and ultimately ending the race-based educational achievement gap, you’re all going to be part of that, right?

There’s a lot of ferment in the nation right now. We’ve arrived at a moment in which we, as a nation, have an opportunity, not only to end police violence against people of color once and for all, but to close that gap between what is legal and what is moral when it comes to the lives of young black and brown men. We’ve arrived. Now, let’s make sure we come back!

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