The Politics of Not Knowing. The Case for Eric Garner and the Issue of the Justice System

The last days of protests over the decisions of the grand jury to not indict the police officer implicated in the death of Eric Garner is reminiscent of the civil rights movement. But back then there was a greater correspondence of words to actions. Today it is necessary to break the link between the judicial system and the police, and reform the courts to restore America's confidence (Leggi in italiano)

For three nights demonstrators surged through the street beneath my window until after midnight, followed and preceded by police, on foot and in vans, in numbers that often seemed to out-number the protesters.  The instincts and anger that wore out my shoe leather back in the “classic” days of the civil rights struggle in America almost made me go downstairs to join the protest.  Almost.  

But there was a difference.  The difference was not just the manichean simplicity of those older struggles, when the good guys and the bad guys seemed so easy to identify.  There was also a difference in what we knew.  We knew what the actions of those involved meant because they told us and what they said matched their actions, for good or evil.  There were no closed rooms hiding crucial secret dramas.

On the sidewalks of the city now one is surrounded by folks who claim to know.  They know whether the stranglehold cop was a racist.  They know whether he knew whether he had anything to fear from Eric Garner.  They know the details of the deadly confrontation in Ferguson, Missouri, and they know what was in the minds of the protagonists. 

They do not, of course, know these things (as shown by the different conceptions held by different sectors of those who claim to know) but they are forced to substitute their prejudices and preconceptions for the facts because the judicial and political systems have kept the facts from them.

In this day of surveillance cameras and cell phones, we have organized ourselves to prevent such devices from being a source of accuracy, justice, and, as the end product, a source of civil harmony.

And our politicians are hiding behind this system.  Does anyone seriously believe that three days of training courses (probably repeating bromides all cops have already heard in their training) will change a police culture?

What is missing here, of course, is the confidence of our citizens that the systems will produce justice.  We ask them to await the outcome of the machine of justice, which should produce sure punishment of offenders, because the alternative is lynch mobs.  Our black citizens know about those.  But any call for patience and confidence was utterly destroyed by the stunning coincidence (yes, bad luck played a role here) of two grand juries declining to send the cases before them on to the stage of an open trial in the short space of just a few days.  In anticipating what the outcome of the grand jury sessions would be, the doubters and demagogues were proven disastrously correct.

Their prediction was not difficult.  Sad to say, Italians are especially capable of understanding what went wrong.  They have gone through two decades of calls for judicial reform, and the number one item on reformers’ lists have been the “separation of professions”.  Many other faults in the Italian system will not be effectively corrected so long as the magistrate in the role of prosecutor (p.m.) is a close colleague from the same professional pool as the magistrate in the role of judge.  The defense attorney is an outsider with the odds stacked against him by cronyism.  

In this country, grand juries are characterized by a different set of cronies, but with the same destructive effect on justice.  Prosecutors are friends and allies of the police,  They need the police to do their job.  They need the compliant attitude of cops who believe that they and the prosecutor are engaged in teamwork.  So when the defendant in a grand jury hearing is a cop, it is impossible to expect a fair and rigorous prosecution.  The prosecutor would be cutting his own throat.  

It is not too much to say that no politician should be considered honestly intent on producing a more just enforcement by the police who does not address the problem of the grand jury system which, is in many instances, an asset for the achievement of justice.  In the face of howls from the police union, the serious reformer cannot avoid calling for a system in which, in these cases, the prosecutor is an independent outsider.  Accompanying this, for the sake of both the police and those they confront, must be the publication, with some detail, of the findings of the grand jury that led it to decide to prosecute or not.  (Such explanations, motivazioni in Italy, are required in some states, but not in others, such as New York.)

These reforms (along with good professional training and sensitivity to the community in the recruiting of police officers) won’t work a miracle in police-community relations, but there is no way to prevent repetition of the last few days without them.  

The experience of the son of La VOCE’s editor was a good one.  Professionalism and courtesy prevailed. That has always been my experience also, and I want a good police presence in my neighborhood. 

But I’m a white guy. 


* Former Director of Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of The Italian Guillottine: Operation Clean Hands and the Overthrow of Italy's First Republic (Rowman & Little Field, 1998).


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