Equality and Liberty

  • February 13, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Christina Swarns, Director of Litigation, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

    *This post is part of our two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

     

    “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

    “I can’t breathe.”

    “Black lives matter.”

    These are the now ubiquitous chants, hashtags and mantras that stand as succinct and eloquent expressions of the current crisis in race and criminal justice.  They also effectively capture the struggle for racial justice throughout our nation’s history and embody a call to action.  Thus, “hands up, don’t shoot” reminds us that while some have the capacity to devalue and destroy life, a gesture of surrender can also become a symbol of strength.

    “I can’t breathe” speaks to the poignant frailty of human life and the way in which violence intended to silence can instead embolden the oppressed.  And “black lives matter” is a profound reminder of the important work that remains to be done in order to achieve true racial justice in our country.

    “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”

    On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.  Witnesses stated that Mr. Brown’s hands were up in surrender before he was killed.  Although this testimony later faced scrutiny and contradiction, the indication that a law enforcement officer responded to non-violence with lethal force struck a dangerously tender nerve that ignited a wave of protests across the country.  The public skepticism – and anger – about the criminal justice system’s treatment of Black people was compounded by the Missouri grand jury’s subsequent decision not to indict the officer that shot and killed Mr. Brown.

    This image of a White police officer using lethal force against a Black man in surrender is powerfully evocative of past events.  Almost 50 years ago – on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965 – state troopers in Selma, Alabama, violently assaulted 600 unarmed men, women and children who peacefully attempted to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to draw national attention to their fight to participate in the political process.  Law enforcement officers clubbed, spat-on, whipped and trampled with horses the protesters who had stopped to pray.

    Then, as now, this image of police answering non-violence with violence shocked and horrified the nation.  In response, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress about the importance of voting rights; the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. secured an order allowing the march to proceed safely; and the Voting Rights Act was passed in August of 1965.

    Thus, “hands up, don’t shoot” speaks to not just the police brutality currently plaguing Black communities, but also the power of collective, strategic organizing and legal action.

  • February 12, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Jennifer Taylor, Staff Attorney, Equal Justice Initiative

    *This post is part of our two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

    This country’s commitment to the jury system, enshrined in founding documents like the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, is rooted in the ideal that the people should play a central role in the enforcement of societal standards.  In reality, however, racial discrimination in the selection of juries is a longstanding and enduring feature of American criminal justice.

    Prior to the Civil War, laws and customs rooted in white supremacy largely restricted jury service to white men.  During the Reconstruction era that followed the war and the abolition of slavery, the 14th Amendment declared all natural-born Americans – including African Americans – citizens with all associated rights and privileges.  The Civil Rights Act of 1875 included a provision outlawing race-based discrimination in jury service.  And in 1880, the U.S. Supreme Court in Strauder v. West Virginia struck down a statute restricting jury service to whites.  This progress was short lived.

    Southern lawmakers soon stopped passing explicitly discriminatory jury service laws but continued empaneling all-white juries during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries using highly discretionary practices controlled by white officials.  In an era of racial terror –characterized by widespread lynching of African Americans – discrimination in jury selection allowed all-white juries to remain a standard feature even in largely black counties, empowered lynchers to exact brutal racial violence with impunity and no fear of prosecution or conviction, and rendered the Constitution’s promise of full citizenship a hollow guarantee.

    Judicial intervention was slow and inconsistent.  In 1935, the Supreme Court overturned the death sentences of the Scottsboro Boys in Norris v. Alabama because black people had been excluded from serving on the trial jury, but then in 1945 the Court upheld a Texas county’s token policy of including exactly one black person on each grand jury.  By the 1960s and 1970s, the Court adopted and consistently enforced a rule that jury lists and venires must represent a “fair cross-section” of the community.  In response, the method of discrimination soon shifted from the composition of the jury pool to the selection of the final jury.

  • February 11, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Jennifer Carreon, M.S.C.J., Policy Researcher, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, and Sarah Bryer, National Juvenile Justice Network

    *This post is part of our two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

     

    In the past decade, there has been a lot of good news in the field of juvenile justice reform – not least the series of four landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions that, beginning with Roper v. Simmons in 2005, recognized the developmental differences that separate children and teens from adults, including their lessened culpability and enormous capacity for change.  At the same time, most states have significantly cut the number of youth they incarcerate.  Between 2001 and 2011, the number of youth confined in the U.S. declined by 41 percent.

    What’s more, new data from Texas shows that incarcerating fewer youth and serving more of them in the community makes communities safer.  Since 2007, the state has closed nine youth prisons, even as the juvenile arrest rate fell to a 30-year low.  In a report released at the end of January, the Council of State Government’s (CSG) Justice Center analyzed 1.3 million individual case records spanning eight years and assembled from three state agencies.  CSG found that youth who were incarcerated were 21% more likely to recidivate than youth handled locally.

    But it’s not time to break out the champagne yet: In spite of a decade of reform, racial disparities are worse than ever.  A new national study looking at racial and ethnic disparities between 1980 and 2000 found that Black and Hispanic boys were far more likely to be sent to a secure facility than white boys for similar behavior.  In the U.S. in 2011 (the most recent year for which data is available), Black youth were incarcerated five times as often as White youth; Latino youth twice as often; Native American youth three times as often.  If we think of the juvenile justice system as a maze with pathways in and out, it’s clear that youth of color have far more pathways into the maze than White youth do, and they’re lucky to find a pathway out.

    Even in states where significant juvenile justice reforms have been undertaken, the ratio of youth of color receiving dispositions in juvenile court has gotten worse, not better.  In Texas – where the CSG report provides powerful evidence that youth justice reform has produced promising results – one sees disproportionate numbers of youth of color at every decision point in the system, and with Black youth in particular, who appear at almost twice the rate one would expect compared to their numbers in the general population.

  • February 11, 2015

    by Paul Guequierre

    Look almost anywhere and you’ll see the progress the LGBT community has made in its march toward equality. To the casual observer, victory may look to be in arm’s reach. Eleven years ago, Massachusetts became the first state to usher in marriage equality and now, with the Supreme Court denying Alabama’s request for a stay of a lower court’s ruling finding the state’s marriage ban unconstitutional, marriage equality is the law of the land in 37 states and the District of Columbia. And on top of that, the Supreme Court has finally agreed to take a marriage case this term, and we should know the fate of marriage equality in a few short months and many indicators point to victory. To some, the fight looks close to being over. Except that it’s not. Let’s take a look at Kansas for an example.

    This week Kansas’s Republican governor turned the clock back decades on fairness. Gov. Sam Brownback issued an executive order stripping anti-discrimination protections for LGBT state employees that former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius had put in place nearly a decade ago. Saying LGBT people should not be considered a protected class unless the legislature designates them so, Brownback has reopened the door to harassment and discrimination in the state workforce.

    If you’re surprised, you’re not alone. Polling commissioned by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization, found that a majority of Americans think discrimination protections for LGBT Americans are already federal law. The reality, however, is that  there is no federal law protecting gay and transgender Americans from discrimination in employment and only a handful of states have such protections. If that seems odd to you and you thought the fight for LGBT equality will be over this summer when the Supreme Court rules on marriage equality, think of this: in nearly half of the states a gay or lesbian couple will be able to obtain a marriage license and then be fired from their job for no other reason than being gay. And that’s not likely to change anytime soon.    

  • February 11, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    Most Americans are aware that black people in the South were frequently subjected to public executions by white mobs during the Reconstruction era, but the true extent of this practice was not known until very recently.  Yesterday, the Equal Justice Initiative released a report, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, which documents 3,959 lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1950.  The report is significant not just because it found evidence of approximately 700 more lynchings than previously recorded, but also because it reveals the true nature of lynchings and their effect on the African American community and society as a whole – then and now.

    The report notes that lynchings were not merely public hangings, but rather involved severe forms of torture, including castration, dismemberment, flaying and burning.  In addition, lynchings were not typically spur-of-the-moment acts of vigilante justice, but were celebrated events – ceremonious spectacles often attended by the entire white community of a town, including prominent public officials, and written about in the town newspaper.  Those who participated in lynchings did not wear disguises or cover their faces, but no white participant was ever convicted of murder for engaging in the practice.

    Importantly, EJI’s report investigates the role that lynchings played in society during this time, finding that lynchings constituted a form of racial terror used to keep black people subjugated.  A lynching victim was typically accused of a crime – often of raping a white woman – or of a minor offense such as speaking improperly to a white person or wearing a military uniform in public.  Then, without due process, he (or sometimes she) was ritualistically and publicly murdered.  Because the accusations were usually obvious pretense and because white perpetrators were never punished for their actions, lynchings had a deep psychological impact on the black community and also created a culture in which black lives were viewed as unimportant and not valuable.

    EJI Director Bryan Stevenson said, “[t]he geographic, political, economic, and social consequences of decades of terror lynchings can still be seen in many communities today and the damage created by lynching needs to be confronted and discussed.”

    Contact EJI for the full-length report or read the report summary here.