“A System Cannot Fail Those It Was Never Built to Protect” – Vann Newkirk

Ferguson burned.  But it never should have. And it was so avoidable.  And while the violence and arson are very regrettable, how much can we ask people to endure?  What burden must people carry when they have nowhere else to turn and no other outlet for the frustration resulting from crushing injustice that Ferguson represents everywhere in our nation?  And while Ferguson is clearly about race, let me suggest it is even more fundamental.  It is about a total lack of accountability.  It is unfairness personified.  It is a lack of justice.  It is about a white justice system and a black justice system.  But at its core, it is about a lack of accountability.  Our justice system has declared that police and prosecutors are not accountable. And our culture too often demands that people of color pay the bill for the lack of accountability and the abuses that result.  And the lack of accountability is not an accident but is an intentional part of the system – a system built only to protect some but not all.

Those in power must be accountable.   They must answer when they are intentionally wrong.  They must be held to the same standards, if not higher, that every other person must be held to.  Innocent people keep spending decades in prison because prosecutors hid exculpatory evidence or witnesses were coerced by police.  Young black men keep getting beaten and shot by the police.  And yet the police and prosecutors are almost never held to answer. 

It cannot be enough that the government writes a check to those who are wrongfully jailed for years or to the families of those who lose their lives. There must be personal accountability when there is an intentional wrong committed.  Everyone else in our society answers for misconduct.  If a doctor commits malpractice he risks his professional licensure. If he commits Medicaid fraud, he can go to jail.  If a truck driver is negligent, she can lose her license.  And if that truck driver runs people off the road to get the delivery completed faster, she will go to jail.  These individuals will be held accountable for their decisions. 

But people who literally stand up in the name of justice and who have the power to take someone’s liberty, who have the power to end someone’s life, are almost never made to answer to justice.  Not personally.  Not even when they commit the most intentional acts in violation of sworn oaths. It is claimed by the police and prosecutors that they could not do their jobs if they did not have this protection.  But that is an argument that is too easy to make and too easy to break.  If someone intentionally hides exculpatory evidence there is no benefit to the justice system, only harm.  If someone shoots an unarmed person there is no benefit to society in not airing that matter in front a jury where guilt and innocence can be measured with the eyes of the public watching. 

In fact, just imagine a system where there was personal accountability for these kinds of decisions.  Prosecutors would bend over backwards to make sure exculpatory information was turned over.  Police would treat everyone respectfully and only shoot when necessary.  Would mistakes be made?  Of course.  But they would be mistakes, not intentional acts of wrongdoing. 

Did the officer in Ferguson commit a crime?  I don’t know and I will never know because his case was handled differently, in a ‘justice system’ I have never seen.  He testified in front of the grand jury, in secret, answering friendly questions – a situation that is unheard for our clients. Eyewitnesses who disputed his version were cast as unreliable, again in secret proceedings.  This is not how a grand jury works.  Any prosecutor will tell you they could indict a ham sandwich if they wanted to.  Probable cause that a crime was committed is not a high standard.  An unarmed man was shot in daylight in the streets of Ferguson.  That is probable cause for an indictment.  Whether the officer committed a crime is a question for a jury to answer; a real jury, in a real courtroom, with the eyes of the community watching.  Because that is justice, and that is accountability.  But that is not what happened.  What happened is Ferguson burned because our system of justice does not hold everyone accountable and was not built to protect everyone.