How Lawmakers Failed Jacob Blake – Mother Jones

 

 

How Lawmakers Failed Jacob Blake

The decision not to charge the officer who shot him stems in part from weak legislation.

Jacob Blake Sr., father of Jacob Blake, holds a candle at a rally Monday in Kenosha.Morry Gash/AP

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Jacob Blake, paralyzed and still suffering from injuries, got a phone call on Tuesday afternoon from Kenosha District Attorney Michael Graveley with some news: There would be no charges filed against the police officer who shot Blake seven times in August, sparking massive protests in the city.

“Based on the facts and the law, I have decided not to issue criminal charges against Officer Sheskey, Officer Meronek, or Officer Arenas. This decision was by no means easy,” Graveley wrote in a report published later that day. In a press conference, he described the shooting as a “tragedy.”

The video of the shooting has been viewed by millions of people, and is difficult to watch: Blake, who is Black, walks toward the driver’s side of a parked car in a residential Kenosha neighborhood, with his children in the back seat. A white officer, Rusten Sheskey, follows behind him with a gun drawn. As Blake approaches the door, Sheskey grabs him by the shirt and then fires his weapon.

It can be hard to imagine how Sheskey’s actions wouldn’t warrant criminal charges, even considering the blatant racism of our criminal justice system. But District Attorney Graveley, in a roughly two-hour press conference, argued that pressing charges would be unethical because, given the state’s law about when officers can use force, there was no way he could win at court

Even after atrocious policing, even after a man is paralyzed, use-of-force laws around the country often make it very, very difficult to punish cops. In Wisconsin and most states, police can legally fire their weapons against someone if they have “reasonable” fear the person will otherwise gravely harm them or someone in the vicinity. And here’s the kicker: The law usually says police officers get to define what’s reasonable.

At the press conference, Graveley explained why police could successfully argue that Sheskey’s decision to shoot was reasonable under the circumstances, using evidence not visible in the viral video most of the country watched.

According to Graveley, the police had reason to be nervous off the bat: Three officers were called to the scene by Laquisha Booker, the mother of Blake’s children, who told a 911 dispatcher that Blake had grabbed the keys to her rental car and was trying to take their kids away from her, according to a recording of the call played at the press conference. The officers knew that Blake had a felony warrant for alleged domestic abuse and sexual assault. When they arrived at the scene and tried to arrest him, a physical confrontation ensued—Blake says the officers punched him and dragged him to the ground, and the officers say he resisted their orders. At one point during the struggle, Blake was on top of Sheskey on the ground, according to a second video. Officers tried to stun him with a taser, but he tore the prongs out.

In the video footage, it looks like Sheskey then shot Blake seven times in the back. But according to the district attorney, two police officers and citizen witnesses told investigators that before the shooting began, Blake started turning toward Sheskey and made a motion with his knife hand; this allegation couldn’t be confirmed in the video because the camera view was obstructed by the car door and another officer. A medical examiner later concluded that Blake was shot four times in the back but also three times on his left side, adding some corroboration to the allegation that he turned.

Ray, the independent police expert, concluded it was reasonable for Sheskey to fear that Blake was trying to stab him at that time. Blake denies this allegation and says he was simply trying to put the knife back into the car. “They didn’t have to shoot me like that,” he said in a statement later, published in the district attorney’s report. “I was just trying to leave and he had options to shoot my tires and even punch me, tase me again, hit me with the night stick.”

If you asked many people on the street, they’d probably say it’s unreasonable for a cop to follow behind a man who is walking away, grab him by the shirt, and proceed to fire multiple shots into him at close range while his children watch from the back seat. But our laws are set up so that it doesn’t really matter what most people think: It matters what a police officer decides is a reasonable fear. And in a racist society where Black people are too often viewed as threats, police will almost always be able to come up with some justification for why they were afraid and believed they had to shoot.

Prosecuting cases like this will require states to change their use-of-force laws, so that officers don’t have so much power to define what’s reasonable. Until that happens, law enforcement will regularly get away with shooting people, including those sleeping in a car or at home on a couch, when it might have been possible to deescalate the situation instead. Officers continue to get away with violence because it’s not very hard to come up with a reason why they thought someone would harm them, especially when the law doesn’t require them to prove that they were correct or that the person was actually a threat. “Without any new rules from the legislature, we’re going to have this problem again and again,” says Farhang Heydari executive director of the Policing Project at the NYU School of Law. “We saw it in Breonna Taylor’s case, Eric Garner’s case, with Tamir Rice. It will happen over and over again until legislators step up and enact clear rules around force.”

It’s possible to change these use-of-force laws, which often differ from state to state and even city to city. California recently amended its statute so that an officer can only legally shoot if it’s “necessary,” rather than “reasonable,” to protect against an imminent threat of death or serious injury. But even there, it’s hard to predict whether the statute will bring justice after future police shootings, because California lawmakers didn’t define what “necessary” means in the law, again potentially leaving some room for discretion among police officers.

More than half of states considered legislation last year dealing at least in some way with police use of force, and at least several focused on deadly force. But many of the bills didn’t go as far as some criminal justice reform activists would hope. Delaware’s attorney general has pushed to reform her state’s law, but her proposed changes wouldn’t even go as far as California’s did: Delaware’s statute currently allows deadly force if an officer believes he or she is in danger. The attorney general wants to reform the law merely to specify that it must be a “reasonable” belief—which brings us back to the problem in Wisconsin and many other states.

The Policing Project’s Heydari recommends that new laws require officers to take deescalative steps, and to only use force as a last resort, limiting the types of response depending on the situation. Fair and Just Prosecution, an advocacy group that works with district attorneys, recommends a ban on deadly force against suspects who are fleeing.

Under the Biden administration, the federal government could step in to encourage these changes. The Justice Department, which may soon be led by US Circuit Judge Merrick Garland, Joe Biden’s nominee for attorney general, could set a national guidance on when it’s acceptable for officers to use lethal force. The agency or Congress could also require states to follow this guidance in order to receive federal funding for training or other programs. Biden’s pick to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Kristen Clarke of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, formerly prosecuted police brutality at the department. She supports efforts to scale back law enforcement and invest more in social services, and has encouraged the federal government to stop funding agencies with a long history of violence and racism.

In terms of Blake’s case, federal prosecutors at the Justice Department and a US attorney’s office are now conducting a civil rights investigation and could later decide to bring federal charges. The Justice Department could also launch an investigation into the Kenosha Police Department and push for a consent decree that would require reforms.

“Now our battle must go in front of the Congress, it must go in front of the Senate,” Blake’s father, Jacob Blake Sr., told reporters Tuesday after the district attorney’s decision not to file charges locally. One of Blake’s attorneys, Benjamin Crump, said they would press forward with a civil rights lawsuit. “It is now our duty to broaden the fight for justice on behalf of Jacob and the countless other Black men and women who are victims of racial injustice and police brutality in this country,” he said in a statement.

“We’re going to talk with the Speaker of the House, Speaker of the Senate,” Blake Sr. added. “We’re going to change some laws. Some laws have to be reckoned.”

Race for Profit | Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor | University of North Carolina Press

Race for Profit uncovers how exploitative real estate practices continued well after housing discrimination was banned. The same racist structures and individuals remained intact after redlining’s end, and close relationships between regulators and the industry created incentives to ignore improprieties. Meanwhile, new policies meant to encourage low-income homeownership created new methods to exploit Black homeowners. The federal government guaranteed urban mortgages in an attempt to overcome resistance to lending to Black buyers – as if unprofitability, rather than racism, was the cause of housing segregation. Bankers, investors, and real estate agents took advantage of the perverse incentives, targeting the Black women most likely to fail to keep up their home payments and slip into foreclosure, multiplying their profits. As a result, by the end of the 1970s, the nation’s first programs to encourage Black homeownership ended with tens of thousands of foreclosures in Black communities across the country. The push to uplift Black homeownership had descended into a goldmine for realtors and mortgage lenders, and a ready-made cudgel for the champions of deregulation to wield against government intervention of any kind.

Narrating the story of a sea-change in housing policy and its dire impact on African Americans, Race for Profit reveals how the urban core was transformed into a new frontier of cynical extraction.

Source: Race for Profit | Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor | University of North Carolina Press

Why Race Matters in the Government Shutdown

COLORLINES NEWS FOR ACTION

Why Race Matters in the Government Shutdown

 

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) arrives for a Republican Conference meeting at the U.S. Capitol September 30, 2013. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

by Imara Jones

Tuesday, October 1 2013

The shutdown of the federal government which began at midnight today is a body blow to our economy that could prove difficult to bear. Coming on the heels of the automatic budget cuts of sequestration, which are already forecast to cost 750,000 jobs this year, and three years of an anemic economic recovery, the furlough of almost a million federal workers is just not what the economy needs right now. The shutdown was touched off by a Senate vote yesterday to turn down a measure that would have kept the government operating for 10 weeks in exchange for a one year delay in Obamacare.

Given that the federal government contributes one out of seven dollars to annual economic output by making critical investments in key areas such as health, education, food security and housing, it will be hard to find an American who won’t be touched by this freeze in government activities, especially if it lasts for more than a few short days.

As the parts of the government affected by the shutdown disproportionately impact economic opportunity programs for the working poor, historically marginalized communities are likely to the feel the effects of a shutdown acutely as time goes on.

What’s particularly distressing about the shuttering of the government is that it comes at a time when unemployment remains in the double digits for blacks and Latinos. As the Center for American Progress points out, federal, state and local governments since 2008 have eliminated 750,000 public sector jobs. Given unionization and strong anti-discriminatory hiring practices, people of color are more likely to have jobs in the public sector. This is particularly true for African-Americans, and it’s why joblessness remains so stubborn in communities of color.

The truth is that people of color represent a larger proportion of the federal workforce than the workforce overall. According to the Washington Post, 35 percent of federal workers are non-White versus 30 percent of all workers.  This means that a shutdown will only add to the economic woes and employment worries in communities of color.

To be clear, not all of the more than four million federal workers will be told to stay home. Men and women in the armed forces make up close to half of all those on the federal payroll. Given special legislation to exempt them from the shutdown passed by Congress yesterday, they will be on the job and receive pay.

But over 800,000 of the remaining two million civilian workers will be barred from work. Those deemed “essential” to maintain the “safety of human life or protection of property” in critical positions will work but not receive pay. Either way, the bottom line is that two million Americans and the families that rely on them will not receive a paycheck during the period of the shutdown.

The key question though is “how much of this will really hurt?” The answer depends on how long it goes on.

If the federal government is up and running by the end of next week, the impact will be minimal. But should it last for more than 10 days or so, it will begin to bite.  Economic forecasts underscore the point.

As Bloomberg reports, Mark Zandi, former economic advisor to John McCain and chief economist at Moody’s, calculates that a shutdown of a few days would be negligible, but one of two weeks would cut economic growth for the last three months of this year by 10 percent. Any longer than that and the economy would be on its way back to recession.

Adding to the potential pain and uncertainty of it all is the sheer scale of government activities that will be curtailed, each touching on vital areas of economic life necessary for the country to function. With guidance from agency submissions to the White House, here’s a sampling of the way things could look if the shutdown persists into next week.

Health needs delayed: The 110 million Americans already in Medicare—the government health program for the elderly—and Medicaid—the federal and state partnership to provide health insurance to the working poor and their children—will continue to receive the services and treatment that they need. However new applications to these programs will be delayed until the government reopens.

Impaired ability to fight disease: The Centers for Disease Control will scale back the monitoring of the spread of infectious diseases and the National Institutes of Health will do the same for critical research into life-saving treatments until the lights come back on.

More people hungry:  The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps, will continue to provide its $33 of weekly assistance to the 48 million Americans who currently receive it. However, the Women Infants and Children Program (WIC)—which covers seven million children and infants, and their mothers—will temporarily end. The program will restart once the government reopens.

Poor kids set back: Funds for the one million children in Head Start will technically expire today, but only a smattering of locations will be forced to immediately close their doors. However, more programs will run out of money and come under pressure the longer this goes on. The same is true for Title I education grants, which provide badly needed assistance to 20 million children in the nation’s poorest school districts. Also, review of new student loan and federal grant applications will be delayed.

Housing at risk:  The Federal Housing Administration, which underwrites four out of every 10 mortgages in the United States and is crucial for working families entering the housing market, will not process new home loans during an extended shutdown. Housing vouchers for the working poor and the homeless will also be at risk the longer this goes on.

More immigration delays:  Border patrols and enforcement will continue during the shutdown, but new visa and citizenship applications will be stalled until the government is back to work.

The essential point is that the partial closing of the government is potentially a huge setback for both the broader economy and economic justice at a crucial moment.

Though Congressional Republicans and their allied tea party organizations don’t see it that way.

Former Republican vice chairman and head of the American Conservative Union, Al Cardenas, told the Center for American Progress’ Thinkprogress blog this past weekend that he was “convinced” that there “would not be” any negative economic fallout from the shutdown. If the government is closed for a just a few days, he might very well be right.

But as I argued last week, the GOP and tea party outlook on a government shutdown is not about economic evidence, it’s about advancing an overall ideology. Until that changes, millions of Americans might very well have reason to worry.

http://colorlines.com/archives/2013/10/how_the_government_shutdown.html