Victimizing Eric Garner’s Family All Over Again

We’re asking our grand juries whether someone broke the law, when what we really want to know is whether someone deserved to die.

Weeks before grand juries in Missouri and New York declined to indict police officers for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, my work as a current Soros Justice Media Fellow brought me to a meeting one evening at a church in South Los Angeles. There, I witnessed an approach to police-involved shootings that lies at the root of America’s polarized conversation about race and justice.

At the Bethel AME Church that night, a victims’ outreach worker from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office was answering questions about who is eligible for victim services. Those peppering her with questions weren’t just ordinary citizens. They were members of the Southern California Cease Fire Committee, a group of veteran violence-prevention activists working in LA’s most crime-threatened neighborhoods. And they didn’t like what they were hearing.

According to the DA’s representative, the list of who is ineligible for receiving victim services seemed almost designed to exclude many of the people they work with: anyone on probation or parole, anyone deemed uncooperative by police or whose crime wasn’t reported, or anyone who is seen as having contributed to the situation in which they got hurt. Those are big gaps in eligibility in the type of community where criminal records and victimization are both disproportionately high.

Then one well-known gang interventionist asked about a recent shooting by LA police officers of an unarmed, mentally ill 25-year-old, Ezell Ford. What about his family? “We won’t know whether or not we are able to service this family until that investigation is over,” the DA’s representative replied. Until then, the police report on Ford’s death lacks a checkmark in the box that indicates a crime was committed. No crime, no victim.

The Cease Fire members stared at her in silence. “Wow,” one man said. Just, wow.

Hitching victim services to the work of prosecutors and police, as most U.S. jurisdictions do, is no inadvertent bureaucratic choice. It indicates a mindset in which victims are good or bad, deserving of sympathy and help or not. Ultimately, it guides our definition of who counts as a victim at all. Those who report their crimes, work with the police, and are seen as believable and deserving will get whatever we’ve set aside to offer them (which still isn’t enough even at its best). The rest will mostly get the back of our hand, which is the sentiment we’re seeing—along with blatant racism—in all the talk about “thugs” like Brown and Garner who brought their deaths upon themselves.

Witness, for example, the chatter that Huffington Post justice reporter Ryan J. Reilly observed within hours of the Garner decision on PoliceOne forums, a gathering place for police:

Garner, “the criminal,” talked back and pulled away. Then he died. No crime, no victim.

The binary-thinking trap runs both ways. When I call criminal-justice reformers and tell them I’m writing stories about crime victims, I’m often met with an awkward pause. I know what they’re thinking. Supporting victim rights has long been synonymous with being tough on crime. Thanks to my colleagues in journalism and scare-tactic politics, the public is conditioned to see victims as law-abiding whites preyed upon by poor, urban people of color. Even though the reality contradicts those assumptions in nearly every way, the myths inform our beliefs about who commits and suffers from crime, and what they need in the aftermath.

In a recent report titled Bridging the Divide: A new paradigm for addressing safety, crime, and victimization, a coalition of victims’ advocates and criminal-justice reformers tackles this us-versus-them thinking head on. The report decries the “false choice” between, say, caring for victims or caring for young black men who find themselves in aggressive street confrontations with the police. And it urges a set of policies geared toward healing and prevention. It’s a promising sign that advocates from both sides are searching for alternatives to shouting past each other.

Perhaps what’s to blame for all the animosity is the very dynamic of an adversarial system. We’re asking our grand juries whether someone broke the law, when what we really want to know is whether someone deserved to die.

Would a different set of questions lead to a calmer, just, more reasoned outcome? Consider, for example, an alternative philosophy called restorative justice which asks the questions, who was harmed and what help do they need? These questions might not be totally sufficient to deal with a case as combustible as a fatal police-involved shooting, but their focus on accountability instead of punishment has worked to bring peace where ethnic hatred has torn societies apart.

Back in Los Angeles, next Thursday will mark four months since the death of Ezell Ford. The case remains under investigation. So far, at least, no crime has been found to have been committed. And so Ford and his family are not victims in the eyes of the law.

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No justice no peace

I am a 55 year-old white autistic woman. All through my childhood and into my adult years I was victimized by authorities first by being kept in the dark about what was going to happen to me. One example was being forced to try to live on sheltered workshop wages. I survived rape by a black man who only got simple assault charges. I suffered being bullied throughout junior high through job corps. The job search is also my enemy because it is a big waste of life.

I have no respect for an attitude that thinks that human beings are the only animals that have a right to live. That same attitude creates racism, classicism, and able ism.

The pro-lifers are also pro-war many times. They even want to force women who lives are endangered by their pregnancies to have the babies. Those seem to be the same politicians that support the military, prison industrial complex and environmental destruction. They also force austerity on the populace.

The war on drugs is just utter hypocrisy. Those same punitive people want to force mentally handicapped to take their toxic medications that make them sick and fat.

Human beings are flawed and so often act in ways that are impulsive and defensive. The poor are victims in every corner of our American culture and society. In a capitalist system, wealth creates the standard of worth. Those without it, i.e., selling cigarettes or stealing cigarettes, equals "trash." Discard. This is immoral, unjust and cruel and inhumane. The education of "public servants," a misnomer term, is the underlying problem as well as the hiring of individuals who are not suited for the job. A degree in law enforcement or a degree in healthcare does not necessarily entitle one to the sensitive job of "life and death" decision making.There are humanistic and personality qualities that a worker should possess to be qualified. I teach photojournalism in college and see immediately which students could manage that career successfully, however, many will go on to graduate even in their incompetence, and get jobs. We need to weed out those that are capable to serve humanely. A badge, a gun and a police academy certificate is not all that it takes.

I couldn't talk to the police! These white men get supported by the cops who know who they are but are not concerned as long as they are not being bothered.

Just to be sure my comments were not blocked, I'm saying we need real change in America we do not need a return to slavery.

This topic is so near and dear to my heart. Too upset to write about it. I'd rather cry and scream through an interview. CBS wanted to do a love triangle around the case. It was more a story of the mistreatment and lack of help for the mentally ill on both sides, lack of help for me as best friend of the victim because I wasn't family, lighter sentencing due to frailty of victim (actually I believe it could have been a premeditated hate crime to mentally ill), poor investigative practices, I was never questioned by district attorney or investigators regarding the case and offered my availability to work with them and told them what I knew (all evidence was not brought to light because I was not questioned), prejudicial judge and prosecution not properly doing job, No help in processing the injustices of it all while forgiving everyone anyway and praying for the best for the woman who killed and her family. She got 6 years added to her 2. I feel like she's my new best friend and wonder who's more in prison waiting to be free making the best of a bad situation.

I ran the Victim's Compensation program for a midwestern state for a while, and the characterization of the "perfect victim," created by lawyers and get-tough-on-crime folks screwed many deserving victims of all stripes over. The rape victim who needed an abortion was not provided relief due to prohibitions in regulations. The drug addict who was assaulted, stabbed and rendered incapable of living any kind of independent life was rejected because he had used "fighting words" to the effect of "fuck you, leave me alone," and the idea that anyone harmed by a police officer would have ever gotten reparations is simply laughable. It is a good program, I'd never say otherwise, but the baked-in bias and omissions are an appropriate topic for scrutiny.

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