I have just finished teaching Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird to the seventy ninth-graders I have in class this year. I love teaching that book. I love it because it allows me to talk with thirteen and fourteen year-olds about what it means to stand up for beliefs despite overwhelming odds being stacked against you. I love it because of the righteous indignation my students feel when Jem and Scout are stunned into silence by Tom Robinson's guilty verdict. I love it because it presents an obvious miscarriage of justice, a tragic example of the failings of our justice system when prejudice overpowers prudence, when ignorance controls indictment.
Tom Robinson's innocence is so obvious it is painful. The injury to his left arm makes him physically incapable of committing the crime he is accused of committing; the testimony of his accusers is filled with glaring inconsistencies and contradictions. Students gasp out loud when they read; they make angry annotations in the margins of their texts; they raise their voices in disgust. They act as diligent jurors sifting through the facts. The question of right and wrong in the book is as black and white as the defendant and plaintiff's skin. Students are shocked, and many of them talk about this racial inequity as something from our distant past. Then recent events in Ferguson and Staten Island turned the past into the present.
The case of Michael Brown is by no means as clear as the case of Tom Robinson. Michael Brown may have just stolen a pack of cigarillos from a local store, possibly engaging in a confrontation with a store clerk. Michael Brown may have, after being addressed for walking in the street, engaged Officer Darren Wilson in some form of altercation near his police cruiser. There is conflicting eye-witness testimony regarding whether or not Michael Brown grabbed for Wilson's gun, whether or not he charged at Wilson. Despite that, there is still a great deal about the grand jury's decision not to indict that is deeply troubling.
One of the most shocking moments in Harper Lee's story comes after Tom Robinson has been convicted (SPOILER ALERT. I AM GOING TO TALK ABOUT THE END OF THE NOVEL. IF YOU HAVE NEVER READ IT, STOP NOW AND RUN TO THE LIBRARY!). Trapped within a "justice" system that has wrongly convicted him, debased and judged by the color of his skin rather than the facts, Tom attempts to run from the prison yard, trying to climb over the security fence that surrounds him. Despite having only one good arm with which to climb, Tom is fatally shot by the prison guards. This moment inspires insightful and impassioned responses from the students in my classroom. Ninth graders can see, and are enraged by, the obvious use of excessive force. "Seventeen bullet holes," Atticus tells us, "They didn't have to shoot him that much."
Well, Michael Brown was shot twelve times by Officer Darren Wilson. Twelve shots fired at an unarmed man. The released documents from the grand jury include descriptions of two wounds (on his forehead and the top of his head) that indicate Brown was bent over at the waist at the time the shots were fired. While there is no clear definition of "excessive force," people agree officers should use the least amount of force necessary to control the situation. These are, after all, people we have trusted to walk among us with firearms for the purpose of ensuring our safety. I am not convinced twelve shots represents the minimum force necessary for Officer Wilson to protect himself from Michael Brown. I don't claim to know every detail of the situation, but I would like to have seen it go through a trial so we could find out.
Atticus, in his closing arguments, explains that "in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal." The grand jury's decision seems to indicate that is not so. If a black citizen shot an unarmed white man, he would go to trial. I wonder what would have happened if the officer was black and the unarmed victim white. I am not sure if the treatment of this case, the unconventional use of a grand jury, is an issue of black versus white, or an issue of police versus citizens. But I am convinced the field was not level. It was not equal.
Grand juries themselves are not normally used the way Robert P. McCulloch used the grand jury in this case. Normally, prosecutors provide a grand jury with a charge or a range of charges to be considered, but McCulloch offered not a single charge against Officer Wilson. Normally the potential defendant does not speak before a grand jury, but Darren Wilson testified for four hours. The grand jury process is supposed to be controlled by the prosecution; the defense is not part of the process. Despite that, Darren Wilson was given the opportunity to present his side of the story, to color the facts in his favor, to layer his story onto every piece of physical evidence. I don't believe that is the intent of a grand jury.
Today, I woke to the news that, even in the wake of Ferguson, another grand jury has failed to indict a white officer accused of killing an unarmed black man. I am as troubled by the message that sends to black kids in my classes, as I am by what it conveys about our justice system.
There seems to be less ambiguity in this case; all anyone needs to do is watch the video of Officer Daniel Pantaleo and the other police officers as they restrain Eric Garner. If you have not seen it, you should. It is unpleasant to watch, but important to see. There is no doubt Eric Garner is agitated and argumentative. He had been illegally selling cigarettes. He resists being handcuffed. But Garner never makes a move toward the officers before they attempt to subdue him. Garner never attempts to flee the scene. The force used by police is significant and sustained, even as Garner repeatedly protests that he can't breathe. Shouldn't a court of law decide if Officer Pantaleo overstepped himself by using a chokehold maneuver banned by the Police Department in 1993?
Daniel Pantaleo, like Darren Wilson, was given the opportunity to present his side of the story to the grand jury, telling them he did not intend to choke Garner, and expressing remorse for his death. His statements have somehow overpowered the obvious video evidence that should have led to an indictment. Watch the video and count the number of times Eric Garner says he can't breathe. The city's own medical examiner declared the death a homicide resulting from Pantaleo's chokehold. How is there no indictment? How does that man not even face a trial?
At the conclusion of To Kill a Mockingbird, as Jem explains his disgust and exasperation with Tom's guilty verdict, Atticus tells him something that concerns me more now than ever. "Don't fool yourselves," he says to his son, "it's all adding up and one of these days we're going to pay the bill for it. I hope it's not in you children's time." When I look at the civil unrest in the wake of these two decisions, I am concerned. As I have taught that book over the years, I have had such hopes that we would continue tracking toward a society that looks back at the story it tells as some cautionary tale of distant history. Now, instead, our nation is again focused on the conversation of civil rights. The deep rifts of history are cracking open in protests around the country.
I find myself understanding why people are taking to the streets. I understand why people are yelling. While I don't condone the violence, I understand why tempers, and even fires, flare. I hope the Justice Department's promise of a civil rights investigation provides better results. I hope people can embody Atticus' level headedness and combat this issue with protests and conversations rather than riots and fists. I hope that next year, when I study this novel with eager young students again, I can still tell them how much progress has been made, how far we have come, how distant that ugly chapter of history really is. I hope the emerging pattern of injusticies toward black young men in this country gets the consideration it could not hope for in 1930s Alabama.
Shortly after I wrote this piece, I read a letter written on the subject that had been published in The Courier Post. The racist undertones were disturbing to me. Here is the letter I wrote in response. Courier Post Letter