A newspaper investigation reveals that in the USA Black Americans are more than twice as likely as white people to be unarmed when killed in an encounter with police.
The Counted, a project of The Guardian to report and crowdsource names and other data on every death caused by law enforcement in the US this year, found that 547 people had been killed by the end of June 2015. Black people killed by police were significantly more likely to have been unarmed.
If this were not bad enough, there has been a lag in addressing culpability. Public outrage over the deaths of black men at the hands of police in New York, Missouri and elsewhere has certainly spurred prosecutions. Police body cameras and bystanders’ videos have also helped bring cases. But, according to lawyers and analysts, even with this increase, only a small percentage of police killings result in charges.
Here is a case in point. It has taken more than a year for Jason Van Dyke, a white Chicago police officer, to be charged with first degree murder in the shooting to death of a black teenager. Charges were preferred twenty-four hours before a deadline by which a judge had ordered the city to release a squad-car video of the incident.
On 24 November 2015 the police officer was indicted for the killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, whom he shot 16 times. Sixteen times!!
As reported in The Guardian by Zach Stafford (“Chicago police officer who shot black teen 16 times charged with murder”, 24 November 2015), the police squad-car video shows the teenager armed with a small knife and walking away from several officers on 20 October 2014. Van Dyke opened fire from about 15ft and kept shooting after the teenager fell to the ground. An autopsy report showed McDonald was shot multiple times in the back.
The city of Chicago fought to conceal the video, even after the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune and a freelance journalist all filed freedom of information requests for its release. And ever since the death of Laquan McDonald, the Chicago police union and the lawyer representing the police officer have maintained that McDonald presented a “serious danger” to Van Dyke and other officers.
Van Dyke was the only officer of the six present that night who fired his gun. Since the incident, he had been on paid desk leave while federal and state investigations into the shooting took place.
Due process must be followed, yet what happened here seems to carry the stigma of the same deep-rooted racism that makes it unsurprising that many people accept at face value the histrionic words of certain US politicians (some of whom ought to be prosecuted for hate speech and incitement to violence).
The USA has a long way to go on issues of equality and justice before it approaches the vision of its founders: E pluribus unum (Out of many, one). The traditionally understood meaning of this motto, which appears on the Great Seal of the United States, was that out of many states (or colonies) a single nation would emerge. But then it came to suggest that out of many peoples, races, religions, languages, and ancestries would emerge a single people and nation.
Wishful thinking when Blacks, Latinos, immigrants, and refugees are assaulted verbally by presidential candidates and physically by law enforcers. As Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”