† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
Defiant Displays of White, Patriarchal Power
by Kay Whitlock
They have everything to do with the countless ways in which the exercise of white, patriarchal political, social, and economic power in the United States masquerades as “justice.” Sometimes the displays of that power are particularly defiant: actions taken and decisions made and implemented to remind us that no matter what reforms are enacteded, white, patriarchal power remains intact. It is often deadly, and without serious consequence: it is meant to warn, intimidate, intensify punishment, and silence: If you’re not careful – or lucky – this could happen to you.
Those who exercise or authorize this force are seldom held accountable for the harm they inflict on so many in any meaningful way. We need not rely on conspiracy theories to take note of these things; they are, in this so-called “colorblind” society, conscious as well as (sometimes unconscious) reflexive manifestations of supremacist ideology that have informed U.S. history since the days of colonial contact and the structural violence of chattel slavery. The messages: your lives don’t matter. We can do anything to you that we want to. Your lives continue or end at our discretion.
Those at greatest risk are people who are incarcerated and presumptively criminalized peoples: people of color, especially black people, and poor people.
White men (no surprise here!) inflict much of this harm. But white women and men and women of color may also internalize or otherwise accept the supremacist norms and aura of untrammeled authority that have always permeated policing, the criminal legal system, and the pursuit of safety and security.
And when this power is fundamentally questioned, challenged, or resisted, it ups the ante in violent ways – all under the rubric of safety and security.
For example: Marissa Alexander, Renisha McBride, Eric Garner and “Botched” Executions.
The mother of three children, Marissa Alexander, a black woman from Jacksonville, Florida, survived a beating from her husband –who has been arrested twice on domestic violence charges – so severe that she was hospitalized. In 2010, when her husband attacked her (his two sons were also present), Alexander fired a warning shot into a wall; it injured no one.
Despite this attempt to defend herself, and despite her estranged husband’s acknowledgement of his own aggression, Alexander was denied the right to invoke Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law in order to obtain immunity from prosecution. In 2012, she was tried, convicted, and sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 20 years on three accounts of assault with a deadly weapon – the sentences to run concurrently rather than consecutively.
In 2013, in response to Alexander’s legal challenge, the guilty verdict was overturned and a new trial ordered. The judge, the appellate court said, had erred in shifting the burden to Alexander to prove she had been battered. But Alexander was not free; she remained in increasingly restrictive house detention. State Prosecutor Angela Corey then announced she was seeking a 60-year sentence for Alexander; conviction on each count, she says, must run consecutively, tripling the mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years.
In effect, this would sentence Alexander to prison for life.
Learn more about Marissa Alexander here.
Join the movement to Free Melissa Alexander Now!
To place Marissa Alexander’s case in context, please read Beth E. Richie’s brilliant and compelling Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation.
When Renisha McBride, a 19-year old African American woman, knocked on Theodore Wafer’s door in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, sometime around 4:30 a.m. on November 2, 2013, she needed help. Hours earlier, she’d crashed her car into a parked car and was intoxicated. She was injured, dazed, disoriented, and on foot – and she required assistance.
What she got, when Wafer, a middle-aged white man, opened the door, was death. He fired his shotgun into her face through his screen door.
The Wayne County prosecutor charged Wafer with second-degree murder, manslaughter, and possession of a firearm; the trial began in late July, 2014. Wafer’s defense, built on the argument that he was merely defending himself, contends that “he had never been so scared in his entire life.”
Both prosecutors and defense attorneys say race has nothing to do with the case. In the meantime, Stand Your Ground laws now serve as a license (for selected people, primarily white) to kill (especially unarmed people of color).
On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner , black, 43 years old, a resident of Staten Island, died when an NYPD officer put him in a chokehold, a practice officially banned, but still used – sometimes even on pregnant women. Three other officers assisted their colleague, taking Garner to the ground.
What was Garner’s offense? One witness says Garner had broken up a fight, but the police, in accordance with the “broken windows” (racial profiling) theory of crime control, stopped him on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes. When Garner protested that he had no cigarettes on his person and asked them not to touch him, the police took him down, handcuffed him, and he died.
Cellphone video of the encounter captured the interaction and was widely distributed. Adverse media coverage ensued. Some police officers – in New York and elsewhere – felt they were unjustly victimized by the outcry against Garner’s death and claimed he brought it upon himself by virtue of being overweight, diabetic, and asthmatic. Oh, and suspicious (read: black).
Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, who continues to endorse “broken windows” quickly announced a sweeping review of departmental training and tactics; a senior police official noted that this would include expanded use of Taser stun guns.
Tasers, after all, are much safer than chokeholds. Right? Wrong. So wrong.
Bratton also noted that, in the wake of Garner’s death, he expects lawsuits to be filed. That’s become a predictable occurrence after notable instances of police misconduct in New York City. Civil lawsuits are one of the few tools available for civilians to use in seeking police accountability. A federal lawsuit may or may not be forthcoming, but in any case, lawsuits, even successful ones, seldom provide for meaningful accountability. For governments, as well as for corporations, the cost of the lawsuits and possible settlements are simply factored in as a business expense.
NYC Mayor Bill diBlasio, with Bratton at his side, says “broken windows” policing will continue.
When Joseph R. Wood was put to death in Arizona on July 23, 2014, it took roughly two grisly hours for him to die by lethal injection, as he repeatedly gasped for air. Reporter Michael Kiefer was among the witnesses. He described Wood’s death in this way:
“He gulped like a fish on land. The movement was like a piston: The mouth opened, the chest rose, the stomach convulsed. And when the doctor came in to check on his consciousness and turned on the microphone to announce that Wood was still sedated, we could hear the sound he was making: a snoring, sucking, similar to when a swimming-pool filter starts taking in air, a louder noise than I can imitate, though I have tried.
It was death by apnea. And it went on for an hour and a half. I made a pencil stroke on a pad of paper, each time his mouth opened, and ticked off more than 640, which was not all of them, because the doctor came in at least four times and blocked my view.”
State officials denied that there were any significant problems associated with the execution and said Woods couldn’t have suffered because he was comatose. What other witnesses heard, they said, was “snoring.”
Wood’s execution proceeded following a tangle of court battles over a stay of execution. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court permitted the execution to go forward, and Justice Kennedy denied an emergency request for a stay made by Wood’s attorneys during the execution.
Prior to Wood’s execution, Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the Ninth Circuit federal appeals court, made his view known that the countless controversies attending the use of lethal injection for legal execution could be readily solved by bringing back the firing squad.
And after the execution, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones did not inveigh against the death penalty in any regard, but only plaintively asked, “Why is it so damn hard to execute people?”
He may also have been thinking of horrific executions in Ohio and Oklahoma, also described as “botched.” That gives the impression that “normally,” these things are carried out smoothly, so smoothly that we need not be concerned about it. “Botched” is to executions as “rogue cop” is to police misconduct and “excessive use of force” (brutality).
As it turns out, of course, what many consider “botched” is actually more common than many of us would like to believe.
Toward A New Vision of Justice
How many times must we hear about women who are subjected to violence who are blamed for it – and then punished for resisting or defending themselves against abuse before we start recognizing this as chillingly common?
How many times must we hear about another person of color murdered in a “Stand Your Ground” killing by a white person who believes that the mere presence of even unarmed people of color is the presence of danger itself before we realize the conflation of color – especially blackness – with criminality is normative in a white supremacist society?
How many instances of police misconduct must we hear about – and hear described as the action of “bad apples” or “rogue cops”- before we recognize that this misconduct is actually structural and systemic? Especially misconduct and brutality directed against people of color, poor people, transgender people, immigrants, gender nonconforming people, and people with disabilities.
How often must we learn about “botched” executions, and shudder at them, before realizing that the state’s machinery of death is morally wrong, regardless of its efficiency or lack of same?
What passes for “justice” in the United States is actually a sentimental story of fairness and commitment to safety and security for everyone used to front for what is actually a shell game.
We have a choice: recognize the shell game for what it is, or settle for an inevitable intensification of a prison nation, a security state, that reinscribes in institutional and cultural life all of the racial, gender, class, and other supremacies that have existed in what is now the United States since colonial times. And does this in the name of safety.
Or we can help to support and ignite real, life-affirming movements for change.