Sturm: Baltimore and our new civil-rights struggle
“If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit” is perhaps the most famous closing argument in American criminal-justice history. Decisive in rendering a not-guilty verdict for O.J. Simpson, it also summarizes our free society’s reliance on due process and proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
So that no innocent defendant is wrongly convicted, a guilty defendant may occasionally go free — such as Simpson, who was later found liable by a civil jury applying a lower standard of proof.
Reflecting on the criminal trial’s not-guilty verdict, several jurors conceded that though they thought Simpson was guilty, the prosecution failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, hampered by suspicions that police tampered with evidence. To African-Americans, the Simpson verdict leveled the justice system’s playing field; to others, it was a miscarriage of justice.
Two decades later, despite pervasive African-American political power throughout society and into the White House, race relations are tense and perceptions of justice diverge. Fueled by the tragic deaths of young black males after run-ins with law enforcement, protestors proclaim “no justice, no peace” while demanding that authorities Think Again about upholding due process.
Like Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore raged after last month’s mysterious death of Freddie Gray while in police custody — not without justification. Baltimore’s corruption and incompetence-plagued Police Department appear to have denied Gray the presumption of innocence and due process.
Now under the spotlight, a once-vibrant and safe Baltimore has become a synonym for mismanagement, catastrophic institutional failure and societal collapse, like much of big-city America. Neither afforded due process or their just due, many residents languish in cesspools of poverty and despair despite per-pupil educational expenditures and a social safety net that far exceed national averages.
After decades of ever-increasing taxes and spending — and a cronyist system that rewards the politically connected while blocking public-sector reforms, though claiming to protect the poor — Baltimore is a tale of two cities where the privileged few are enriched at the expense of the disenfranchised many.
In America’s fifth-most deadly city, the unemployment rate exceeds the national average by 50 percent, and 1 in 4 Baltimoreans lives in poverty — a rate 250 percent higher than in 1960, before the $20 trillion “War on Poverty.” Gray’s blighted neighborhood suffers even greater poverty, fatherlessness, school dropouts, unemployment, crime and dependency.
It’s a miscarriage of justice — and the civil-rights struggle of our time — that the wealthiest and most generous country on earth contains pockets of destitution and immiseration, where millions are deprived of the dignity and fulfillment of work.
Sparked by Gray’s death, legitimate frustration morphed into lawless rage, as looters and arsonists became the threat officials are elected to thwart. Yet, rather than uphold her duty to safeguard the equal rights and property of all residents, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake asked the police to “give those who wished to destroy, space to do that.”
Unfortunately, when rioters believe they can misbehave without consequence, order is lost and job-creating businesses — many black-owned — flee. To curb the mayhem last week, Chief Prosecutor Marilyn Mosby announced the arrest of six police officers, including three for manslaughter and one for second-degree murder. “To the youth of this city,” Mosby proclaimed, “I will seek justice on your behalf.”
Famed civil-rights lawyer Alan Dershowitz called the indictments “crowd control,” not justice. “Under our constitution,” he explained, “the only people entitled to justice are the defendants,” not the victim or community. Given the abandonment of procedural justice, Dershowitz predicts acquittals — and more rioting.
However satisfying, O.J.-type verdicts won’t solve urban America’s plight, nor will pouring more money into failed government institutions. But kids can overcome the real source of their angst — opportunity and values deficits — by following a three-step plan: Graduate high school, get a full-time job and wait until 21 to marry and have children.
“Our research shows that of American adults who followed these three simple rules, only about 2 percent are in poverty and nearly 75 percent have joined the middle class,” the Brookings Institution’s Ron Haskins wrote. They’re also less likely to require due process in criminal court, though there’s no guarantee, considering O.J.
To steer fatherless children toward opportunity’s three-step holy grail will take a village of mentors and a phalanx of moms — not police. Toya Graham became a national hero after retrieving her rampaging son so he wouldn’t “become another Freddie Gray.”
Graham’s plea is every mother’s hope, one that can’t be realized by government power but rather through a government that empowers. Politicians could begin by not condemning children to failed schools and by reforming the unfair system that enslaves innocents so guilty gatekeepers of union and other public-sector privileges reign freely.
Think Again — human history is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that without equality under the law and due process, there can be no liberty and justice for all.
Melanie Sturm lives in Aspen. She reminds readers to Think Again. You might change your mind. She welcomes comments at email@example.com.
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