We applaud New York governor Andrew Cuomo for temporarily instituting a special prosecutor to investigate tragedies like Raynette Turner‘s death, an unarmed civilian who passed away while in police custody. Without his executive order last month [PDF], we would not be paying attention to the unacceptable death of this mother of eight, who was arrested and held for two days without bail for allegedly stealing crab legs from a grocery store. After reading the responses from local politicians and community activists, we find it necessary to highlight the glaring questions we are left with after all of the congratulations and back slapping.
Is it reasonable to keep a visibly sick mother of eight in jail for two days because she allegedly stole food?
We are not in any way advocating theft, but we are advocating reason and perhaps a smidgen of compassion.
Why was the reaction of law enforcement to keep Ms. Turner in jail at the taxpayer’s expense, especially if the alleged crime only warranted a misdemeanor charge? When you compare the cost of manpower to transport, process, hold, and feed her to the costs allegedly incurred by the grocery store in question, do the numbers match? If not, then did she struggle or resist when she was being apprehended? Was anyone injured in the commission of her theft? Did she have weapons? Was she considered a flight risk or a threat to the community, perhaps?
If not, we fail to understand the public benefit of denying her a court date and bond. Could they not have sent her home for what is considered to be a petty crime? What about giving her information on local food banks, should she indeed be struggling to feed herself and her family?
We fail to see any logic whatsoever in the unusually cruel imprisonment of this woman. We do, however, see similarities with some recent and historic events. Nationwide, in states formerly considered to be “Free” (New York), “Slave” (Missouri), and “Border” (Ohio) before the end of the Civil War, we have seen over-policing, over-incarceration, and predatory taxation of Black people, similar to those highlighted in the Department of Justice’s report on Ferguson, Mo. So while the conversations about body cameras, special prosecutors, and community policing are needed, we must not forget that Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice were all murdered on camera, and video footage didn’t keep Sandra Bland out of jail.
The issues that led to these events and countless others are structural. Each one of these states has a long history of state-sanctioned violence against Black people written into law and code and upheld by the court, as was the case in Missouri’s Dred Scott decision. Each of them has a legacy of Whites rioting and terrorizing Black people, like what took place in Cincinnati in 1829 [PDF], forcing thousands of Black American citizens to flee to Canada and seek refuge. This is not to be confused with Blacks rebelling against state-sanctioned violence and racism in cities like Cincinnati in 1967, after enduring 7 White-led riots over a period of 138 years with little-to-no signals of real change.
Remembering this history will help us to do the politically unpopular work of identifying and deconstructing instances of institutional racism and violence embedded in our system. It helps us understand why these cities can have Black mayors, prosecutors, and police, and still suffer from the same issues, regardless of their region of the country.
As politicians make their declarations that #BlackLivesMatter, they must understand that this means they are agreeing to do this work and address these long-existing structural problems head-on.
So while we are encouraged there is a special prosecutor looking into Raynette Turner’s death, and while we do agree with Reverend Al Sharpton’s point that this will be the first case in which the governor’s executive order will be tested, we are equally discouraged when we hear that the special prosecutor on the case, New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, described the issue and objective as simply “a crisis of public confidence…” and “…If the public doesn’t have confidence, the system doesn’t work. So that’s what we’re out to restore with this process.”
As people who are affected by this crisis daily, we offer the following critique: The problem is deeper than a crisis of confidence. The problem is, at its core, the two-tiered justice system that has worked so well that as blind as Lady Justice may be, she accurately offers one type of justice for Whites and another way for Blacks (and flawlessly so, as she was designed to work). And, until we create a system that delivers justice to all people equally, this “process” as the special prosecutor called it, will restore nothing but the clear understanding that Black Lives Don’t Matter…Anywhere!
Erica Garner is founder of the Garner Way Foundation and the daughter of Eric Garner. Reggie Harris is the political director for the Garner Way Foundation.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty