For much of 2015, America was less than it could be.
Amid the anxiety caused by the ISIS terror threat and the resultant political crisis, xenophobia took root. Immigrants, people of color, and religious minorities were targeted as ugly rhetoric permeated our politics. The fear was exacerbated by December terror attacks in Paris, France, and San Bernardino, Calif.
But even as we focused on foreign dangers, domestic incidents caused old prejudices to rise like steam, until the conflicts between police and communities of color boiled over in a year of protest.
As a result, too many Americans saw 2015 as not a year in which justice was tone deaf rather than blind.
Perhaps 2016 will be a year in which justice comes to its senses. Perhaps in this New Year, justice will truly be available for all.
There were flashes of that kind of justice in America last year, and they came from surprising places.
Last April, when white North Charleston, SC, police officer Michael Slager shot unarmed black motorist Walter Scott in the back, a grand jury rightly indicted Slager on murder charges.
Likewise, former Eutawville, S.C., Police Chief Richard Combs, a white man who in 2011 shot dead an unarmed black man named Walter Bailey, faced murder charges last year. However, after two juries failed to convict him, Bailey pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and received house arrest.
Similarly, the trial and conviction of former Oklahoma City Police Officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who raped or sexually assaulted black women in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods over a period of six months, showed that police are capable of getting it right when they are investigating their own.
Unfortunately, those cases seem to be the exception rather than the rule.
In Chicago last year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his police department fought to keep secret a video that showed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald being shot dead by a police officer. When the video was released and protests erupted, Emanuel tearfully apologized. He then promised change.
Of course, change has been promised in many places, including Cleveland. But it was Cleveland that broke many hearts last year, because in Cleveland, the victim was a child.
Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy playing with a toy gun at a Cleveland playground in November 2014, was shot dead by officer Timothy Loehmann just two seconds after Loehmann and his partner, Frank Garmback, arrived on the scene.
The case lingered in America’s consciousness for all of 2015. Then, in December, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty announced that a grand jury had declined to indict the two police officers, despite the fact that America had seen Rice’s death play out on video.
“The death of Tamir Rice was an absolute tragedy, it was horrible, unfortunate and regrettable. But it was not, by the law that binds us, a crime,” McGinty said at a press conference announcing the decision.
If the law binds us to watch as a boy is gunned down by the very police force that is supposed to protect him, then the law that binds us must be changed. If the law binds us to watch the very prosecutors who are supposed to uphold the law, manipulate it to uphold a system that too often victimizes the most vulnerable among us, then it’s time to break those bonds.
Law, in fact, should never bind us. Instead, it should set us free. It should liberate us to be vigilant, to be deliberate, and to be radically committed to the pursuit of right.
In 2016, we need an America that reaches its full potential. We need an America where justice is applied equally. We need an America that faces and defeats its own demons.
Perhaps, with a New Year, we’ll finally get that America. But the only way to do so is to try.
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