The Invisible Killings

I went to a talk by legendary former South African jurist Albie Sachs the other day. He spoke about his role in bringing marriage equality to South Africa. Albert “Albie” Sachs was born in South Africa and early in his youth, he explained, he began resisting the racist apartheid government of his country. For his first offense, he, a white man, sat on a park bench reserved for “blacks and coloureds.” Later on, he went into exile and it was during this period that the government of his homeland tried to assassinate him by putting a bomb in his car. He survived, but lost his right arm and the use of one eye in the incident. After the fall of apartheid,  the legally trained Mr. Sachs was appointed to the South African Constitutional Court.

He said something during his talk that caused me to hurriedly scramble for my iPhone to scribble it down.

You can discriminate by rendering people invisible.

He would know. Apartheid rendered people invisible. Blacks could not live in the large cities, only in townships and Bantustans, places away from whites. Soweto is a township of Johannesburg. It is very dense and filled with shanties. Bantustans were the equivalent of Native American reservations, often located in parts of the country that lacked resources, such as water and arable land. Bantustans were meant to be semi-autonomous countries, but with no resources of their own, they depended upon a government that wished that they did not exist at all for basic needs.

The US has a long history of rendering people invisible. Native Americans are but one example. Blacks are rendered invisible, too, by their low representation in the media; by often being corralled into less desirable places to live, through lack of economic opportunities; and by lack of representation in the upper echelons of economic and political power. The presidency does not make up for lack of representation elsewhere.

The killing spree of black men by the police also has been made invisible, even in plain sight. Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown with no cameras in sight, only his account and the accounts of witnesses, which often contradicted each other. Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner by holding him in an extended chokehold. A video taping of the encounter showed the incident unfurl, but police argued that it did not catch the full context of the encounter. What context it failed to show I’m not sure. No officers, including Pantaleo, have been charged with a crime.

The killing of Walter Scott in South Carolina by now-former Officer Michael Slager would have followed a similar course had it not been for the video taping of that incident. Slager said he shot Mr. Scott in self-defense, after Mr. Scott had tried to get a hold of his taser. The video contradicted this account. It first shows Mr. Scott running and Mr. Slager taking aim with his gun and shooting him in the back. It then shows Mr. Scott being hit and falling to the ground. Finally, the video shows Slager picking up the taser from one location and walking it over to place it next to Mr. Scott’s dying body. Mr. Scott did not have possession of the taser until he was dead, in other words.

Slager had the full support of his department and the mayor of North Charleston, until the video came out. After the video came out, completely contradicting his official report, his department fired him and arrested him on murder charges. Mayor Keith Summey made this statement during a new conference:

When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. And if you make a bad decision, don’t care if you’re behind the shield or just a citizen on the street, you have to live by that decision.
-from NY Times

If only Mayor Summey’s words enjoyed universal adoption. The norm is that officers involved in the killing of black folks have protection and cover for their deeds. And all signs point to the system wanting to keep it that way. Feidin Santana filmed the Walter Scott killing and almost erased it. He feared that the police would target him for taping the killing. Had it not been for his courage, Michael Slager would probably still be a police officer and his killing would have gone unpunished.

Mr. Santana’s fears of police harassment are not unfounded. Ramsey Orta, the man who filmed the killing of Eric Garner, has been arrested several times by NYPD and is in jail currently. His family has also been the subject of extensive police interest (read: harassment) since the taping.

Meanwhile, a bill currently working its way through the Texas legislature would make it illegal to stand within 25 feet and video tape police while on duty.

While Mayor Summey has the right idea, that anyone who does wrong deserves to be punished under the law, the reality is that we do not live in a society where this takes place. We live in a world eloquently described by Justice Sachs, a world where we render a people invisible and practice discrimination against them at will.

© 2015, gar. All rights reserved.

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