What exactly would it take for the criminal legal system to hold a police officer accountable for harming a Black life?
Certainly, it was not enough for Rusten Sheskey, a white cop in Kenosha, Wisconsin, to pump seven shots at point blank range into Jacob Blake’s back as his three young children — ages 3, 5 and 8 — watched. On Tuesday, more than four months after the shooting, Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley announced that “no charge shall be filed” against Sheskey. Graveley added that no charge would be filed against Blake, who is now paralyzed from the waist down.
It was also not enough for Cleveland police to gun down 12-year-old Tamir Rice as he played in a park with a toy gun, as kids are wont to do. Six days before the Kenosha prosecutor’s announcement, the Justice Department declined to charge either of the two cops involved in Rice’s 2014 murder.
Nor was it enough for a New York City cop to choke the life out of Eric Garner for selling cigarettes, or for Louisville police to empty eight bullets into Breonna Taylor’s body as she slept, or for Sacramento law enforcement to fire 20 fatal rounds into Stephon Clark while he stood in his own grandmother’s backyard.
None of those examples of horrific police violence were enough to bring about consequences, because the criminal legal system does not require police accountability. Instead, it is designed to shield law enforcement from punishment at every level. Officers with tasers, billy clubs and military grade weaponry can plead fear and no matter how egregious the violence they have perpetrated, or however unlikely their story, this system refuses to mete out consequences. And in a criminal legal system that treats Blackness as a trait that justifies the killing of 12-year-old Black boys, so long as an officer can say he perceived that boy to be a threat, fairness and justice will always be in short supply.
In fact, the system is so busy punishing Black people, legally and otherwise, that it often can’t process real danger posed by white people. In August, just days after Shesky shot Blake, Kyle Rittenhouse, a white 17-year-old, crossed state lines with the explicit intention of using an automatic weapon to threaten anti-racist demonstrators who caused property damage. Video footage from that night documents police officers, who had otherwise spent their time terrorizing anti-racist protesters, changing their tone when offering Rittenhouse and other white militia members bottled water.
“We’ve got to save a couple, but we’ll give you a couple,” one cop tells the teen in the footage. “We appreciate you guys, we really do.”
Roughly 15 minutes later, Rittenhouse killed two protesters, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, and attempted to murder a third, Gaige Grosskreutz. After the shootings, the video shows Rittenhouse walking toward a cluster of police vehicles, the murder weapon slung across his chest, his hands up. The cops roll right past him in pursuit of protesters. Rittenhouse practically has to flag a cop down to get arrested.
Here seems about as good a place as any to mention that, after being shot in the back seven times by Officer Sheskey, not only was Blake arrested, he was handcuffed to his hospital bed for several days despite being paralyzed and unable to run anywhere.
Rittenhouse, who appeared via video at his Kenosha arraignment hearing Tuesday hours before the prosecutor’s announcement, has become a hero among right-wingers, who helped raise $2 million for his bail. (Actor Ricky Schroder reportedly helped put the funding “over the top.”) A popular shirt with MAGAts proclaims “Don’t make me RITTENHOUSE your ass!!!” All the best people, from the Proud Boys to Donald Trump, have had glowing things to say about the teen charged with five felonies, including first degree intentional homicide and first degree reckless homicide.
The people obsessed with law and order seem a lot less interested in the topic when lawlessness involves white vigilantism and violence against Black folks. Which, it bears noting, are among the roots of American policing.
In anticipation of more protests against racist police violence and our useless sham of a justice system, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers called in the National Guard to Kenosha Monday. The scenes of armed guards surrounding the courthouse, where temporary walls have been erected, are reminiscent of this summer, when uprisings swept the country, drawing backlash from violent racists, including Rittenhouse.
Since then, anti-racist protests have slowed, but the violence of MAGAts and the Proud Boys have flared and rolled across the country. Yet there have been no National Guard roll outs to control them—unlike the BLM protests from this summer—and police have repeatedly shown that they regard those groups as their rearguard.
The system protects the police, the police protect white racist vigilantes, and both, through the means at their disposal, enact racialized terror against Black people. These things keep happening not because there’s a flaw in the system that needs fixing but because they’re the results that this system was designed to produce.