On News One Now with Roland Martin, Hiram College professor Jason Johnson discusses a protest of Congressional staffers with protest organizer Kamau Marshall, journalist Lauren Victoria Burke of Crew of 42, and journalist Ray Baker.
As the first African-American president of the United States, Obama is supposed to prove America is post-racial, be the president of “all of America” and show a special empathy for African-Americans, all while battling institutional racism but not calling it out.
While these debates are largely philosophical and symbolic, the nationwide protests in the wake of the non-indictments of police officers responsible for killing Mike Brown and Eric Garner have shown that race can no longer just be an academic subject for presidents and presidential contenders.
The crowds marching across America protesting the ugly intersection of racism, law enforcement and economics are some of the largest, most diverse groups of protesters seen in American history. These issues are going to be laid at the doorstep of all serious 2016 contenders. So while many are grappling with the events of the last several months, we’re left to wonder: Where’s Hillary Clinton?
We all know that, barring some bizarre unforeseen event, Clinton is running for president in 2016, and it’s only a matter of time before she announces. She will not march smoothly to the nomination; there are questions about how much she connects with the middle class, her muddled book rollout this spring and of course, for those who still care, “Benghazi.”
But the most serious problem for Hillary 2016 is the perception that she’s an overly cautious politician who is afraid to take tough stances on anything, especially those issues the Democratic base might be passionate about. And nowhere is this more evident than in her almost utter silence on the recent protest marches across the nation.
Hillary Clinton took almost 19 days before she said anything about the violence and rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, and that was after Democrats and pundits called her out for her silence. At the time she said:
“Imagine what we would feel and what we would do if white drivers were three times as likely to be searched by police during a traffic stop as black drivers instead of the other way around. If white offenders received prison sentences 10% longer than black offenders for the same crimes. If a third of all white men — just look at this room and take one-third — went to prison during their lifetime. Imagine that. That is the reality in the lives of so many of our fellow Americans in so many of the communities in which they live.”
Which was fine, at the time — better late than never. Mind you, she slipped these comments in at a tech conference where the majority of her comments would focus on other issues.
Clinton seemed to have learned her lesson after a New York grand jury did not indict officers in the killing of Eric Garner. She only waited two days to say something about the result :
“Each of us has to grapple with some hard truths about race and justice in America, because despite all the progress we’ve made together, African-Americans, most particularly African-American men, are still more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to long prison terms.”
But again, these comments were tagged onto a speech she was giving at a women’s conference in Massachusetts and hardly echoed beyond the walls of the building where she was speaking.
While Republican 2016 contender Rand Paul can come right out and say police militarization is a problem and that the officer who killed Garner should be fired, Hillary Clinton talks about restoring “balance.”
While Obama is sitting down to do a serious interview about race, law and justice on BET, Clinton is doing events with Prince William and Catherine in New York. The point is that while other political leaders who hope to lead this country can take the time out to seriously address the longest-running protests in American history since the Montgomery bus boycott, Hillary Clinton sandwiches her comments in at the tail end of paid speaking engagements and keeps it moving. That seems a little tone-deaf.
And this isn’t the first time Clinton has shown this penchant for avoiding thorny cultural and racial issues on the not-quite-yet-campaign trail. She assiduously avoided addressing race in a town hall interview earlier this year on CNN. And one has to wonder if she would’ve said anything about the George Zimmerman verdict in the killing of Trayvon Martin if she hadn’t been giving a speech at the convention of Delta Sigma Theta (a black sorority) the night the verdict came in. She certainly hasn’t said much about it since.
If Clinton thinks she’s being smart by avoiding thorny race issues on the campaign trail, she’s making a huge mistake. Maybe Team Clinton thinks that whatever support she may lose in the African-American vote will be made up for by high turnout among white women.
The problem with that logic is that these protests from New York to Chicago to Detroit, to Cleveland, to San Diego, Los Angeles and even St. Louis are incredibly diverse. Take a look at the crowds in Times Square after the Garner verdict and you could see white, Latino, Asian, African-American, old, young and other demonstrators all carrying signs that read “Black Lives Matter.”
A new NBC News/Marist poll shows that 47% of Americans believe that the justice system applies different standards to blacks and whites. In other words, the people out there marching right now are the Democratic base, with a few independents and libertarians thrown in there for good measure.
This is the coalition that Clinton needs to win the presidency, and on the most important issue in decades she’s not only not ‘”ready to lead,” she doesn’t seem to have much to say, and when she does speak on these issues it’s always as an afterthought to some larger message.
America is being wracked by nationwide protests and thousands of Americans of all colors are questioning the fundamental fairness of the American justice system. Boycotts are happening, malls are being shut down and transportation all across America is being affected by protests during the biggest shopping season of the year, because many Americans are unhappy with our justice system.
No one expects Clinton to be out in Times Square marching with the #ICantBreathe hashtag plastered across her cheek. But if she decides she wants to be serious about being elected president of the United States, she needs to do more and say more than a few throwaway comments in the midst of her busy speaking and fund-raising schedule.
The foot soldiers for Clinton’s political future are out marching in the cold, marching toward the change they want to see in America. Clinton might want to catch up to them, because if she doesn’t, I’m sure Rand Paul, Elizabeth Warren or Andrew Cuomo would be happy to do so.
This article originally appeared online at CNN.com.
Hiram College professor Jason Johnson was quoted in the CNN.com article “Will the Eric Garner case change things?”
Not so fast, said Jason Johnson, a political science professor at Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio.
“Acknowledging something is wrong is not the same as doing something about it,” he said.
He said conservative pundits who have “cherry picked” the Garner case aren’t likely to stand arm-in-arm with protesters demanding reforms.
But what of the poll results showing more Americans take issue with the Garner decision?
That’s where Johnson sees change coming, but not with Garner’s death as the catalyst.
Political and demographic changes have been driving those changes for years, Johnson said, ever since the Rodney King case roiled Los Angeles and the nation after police officers were taped beating King as he rolled in agony on a Los Angeles street following a high-speed chase.
Trust in police has fallen in recent years, he said, citing poll results that particularly show a decline in trust among African-Americans. Meanwhile, the country has become more diverse.
Those changes will eventually force a change in how police do their work, Johnson said.
On Weekends with Alex Witt on MSNBC, Hiram College professor Jason Johnson discusses an NBC News/Marist Poll on white and black attitudes about law enforcement with Republican strategist Joe Watkins and NBC legal analyst Karen Desoto.
No one in the United States is actually surprised that a grand jury in New York City decided not to indict Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner. In the same way that few Americans, regardless of political leanings were surprised when Officer Darren Wilson was not indicted for killing Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, just over a week ago.
The proximity of these two rulings, and the subsequent protests and civil unrest that have occurred in their wake, however, is an opportunity for President Barack Obama to make lasting and significant changes in the fundamental principles governing the US. The question will be does he have the political capital to do it?
A chokehold caught on tape
Garner was killed in July during what was an unpleasant. but fairly typical interaction between minorities and police in the US. He was accused by local police of selling “loosies” or cigarettes in boxes that hadn’t been properly taxed and when he told the officers that he wasn’t selling them and was tired of being harassed, the situation turned grim.
He was quickly surrounded by several officers, and Officer Pantaleo put Garner in a chokehold and helped force him down onto the ground. Garner screamed that he couldn’t breathe but despite his protests police continued to hold his neck in order to handcuff him, and when it became apparent that he had stopped breathing, the four EMTs on the scene made no effort to revive him.
This entire episode was caught on video by a friend of Garner’s and its viral spread helped spur New York authorities to actually convene a grand jury of 25 New York citizens. The grand jury, however, decided that despite the visual evidence, and despite the city coroner declaring Garner’s death a homicide, that there was not enough evidence to warrant a full trial. Thousands of Americans of all ages and colours took to the streets in a series of spontaneous protests across the country.
It’s easy from the outside to look at these protests and assume that this is a dangerous and destabilising tipping point; that there is a new wave of violence against minorities that has finally reached a point of no return. This is not entirely true.
Violence against minorities, either directly sanctioned by, or tacitly tolerated by the federal government is the norm in the US, not an anomaly. From slavery to the massacre of Native Americans to rampant racial terrorism against African Americans, the US has not stopped its bloody relationship with violence and people of colour.
While African Americans only make up 13 percent of the population they account for over 30 percent of all police killings in 2012 alone. When you combine this kind of history with racial discrimination in sentencing, arrests, fines, jail time, where African Americans routinely receive longer, harsher and less lenient penalties than whites for the same crimes, it is hard to simply say that the cases of Eric Garner (or Michael Brown, or Tamir Rice or John Crawford) are new or isolated incidents. The US criminal justice system isn’t broken, it’s working exactly the way it was intended to work, and it was never written, implemented or designed to provide justice or equality for African Americans.
Obama has to take action
However what is different in this case is that it’s not just African Americans protesting, a significant number of white, Latino and Asian Americans have flooded the streets of New York protesting the Garner ruling, shutting down major highways, malls and even disrupting the annual Christmas tree lighting.
At its core, police violence is a white American problem, not a black one. The only way this tide of violence can be stemmed is if white Americans who are angry about and stand against institutional racism and discrimination, are willing to directly confront white Americans who still support the way these institutions are run. Solutions to institutional racism and police violence can’t be dropped off at the doors of African Americans any longer, the white American majority must take some responsibility.
Beyond that, it is time for the president to take bolder steps to address systematic inequality in sentencing and policing across the US. President Obama has always been partial to piecemeal strategies. While his rhetoric is often bold and sweeping, the hostility of the Republican Congress, mixed with his own political personality, has often led to marginal policy changes.
On Monday, he convened a commission of civil rights leaders and unveiled plans to put more shoulder cameras on police officers’ uniforms and thoroughly review Programme 1033, which allows local police departments to get free access to surplus military equipment. And while those are fine first steps, neither would have saved Garner’s life or changed the decision of the grand jury.
The police did not have heavy militarised equipment but they employed a physical chokehold method that had been declared illegal by the New York police department for over 20 years, but that too wasn’t enough to warrant a trial. While shoulder cameras are known to limit cases of abuse and harassment, the Garner case shows that they do not guarantee the police will be held accountable.
The only way that the president can do something about these events and the frustration felt by the public is to actually demand that the Department of Justice indict and conduct trials in some of these cases. President Obama has no trouble prosecuting “terrorists” and “whistle blowers” or those deemed to have spied on the US. He could certainly bring the power of the federal government to investigate and indict cases of police violence.
President Obama is not all powerful, but he is certainly much more capable than he has shown thus far in acting on the issues he feels are priorities for the US.
If Obama truly wants to establish a legacy beyond immigration and Obamacare he needs to make large spectacular displays of investigating and indicting officers who engage in misconduct, especially in cases that result in the death of unarmed African Americans. If he doesn’t, the worst part of his final two years as president won’t just come from the Republican House and Senate, but from millions of Americans, most of whom voted for him, marching through the streets having lost faith in his ability to lead.
This article originally appeared online at Al Jazeera English.