Monday I wrote a column saying there is a chance under the law that fired Dallas police Officer Amber Guyger, who shot and killed an innocent man in his own apartment on Sept. 6, is not guilty of murder. The reader response was numerous and mostly angry with me, as I expected. I read all of it closely.
My main takeaway is that we are a society deeply riven by segregation and racism. (Duh!) Segregation and racism gnaw like rats at the wiring of the law, depriving us of that basic social trust that is the precursor and requisite of law.
But the old street cry, “No Justice, No Peace,” works both ways. No peace, no justice. No one can ask justice for himself if he won’t extend justice to his own worst enemy. Worst enemy is where the rubber meets the road in the rule of law.
Several people criticized me for being “tone deaf” by writing about what they took to be mere legalisms at a time when feelings are so inflamed. I have an answer for that: Screw tone deaf.
Tone deaf is a cover story for cowardice. Cowardice is the father of lynching — taking a life as a mob because you can’t justify or get up the nerve to do it yourself alone.
I used two terms Monday — lynching in the story and trigger-happy in my own Facebook post about it — that struck some people as especially tone-deaf. Guyger, who has been charged with manslaughter, is accused of being trigger-happy. She says she went to the apartment of Botham Jean by mistake, thinking it was her own apartment, and shot him because she thought he was an intruder.
Lynching is the horrific artifact of white racism and slavery by which white people tortured and killed black people from the era of slavery to modern times, the best known recent lynching in Texas taking place in 1998. It’s a word so freighted with racial poison that it’s hard to imagine how it could have any other instance or application.
The term, Lynch law, however, probably originated in the American Revolution, when revolutionaries believed they were being betrayed to the British by their own neighbors. In the hot emergency of warfare, they felt they could not wait for the wheels of justice to slowly grind. Charles Lynch took the law into his own hands and inspired revolutionary neighbors in Virginia to punish the suspected Loyalists with whippings, confiscation and banishment. After the war, Lynch was deemed a hero and a patriot by history.
Lynching is carried out by people who believe they are meting out something even truer than the justice of the law. The law, after all, is a mumbling compromise, only the best we can manage, a way to close both eyes when we go to bed at night, almost an admission that absolute truth does not belong to human beings. Some people lust for more.
Anybody, any human being, can be a lyncher, and that includes African-Americans. Convicting Amber Guyger because of who she is, a white cop, not because of what the law says she did, would be a lynching. Rushing to judgment would be exactly what people accuse her of being — trigger-happy. You can’t complain about the evil if you are the evil.
The angriest denunciations in what people wrote to me were clearly fueled by the national procession of horrific incidents in which we have seen white cops shoot black people for no reason or not enough reason. The killing of Botham Jean feels like the ultimate example — an honest, respected, hard-working young man at home in his own apartment bothering no one, shot by a white cop who said it was a mistake.
Some of the most thoughtful and helpful criticism of my piece came from lawyers. Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston suggested I was tripping over the way the law treats a mistake. Guyger may have made an honest mistake by going to the wrong apartment, Kingston said, but that mistake may not cover her for actions she took — shooting somebody — subsequent to the mistake.
You might not be charged with an attempted breaking and entering, in other words, if you entered an apartment by honest mistake. But once inside if you stole the TV, yes, you would be charged. Kingston suggested that will probably be a law issue in this case, something for a court to decide.
Liam Cephus, a reader, offered me a compelling argument for why an innocent mistake at the door could have become less innocent. If Guyger looked into the apartment and perceived that the person she believed to be an intruder in her own home was black, that fact alone could have triggered the unreasoning superstitious fear that many white people have of black people.
It’s something I tried to say, perhaps not well, in my piece Monday. I said, “White people are too afraid of black people.”
Speaking in a personal message to me not on Facebook, quoted here with permission, Cephus said, “For many people including me those unsolicited reactions of paranoia and fear by our very presence are the reality we live with every day.
“It is why so many of us find this so heartbreaking. If we lived in a vacuum, your call to be more socially understanding would be commendable. But as it stands in the world we live in today, no offense sir, it comes off as horribly naive.”
I didn’t think I was calling for social understanding. I was calling for law.
I spent my 20s in Detroit on and off the police beat, and have been covering police shootings of citizens in one form or another ever since. The vast majority of the ones I have seen have been utterly and obviously justified. If you spend enough time closely examining circumstances in which cops run toward danger to protect the rest of us, I defy you to come away not thinking of most of them as heroes.
But there is also the other phenomenon — the "I can’t breathe” choke-killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, in 2014; and the 2015 shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, shot eight times in the back while running away. Our guts tell us those cops were acting out of fear and loathing, not justice.
In some of the more wrathful responses I got to my Monday column, I did sense an undercurrent from writers I took to be black who were saying or feeling something like this: “How dare you flaunt the rule of law in our faces when we know that white racist people are not even remotely capable of law. The only law we see from you will always be some flimsy cover story for yet another act of horrible racist oppression. How are you going to extend the rule of law to us when you can’t even get on the elevator with us without hyperventilating?”
By the way, I do see hope for all of us in one particular area — young people. The young people coming into city politics now are not yet post-racial, God knows, but they are way farther down that road than their elders. If I had to sum it up, I would say they still have their differences but not the racial/ethnic national-origin heebie-jeebies of their grandparents. There is a new comity among them that allows social trust, and in that trust the rule of law will heal.
In the meantime, we are in a very bad place. Our president is almost too feckless even to be a good racist, but racist lines get him big applause, and big applause makes him giggle. With his permission, too many white Americans now wear their racism as a badge.
On the other side, I was disappointed to see among my commenters some really smart people, people whom I know to be intellectually acute, who clearly would not say anything even measured in defense of the rights of Amber Guyger, because they were so desperate to be on the right team. They were willing to mangle their own powers of reason and perception to avoid being accused of disloyalty. And remember, loyalty is where Lynch law started.
I went to some effort in my piece Monday to make sure people would understand I was not declaring Guyger innocent of anything, not saying what I hoped a jury or judge would find, not coming up with my own verdict. I was saying that people demanding justice for Botham Jean needed to mean it, and meaning it means justice for both parties.
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The reaction of Herman Torres was typical of most of the blowback: “The more times I re-read this,” he wrote, “just further confirms that white people empathize with their fellow white man or woman when there is interaction with people of color.”
So if I presume that Torres read my piece and understood what I was saying, his reaction is that I only want justice for Guyger because she’s white and I’m white. I guess I could get all stiff-necked about it and insist that he’s not being logical or reasonable.
But I’m not sure that would be true or fair. Something tells me Torres is being logical, if not reasonable, in the context of centuries of white racism. He’s right. It’s not logical to agree to a system of rational justice with somebody you know to be dangerously irrational. In fact that would be stupid.
On the other hand, in pursuit of that bargain, the effort to find justice in the law is the only door out of hell. We can all stay here and stab at each other with our pitch forks, or we can move to the light. That light is the law. The sun only shines on Botham Jean if it shines on Amber Guyger. Or we all stay down here where the sun don’t shine.