Mobs and Justice

Once again there are mobs floating around major cities in our country demanding justice after the decision of a grand jury not to indict any of the police officers involved in the tragic shooting death of Breonna Taylor. The range of these protests is typically broad, from peaceful protests to more violent protests. The Los Angeles Times reported about two cars that “plowed” through protestors, implying guilt on the part of the drivers, though when you actually read the article it’s far from clear that’s necessarily the best characterization of what happened.

First off, a reminder that protests which block traffic are illegal, though some states allow protestors to block streets if they obtain a permit in advance. But a mob of people arbitrarily deciding to block traffic is in itself an illegal act – pretty much all the time as far as my limited Internet research shows. I’m happy to be proved wrong with appropriate links in the comments section. This document from the ACLU indicates as much. Blocking traffic is in itself illegal, an irony somehow lost in the shuffle of cries for justice, which clearly then are cries for justice in certain situations rather than others, problematic in the least. And needless to say, attacking vehicles and their drivers is very, very illegal, very much against the idea of justice the protestors claim to be demanding. At least one of the vehicles in the LA Times article received extensive damage from protestors who were angered it didn’t want to stop. The car that struck one of the protestors is also said to have damage on it, damage the driver claims was inflicted on the vehicle first and which caused the driver to try and escape the crowd.

Complicated stuff at best, though the headlines certainly wouldn’t lead the casual reader to that conclusion. I don’t think they intend to, frankly.

The cry for justice in this situation is also problematic. The death of anyone is a tragedy, and certainly the death of someone in their own home at the hands of public agents of any kind is additionally odious and should call for investigation. However, investigation actually did happen. The cries and protests for justice come after a grand jury determined no criminal charges were appropriate against the officers involved for Taylor’s death. The officers weren’t cleared of wrong doing by an internal investigation but by a grand jury. A grand jury is a means for determining possible offenses in a situation and lodging official charges to be pursued in a court of law. A grand jury is made up of private citizens, similar to the jury in a court case. They are assembled and tasked with determining to the best of their ability whether a crime has or hasn’t been committed.

So the crowds blocking roads and attacking motorists in a demand for justice are ignoring the fact that justice has already been applied. Typically 16-23 people are assembled for a grand jury and a majority of them must agree a crime was committed and indicate which law was broken. So the majority of the people on the grand jury for this case determined the police officers did not violate a law.

That doesn’t mean Taylor’s death isn’t tragic. It doesn’t mean that perhaps the existing laws might need to change, and already there is discussion towards that end regarding the serving of no-knock warrants, where police can enter a home without prior notification or warning. Of course there are also reasons why such warrants exist, such as protecting officers from a coordinated, deadly response to their ringing of the doorbell or knocking on the door. In this particular case the man they were looking for – an ex-boyfriend’s of Taylor – was not there. Yet her current boyfriend was there, and he was armed, and he opened fire on officers first.

I don’t hear the protestors talking much about that. Clearly, this is a more complicated situation than some people would like it to be. Some details don’t contribute to a story of an innocent young woman shot to death in her own home by reckless and uncaring agents of the State. Apparently the majority of the grand jury realized this as they explored the facts of the case.

So what is justice then? If the due process of the law is inadequate, what do the protestors suggest as an alternative? Is it a matter of mob justice, so to speak, where if enough people scream and yell and threaten and destroy property, they determine the appropriate verdict in a trial? Is this justice? Do what we demand or we destroy things?

Grand juries have been around for over 800 years and are part of a cherished and celebrated legal process and set of protections against mob justice or the arbitrary whims of power. They’re intended to provide as much assurance as possible that a crime really has – or hasn’t – been committed, regardless of which persons or powers demand an outcome to suit their own preferences or interests. Against this what do the protestors suggest as an alternative?

Deadly force is deadly serious, without a doubt. That’s something police officers are trained to recognize and to which they are at least theoretically held accountable. They are also responsible for performing dangerous work like serving warrants on premises or for people that are known to be dangerous and capable of killing them. That’s a lot of pressure to be under, even for professionals, and something the law seeks to take into account. I also assume the man who fired on those police officers when they entered the home understands that deadly force is deadly serious, and if you’re going to pull a gun and start shooting immediately rather than waiting to assess the situation a bit better, I’m going to go out on a limb and say you’re probably more comfortable with deadly force than the average person. Cries for justice ought to reasonably include why this man opened fire immediately.

Bad things happen. Sometimes bad things happen because of bad people, and in those situations the bad people should be held accountable. But not all bad things are matters of injustice or a matter of bad people. This is something that should be – and is – evident regardless of your ethnicity. Yet even ethnic minorities are denounced and vilified if they question or disagree with the mob justice mindset that insists on a particular verdict. Do the mobs have all the details and information the grand jury did? Is their shouting and blocking traffic a superior insight into the happenings of that fateful day? Does their anger somehow trump whatever facts are available?

Should it? Is that how we want verdicts reached – by whoever screams the loudest or makes the most intimidating threats?

Are the protestors demanding an end to grand juries? Are they demanding that police be disbanded? Are they demanding an end to no-knock warrants? Are they demanding a particular charge and conviction of murder in this particular case? Are they demanding other things not specific to this case but part of a larger agenda of change? And how will they respond if a larger or more vocal or more violent group of protestors shows up and demands just the opposite? Who decides who is right? Is it just a matter of starting to shoot and stab each other and see who is left at the end of the exchange? Or do we rather place our faith in a good albeit imperfect system of law, knowing that sometimes injustices will go unpunished, but that far more often than not justice will be done, and can be relied on to be done without protests and threats and violence?

If the laws need to be changed then work for change. But that change involves not simply making demands under threat of violence but wrestling with the difficult realities of a sinful and broken world where many bad people exist, and where most of them probably don’t wear a badge. If you want to agitate for change then know what it is you’re agitating for as well as what you’re agitating against. Because tragedy happens every single day. This doesn’t make it less tragic. But compounding tragedy with riots and threats of violence does make it more tragic, especially if you don’t really understand what it is you’re asking for or protesting against.

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