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Black [In]Justice in March: Michael Bennett’s Felony Charge and the Killing of Stephon Clark

It’s been a trying second half of March for black men facing the U.S. justice system.

On March 18th, 22-year old father of two was killed by police in his grandmother’s yard, after police responded to a vandalism complaint. As further information unraveled, including the police’s mutingof their body camera following the shooting and an autopsy report that found Clark had been mostly shot in the back,protests have swelled. A second event that has not garnered as much media attention has also come to light: the felonycharge against political activist and professional football player Michael Bennett, for allegedly injuring an elderly woman. All evidence seems to suggest that this is an unabashed effort to undermine the political activist through legal recourse.

Mainstream media headlines have depicted Bennett’s putative crime with great alarm. Google’s top three results for an “arrest of Michael Bennett” searchon March 31, 2018 yield the headlines: “Eagles’ Michael Bennett indicted for felony charge” (CBS Sports); “Michael Bennett indicted for injury of the elderly” (Sports Illustrated); and “Michael Bennett faces arrest for allegedly injuring elderly woman” (NY Post). When this news broke on March 23rd, the search results were even more disturbing, with the phrase “Michael Bennett indicted for injuring elderly paraplegic woman” often used.

Such headlines inevitably raise eyebrows – a social justice activist, famous athlete and children’s book author abusing a disabled elderly woman? Did a wealthy, philanthropic athlete who developed The Bennett Foundation to fight childhood obesity, suddenly decide to beat up old people?

Looking further into the stories on Bennett’s felony charge, the jarring, eye-catching headlines quickly diminish.

Bennett was attending the 2018 Superbowl in Houston. After the game ended, he, like hundreds of others in the stadium, went onto the field. When security tried to block his access, he allegedly “shoved” them aside, and continued to the field. If this allegation were true, anyone who has ever watched a major sporting event knows: fans will swarm the field, to relish in their team’s victory glow, if only briefly. One can only imagine that if the city of Houston were to prosecute everyone who breached security after the Superbowl, they would flood the courts.

Supposedly, one of the security guards was injured with a “back strain,” caused by Michael Bennett’s “shove.” It so happened that this injury occurred to an older, paraplegic woman who worked as a security guard in the stadium. So, not only did Bennett supposedly commit assault – but, it was against an older, disabled woman. One can hardly think of a better way to trump up charges to try to discredithim.

Houston police chief Art Acevedo had a fun time with it though, it would seem. Forgetting the presumption of innocence reserved for the accused, he declared Bennett “morally bankrupt” after the charges were issued. Surely Acevedo was expressing his attitude toward Bennett as an activist leader who kneeled during the NFL’s pregame national anthems, than one accused of supposedly “shoving” his way into the stadium, as innumerable other fans had done.

 

Recently the Seattle Seahawks had traded Bennett to the Philadelphia Eagles. Unlike the Houston police chief, the Eagles seem to have a better grasp of the U.S. legal norms, insisting that Bennett is innocent until proven guilty. It’s of no coincidence that another one of the most vocal activists in the NFL and Black Lives Matter supporter, Colin Kaepernick, has not been re-signed. Who knows how long the Eagles will honor Bennett’s contract if public opinion turns completely sour on him.

The ease that the specious felony charges were issued against Bennett for allegedly ‘shoving’ stands in stark contrast to the justice system’s treatment of police who murder young black men. Rarely do district attorneys indict police offices for killing unarmed civilians and, even more rarely, are they convicted. From 2005-2017, black men are 3 timesmore likely to die at the hands of the police than white men. With roughly 1,000 police shootingsoccurring each year, only 80 police officers have been charged during this 12-year period, with merely 35 police officers convicted.

 

Racial bias was also well at work in the tragic case of Stephon Clark.

But, inevitably, there will be arguments to counter this, such as: the video of the shooting of Stephon Clark shows a dimly lit backyard in which police had to exercise their best judgment. What else could the police do in this situation to protect themselves? Also, as supporters of police shootings will undoubtedly point out – one of the officers that shot Clark was also black.

Each of these rationales should be deconstructed to understand the contemporary nature U.S. law enforcement and the country’s racial power structure.

Police have become increasingly militarized since Nixon’s War on Drugs and have often tended to adopt a zero-tolerance, ‘broken windows’ policy towards petty crime. In fact, Sacramento police were responding to a complaint that someone was literally breaking car windows (literally, ‘broken windows’ policing) on the night Clark was shot.

This begs the questions: are helicopters and a manhunt a proportional response to vandalizing car windows? Perhaps more importantly, should police assume that a petty criminal is armed to the teeth and ready fire at them?

According to Radley Balko, police tend to act with disproportionate arms and force when they believe a suspect is less dangerous. Meanwhile, police act more cautiously, with less show of force, when there is a more significant danger to their own lives. This can be seen in SWAT teams’ exercising of supreme force during drug raids, while tip-toeing around the recent white Austin bomber, who killed and maimed multiple people – and posed a serious threat to public security.

And, of course, too, police are more likely to shoot a young black man than someone who is white. Yet one of the cops that shot Stephon Clark was black, police shooting apologists will remind us.

Police are integral to the white-dominated societal structure in the United States. When minorities are incorporated into this white power structure, they – like more marginalized whites – become agents and tools of this edifice. Thereby, their psychology complies with the white-dominated power structure that sees young black men as criminals. So, it doesn’t matter if a young black man is killed by a white, brown or black cop, the racially biased system is still at work, as the minority becomes an agent of this system.

 

Michael Bennett’s dubious felony charge and Stephon Clark’s murder demonstrate that Black Lives [do] Matter, because they all too often aren’t treated that way. It’s not that white or police lives don’t matter, but the latter are caked into the U.S.’s societal and legal structure. The justice system and societal norms take white and polices lives matteringas a given.

Racial bias and deference to the police explains how Bennett can be charged with felony while district attorneys fail to indict police for killing unarmed black men. Bennett’s charge is a clear attempt to take down one of the NFL’s most prominent activist leaders involved in kneeling during the national anthem. Must this be the price to pay for exercising First Amendment rights?

Is death the price to pay for being a young black man outside one’s grandmother’s house at night?

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