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Our criminal justice system needs dramatic reform

Three current cases illustrate the need: Jelani Day in Peru, Illinois; Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin; and Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia.

Ahmaud Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper, reacts next to her attorney, Lee Merritt, at the Gwynn County Superior Court, in Brunswick, Ga., during the trial of William “Roddie” Bryan, Travis McMichael and Gregory McMichael, who are charged with the February 2020 death of 25-year-old Arbery.
Ahmaud Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper, reacts next to her attorney, Lee Merritt, at the Gwynn County Superior Court, in Brunswick, Ga., during the trial of William “Roddie” Bryan, Travis McMichael and Gregory McMichael, who are charged with the February 2020 death of 25-year-old Arbery.
Octavio Jones/Pool Photo via AP

In the civil rights movement we were constantly reminded to keep our eyes on the prize. What’s the prize? Equality of opportunity and results, which requires equity in every facet of our lives — education, housing, home ownership, job training, employment, political access and especially in the criminal justice system.

Our criminal justice system needs dramatic reform. Blacks make up more than 40% of the prison population, but only 13% of the nation’s population. The geographic numerator changes — north or south — but the denominator remains the same — an unjust criminal justice system nationwide. Three current incidents illustrate: Jelani Day in Peru, Illinois; Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin; and Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia.

Jelani Day, a 25-year-old Black medical student at Illinois State University, was a “bright light” in his family; he and his sister were competing to become doctors. He disappeared on Aug. 24. The family and a professor reported him missing on Aug. 25. His car was found two days later in a wooded area near where his body was later discovered in Peru, Illinois, miles from where he was last seen.

LaSalle County law enforcement officials discovered his body on Sept. 4 “floating near the south bank of the Illinois River approximately a quarter-of-a-mile east of the Illinois Route 251 Bridge.”

The parents continue to be critical of the investigation because little focus was initially put on his disappearance. It occurred in the context of the vanished and subsequent death of Gabby Petito, which was receiving national coverage.

There are inconsistencies, a high degree of incompetence and a lack of collaboration between various law enforcement agencies surrounding the case. There is still no closure about what happened to Jelani Day.

Racial dimensions in trials

Rusten Sheskey, accompanied by two other white police officers responding to a domestic complaint by the fiancee of Jacob Blake — a Black man — shot Blake seven times in the back, with his children looking on in the back seat. Blake, they say, refused to obey the officers, so they opened his car door and reached inside. Blake was left partially paralyzed by the incident. Racial violence followed in Kenosha. Officer Sheskey was not charged with a crime.

As disturbances continued, a white 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse decided to take the

aw into his own hands. He left home in Antioch, Illinois, with his mother driving him to Kenosha with a loaded military-style semiautomatic rifle (illegal for a person his age) “to assist the police in protecting businesses.” He killed two protesters and wounded another, but walked freely past police officers and military vehicles even as onlookers shouted that he had just shot several people. The next day, Rittenhouse was arrested and is now on trial for five felonies and a misdemeanor.

A white judge, Bruce Schroeder, who has a history of controversial behavior from the bench, seemed unfair as he told the prosecution they could not refer to the victims of the shooting as victims, but that the defense could refer to them as rioters and looters, if they had such evidence. One juror has already been removed for making a racial joke about Jacob Blake. The judge has also attacked the press in court as unfair in its coverage, and the trial has seemed unfair from the start.

Ahmaud Aubery, an unarmed Black jogger, was shot and killed by three white vigilantes. The jury was seated last week, with 11 white jurors and only one Black juror in a city that’s 25% Black. Defense attorneys used preemptive challenges to remove multiple potential Black jurors, who were asked question like what they thought of Black Lives Matter and whether there were racial problems between the Black community and the police. Their answers were then used to remove them from the jury.

Additionally, the defense seems to be trying to put Mr. Aubery on trial by showing pictures of him looking around in buildings under construction, claiming there had been recent robberies in the community, and the defendants were only trying to make a citizen’s arrest and hold him until the police came — like they were protecting the community.

The simplest way to demonstrate the racial dimension of all three incidents — and one could add the events of January 6 at the U.S. Capitol — is to reverse the racial roles of everyone. Imagine the actual victims as white and the alleged perpetrators as Black. What these cases show is a pattern — a lineage of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, George Floyd, Michael Brown, the Charleston nine — that we cannot accept as normal. Would we see these incidents in the same way if they were reversed? Obviously not. The only solution is to engage in mass action and mass voting that will allow the truth to come out.

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