Peace, Justice and Tamir Rice

I had to roll my eyes at Plain Dealer Editorial Board’s response to the grand jury’s failure to bring charges against police officers in the Tamir Rice case: “Tamir Rice Protests Must Be Peaceful.”

For starters, the whole premise that powerless people, frustrated with the system to the point of boiling over, would be consulting the editorial board of the Plain Dealer before they act is laughable. The Plain Dealer Editorial Board is a super powerful organization in this town, in my opinion. But come on, there are limits.

It’s not clear exactly who this editorial is addressed to, or if they are just articulating a worry. Which, to be fair, it seems like a legitimate worry (rioting), given what has transpired in this city over the past year or so. (Although overall protests have been peaceful, and even then some 70 people were arrested on trumped up charges and many held for 72 hours, but that is an aside.)

What really bothers me is the whole premise here — this calling for peaceful protests after the state-supported killing of an unarmed boy — misses the point so entirely. This refrain has been extremely common though in Cleveland. We heard the same thing in the Brelo trial (“137 shots case”) just a few months ago.

And of course I don’t want protests to be violent. No one wants that. But the idea that the response to this case must be upstanding, while the events that preceded it so clearly were not, I’m just having a hard time understanding why so many people find that argument to be so seductive. It’s like they’re issuing a reminder: the rules apply to protesters, but not to police officers. And while that, quite frankly, may be true, it is nevertheless a complete load of bullshit.

This whole habit of prematurely condemning protesters for not being peaceful in response to state-sanctioned injustice and violence, in this case against a 12-year-old boy, is exactly the type of double-standard that this whole case is, at its core, about.

The Plain Dealer Editorial Board really ought to understand that justice is a necessary precursor to peace. The whole justice system, in theory anyway, helps safeguard a peaceful society, by providing a fair and impartial check on violence and other anti-social behavior. For example, let’s say someone steals your jewelry in absence of a justice system in which to seek recourse. What options do you have? Well, you can forget about it. Or you can try to seize it back and punish the perpetrator, through violent or coercive means.

In a civil society, however, with a justice system, this matter is resolved without violence. And the party with the most muscle doesn’t necessarily prevail. Nobody responds with baseball bats. Nobody gets killed. The justice system provides a dispassionate intermediary that helps resolve the matter in peaceful terms. It punishes the “bad guy” and protects the “good guy” — at least in theory.

But the justice system isn’t handed down by God, or a dictator, in a democracy like ours. It’s negotiated by willing participants. It is entrusted to decide the matter objectively, and in fairness, and without respect to the status of the individuals involved. And if it does so at least to a large degree, its legitimacy won’t be drawn into question.

Then we have a case like the Tamir Rice case, and the Brelo case, and the countless others around the country. And here we so clearly have this pattern where justice seems to be being applied unevenly. Where some people benefit and some people are harmed, based not on any consistent moral terrain, but based on relatively arbitrary social characteristics of the victims.

The question for the aggrieved parties in this case — black people in Cleveland (and, zooming out, in other cities around the United States) — is why should they follow the rules if the rules don’t apply to other people? How long can people be expected to follow the rules, when it becomes clear that the rules serve to oppress, not protect them? That is the kind of question this case raises.

The Plain Dealer Editorial Board members, in my opinion, are as close an approximation to Cleveland’s patriarchy as practically anyone. It’s disappointing that they don’t recognize that the integrity of our justice system and this question of peace are tied up in each other.

They call for peace, but not for justice, but there can never be one without the other.

–Angie Schmitt

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