This week, Attorney General William Barr overrode the recommendation of prosecutors in the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division to bring charges against New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo for the suffocating to death Eric Garner in July 2014. The killing was captured on video by a bystander. Barr’s decision follows long after the failure of a Staten Island grand jury to indict Pantaleo in December 2014. Staten Island is a conservative community where many NYPD officers live. The City of New York settled a civil rights lawsuit for $5.9 million with the Garner family in 2015 before going to trial.
Since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, civil rights organizations have counted on the federal prosecutors to bring to justice racist killers when local law enforcement will not. Many will claim that Barr’s decision would not have happened under a Democratic Attorney General. But the Garner case languished for over two years under both Democratic attorneys general Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, who had both promised “expeditious” investigations, before passing it on Republicans Jeff Sessions, then three acting attorneys general, and now Barr.
In a similar case, Jonny Gammage was suffocated to death by five suburban police officers during a traffic stop outside Pittsburgh in 1995. The cops got off on manslaughter charges after two hung juries in local trials. Bill Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, then declined to bring a civil rights action. Jonny’s parents eventually settled a civil rights suit for $1.5 million in 1998.
The Jonny Gammage case is close to us in Syracuse because Jonny was from here. He was in Pittsburgh with his cousin, Ray Seals, a defensive tackle with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Another cousin, Rahzie Seals, is active in the Syracuse Green Party today. Back in 1995, Greens campaigned for a Jonny Gammage Law that would require a federal investigation whenever a law officer is accused of violating the civil rights of a human being, including bodily injury or death. The late Rev. Larry Ellis’s article making the case for the Jonny Gammage Law also goes into the brutal details of Jonny’s murder.
The basic reason for a Jonny Gammage Law, Ellis explained, is that federal prosecutors must be appointed who are not tied to the local “old boys networks” that links police, district attorneys, and even state attorneys general and local US attorneys in the local justice system. Because they rely on each other so much and build relationships in their everyday duties, local law enforcement cannot be counted on to impartially serve justice in these cases.
That reasoning still holds today, but the problem is deeper and lies in the racism that infuses the criminal justice system from top to bottom. Federal intervention will not bring justice if the federal government is controlled by overt racists like Trump or “moderates” who pander to powerful institutional racists in the criminal justice system, like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did.
The racism of so many Border Patrol agents recently exposed by the publication of their posts on their secret Facebook page is instructive. We won’t rid the criminal justice system of racism until we have a top to bottom reorganization that removes the racists and brings in new people who are committed to impartial justice, from local police departments to federal law enforcement agencies, from cops in the streets to lawyers and judges in the suites.
When I was in Pittsburgh to speak to a Green Party meeting in late March this year, the local headline was that a police officer had just been acquitted for shooting to death in the back an unarmed black 17-year-old, Antwon Rose II. The killing was captured on video by a bystander. Watching the news with
other patrons in the diner outside of Pittsburgh where I was eating, the other customers, all of them white working-class people, were disgusted. They started recalling with equal revulsion the police murder of Jonny Gammage 24 years ago.
Most people care about right and wrong. The problem is that what most people want does not translate into public policy. We need system change that takes the profit-making and institutional racism out of the prison/industrial complex, including bail, private prisons, contracts for police equipment and public jails, and costly private lawyers. Bail bondsmen, private prison corporations, public contractors, and trial lawyers are among the biggest sources of private campaign financing, especially in local jurisdictions where the overwhelming majority of criminal prosecutions take place. Justice will have to be found outside the two-party system of corporate rule.