Shades of Justice

So Amber Guyger was convicted. She is the off-duty Dallas cop who shot and killed her neighbor because she thought he was an intruder in her apartment and not, as it turned out, the other way around. Geiger is white. Her victim, Botham Jean, is black. The story fell into a strange place within the broader discourse surrounding police violence towards black citizens. We are all familiar with Eric Garners death in custody of the NYPD (July 2014), Michael Brown’s death after being shot by a cop in Ferguson, Missouri (August 2014), 12-year-old Tamil Rice in Cleveland (November 2014), Freddie Gray in Baltimore (April 2015), Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (June 2016) and Philandro Castile by a member of the St. Anthony, Minnesota police department (July 2016). These names, of course, are merely representations, some of the most recognizable names to have died during interactions with American police forces. They do not include thousands of black citizens who have dealt with harassment, intimidation, suspicion or neglect by law-enforcement agencies across the country. It does not include the wrongfully arrested, convicted, imprisoned and executed, the inmates who, whether having actually committed crimes or not, have had their lives wrecked by an often overzealous and almost always imbalanced criminal justice system.

But what of Amber Guyger? Isn’t that justice served? Perhaps to a degree, but let us consider the following:

1. Amber Guyger’s position as a law-enforcement agent is, in many ways, secondary to this case. She was off duty when she barged into Botham Jean’s apartment and shot him “exactly where [she was] trained“. She was not responding to a call for help or involved in a chase. She was preoccupied with her text exchange with her married colleague/lover. I believe this fact alone has much to do with her conviction for murder. Even if everything else in this story remained unchanged, if she had been on duty I suggest the outcome might well have been different.

2. Amber Guyger had already been abandoned by her employer, the Dallas police. In nearly all other cases of cops killing black citizens, the respective forces stood alongside their officers, even if the officer were placed on administrative leave in the immediate aftermath. Guyger was gored about 2 weeks after the shooting and by the time her conviction came down she’d been separated from the Dallas PD for over a year. This move clearly signaled that the law enforcement establishment in this case was not interested in putting its skin into this game, likely to distance itself from a potentially explosive situation if Guyger were acquitted. According to reporting, only one defense witness came to testify and he was not from the city’s police force. By cutting her loose so quickly, the Dallas PD effectively washed its hands of the former officer and insulated the department from any responsibility. If the DPD had, like most of their brothers in blue, we might have been seeing a hung jury or even a full acquittal.

3. Amber Guyger is a woman. Not only that, but she is a woman, it turned out, embroiled in an affair with a married police colleague. That combination, it can be argued, lowered her appeal and made her an easy target. It also weakens the claim that this verdict is a victory for Black Lives Matter and the ongoing struggle to hold law enforcement responsible for the people they kill.

On a more introspective level, the question arises whether this is a ‘win’ for interracial understanding and tolerance. Personally, I don’t think so. Because the Dallas police removed itself from the proceedings so early, the case never really had the flavor that placed it within the context of police violence against minorities. Even though attorneys for Jean’s family applauded the decision and claimed it was a victory “[for] so many black and brown human beings all across America“, I’m skeptical that this will lead to the kind of systemic changes some believe. For many, this was not a police violence issue for all the reasons stated above and, as such, it fell somewhat outside the Black Lives Matter movement. Granted, the Guyger case is intrinsically bound to the cause because it does touch upon many of the big-picture issues BLM and others have tried to highlight. Did Guyger’s position as a police officer and Jean’s skin color at all inform the former’s response to an admittedly unusual situation but one that should have not resulted in anyone’s death? Would it have made a difference if Jean had been white or if Guyger had not been a cop?

On a final note, there is the question of whether this verdict serves, not justice, but only as a balm to sooth white liberal guilt. I’ve come to consider this after reading commentary from Son of Baldwin. The white liberal has a long history of being a vocal supporter of black people, black causes, black culture and black lives but their public actions don’t always match that enthusiasm. Whenever a black citizen is killed by law enforcement, there are loud noises of outrage from the white liberal enclaves. There are letters written, articles published, speeches made and vigils attended. But does that community demand significant policy or legislative changes? Do white liberals march to their city halls, sheriffs’ departments and prisons to channel that outrage into practice? Amber Guyger’s conviction allows us to feel as though things have changed, that we’ve done our part to fight the system and bring justice to our black comrades. We can point to this example and say “Look! The process does work!” But this verdict does not strike me as justice for Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamar Rice, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Philandro Castile or Botham Jean. Instead, it only gives the appearance of justice and when Botham Jean’s brother embraced Amber Guyger and forgave her, that embrace and that forgiveness was absorbed by the entire white liberal community who exhaled, content in the knowledge that the revolution would not start today.


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