Almost 50 years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, and asked the question “How long?” We ask today: How long will it take before America realizes its promise of equal justice before the law? How long will it take before racial prejudice and hatred no longer pollute the land of amber waves of grain, the purple mountains of majesty above such a fruited plain?
Fifty years is a long time. A lifetime. And with all too much frequency, black men do not even reach that age because their life has been cut short by a governmental department sworn to “serve and protect,” often by a bullet bought and paid for by taxpayers and an employee who is “just doing his job.”
How long before this disgrace will end?
Almost a week after the outrageous announcement from Ferguson, Mo., another grand jury announces that the New York City police officer responsible for the homicide of Eric Garner, who was 43 years old, will not be held to account.
There’s a popular saying in the legal world that a prosecutor can get a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” Apparently, that ham sandwich did not come with a badge and the legal protection to be judge, jury and executioner. The ham sandwich was not trained to use lethal force first and ask questions later, all OK’d by policy and legal fiat. Prosecutors can get a grand jury to indict anybody – or anything – but not one of their own. They are above the law, out of reach, untouchable. The real indictment is of the entire legal system – it is rotten.
The criminal justice system has no justice. It is and has been riddled with racial, class, and gender inequality since this country’s inception. Because we live in a perpetual state of forever making this a “more perfect union,” movements leading to political and legal reforms have alleviated some of these inequalities. Yet, inequality before the law still remains and is giving rise to the movement to change it.
Fifty years ago, King’s actual words ring as true today as ever:
“I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ Somebody’s asking, ‘How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?’ Somebody’s asking, ‘When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?’ Somebody’s asking, ‘When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?’ I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because ‘truth crushed to earth will rise again.’ How long? Not long, because ‘no lie can live forever.’ How long? Not long, because ‘you shall reap what you sow.'”
The country is reaping what it sowed with right-wing policies and politics that have intensified class, racial and gender oppression, exploitation and corporate rule. With it a new Jim Crow, along with the brutality and inhumanity of the prison-industrial complex has grown too. Mass incarceration, racial profiling, police crimes, and militarization throughout our society are the result. But so is the movement to end it. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
When King asked “How long?” he answered, “Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In the moral universe, the forces for justice get their strength from unity. All of us have a stake in ending this intolerable situation: white, black, Latino, Native, Asian Pacific Islander, young and old, women and men, LGBTQ. An injury to one is an injury to all. Not one more death. No justice. No peace.
Photo: New Yorkers march through the streets around Times Square in response to the grand jury’s decision in Eric Garner case. Seth Wenig/AP
Correction: In a previous version of this editorial the age of Mr. Garner was incorrect. We regret the error.