This Is American Justice: On Betty Shelby and Malcolm X


The Crutcher family. Photo by Sue Ogrocki/AP

Malcolm X would have turned 92 Friday, just two days after white Tulsa, Oklahoma police officer Betty Shelby was acquitted of first-degree manslaughter in last year's shooting death of unarmed, compliant, hands-in-the-air "bad dude" - aka black man - Terrence Crutcher after the ordinarily minor, not fatal, happenstance of his car stalling on the side of the road. Once again, the police narrative of the September encounter differed dramatically from video evidence: Shelby said she fired when Crutcher, 40, didn't obey her command and seemed to reach for a gun inside his SUV; video showed he in fact walked away from Shelby with his hands in the air. No weapon was discovered, and the window he was said to have reached through turned out to be closed, and smeared with his blood.

Along with such seemingly damning evidence, prosecutors presented wildly racist police audio in which another cop watching from the air declared Crutcher "a bad dude" - presumably because he was a big black man who had taken the threatening action of allowing his car to stall, thereby causing a menacing mob of trigger-happy police, including dainty little white lady Shelby, to gather at the scene. Still, Shelby, who had a reported history of using "unfounded" excessive force,  repeatedly portrayed herself as a victim during the trial. She told the jury she had "never been so scared" in her life and that Crutcher's death was “his fault,” adding, in a truly surreal twist, "I can't believe he made me do it."

Because we have been here too many times before, a wary District Judge Doug Drummond told a packed courtroom before reading the verdict, "I'm asking you to trust the system." The D.A. likewise sounded a cautionary-cum-celebratory note, arguably proclaiming the trial "American jurisprudence at its best." Because that's precisely the problem, many were unconvinced. At least five jurors started crying when the verdict was read, Crutcher's family vehemently declared Shelby "got away with murder" thanks to her shiny badge, white skin and institutional support, and about 100 angry, tearful protesters outside the courthouse chanted, "No justice, no peace!” Said Rhonda Washington, an African-American mother of two afraid to let her kids out of the house, “It’s terrible to have to live in captivity and fear.”

Sensing the community's simmering outrage, Tulsa's mayor and police chief insisted, "This verdict (does not) change our recognition of the racial disparities that have afflicted Tulsa historically...We are moving forward together." For many, though, the verdict close to what would have been Malcolm X's 92nd birthday was a stark reminder of how little forward movement there has been since Malcolm argued 50 years ago that his people lived in a police state and sought to show them "our living black manhood." Malcolm long railed against police brutality and its double-victimizing: "They put their club upside your head, and then turn around and accuse you of attacking them" - a claim hauntingly echoed by Crutcher's twin sister Dr. Tiffany Crutcher. "Terence was not the aggressor," she said. "Betty Shelby was the aggressor. Betty Shelby had the gun. Betty Shelby murdered my brother." We break such a system, say Black Lives activists and many others, "by lifting up the legacy that is ours," including that of Malcolm. "The people who powered these struggles, this is who we are today...We break this system of injustice the way water breaks down a stone."

"They attack the victim and then the criminal who attacked the victim accuses the victim of attacking him. This is American Justice. This is American democracy, and those of you who are familiar with it know that in America, democracy is hypocrisy." - Malcolm X in 1962.

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