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Kunin: Talking About Race

“I can’t breathe,” were the last words we heard from 43 year old Eric Garner who died from a policeman’s chokehold on a Staten Island sidewalk.

None of us can breathe freely after watching the video of that struggle as it was replayed again and again on TV.

The grand jury’s job, we must remember, was not to decide whether the 29 year old policeman, Daniel Pantaleo, was guilty or innocent of killing Eric Garner. Their job was simply to decide whether there was enough evidence to take the first step that would lead to a trial.

But their decision not to indict comes on the heels of the shooting of 18 year old Michael Brown by policeman Darren Wilson. Both grand juries took no action. Outrage erupted, fueled by the conviction that this was a miscarriage of justice based on one thing alone: race. The victim was black, the perpetrator white. Had the roles been reversed, the outcome would almost certainly have been different.

The majority of those protesting in the streets of Ferguson, New York City, and elsewhere have been African-Americans, but white Americans cannot afford to stand back. We must try to put ourselves in the shoes of black mothers and fathers and the shockingly unfair conversations they must have with their children. “When, not if, you get stopped by a cop, do exactly what he asks. Control your temper. Above all, don’t fight back.” They know that if the child disobeys these admonitions, he could be killed.

Events in Ferguson and Staten Island demonstrate the grim reality that if a white policeman is the aggressor against a black man, he has a good chance to get off free.

We - black and white together - must work to make our streets safer for all of us.

It’s time to re-examine the Grand Jury system. If there’s a pattern to these two recent black deaths, it’s that in both cases prosecutors declined to hand down an indictment against a policeman. Prosecutors and cops work hand in hand every day. There’s a strong bond between them. An independent prosecutor should be appointed in such cases to avoid potential conflict of interest.

And, it’s time to examine our own racism. I admit that I’ve sometimes crossed the street at night when I’ve seen a black man or a group of black boys approaching. And I’m not alone. We all have prejudices, some obvious, some not. We need to talk about it and begin a new national conversation about race. A young black man should not be considered guilty until proven innocent. What’s at stake is fundamental to democracy - the right to equal justice under the law.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont, and author of "The New Feminist Agenda, Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family," published by Chelsea Green.
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