Warren Binford Can't Breathe

Voices of Justice

I first heard the silence when Trayvon Martin was shot. I listened for my friends and colleagues to express outrage, to denounce his murder, but they were silent. I scanned my Facebook newsfeed and watched my listserv traffic. Nothing. I heard the silence again when Michael Brown was shot, and after the coroner determined that the cause of Eric Garner’s death was homicide. Did no one care?

And then the legal decisions started to be handed down. George Zimmerman, the civilian who killed Trayvon Martin, was acquitted. Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown, was not indicted. Nor was Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who killed Eric Garner.

It was in the wake of these legal decisions that the voices began to rise. The law school deans of Harvard and Yale, Martha Minow and Robert Post, co-authored  a Boston Globe editorial. Drew Faust, Harvard’s president donned a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt. Amy Gutmann, the president of the University of Pennsylvania was confronted by protesters at her home, but rather than order their arrest for trespassing, she joined their “die-in.” Why?

What these legal and academic leaders understand is that the crisis we are witnessing is not simply the tragedy of individual lives lost in moments of panic or fear or resistance. Nor is this a binary battle between cops and criminals, blacks and whites, conservatives and liberals. The crisis we witness today questions the core integrity of America’s justice system. Does it work? Is it fair? Predictable? Color blind? Just?

Civilization relies on the rule of law to maintain an orderly society where citizens can reliably predict the consequences of their actions. Justice reconciles tragedy.  When justice is absent, the tragedy continues, and often festers, breeding anger and distrust. The social order may disintegrate. And so leaders rise up and raise their voices, not in defense of violence and power and impunity, but in favor of justice.

Are you one of them?

Warren Binford is an associate professor of law and director of the clinical law program at Willamette University College of Law.



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