By Gary Younge
When Ray Kelly, the man Barack Obama is currently considering to lead homeland security, was the New York City police commissioner, he allegedly had a policy of terrorising black and Latino neighbourhoods.
A hearing into the city’s stop-and-frisk policies in spring heard how Kelly told state senator Eric Adams that “he targeted and focused on [black and Latino youth] because he wanted to instil fear in them every time they left their homes that they could be targeted by the police”. The hearing also heard a secret recording of South Bronx deputy inspector Christopher McCormack telling a subordinate to stop “the right people at the right time, the right location”, and focus stop-and-frisks on “male blacks” between 14 and 21.
A decision on the constitutionality of the city’s stop-and-frisk practices is expected any time now, marking the latest in a summer of legal showdowns that have exposed both the power and partiality of the American state. Many who previously understood the legal system and its enforcers to be dispassionate arbiters of justice working in the interests of society as a whole have been forced to re-evaluate their assumptions.
First came the trial of Bradley Manning, charged in a military court with “aiding the enemy” for passing diplomatic cables and other classified military information to WikiLeaks. Then came the manhunt for Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, who leaked evidence of mass snooping. More recently there was the trial of George Zimmerman, the neighbourhood watchman in Florida who pursued Trayvon Martin, a young, black, unarmed teen, and shot him dead after Martin confronted him. Soon will come the verdict on stop-and-frisk.
Each, clearly, is its own case, with its own dynamics, outcomes and facts on the ground. There are many who will favour prosecution in one case but not in another. The point here is not that the cases raise identical issues.
And yet for all their glaring differences they share at some crucial traits: each, in its own way, raises fundamental questions about the function and purpose of the American state, the moral underpinnings of the legal system in which it is grounded, and the degree to which the law is designed to work for or against the people in whose name it operates. In each case, in different ways, the following questions become acute: to whom is the state responsible? Who is it supposed to protect? And who is it supposed to protect them from? Manning faces a sentence of up to 90 years (down from 136) after the “aiding the enemy” count was dropped; Zimmerman was acquitted; Snowden was granted asylum in Russia after his US passport was revoked, leaving him holed up in the Moscow airport for weeks trying to avoid extradition.