Fear and Justice in America

It’s easy to forget the first time I realized I had to go five blocks out of my way to continue going east on F St. NW when I hit 17th St because of the 4 by 8 block area closed off around the White House. DC is a confusing enough of a place to drive for the unintiated, with the diagonal avenues intersecting the grid at small, medium, and gigantic circles around the city. Add on top of that the variable directionality on Rock Creek Parkway and the whole 4 by 8 block area surrounding the White House and the northwest quadrant of the city starts to seem pretty difficult to navigate.

That was the situation I imagine when I think about Miriam Carey, the woman who was tragically gunned down inside her car while attempting to drive through our city with her 13-month-old daughter in a car seat last October. On the heels of a deadly shooting at Navy Yard, and not long after the Boston Marathon Bombings, it was a scary incident, but one that had a pretty short life in the Washington news cycle. The Washington
Post
revisited the incident about a year later, looking into what the official investigation tells us, and what might have been missed, overstated, or simply ignored. The first thing we learn reading the story is that the whole incident started when a tourist from Connecticuit “drove up to the Secret Service kiosk at 15th and E streets NW,” a vantage from which you cannot even see the White House. Instead of stopping as ordered by the Secret Service police, she made “a U-turn and [attempted] to drive back into the public space.”

The first question I had when I read that was “isn’t leave what we’re supposed to do when we get to a security checkpoint we’re not supposed to be at?” The Post confirmed that answer is yes: you only commit a crime if you stay. Would I have stopped and rolled down my window? Maybe. But maybe I would have done exactly what Miriam did, realized I was somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be and leave.

To be sure, Carey did some odd things after the Secret Service and Capitol
Police began chasing her. Why didn’t she pull over her car? Why did she back up when there were police with guns drawn standing over her car? Maybe it’s because she was a maniacal criminal, but maybe it’s because encounters between black Americans and the police genearlly favor the police.

We’ll never know.

If, instead of starting with the assumption that she was a maniac guilty of
conspiracy to assassinate the President, we assume she was innocent, it becomes pretty easy to imagine Miriam Carey as a woman from out of town, lost in DC and unfortunately learned the hard way that you cannot continue going west on E St. after 15th St. NW. And while I’m no expert on law enforcement, the “hard way” here seems excessive. After the chase down Pennsylvania Avenue she was ultimately shot at 12 times (eight times while her car was moving, which the Post quotes is rare, dangerous, and “only seems to work well in the movies,”) eventually killing her in her car next to her baby.

I’m not saying attempting to drive on the White House grounds isn’t cause for alarm—neither is the Post. Nor am I saying disregarding the instructions of a guard at a security checkpoint isn’t cause for alarm—again, neither is the Post. I’m certainly not saying protection of the president is not a special kind of law enforcement. All those things are true. What the Post does say is that accidentally driving into that restricted area is a misdemeanor, and a fairly common one that again is only committed if you refuse to leave. What I am saying is that it looks like Miriam Carey actually did leave, and quickly, and even if she wasn’t leaving, any crime she committed before being killed certainly wouldn’t be a capital crime during a fair trial before a jury of her peers (see US Constitution, Amendment 6). As the Post put it “Carey did not refuse to leave. She refused to stop leaving.”

Stealing cigarillos from a convenience store in Missouri is also a misdemeanor, as is brandishing a weapon in Ohio (especially if you’re a confused child). At least I’m pretty sure they are (IANAL). While I’m not equating these situations, it is impossible to ignore that these three individuals were killed by people we are supposed to trust to keep us safe before anyone asked them a question for allegedly committing a minor crime.

Is this the society we want? It’s situations like these that make so-called
Castle Laws so terrifying: ordinary people being gunned down out of fear. That we citizens might make a mistake and wind up dead is terrifying. What’s more terrifying is that it seems like when white people make these mistakes sometimes we get away with it (see the accounts of Mathew Goldstein and Kevin Carr in the Post article). We at least get charged with a crime. But when a black person makes a mistake, justice is swift and dealt by the barrel of a gun.

None of this should be news to anyone. Debates about marijuana legalization here in DC and several other places around the country have highlighted the disparities in arrest rates among black and white people. Hopefully the best justice Miriam Carey, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, and any other black person killed imprisoned, or mistreated by police officers this year is to incite change. I don’t know what that change looks
like but I know it starts with you and me standing up for injustice wherever we see it. It starts with people who don’t see a problem with unarmed black people being killed by police realizing that black lives matter.