Activist: You Won't Find Justice in an Unjust System
Adam Jackson, CEO of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, says the trials of the six officers for the death of Freddie Gray should not distract from fighting to end systemic police abuse
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JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: After Officer Caesar Goodson was acquitted of all charges, including murder, for the death of Freddie Gray, we spoke to Adam Jackson, CEO of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, one of the groups who helped lead protests after Gray's death last year that culminated with the historic indictment of six officers.
NOOR: Were you surprised by the verdict at all?ADAM JACKSON, CEO, LEADERS OF A BEAUTIFUL STRUGGLE: I mean, no. I mean, I mean, like I've said before, I don't think I'd be surprised if all six of them walked not guilty on all counts. What I does--think it does fuel the idea that Marilyn Mosby's initial filing of the charges was politically motivated and that the goal or the motivation was to actually stop an uprising instead of focusing on prosecuting the officers and making sure that the charges were adequate and that she could complete an adequate investigation in that timeframe. And so that's what people are saying. That's what I've heard people say. But my general reaction is that we need to be focusing on the institutional arrangements that brought us to this point, particularly one that keeps police from being accountable to the public, and how insular the process is. That's what brought us here in the first place.NOOR: And so talk a little bit more about that. And in his ruling, Judge Barry Williams said that if the evidence existed that Caesar Goodson carried out a rough ride, had intent to hurt Freddie Gray by not getting him medical care, by not seatbelting him in, it just wasn't presented. And a lot of those witnesses were other officers that didn't testify, or their testimony helped Caesar Goodson instead of hurting him.JACKSON: Yeah. I mean, the problem is is that if the state cannot prove that in a reasonable situation that another officer would have reacted the same, then there's no way that they can win the argument. Fundamentally, throughout the cases, throughout the different court cases, it doesn't seem that the state is willing to prove that burden. And I feel like what they're relying on at this point is a bunch of theories. And my thing is, I mean, personally, I believe that each and every one of those officers is culpable and that each one of them should be held accountable for Freddie Gray's death. Somebody should. One of those officers should. Caesar Goodson was one of those folks that I definitely thought, like you said, that should've gotten some type for something. But I think ultimately what happened is that the state in a courtroom has not been able to prove its case on a reasonable officer standard. And so in that world, there's no way that any of these officers will probably go to jail. And especially in a bench trial with a judge who was a civil rights attorney, you have--all the pieces are there. It's just that they're not proving it in court.NOOR: And so some experts say the law is stacked to always favor police--the whole reasonable officer standard, right? If it's a different standard than if you and me committed the same act, right, we'd be getting locked up for decades.JACKSON: Right. Exactly. Exactly. And I think that--I mean, like, again, like, that's a legal strategy. But ultimately the fundamental question for me is in the death of a young man in the back of a police van where 80 percent of his spine was severed, is that because he knocked his head against a wall? Like, some one of those officers had something to do with it, and the question is: in what degree and in what facet? And I think that the state is doing a really bad job of proving who, what, and where, and with these half-baked theories. And so I think the burden lies on them to prove it in court and they're just not proving it in court, because I feel like the national exposure this case has gotten, the amount of time and effort that folks have put into analyzing the case, the legal analysis, to me there should be no reason why there shouldn't be some officer held accountable to any degree at all. But it looks like that's the train we are moving on. Like, I mean, I believe if William Porter had a bench trial, he probably would have been found not guilty the first time instead of in this trial. I think that's why--I think the defense's strategy at this point is probably to move towards a lot of bench trials because the state isn't making the right arguments.NOOR: And so some people we've talked to have said justice isn't necessarily a guilty conviction; justice is making sure everything brought out in his trial, the routine abuse, the routine not following of laws, and how the law protects officers, that should be the focus. We should be changing those things. That's all been brought to light now in a court of law, and the effort should be to change those issues. And of course, like, groups like LBS for a long time have said, we need to change inequality, we need empowered communities. Do you think--that was kind of brought to the forefront, in the media, at least, a year ago. Where has that message gone? Do you think that is still resonating with people, if not in the media?JACKSON: I think that each and every verdict is making that message resonate louder, because people are seeking justice from an injust system. Like you said earlier, when the dust settles, if the institutional arrangement that brought us to the point of having police officers not be accountable to the public is not changed and altered, if those institutional and structural barriers are not destroyed, then that means we'll always be caught up in a court case, caught up in a courtroom looking at legalese and legal standards that may not apply in certain situations. And so at this point what are we going to be doing moving forward? And I think that that message of the institutional and structural barriers that need to change, people understand that necessity now. And I think as we continue with these trials, by the end of the year, I believe, if most of these officers end up not getting any time in jail, then it's going to make people--it's going to force everyone to reevaluate where we put our energy in terms of transforming the police practices in the city and some of the public policies that have affected folks in regards to law enforcement.NOOR: And so LBS and other groups like the ACLU have been fighting for these changes for years now, and it's kind of been met with the same result year after year. And every year people are like, well, now this happened. First, like, it was Ferguson happened, so we have to change something. Then Freddie Gray was killed, so we have to change something. But there hasn't been, really, that much movement in Annapolis, the state capital, where the change has to come from in a lot of these cases. And so do you think now there's going to be enough momentum to actually get some laws changed in Annapolis?JACKSON: I do. I mean, I'm cautiously optimistic. But we did make changes in Annapolis this year. It was, like, I'd say, about 70 percent of what we wanted in the end of the day in terms of the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights changing and allowing more citizen participation in the police trial boards. But it did make it mandatory. And so a lot of the changes we can make now can happen locally. But if we need to make more stringent changes to the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights this coming January, I'm confident that people will hear the message now, now that they see the officers got off and they saw the process play out. So I'm confident that we can make changes if people are willing to organize and work with us on that.NOOR: And one of the things that came out in the courtroom was that the prosecution alleged the police of actively undermining their case, the police investigators, of working against the prosecution.JACKSON: Yeah.NOOR: And so, some have said the answer to that is an independent investigator, because the state's attorney has to work with the police on a daily basis, right? So it's going to be--there's a conflict of interest for there to even be an indictment, which was done in this case. But do you think this kind of adds creedence to that argument that there should be a special, maybe, elected investigator that just goes for police abuse?JACKSON: Well, the interesting thing about that is a special elected investigator is the state's attorney. That's the point. And that's the reason why the state's attorney is elected by the people. And so having an independent investigator undermines her ability to prosecute cops, to actually do her job effectively.And so it makes sense that in this case, I mean, maybe the police undermine her ability to prosecute in court, but ultimately that's why we elect her in the first place. That's why we elect a state's attorney. That's why Gregg Bernstein is no longer in office, because he wouldn't prosecute police. And so having an independent investigator in a city like Baltimore doesn't make a lot of sense. Maybe in other areas, if there was appointed state's attorney for other places, sure. But the reason why we elect them in the first place is--.NOOR: So the idea is that it's going to cause--she has to work with people now that she essentially charged them with wrongdoing. JACKSON: Right. Right.NOOR: Right? So the conflict of interest is that the police might not--there's going to be this--it doesn't help her do her job to prosecute police.JACKSON: Yeah. The issue with that is that it just adds more bureaucratic red tape to actually holding police accountable. We have a system where we elect elected officials to do jobs like this, and they should be able to operate accordingly. And just because she has to have relationships with police doesn't mean that she should not be investigating them actively. It doesn't mean that she shouldn't be able to prosecute them. If anything, that's an indictment of the police, an indictment of the institution itself, an indictment of the mayor for appointing a police commissioner who won't have her police officers work with the state's attorney. So in my mind all the accountability falls back on those folks. And then just because you're doing your job effectively doesn't mean that we should appoint another person to add more red tape and more complexity to an already complex situation.NOOR: Thanks so much.JACKSON: Mhm. No problem.
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