Policing in the United States has evolved throughout the centuries, but killing black people with impunity has been a common theme for what seems like actual forever. It feels as though the institution could use its own 1619 Project at times, sourcing policing’s Southern roots, at least, to some of the slave patrols that went from chasing down escaped captive Africans and their descendants to enforcing Jim Crow segregation. Nowadays, about one in 1,000 black men and boys in America can expect to die at the hands of police, according to a recent academic study. If those sound like good odds to you, you’re probably white.
That statistic, along with common sense and experience, is why so many of us thought that Amber Guyger would get away with murdering Botham Jean. You could see it on the faces of the family of the young accountant, only 26 when Guyger, then a Dallas cop who lived one floor below him, entered Jean’s apartment on September 6th, 2018 and shot him fatally in the chest. You could hear it in the remarks of the activists who had come to the Dallas County courthouse, anticipating that they would need to respond with a protest. One black pastor later told the Dallas Morning News that “we were praying for the best but preparing for the worst.” Our folks know what follows the first verse of this song. We have heard it so many times before. We are tired of its beats, but we know all too well how to move to its rhythms.
Even still, Guyger’s crime seemed almost manufactured by some kind of racist trickster to test the boundaries of black sanity: A white cop goes inside the apartment of her black neighbor. Claiming she did so mistakenly and thinking he was a burglar, she shoots him dead — then claims Texas’ “castle doctrine” defense in court, as if she, the actual intruder, was allowed suddenly to stand her ground on someone else’s property. Guyger’s defense relied on the typical defamation of victims in cases like this, insisting in their closing that somehow the presence of marijuana in Jean’s system mattered. But as we saw here with Jean and in the cases of Laquan McDonald and Walter Scott, turns out that black men can be murdered by cops in ways that are, in fact, too obvious to escape punishment.
Guyger’s defense was an insult to the intelligence of everyone who heard it, and that was before we learned about her tendency to send racist text messages. As someone who has lived in one of these kinds of high-rise apartment buildings, the notion that someone would not only enter the wrong apartment, but park one level above where they lived — even after more than 13 hours on the job, as Guyger had been that September day — is ludicrous. This felt like the strangest case on the one hand, and yet, because it involved a white police officer killing an unarmed black man, there was an inclination to lend a depressing credence to her defense. She had been a cop, supported by a police union chief who, on the very night of the murder, had her switch off a squad car camera that might have captured their conversation. American jurisprudence was working as designed. I anticipated that she’d be acquitted.
However, I did not know the makeup of the jury. Only two of the 12 jurors were white, and that mattered. As Juror Project founder William Snowden told Slate in an interview after the verdict, the defense’s cynical marijuana ploy likely backfired with a jury that “may have had a different sense of empathy” for a young professional doing nothing but watching television and eating ice cream on a September evening when a uniformed officer comes through his door and assumes the literal worst about him.
However, it is the microcosm of this tragedy, and the rarity of the diverse jury pool that delivered a measure of justice to Jean’s loved ones, that underscore just how much further we have to go. Family attorney Benjamin Crump recited, in exultation, the names of virtually every prominent black victim of racist violence whose killers went free. “This verdict is for Trayvon Martin, it’s for Michael Brown, it’s for Sandra Bland, it’s for Tamir Rice, it’s for Eric Garner, it’s for Antwon Rose, it’s for Jemel Roberson, for EJ Bradford, for Stephon Clark, for Jeffrey Dennis, Genevieve Dawes, for Pamela Turner” — he was even interrupted by his fellow lawyer, Lee Merritt, with another name, O’Shae Terry. ”For so many black and brown unarmed human beings all across America,” Crump kept on, “this verdict today is for them.”
I felt Crump’s joy and desire to honor the pain of those families, but resented it at the same time. The Guyger verdict isn’t anything approaching restorative justice. It really can’t be “for” anyone but the Jean family, who will never truly account for that loss.
Guyger was looking at anywhere between five and 99 years or life in prison, and though she was sentenced to 10 years on Wednesday afternoon, it frankly doesn’t matter. She could have gotten the maximum, and it wouldn’t make it safer to look like Botham Jean in this America. Keep in mind the police chief in New Jersey now on trial for a hate crime after slamming a black teenager’s head in a door jamb, the same guy who once said that Trump is “the last hope for white people.” Things here are continuing to fall apart, not come together.
We cannot sigh with too much satisfaction about what was achieved in that Dallas courtroom without remembering how far we remain underwater. We still can’t breathe yet. The casual nature with which police continue to treat black lives remains virtually unaddressed by our major political apparatus. Some presidential candidates, such as Julián Castro and Kamala Harris, have directly addressed police standards for violent force with serious proposals. However, they are preparing to face an incumbent who has crowed (or used to) about criminal justice reform even as he implored cops to rough up their suspects. The Guyger conviction is a win, and perhaps it can be used as a road map for the many more that need to come.
To paraphrase Dr. King’s final, fateful address, this is a nation that continues not to be what it promised on paper. That must be a daily demand, even in the midst of catharsis. We should all long for the day that we do not have to be surprised by justice.