The poem “Red Velvet” by Nikky Finney and our discussion about police brutality last Wednesday provoked a train of thought on the notion of innocence this week. Growing up, we are taught to trust the law. This makes sense in an ideal legal system. A fair legal system, the law should determine and protect citizens’ innocence (i.e. did you commit a crime or not?).
But what happens when the law is simply unfair?
Unequal treatment of America’s black population is rooted in a history of abuse by our nation. The Jim Crow Laws (roughly 1870’s-1965), which enforced racial segregation among many things, has ensured unequal of black citizen’s under United States law since the Civil War.
So can someone break a law and still be considered innocent?
As we saw in the poem “Red Velvet”, Rosa Park’s arrest exposed the cruelty of America’s laws toward its black population. As the poem illustrates, Rosa Park’s situation was hardly unique, but her story of innocence is told because the orchestrated arrest was able to spark controversy nationwide. The legacy of Jim Crow is real.
As it currently stands our criminal justice system criminalizes those whose values or existence don’t align with hegemonic American values. Law enforcement teaches officers to target and fear people of color, particularly black men. I am sickened by the idea our legal system assumes the culpability of persons of color. Although the US constitution does explicitly state a presumption of innocence, our legal system is based upon the notion that citizens are innocent until proven guilty. However, police brutality toward black citizens in this country sends a very different message. This narrative needs to change. We cannot allow the list of black (men, women, trans*men and trans*women) victims of police brutality to grow any more. They are the innocent. Our nation is guilty.