Protests over Eric Garner and Michael Brown deaths sign for policymakers, political science professor says

12/10/2014 04:09 PM

With the deaths of several African-American men at the hands of police this year, the issue of race and justice in America has become a topic of conversation for the media and politicians seeking higher office.

University of Louisville political science professor Dewey Clayton said public opinion polls show the issue is resonating with the public and politicians are starting to react.

The issues of race-based policing and grand jury non-indictments have been happening for a long time, Clayton said. However, the incidents in Ferguson, Mo., where 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer and in New York, where Eric Garner died after being choked by police, have captured the public’s attention.

“I think it’s something that has been happening for some time now. I think it is something that has been confined to the African-American community largely,” Clayton said.

Clayton said all Americans and several international outlets have been paying attention to the issues too.

“I think people realize we’re not talking about convicting someone. We’re just saying is there probable cause for that person to be held over for a trial. And I think some people really had some questions about that,” Clayton said. “To be honest with you I think that we have basically two levels of justice in this country … one for African-American males in particular and one for the rest of our country.

“If you look at the protests that have occurred since the Eric Garner (incident) they have been much more reflective of the society at large — they have been much more diverse.”

New Yorkers took to the streets after a police officer was not indicted for the restraining chokehold placed on Garner. In Ferguson, the community protests turned into riots as vandals burned down buildings and looted stores in the city.

Referencing civil rights protests in the 1950s and 1960s, Clayton said some level of “spillover” into violence occasionally happens among large groups of protesters — even if it’s unwanted.

“If you go back to looking during the 1950s and ’60s even during Dr. King’s time in the civil rights movement there were always those fringe groups that would come in and wanted to protest and disrupt. King never wanted those to be part of the movement because he said we’re based on non-violence, but you’re going to get that spillover,” Clayton said.

“When you’re having protests, that’s a clear sign that the American people are not content about something. And that’s a sign to policymakers in particular that something needs to happen — they’re trying to get their attention.”

Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul has been talking about the American justice system and the war on drugs as it relates to the African-American community over the past 19 months.

The Republican senator recently spoke to MSNBC, telling host Chris Matthews he blames politicians for what happened to Garner, who was being detained for suspicion of selling loose cigarettes.

“For someone to die over breaking that law, there really is no excuse for it. But I do blame the politicians. We put our police in a difficult situation with bad laws,” Paul said.

News website Salon said Paul missed the mark in his response and “wrecked his ’16 campaign” with his comments.

Clayton said the issue is a sensitive one, and he’s not sure that Paul missed on the question.

“I don’t know if he necessarily missed the mark. It’s always a sensitive area when you’re talking about the police what their role is — what their responsibility is,” Clayton said. “Police have a very difficult job. There is no doubt about that. However, we need to not lose sight of the fact that they are public servants.”

“One of the real issues now is who are they serving? Who are they protecting? Are they serving everyone? Are they protecting everyone?”

Hear what Clayton says about Obama’s remarks in regard to the unrest at 7:30 in the interview above.


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