Putting a Price on Black Life

Civil Settlements in Bias Cases Rub Salt in Ancient Wounds

An offhand remark in a media interview with the Brown family’s lawyer, Benjamin Crump, got me thinking about a little-discussed abomination. Mr. Crump acknowledged that the family will press a civil suit over Michael’s death, but he made it very clear that any civil settlement won’t address the justice issue–the issue of accountability for the shooter of an unarmed Black man.

I invite you to look without flinching into the matter of civil settlements for both false arrests and police shootings of Black people. It’s an eye-opener. New York City alone has shelled out half a billion dollars over the past five years in cases of this kind. But lots of other U.S. cities–Philadelphia, Denver, Chicago, LA–also have handed over fistfuls of taxpayer money to “settle” suits brought by injured individuals and grieving families in cases that allege racial profiling in the wrongful conduct of police officers.

Settlement money is the bitter fruit of ongoing racial injustice. It’s a kind of declaration that white people have the right to abuse and even take the lives of Black people as long as some payment is eventually offered.

There is much more to this story than the well-known near-immunity from criminal prosecution enjoyed by law enforcement officers. There is the hideousness of the fact that the repeated official “clearing” of racist misconduct is so clearly falsified by the fact that lots of money keeps getting handed over in civil settlements.

If the conduct of an officer or officers in a particular incident had been all good and proper, would all this money be going out the door? Hardly. Settlement money is the bitter fruit of ongoing racial injustice. It’s a kind of declaration that white people have the right to abuse and even take the lives of Black people as long as some payment is eventually offered. It’s salt rubbed into an ancient wound.

peter-laarman-k-e1360713223533In the book of Jeremiah, God is disgusted to see that “everyone is greedy for unjust gain; from prophet to priest everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”

That was twenty-seven centuries ago in far-away Judah. I can’t help thinking that God must be still more disgusted to see how very far from peace with justice we remain in 21st century America.

Peter Laarman
Justice Not Jails

About Peter Laarman

Rev. Peter Laarman serves on the Justice Not Jails steering committee. He formerly directed Progressive Christians Uniting, the LA-based network of activist individuals and congregations that first launched Justice Not Jails in 2012 as a multifaith initiative. He served as the senior minister of New York’s Judson Memorial Church from 1994 to 2004. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, Peter spent 15 years as a labor movement strategist and communications specialist prior to training for ministry.

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  1. […] with activist groups to work to dismantle the mass incarceration system. Over the weekend, he wrote Putting a Price on Black Life: Civil Settlements in Bias Cases Rub Salt in Ancient Wounds while host Sharon Kyle contributed Four Hundred Years: Slavery to […]

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