Law Is Not Justice

It’s been difficult to find the words to describe the absolute heartbreak I feel at the announcement of the “No Indictment” decision in the Darren Wilson case. Some friends are doing a fantastic job in encapsulating the rage that the decision rightly evokes, posting immensely helpful resources, blogs and articles already articulating the reasons why this rage is absolutely justified.

I’m thankful that whatever friends on social media I have who might speak up in support of Wilson are wisely remaining silent today. Yet there are still other, more subtle posts that I’ve seen–perhaps a comment on something someone else posted, a shared article espousing a view with no commentary on the part of the sharer, etc.–which seem to suggest that there is some middle way through this situation, and it is that position that I want to address.

Some of these suggestions include statements like the following:

We just don’t have all the evidence, so we can’t judge what happened.

Regardless of the outcome, and even though I feel bad for his family, rioting is not the answer.

We may think that what Wilson did was wrong, but legally speaking, the grand jury made the right decision.

The common thread through these sentiments is the underlying idea that whatever the law decides is what is ultimately just. Here’s an analogy I’ve found helpful for understanding why that is not always the case and certainly not the case here. In J.Z. Smith’s Map Is Not Territory, he makes the case that even though maps of geographical regions provide useful information for making sense of the region, including locations of and distances between features, cities, etc., they are not the same as an understanding of the territory of that region. The map can never give you a sense of what it’s like to be on the ground. Smith uses this analogy to talk about the study of religion and why the “mapmaking” scholarly exercises of the past are ultimately inadequate for understanding the “territories” of religions.

A similar relationship holds between the concepts of law and justice. The former, like a map, is meant to stake out the borders, in a concrete way, of the territory in question; in this case, what justice would look like for Michael Brown and his family. White folks very naturally hold to this view of the law because the “map” of the law very much resembles the “territory” of what they consider to be just. However, in this case, the terrain of justice is something that the map of the law simply cannot address with any accuracy.

In other words, even if we had conclusive evidence that Darren Wilson acted within the bounds of the law and his duties as a police officer, or to take it further, clear evidence that Michael Brown did something to elicit Wilson’s response (and, to be clear, I believe none of those to be the case), justice would still not be served by the conclusion the grand jury reached. Debates about evidence and whether, according to the law, Wilson ought or ought not to have been indicted are missing the point of the larger issue here; namely that the law does not serve the cries for justice of African American communities in this country. The terrain of the justice they seek and deserve is marred by a history of slavery, lynching, segregation, and now blind white power that refuses to acknowledge that the law in this country is their law, the justice theirs as well.

If a white person wants to understand why justice has not been served despite whatever evidence he thinks there is to the contrary, why the African American community and its supporters in Ferguson and elsewhere believe that protesting outside of the bounds of the law is the appropriate response, then he needs to understand that law and justice in this country belong to him, are for him, under the insidious guise of freedom and justice for all.


One thought on “Law Is Not Justice

  1. It is easy for those who control amd benefit from the power structure to talk about nonviolence. It is easy for them to talk about how rioting is not the answer, or even to talk about loving your enemies. To me, though, the central issue is power. For those being oppressed, their right (and perhaps even responsibility) is to take their legitimate power, by any means necessary.

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