Community organizations and activists demand police accountability at a rally in Grand Central Terminal to commemorate the 5-year anniversary of Mike Brown’s death by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. Photo: Erik McGregor/Getty Images
Seven years after the launch of the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s still rare for police officers to be charged in the deaths of African Americans — and even more rare for an officer to go to jail.
The big picture: The Minneapolis police officer who was captured on video kneeling on George Floyd’s neck has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter — which is already a step beyond the consequences other police officers have faced. But it’s no guarantee that he will face jail time.
The backstory: The Black Lives Matter movement took off in 2013 when George Zimmerman, a civilian, was acquitted of shooting Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. The case kickstarted the international movement to address the controversial deaths of black people, particularly at the hands of police.
- But since then, the cases have usually ended with either no charges or no jail time for police officers.
- One exception is Amber Guyger, the former Dallas police officer who was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison for fatally shooting 26-year-old Botham Jean, an unarmed black man, in his Dallas apartment.
- Yet Peter Liang, a former New York police officer who was convicted of manslaughter in the 2014 shooting death of Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man, got off with five years of probation and community service.
Here’s how other prominent cases ended:
Location: Ferguson, Mo.
Date of death: Aug. 9, 2014
Police officer Darren Wilson encountered Brown and another suspect following reports of Brown taking a pack of cigarillos from a convenience store and shoving an employee.
- That interaction was debated, with one side claiming Brown attacked Wilson in his car, attempting to take his gun, and the other alleging Brown actively surrendered before Wilson shot him.
- Wilson was not indicted, but did resign from the Ferguson Police Department.
Location: Staten Island, N.Y.
Date of death: July 17, 2014
Garner allegedly sold individual cigarettes outside a convenience store when police confronted him. Officer Daniel Pantaleo reportedly restrained Garner in a chokehold, an act that is prohibited by the New York Police Department.
- Garner reportedly said “I can’t breathe” 11 times during the encounter.
- Pantaleo was fired, but a grand jury declined to indict him and the Justice Department declined to bring charges against him.
- The city settled with Garner’s family for $5.9 million.
Location: Cleveland, Ohio
Date of death: Nov. 23, 2014
Two officers, Frank Garmbark and Timothy Loehmann, answered a call reporting a person pulling a gun in a park. The caller said the gun was “probably fake” and the holder “probably a juvenile.” The dispatcher failed to relay either detail to the officers, per the New York Times.
- Video shows less than two seconds after the car reached Rice, Loehmann shot him, per NBC.
- The officers were not indicted. Loehmann was later fired for discrepancies on his job application. Garmback was suspended for 10 days — shortened to five — for violating tactical rules in driving to the scene. The dispatcher was suspended for eight days, per Cleveland.com.
- The Rice family received a $6 million settlement.
Location: Baltimore, Md.
Date of death: April 19, 2015
Gray was reportedly fleeing from officers when police caught him, found a knife in his pocket and arrested him. Officers placed him in a van without proper restraints, per the Baltimore Sun. Gray suffered a spinal-cord injury during the commute and later died.
- Six officers were charged in Gray’s death. Three were acquitted, while the charges against the other three were dropped.
- A $6.4 million settlement was issued for claims related to Gray’s death.
Location: Falcon Heights, Minn.
Date of death: July 6, 2016
Castile, with his girlfriend in the car, was pulled over for a traffic stop by St. Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez, CNN reports. Castile told Yanez he was legally carrying a gun. Castile then reached for something, resulting in Yanez, thinking the object was his gun, shooting Castile.
- Castile’s girlfriend, who broadcast the event on Facebook Live, said he was reaching for his license.
- Yanez was acquitted of second-degree manslaughter. The city issued a $3 million settlement to Castile’s mother.
Location: Sacramento, Calif.
Date of death: March 18, 2018
Clark was killed by two Sacramento police officers in his grandmother’s backyard after they responded to a 911 call about a man breaking car windows. The shooting was captured on the officers’ body cameras.
- The officers — Jared Robinet and Terrence Mercadal — fired 20 shots at Clark, hitting him at least seven times, because they believed he had a gun, per NPR. The only thing Clark had was a cellphone.
- The district attorney declined to file criminal charges.
- Clark’s family reached a $2.4 million settlement with the city of Sacramento.
America’s unfinished business
The fury over George Floyd’s killing is erupting as the U.S. faces a looming wave of business bankruptcies, likely home evictions and a virus pandemic that will all disproportionately hit African Americans.
Why it matters: What these seemingly disparate issues share in common is that they emanate from systemic abuses that calls to action and promised reforms have yet to meaningfully address.
- Consider the extrajudicial killings in the past decade of Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and numerous other black Americans for which there was no fundamental legal resolution.
- The overwhelming majority of their killers went free and some retained their jobs in law enforcement.
Be smart: Likewise, much of the economic fallout we’re seeing because of the coronavirus stems largely from unresolved issues left over from the 2008 Great Recession.
- After the recession, none of the top executives who had originated, boxed or sold the collateralized debt obligations and improperly rated mortgage-backed securities faced criminal charges.
- And many of the big banks that profited from selling the subprime mortgages that precipitated the fallout not only survived, but thrived in the recession’s aftermath.
The root cause of the 2008 crisis — rampant corporate greed — was never sufficiently contained.
- Many of the meager protections created for everyday Americans through the Dodd-Frank financial reform act have since been clawed back by the Trump administration and the Fed.
- And much of the reckless behavior that Dodd-Frank prohibited at banks simply moved to the unregulated shadow banking sphere and continues at much the same pace.
Between the lines: The swift action from the Federal Reserve and Congress that saved the financial system had the unintended effect of exacerbating the nation’s growing income inequality. Last year, the Census Bureau reported the U.S. had its highest level of income inequality ever.
What’s next: The coronavirus pandemic looks to be heading in much the same way.
- A new recession has left at least 34 million people on government unemployment assistance and likely millions more without a job — and the difference between the reality for working- and middle-class African Americans and wealthy white Americans is stark.
- The virus has affected black Americans at a much higher rate, largely a result of widespread economic inequality that has kept black folks in less affluent neighborhoods with more people packed into less space.
Though no vaccine has been developed, governors in every U.S. state have begun pulling back “stay at home” orders and allowing people to freely congregate in large groups and enclosed spaces again.
- More black Americans have lost their jobs than white Americans as a result of the coronavirus-driven recession, and more stand to face evictions as most rent rather than own.
- By contrast, wealthy Americans — who are disproportionately white — are more likely to have the flexibility to retreat to second homes or vacation homes. Existing home values actually increased in April and are poised to continue this year, real estate economists predict.
Many on Wall Street have cheered the reopening of local and state economies around the country, but with that reopening comes the removal of pandemic relief policies like eviction moratoriums.
- Increased government unemployment benefits are set to expire right as many Americans will find themselves permanently out of a job or without an employer to go back to.
- Meanwhile, the wealthy are increasing their savings rate. They’re seeing their investment portfolios bounce back.
Consider statistics from the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank focused on economic issues facing low and middle-income Americans. The data show white middle-income households — earning between $37,201 and $61,328 per year — own an average $86,100 in assets.
- By contrast, assets average $11,000 for black families and $8,600 for Latino families in the same income range.
- A 2015 survey by Ariel asked Americans with household income of at least $50,000 whether they owned stocks or stock mutual funds. Eighty-six percent of whites said they did. For African-Americans, the number was 67%.
American society is teetering on the edge
The COVID-19 pandemic, record unemployment and escalating social unrest are all pushing American society close to the breaking point.
The big picture: Civilizations don’t last forever, and when they collapse, the cause is almost always internal failure. Even in the midst of one of our darkest years, the U.S. still has many factors in its favor, but the fate of past societies holds frightening lessons for what may lie ahead.
If America seems like a country on the brink, it may well be. Experts who have studied the collapse of civilizations in the past warn that the U.S. is exhibiting symptoms of a society in real existential peril.
- “The U.S. is at risk of a downfall over the coming decade,” says Luke Kemp, a research associate at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge. “There are early warning signals and the different contributors to collapse are rising.”
Those factors include:
Disease: The U.S. wouldn’t be the first civilization overthrown by a microscopic pathogen.
- The “Antonine plague” struck the Roman Empire at its height in the late second century, spreading via trade routes to kill an estimated 7 million to 8 million people. Another plague in the mid-sixth century — a precursor to Europe’s “Black Death” — may have killed half the Roman Empire, and its aftershocks “helped push the Romans past the breaking point,” as the University of Oklahoma classics professor Kyle Harper wrote in 2017.
- COVID-19 almost certainly won’t exact a human toll anywhere near as large. But its rapid spread has underscored the downside to globalization, while the struggles of the U.S. government to control it has exposed institutional failure and ingrained inequities in American society.
Inequality: One factor that recurs again and again in the collapse of civilizations is the rise of inequality, as elites increasingly accumulate wealth and power at the expense of the masses. Inequality creates social unrest, but it also undermines the collective solidarity needed to respond to other threats, both internal and external.
- Even before the pandemic, the gap between the richest and the poorest U.S. households in 2019 was the largest it had been in 50 years. While the income of the poor had been rising thanks to years of economic expansion, that growth was dwarfed by the wealth flowing to the richest of the rich — and as historian Patrick Wyman told me, “the perception of social inequality is as important as what people objectively have access to.”
- COVID-19 will almost certainly worsen inequality, especially if employers take the opportunity to accelerate automation in the workplace. The pandemic has also shown the vulnerability of Black workers, who disproportionately either work in sectors that have been hardest hit by the lockdown or in front-line positions that put them in the crosshairs of the coronavirus.
Social unrest: Every state has experienced street protests in recent days, while Washington, D.C., has been transformed by a massive security clampdown. What Americans are witnessing “is what happens in countries before a collapse,” as a former CIA analyst told the Washington Post.
- President Trump’s willingness to push past norms by threatening to unleash the military — in what he characterizes as an effort to combat the looting that has accompanied some protests and critics argue is a naked grab at authoritarianism — risks even greater violence.
- A deeply polarized electorate is facing a presidential election that could be disrupted by the pandemic, an election whose outcome may well be disputed and even resisted by many Americans, no matter which candidate wins. No less a mainstream voice than New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman warned on Wednesday that the U.S. is “edging toward a cultural civil war.”
- That entrenched division — aided by the polarizing effects of social media and increasingly punctuated by real violence — threatens to cripple America in the face of external threats, from the ongoing pandemic to the rise of China to the deepening tide of climate change.
Yes, but: Look back over American history and you can find more dire examples of each of these factors. The social unrest in 1968 was far bloodier; the 1918 flu pandemic killed far more people; and, of course, ending the original sin of slavery required a civil war that resulted in 750,000 deaths.
- But as Friedman noted in his column, “Abraham Lincoln is not the president.”
The bottom line: America’s record of weathering past existential crises gives us hope of survival, but not certainty. The next few months could tell us whether the U.S. is ultimately on the road to renewal or ruin.
The Path to Racial Justice Runs Through This Agency
President Biden should choose the next director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office carefully.
Ms. Krishtel is a founder and an executive director of the Initiative for Medicines, Access & Knowledge, a nonprofit organization working to address structural inequities in how medicines are developed and distributed. Feb. 9, 2021
On his first day as president, Joe Biden signed an executive order proclaiming a “whole-of-government equity agenda.” Among other things, the order requires the head of each federal agency to identify and seek to redress structural inequities in its operations.
When it comes to the advancement of racial equity, some agencies immediately come to mind — the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Education, and Health and Human Services, to name just three. Mr. Biden’s picks for these agencies will be closely scrutinized by anyone who cares about racial justice.
But one appointment crucial to the achievement of that goal consistently flies under the radar: the director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office — a position that for the nation’s entire history, with the exception of Michelle Lee, a Barack Obama appointee, has been filled by a white male.
A division of the Department of Commerce, the Patent and Trademark Office grants patents (rewards in the form of time-limited monopolies issued by governments) and trademarks, as the Constitution directs, to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” Though the connection is less obvious than for agencies that deal with civil rights, poverty, health care or housing, there is a direct line between what the agency does and the systemic disenfranchisement of Black people.
Structural racism has a long history in our patent system. Like redlining, the patent system played a huge role in denying Black people opportunities for upward mobility — opportunities that were readily available to white people. Enslaved people weren’t allowed to patent their inventions. In the South, their white enslavers often got the patents instead. (The cotton gin and the mechanical reaper are thought to have been at least partly invented by people who were enslaved.) The ingenuity of Black people was appropriated and monetized. Their resulting low rates of patenting were weaponized by some to argue that Black people lacked ingenuity.
Even today, Black people account for only a tiny fraction of patent holders. Research by Lisa Cook, an economist at Michigan State University who served on Mr. Biden’s transition team, indicates that from 1975 to 2008, fewer than 1 percent of people granted patents were Black. Whether that’s due to structural issues in the Patent and Trademark Office or to systemic barriers Black people face that make them less likely to apply for patents is unclear; the agency’s colorblind approach means it doesn’t collect demographic data about applicants. Since we can’t fix what we don’t measure, the next director must make changing this a priority. And, given the agency’s historical lack of diverse leadership, the Biden administration should strongly consider a person of color for the role.
While representation matters, any equity agenda for the Patent and Trademark Office has to go far beyond who is in charge, or even who gets a patent. In addition to fighting a pandemic that has disproportionately harmed Black and brown people, America is in a drug-pricing crisis fueled by unchecked patenting.
An analysis conducted by my organization, the Initiative for Medicines, Access, & Knowledge, found that the 10 best-selling medicines in the United States in 2019 had been granted an average of 131 patents each, with up to 38 years of monopoly protection — far longer than the 20 years intended by law. With generic competition blocked during these added years of monopoly protection, drugmakers are free to increase prices at whim. The average price hike over five years was 71 percent, though the Patent and Trademark Office has yet to acknowledge the link between patent monopolies and drug prices.
The new director could help fix this troubling pattern. While patent reviews are the purview of patent examiners, the director sets some of the rules of engagement. The director could, for example, make it more difficult to extend the life of a patent or make it easier for generic manufacturers or others acting in the public interest to challenge unjust patents.
Since the start of the pandemic, one-tenth of Black and Latino families and one-sixth of Indigenous families in the United States reported being unable to afford prescription medicines to manage a major health issue. Countries with predominantly Black and brown populations are vulnerable because wealthy countries have eaten up existing Covid-19 vaccine stocks instead of sharing knowledge and allowing manufacturers in other countries to boost the global vaccine supply. This is the predictable outcome of a system that refuses to budge on intellectual property rights even in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century.
The Patent and Trademark Office is largely insulated from these human consequences of the system it oversees. Few avenues exist for people to engage with the office, which, despite being a public agency, interacts almost exclusively with people and entities seeking patents for commercial reasons — businesses and universities, mostly — and very little with those who stand to suffer immensely from those monopolies. For example, a majority of the agency’s “public” advisory committee members are representatives of corporations, including several from the pharmaceutical sector. Is it any wonder that the interests of Black people are overlooked, when you consider how vastly underrepresented they are in corporate America?
For too long, the Patent and Trademark Office has operated as though equity isn’t part of its mandate. But the right leader will understand that the patent system is one of the most powerful instruments for justice in our federal arsenal. To stay true to its promise of equity across government, the Biden administration must choose wisely.
Priti Krishtel (@pritikrishtel) is a founder and an executive director of the Initiative for Medicines, Access & Knowledge, a nonprofit organization working to address structural inequities in how medicines are developed and distributed.
Black Power: Now or Never
Population shifts mean more political might for relatively fewer people.
It is easy to believe that Black power and influence are growing in America, and that the logical conclusion is that a set of policies favoring the Black community in America — a so-called Black agenda — is growing more likely as the years pass and the percentage of nonwhite Americans rises.
This election alone, the vice president is a first in several ways — not only the first Black person in that role, but also the first woman and the first person of South Asian descent.
Black people played an indispensable role in key states to deliver the White House to Joe Biden and control of the Senate to Democrats, including in Georgia, where Black voters were the majority of the coalition that turned the state blue.
Furthermore, an analysis by the Pew Research Center pointed out Thursday:
“About a quarter of voting members (23 percent) of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate are racial or ethnic minorities, making the 117th Congress the most racially and ethnically diverse in history. There has been a long-running trend toward higher numbers of nonwhite lawmakers on Capitol Hill: This is the sixth Congress to break the record set by the one before it.”
Pew reported that “13 percent of House members are Black, about equal to the share of Black Americans.”
But some of what we see may be illusory and in some ways the passing of a Black agenda may become harder, not easier. The window that could allow the passage of such a slate of policies may be closing as we speak.
As Norman Ornstein tweeted in 2018:
“I want to repeat a statistic I use in every talk: By 2040 or so, 70 percent of Americans will live in 15 states. Meaning 30 percent will choose 70 senators. And the 30 percent will be older, whiter, more rural, more male than the 70 percent. Unsettling to say the least.”
The Washington Post checked this claim and found that “In broad strokes, Ornstein is correct.” The Post continued:
“The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service of the University of Virginia analyzed Census Bureau population projections to estimate each state’s likely population in 2040, including the expected breakdown of the population by age and gender. Although that data was released in 2016, before the bureau revised its estimates for the coming decades, we see that, in fact, the population will be heavily centered in a few states.”
If you think it has been hard to get this Senate to embrace policies like reparations or voting rights that stand to benefit Black people, imagine how much harder that task will be before a Senate that continues to tilt toward smaller states.
This is why I think Mitch McConnell was playing sly when he demanded that Democrats maintain the Senate filibuster as part of a power-sharing agreement.
“Today, I made clear that if Democrats ever attack the key Senate rules, it would drain the consent and comity out of the institution. A scorched-earth Senate would hardly be able to function. It wouldn’t be a progressive’s dream. It would be a nightmare. I guarantee it.”
He then dropped that objection without getting any concession in return. I believe he is playing a Brer Rabbit-style trick with the ultimate goal of creating a nightmare scenario for progressives. While abandoning the filibuster would indeed be advantageous to liberals in the short term, in the long term — when it may become harder and harder for Democrats to maintain control of the chamber — it could be a disaster, allowing the minority in America to say what becomes law and which judges get confirmed.
Republicans will look back on these days and say that we begged the Democrats to keep the filibuster, but they wouldn’t listen. Now that Democrats have gotten rid of it, we Republicans will play the game by the rules they established: “Scorched-earth.”
Furthermore, a Pew demographic analysis has found that by 2065, Hispanics in America will nearly double the population of Black people, and Asians will overtake Black people as the nation’s second-largest minority.
Each of these groups have their own specific legislative agendas. How high on the list of priorities will be the agenda of the third-largest minority group at that point?
Furthermore, if Hispanics and Asians vote then the way they vote now — a third of each group voted for Trump — their combined votes for Republicans will eclipse the Black vote for Democrats.
In a book I published Tuesday, “The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto,” I argue that it is urgent that Black people consolidate political power now. In my view, the acquisition of Black power has reached a level of urgency rivaling that of the climate crisis: Immediate action is required, but it may very well already be too late.
A Focus on ‘Anarchists and Thugs’
Mr. Trump’s focus on what he portrayed as a major threat from antifa was embraced in particular by Attorney General William P. Barr.
Mr. Barr had long harbored concerns about protests and violence from the left. Soon after taking office in early 2019, he began a weekly national security briefing by asking the F.B.I. what it was doing to combat antifa, according to two people briefed on the meetings. Officials viewed his sense of the threat as exaggerated. They explained that it was not a terrorist organization, but rather a loose movement without an organization or hierarchy, and tried to correct what they described as misperceptions, according to one of the people.
Still, in meetings last year with political appointees in Washington, department investigators felt pressured to find evidence that antifa adherents were conspiring to conduct coordinated terrorist attacks.
But while Mr. Trump and others saw the developments as evidence of a major assault from the left, the picture was actually more complicated.
The shooting by Mr. Reinoehl, as the F.B.I. pointed out this month in an internal memo, was the first killing in more than 20 years by what the bureau classifies as an “anarchist violent extremist,” the type of threat Mr. Trump had emphasized.
Over the late spring and summer, the F.B.I. opened more than 400 domestic terrorism investigations, including about 40 cases into possible antifa adherents and 40 into the boogaloo, a right-wing movement seeking to start a civil war, along with investigations into white supremacists suspected of menacing protesters, according to F.B.I. data and a former Justice Department official. Even among those movements, career prosecutors saw the boogaloo as the gravest threat.
Members of violent militias began to go to protests as self-appointed police forces, sometimes saying that they had heeded Mr. Trump’s call. They attended Republican events as self-described security forces.
Still, Justice Department leadership was adamant that terrorism investigators focus on antifa as the demonstrations spread, according to an official who worked on the inquiries.
The small cadre of intelligence analysts inside the department’s counterterrorism section were pulled into the effort, writing twice daily reports. National security prosecutors staffed command posts at the F.B.I. to deal with the protests and associated violence and property crimes, and to help protect statues and monuments seen as potential targets.
All of this was a strain on the counterterrorism section, which has only a few dozen prosecutors and like other parts of the department was reeling from the coronavirus. A top F.B.I. domestic terrorism chief also expressed concern to Justice Department officials over the summer about the diversion of resources.
The counterterrorism section at the time was working with prosecutors and agents around the country on cases involving people affiliated with the Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, other militia members and violent white supremacists. In some parts of the country, agents who had been investigating violent white supremacists pivoted to investigate anarchists and others involved in the rioting, struggling in certain cases to find any conspiracy or other federal charges to bring against them.
Around the same time, the F.B.I. was tracking worrisome threats emanating from the far right. Agents in Michigan monitoring members of a violent antigovernment militia called Wolverine Watchmen received intelligence in June that the men planned to recruit more members and kidnap state governors, according to court documents.
After six members of the group were charged in October with plotting to abduct Ms. Whitmer, one of Mr. Trump’s most vocal opponents, the president insulted her and reiterated that the left posed the true threat. “She calls me a White Supremacist — while Biden and Democrats refuse to condemn Antifa, Anarchists, Looters and Mobs that burn down Democrat run cities,” Mr. Trump said on Twitter.
Dozens of F.B.I. employees and senior managers were sent on temporary assignments to Portland — including the head of the Tampa field office, who was an expert in Islamic terrorism, according to current and former law enforcement officials — where left-leaning protests had intensified since tactical federal teams arrived.
Some F.B.I. agents and Justice Department officials expressed concern that the Portland work was a drain on the bureau’s effort to combat what they viewed as the more lethal strains of domestic extremism. The bureau had about 1,000 domestic terrorism cases under investigation at the time, and only several hundred agents in the field assigned to them. The Homeland Security Department even sent agents to Portland who were usually assigned to investigate drug cartels at the border.
Mr. Barr also formed a task force run by trusted U.S. attorneys in Texas and New Jersey to prosecute antigovernment extremists. Terrorism prosecutors working on the investigations arising from the summer’s violence were not told beforehand of Mr. Barr’s decision. They questioned the rationale behind the task force because it seemed to duplicate their work and could create confusion, according to two people familiar with their pushback.
Ultimately, the federal response to last year’s protests elicited a mixed bag. Federal prosecutors nationwide charged more than 200 people with crimes, including some who self-identified with antifa.
But the F.B.I. also charged adherents of the boogaloo, including an Air Force sergeant suspected of murdering a federal officer and trying to kill another in California. The sergeant had previously been charged with the shooting death of a sheriff’s deputy in Santa Cruz County during a gun battle on June 6 that led to his arrest.