As I write these words, outrage and disbelief over the failure of a Grand Jury to indict the police officers responsible for the death of Eric Garner and Michael Brown have not subsided. Television and cable news stations, talk radio programs, and news and opinions offered in print and on the internet continue to express a sense of shock at the apparent indifference of the judicial system to hold accountable members of law enforcement who clearly acted recklessly—perhaps criminally—and whose actions, in the case of Mr. Garner, were captured on video. It’s frankly hard to find someone who does not think that the actions of the officers who encountered and tried to arrest Mr. Garner amounted to police brutality, for which they should have minimally stood trial in a court of law. I am among those who feel a sense of bewilderment and deep frustration at the absence of a clear pathway to justice. To be clear, those who protest the outcome of the Staten Island Grand Jury’s deliberations do not necessarily demand punishment for the officers. What is demanded is justice, to open the door for those who may have committed a crime to be judged by a jury of their peers in the light of all available evidence about what happened.
Further, it’s clear that this episode is another symptom of serious racial tension in our society. American citizens are rightly outraged, concerned and frustrated, as we should be. If you’re possibly wondering about whether or not this is an issue of race and why this is a cause to be upset, ask yourself how you, as a Jew, would feel if the victim in the Garner case happened to be a Jew who was the latest victim of brutality. If Jews were repeatedly the victims of policing gone wrong, would we not feel that the police have a different standard of behavior toward Jews?
What are we to do? I suggest two responses. First, let us reaffirm that in matters of justice there can be no compromise. We know this from numerous Jewish sources, especially the Torah, in which we read “Justice, Justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). Why is the word justice repeated, ask the scholars and sages? In order to emphasize the importance of providing the equal and timely application of justice for all, we are told, for justice is the foundation of a decent, upright and orderly society.
And we know that there can be no compromise on doing what is right and just from this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev. In the parasha, we begin to read the story of Joseph, favored by his father and despised by his 11 brothers. When Jacob inexplicably sends Joseph to check on his brothers who are tending flock, they see him coming toward them and plot to kill him. Judah, among the oldest of the brothers, suggests instead that they sell him into slavery. A good compromise, you might think? Not at all, say the sages, who pounce on Judah and criticize him relentlessly for not standing up for what is right and, instead, tempting his brothers away from murder with a financial incentive. There are some things, say the rabbis, on which we cannot compromise, and doing what is right and just is one of them.
Second, let us ensure that dialogue and education about matters of race and justice do not fade away when this story is gone from the headlines. There are a great many people that do not have a clear sense of the lack of trust of law enforcement that exists in communities of color. We can help to build a just and upright society through continuing discussion about the problems we face in our society. I would very much like to see a forum at Oheb Shalom at which we can discuss issues of race and justice in our society and exchange ideas about ways to increase tolerance and trust among people. This is something we must do, for when it comes to justice, there is simply no compromising what is right.