Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
This was the question posed by the Roman poet Juvenal in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries AD. This was also the problem explored by the philosopher Plato in The Republic. Though the latter asked in the context of patriarchal marriage fidelity, it has been referenced by Plato and many others thereafter in the frame that it is literally translated: Who guards the guardians?
Juvenal asked the question, if a husband is unfaithful to his wife, how can he prevent himself from being unfaithful to her? His question: Who will watch the watchman? With Plato, though he did not directly ask the same question, he talked about a guardian class that protects society and how to manipulate the guardian class to guard themselves against themselves in the form of a “noble lie” that convinces them protecting against themselves is for their own good.
On Wednesday, December 3rd, a New York City Grand Jury released a decision to not indict Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD Officer that was responsible for the death of Eric Garner, a black man accused of selling a loose cigarette and was killed when Pantaleo attempted arrest. Within weeks prior to this Grand Jury’s decision, a Grand Jury in Saint Louis decided to not indict Darren Wilson, a Ferguson, Missouri police officer that shot and killed 18-year old Michael Brown who was also black. Days before, Cleveland police officer, Timothy Loehmann shot and killed 12-year old Tamir Rice, after it was reported that a black male was waiving around a gun. The gun happened to be a toy and after reporting that Rice reached for his waist when he was ordered to put his hands up, a videotape was released that showed Loehmann shooting Rice, upon arrival, just as soon as he could open his car door. These three deaths are only the latest in a history that has seen countless others killed and justice for these deaths in question. Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, Jonny Gammage, Ousmane Zongo, Tim Stansbury, Wendell Allen, John Crawford. These names only begin to scratch the surface of those that had their lives taken away and the families looking for accountability. Accountability from the guardian-class itself, the American Justice system.
For decades, Black folks, black men in general, have had a contentious relationship with law enforcement. Thousands, including myself have told stories of arrest, detainment, searches, stops, assaults and aggressive conduct precipitated by law enforcement at a level that eclipses every other ethnic and social group or classification in America. This has, in turn, caused many within the Black Community to lose their trust in law enforcement and a justice system, which is set up to serve their interest. Unfortunately the evidence to the contrary is damning. It’s extremely hard for me to put into words exactly what this nation has been through over the last several weeks. But we have seen a range of emotions and a range of protest with a wide range of persons involved. And as much as I would like to believe that America and its multitudes of people have turned a corner or woken up to atrocities that have been happening for decades, but we’ve seen this movie before. Literally. The deaths of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice might be on tape and we can CLEARLY see what happens to them, just as we clearly saw the lack of accountability by the authorities to prevent these deaths from happening. However, 23 years ago, we also saw a collective of LAPD officers nearly beat to death an unarmed Rodney King and we also saw what happened when there were questions of accountability. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the first time America saw shocking abuses of authority against Black Americans. The nation had it’s darkest visual of such tyranny 26 prior to Rodney King’s beating with the March from Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, nearly 50 years ago. Though those imagines were seared in the minds of millions across the country and it lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year, those state troopers responsible for beating and hospitalizing marchers and killing Jimmy Lee Jackson would hardly face the level of accountability that their brutality demanded.
The moral of the story is that it KEEPS happening. Incrementally, things are changed, laws are passed. However, Black Men are still targeted. Black Americans who make up just 13% of the overall population represent nearly 33% of the arrest related deaths at the hands of police. Similarly, a report released by the Justice Department showed 13% of black drivers in America were pulled over in traffic stops in 2011, compared to only 10% of whites, despite obvious population differences. This would make black drivers 31% more likely to be pulled over than their White counterparts. What’s worse? Black drivers are more likely to be pulled over is for alleged defects or record checks than speeding. More troubling, twice as many Black drivers are given no reason at all for why they were stopped than White drivers. Additionally, White drivers were less likely to be searched than Black drivers. Over the years, these numbers have not changed. And despite the sense of awareness raised by sensational events like the death of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, much like Rodney King and the Selma marchers before him, Black Americans will still be left questioning whether or not we can trust authority.
2,000 years ago, Plato explored the reason why those with power are responsible with the power they wield. Naturally, for a society to survive there is needed a guardian class to protect the society from each other and from outside agitators. However, he theorized the only way for this guardian class to protect themselves from the guardians itself is for them to believe they have a greater responsibility that sets them apart. What we are seeing today, factions of our guardian class that has not been as responsible as we would like. At least from the point of view of much of Black America. Of course compliance and respect for law enforcement is universally taught to all, however, every Black man in America knows that no matter their level of compliance, they are still subject to a level of scrutiny that breeds discomfort. Unfortunately, time and time again we see that even when these watchmen are watched, the results have not changed this scrutiny. So, despite how much we want and should trust law enforcement, how can we trust them, when we feel they don’t trust us?
Ultimately, Plato concluded that the “noble lie” told to to the guardian class to keep them responsible has to be believed. If it’s not then it would lead to an eventual breakdown of trust between the guardians and those they guard. If they believe this noble lie, whether that it’s given to them by the guarded or an ethical or moral reason for that belief, power will be reserved. However, if they do not believe it, they won’t have a distaste for power. They will crave it. If Black America believes that law enforcement has no responsibility to their power and in a sense do not believe their “noble lie”, Plato describe a growing divide in tensions between the two classes, which ultimately leads to a complete loss of trust. If that were to happen, then a society, no matter how great, will not be able to survive. Especially when the authority is in question.