Use the justice that’s there

A white woman holding a mobile phone with a small yellowish dog standing up against her, wearing a white face mask, standing on a wood-chip clearing next to a path in a wooded area of a park.
Amy Cooper

This morning it was revealed that the woman who was videoed making a malicious phonecall to New York police earlier this year after a Black bird-watcher videoed her with her dog off the leash in an area of Central Park where this was banned, had been charged with filing a false report, which is a category A misdemeanour which carries a maximum sentence of a year in jail (this would be a local jail in New York City, not a state or federal prison). The incident happened on 25th May, a few days before the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis which led to the widespread Black Lives Matter protests. The news was greeted with dismay by a number of ‘abolitionists’ who are against using the ‘carceral’ justice system to achieve redress in a case involving racism. These included a Twitter thread from Josie Duffy Rice (of The Appeal and the Justice Podcast) who said, “I do not believe those consequences should be criminal charges, because I do not think this system has the legitimacy or value to address her wrongdoing”. In response to another thread from Marc Lamont Hill, I responded that the system was the only one there is. This produced a reaction from Dr Usaama al-Azami:

I don’t think using the law to punish a racist who tried to use the police to get a Black man at best roughed up and at worst killed amounts to condoning slavery or Jim Crow on the grounds that it’s the law. Making malicious reports to the police is a crime pretty much everywhere, although it’s called different names, and it should be. That it rarely results in punishment does not mean that when it is done obviously and caught on video, that it should be. Rape, in many parts of the world, is difficult to prosecute, especially where the victim knew the attacker, but when evidence is sufficient (or it’s caught on video, as in the case of Reynhard Sinaga in Manchester last year), nobody sensible would argue not prosecuting and locking up. There’s no restorative justice that can make a serial rapist safe to be on the streets. Sometimes testifying to a crime is more traumatic than it is worth, but this may not prove to be the case here as the evidence is all on video and it is the City that is bringing the charge, not the victim (Christian Cooper).

No society has ever done without a criminal justice system. No civilisation has relied purely on restorative justice for serious crimes; they used physical punishments and the death penalty. Islam’s criminal justice system makes little use of prison; the standard punishments consist of the death penalty, floggings, amputations, retaliation in the case of personal injury and financial penalties although of course the Muslim world has always had them except in the very early days. Western justice systems have prison as a standard punishment for most serious crimes as a replacement for the physical punishments it used in pre-modern times (in fact, the birch — flogging — remained part of British justice until the mid-20th century and the death penalty persists in the USA to this day) along with preventative measures such as banning someone from running a company or having custody of a child. In the US specifically, punishment is often disproportionate as a result of racism, poverty and resulting disparities in the quality of legal advice and representation and because of lobbying from the prison industry (in such guises as victims’ rights groups) and demands from the right-wing media. People are in jail for long periods, in some cases life, for sometimes very trivial offences. But that doesn’t mean imprisonment is wrong in itself.

No oppressed group should martyr itself and sacrifice its right to justice or safety on the grounds that the system itself is corrupt or the hope of a better one some day and it’s irresponsible for activists and commentators to encourage them to. The options are to use the system there is, to resort to illegal and violent means to punish people who threaten your community, or put up with the threat. Campaigning for a better system or against corruption does not mean abstaining from using the system where someone has committed what is justly a crime. And sure, jail might not make her any more racist, but it might teach her (and others like her) to think before they reach for their phone and call the police any time a Black person annoys them. Such people already know that Amy Cooper has a court case hanging over her (she is not expected to be arraigned until October) and this already may have a chilling effect on them. This may not deal with the underlying problem, but it will have some benefit at least in that immediate area.

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