Immediately following the death of Keith Lamont Scott, protesters had come to the incontrovertible conclusion that the police officer who shot the 43-year-old African American man in Charlotte, North Carolina had clear racist motivations. Violent protests and riots erupted in Charlotte, forcing the North Carolina governor to declare a state of emergency.
A similar string of events happened in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 after police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American man. Following the incident, the media was convinced that race played a key role in the death of Brown. Sensing that the government was granting Wilson impunity, protesters and rioters took to the streets and turned an otherwise ordinary U.S. city into a virtual war zone. It became clear later, after all the evidence became available, that Brown was not surrendering while he was shot. Corroborated by exhaustive credible witness testimonies and ballistic analyses, the U.S. Justice Department, headed by African American Attorney General Eric Holder, found that the shooting was justified. More importantly, the investigation revealed there was “no credible evidence that Wilson willfully shot Brown as he was attempting to surrender or was otherwise not posing a threat.” This dismantled the “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” fiction that is, to this day, accepted by many as fact.
In Baltimore, Maryland, similar developments took place after the death of Freddie Gray while he was in police custody in 2015. In the wake of Gray’s death, riots broke out in Baltimore which resulted in at least twenty police officers injured, at least 250 people arrested, 285 to 350 businesses damaged, hundreds of vehicle and building fires, 27 drug stores looted, the deployment of 13 thousand police and National Guard troops, as well as the declaration of a state of emergency. The civil unrest was due to the widely-held belief that Gray’s death was caused by racism. Subsequent trials surrounding the death of Gray later revealed no wrongdoing on the part of the police officers. The policemen who were charged had their days in court, and were found not guilty, in some cases, by mostly African American juries as well as by an African American judge.
And now, with the death of Scott, a familiar story is unfolding once again. Efforts undertaken by activist groups, fanned by media coverage of the death, have led to the charge that the Charlotte police officer (who also happens to be African American) was motivated by racism. And, like the two previous cases, protests, including one at Cornell, are breaking out because of what people feel might have happened, and why. And like the Brown and Gray cases, there seems to be little interest in gathering facts before using Scott’s death to validate prevailing notions of police brutality.
The issue of the ignored importance of due process is not limited to controversial deaths of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement agents. In November of 2014, Rolling Stone magazine published an article exposing, in graphic detail, an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi. Almost immediately after the article’s release, Phi Kappa Psi suspended chapter activities while the investigation into the incident was being conducted. The fraternity house also experienced heavy vandalism, and there were also numerous fervent protests that took place on campus. Moreover, the article severely tarred the reputation of University of Virginia, the fraternity on campus, and the students implicated in the rape. Lo and behold, it later became known that the article was a fabrication; the writer of the article had not fact-checked her sources and also deliberately distorted quotes in order to tell a specific story. In other words, no gang rape had occurred, the author disseminated counter-factual material, and the public believed it – all without a formal criminal investigation being conducted.
Clearly, there have been enough high profile examples of mistaken guilt to give everyone pause before protesting and drawing hasty conclusions, at least until the facts are known. Whether or not a racist police shooting or a case of sexual assault may conform to preconceived notions of a larger problem, there needs to be an assumption of innocence until guilt is proven. To do otherwise undermines the basis of the American justice system.