On the second day of March, 1955, two women were asked to give up their seats on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. They were black, and it was the policy at the time that, if any white people were standing on any crowded bus, black people should move back and, if there was no room, to stand.
But Mrs. Hamilton was pregnant and tired, and she didn’t want to get up. And the young lady sitting next to her refused as well.
The bus driver called the police, and when they arrived, they convinced a black man behind the pair to move so Mrs. Hamilton could take his seat. But the young lady still refused to move, and she was arrested for disturbing the peace, violating the segregation laws, and assault. She was handcuffed and jailed. Her name was Claudette Colvin.
We all know Rosa Parks, who was arrested some nine months later for the same act in the same city. She’s famous because she had an organization behind her, one determined to make her famous, believing that as she was well-known, well-spoken, and had charisma, she would make a better public face for the court cases that eventually brought down the segregation laws. But it was the Browder v. Gayle decision, where Colvin was among the five plaintiffs, that actually succeeded.
For the past several nights in St. Louis, Missouri, social activists have marched in protest of the court decision acquitting former officer Jason Stockley in the shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith following a violent encounter and car chase. The prosecution alleged that Stockley, who is white, engaged in an act of premeditated murder, going so far as to plant a gun on the dead (black) driver after deliberately executing him. The accusation was sensational, the evidence less so; the previous circuit attorney had declined to prosecute in 2012, but then protestors showed up at her house. That event may have influenced her not only to begin the prosecution but, in time, to retire before the case came to court.
A judge has viewed the evidence and ruled in favor of the accused. Evidence supporting the accusation was unconvincing; the circumstances were sensational largely because Stockley had been carrying a personal weapon, an AK-47, when the events began — contrary to department policy. I won’t go so far as to call this a righteous shooting, but a judge has, and judging by everything we have access to, I’d find it hard to dispute that. In fact, with what I can find out, I’m wondering why this ever went to court in the first place; there seems to have never been much chance of a conviction.
There’s a common perception that law enforcement has a problem with race and with excessive force in apprehension. The “Black Lives Matter” movement has arisen from several similar high-profile cases in recent years, and they’ve been out in force this week in St. Louis. Businesses have been vandalized; citizens have been terrorized. The word “riot” can be applied here without stretching the truth.
The thing is, there’s a reason the NAACP backed Rosa Parks instead of Claudette Colvin. Parks was an adult, well-educated, and respectable. Both she and Colvin were in the right, but Parks could command a following, whereas by the time of the trial, Colvin had become pregnant and was no longer considered respectable.
Stockley was a gung-ho cop who broke the rules, and it’s probably a very good thing he’s no longer on the force. But Smith was evidently armed and dealing heroin, and was not merely evading or resisting arrest but had actually struck the officer with his car while attempting to escape.
It should be harder to get shot after a car chase, certainly. But unless we’re going to stop our officers from pursuing criminals, or from carrying guns when their targets are armed, it’s tough to see what they can do differently that would change the outcome of a similar case. It’s arguable that the harm caused by enforcing drug prohibition outweighs the harm caused by the drugs — and there’s a way to demonstrate with that change in mind; this isn’t that.
There’s a time to protest, and this is not it. Smith is no martyr to the cause of equality; he’s just a man who resisted arrest and achieved death by cop.