Donald Trump now believes people are owed the presumption of innocence. Does that include minorities as well as indulged white men like Brett Kavanaugh?
This week the Trump men apparently realized that these are perilous times for men. Donald Trump Jr. suggested that boys were more at risk from false allegations than girls were from sexual predators. “It’s scary,” he said. President Donald Trump proclaimed this to be a “very scary time” for men wrongly accused. And the Trump men are not alone. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham angrily fretted aloud about the power of unsupported allegations to destroy the careers of good men.
Such outrage at false accusations, such respect for the presumption of innocence, would have been highly appreciated, I suspect, by the parents of the young men wrongly accused three decades ago of a brutal sexual assault in New York’s Central Park. Instead, Donald Trump led a lynch mob calling for their scalps. He took out full-page ads in New York newspapers arguing that they should be “forced to suffer.” Decades later, Trump continued to lambast the men after they were released from prison — their innocence indisputably established through DNA tests and the confession of the actual culprit.
Black men deserve presumption of innocence
People, of course, have every right to change their views. If Trump now believes that all people are owed the presumption of innocence, I welcome his transformation. Indeed, this very fraught moment, in which powerful men are being widely accused of misconduct, offers perhaps a perfect time for society to sort out what the presumption of innocence should mean.
Wouldn’t it be great to redirect some of those men’s collective outrage in another direction — toward examining how America treats, and always has treated, young unprivileged men of color? Those young minority menfill America’s prisons and are disproportionately killed on America’s streets because they too often are presumed, by cops and civilians alike, to be suspect until proven innocent.
President Trump has long been a fan of stop-and-frisk programs, despite the reality that (as normally practiced), such programs single out minority men for persecution. In New York City, at the height of its use of stop-and-frisk tactics, the overwhelming majority of those stopped were black and Hispanic. Only 3 percent of those stopped turned out to be armed.
“Imagine a black man who lived in the Bronx. … New York police officers threw him up against walls; they turned his pockets inside out. Some days they accused him of trespassing in his own apartment building. Every time, the police let him go without a summons … because he was doing nothing wrong,” attorneys opposed to the programs wrote in April.
Indeed, the blacks and Latinos stopped were one-third as likely to be armed as were whites who were stopped. Evidence of racial bias was so persuasive that a federal judge deemed the program unconstitutional.
It was also ineffective. When New York radically reduced the use of stop and frisk, crime continued to decline.
Thanks to the miracle of video cameras on cellphones, we have seen endless incidents of minorities stopped, by police or self-deputized do-gooders, simply for living. The incidents range from Native American visitors to Colorado State University removed from a tour because they made a white woman nervous, to a black real estate entrepreneur in Memphis forced by an agitated neighbor to justify his presence to police. And there were the two black ministers temporarily marooned in Waukesha County, Wisconsin, by a flat tire. A county sheriff approached them and asked whether they were transporting guns, liquor or drugs.
Everyone is innocent until proven guilty
Wouldn’t it be great if we could use this moment to figure out why these things keep happening, and what we can do to make them stop?
Wouldn’t it be great — at a time when Attorney General Jeff Sessions is doing his best to send low-level drug offenders to prison forever — to ponder whether the indulgence for youthful misbehavior routinely granted to the Brett Kavanaughs should also be granted to some of those offenders?
Wouldn’t it be great if, during this reawakened fervor for compassion and the presumption of innocence, the United States could figure out a way to treat poor people crossing the border as something other than criminals intent on harming our nation?
Wouldn’t it be great, in other words, if we could use this moment to remind ourselves that fairness and the presumption of innocence are not simply owed to powerful men aspiring to even more powerful positions. but to all of us — including those whom society so often refuses to hear when they point a finger at their abusers.
Anyone expecting that Trump might see the possibility for a social awakening got a reality check when he showed up in Mississippi and ridiculed Christine Blasey Ford for daring to forget details of her mistreatment. “Think of your husbands. Think of your sons,” shouted Trump, making it abundantly clear that the last person he was thinking of was the actual victim of an assault.
The essential question raised by this #MeToo moment is far from trivial: How do we protect the vulnerable and victimized, while also guaranteeing fairness for the accused? Instead of honestly addressing that question, we are listening to powerful men making the absurd argument that they — and their cronies — are the most victimized of all.
Ellis Cose, a fellow of the National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement at the University of California and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is the author of “The End of Anger.” He is writing a history of the ACLU and civil liberties in America. Follow him on Twitter: @EllisCose
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