In the wake of the not guilty verdict awarded to the killer of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, historian Robin Kelley and Atlantic editor Ta-Nehisi Coates, among others, have referenced the death of Eleanor Bumpurs as one of the many cases of American policy placing black people “outside of the law,” which Martin’s case now joins. Bumpurs, an arthritic and otherwise unhealthy sixty-six-year-old African American woman, was shot to death in 1984 after brandishing a knife in response to the attempt of half a dozen NYPD officers to evict her from her apartment. A single officer, Stephen Sullivan, was indicted and subsequently acquitted on the grounds that, while her death was preventable and the officers had options other than shotgun blasts, they’d broken no law.
In her 1991 book The Alchemy of Race and Rights, a work we had occasion to revisit earlier this year, the legal scholar and critical race theorist Patricia Williams offered a consideration of the Bumpurs case that is sadly germane to that of Trayvon Martin. Portions are excerpted below. Earlier this week, Williams also directly addressed the George Zimmerman verdict on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show.
The word legal has as its root the Latin lex, which meant law in a fairly concrete sense, law as we understand it when we refer to written law, codes, systems of obedience. The word lex did not include the more abstract, ethical dimension of law which includes not merely consideration of rules but their purposes and effective implementation. The larger meaning was contained in the Latin jus from which we derive the word justice. This is not an insignificant semantic distinction: the word of law, whether statutory or judge-made, is a subcategory of the underlying social motives and beliefs from which it is born. It is the technical embodiment of attempts to order society according to a consensus of ideals. When a society loses sight of those ideals and grants obeisance to words alone, law becomes sterile and formalistic; lex is applied without jus and is therefore unjust. A sort of punitive literalism ensues that leads to a high degree of thoughtless conformity; for literalism has, as one of its primary underlying values, order (the ultimate goal may be justice, but it is the ordering of behavior that is deemed the immediate end). Living solely according to the letter of the law means that we live without spirit, that one can do anything one wants to as long as it complies in a technical sense. The cynicism or rebelliousness that infects one’s spirit, the enthusiasm or dissatisfaction with which one technically conforms, is unimportant. It implies furthermore that such compliance is in some ways arbitrary, that is to say, inconsistent with the will of the compliant. The law becomes a battleground of wills. But the extent to which technical legalisms are used to obfuscate the human motivations that generate our justice system is the real extent to which we as human beings are disenfranchised.
Cultural needs and ideals change with the momentum of time; the need to redefine our laws in keeping with the spirit of cultural flux is what keeps a society alive and humane. In instances like the Bumpurs case, the words of the law called for nonlethal alternatives to be applied first, but allowed for a degree of police discretion in determining which situations were so immediately life-endangering as to require the use of deadly force. It was this discretionary area that presumably was the basis upon which the claim was founded that Officer Sullivan acted legally. Yet the purpose of the law as written was to prevent unnecessary deaths; it is ironic that a public mandate so unambiguous about its concern and, in this instance, relatively unambiguous about the limits of its application should be used as the justification for this shooting. The law as written permitted shooting in general and therefore, by extension of the city’s reasoning, it would be impossible for a police officer ever to shoot someone in a specifically objectionable way.
If our laws are thus piano-wired on the exclusive validity of literalism, if they are picked clean of their spirit, then society risks heightened irresponsibility for the consequence of abominable actions. Jonathan Swift’s description of lawyers in Gulliver’s Travels (part 4, chapter 5) comes weirdly and ironically alive: “there was a society of men among us, bred up from their youth in the art of proving by words multiplied for the purpose, that white is black, and black is white, according as they are paid. To this society all the rest of the people are slaves.” We risk as well subjecting ourselves to such absurdly empty rhetoric as Commissioner Ward’s comments that Mrs. Bumpurs’ death was “unfortunate, but the law says...” or that racism is “unfortunate, but the law says...,” What’s worse, this sort of apologizing is the softened inverse of something akin to fascism. Ward’s sentiments may as well read: “The law says . . . and therefore the death was unfortunate but irremedial; the law says ... and therefore there is little that can be done about racism.” The law becomes a shield behind which to avoid responsibility for the human repercussions of either governmental or publicly harmful private activity.
A related issue is the degree to which much of the criticism of the police department’s handling of this case was devalued as “noisy” or excessively emotional. It is as though passionate protest were a separate crime, a rudeness of such dimension as to defeat altogether any legitimacy of content. As lawyers, we are taught from the moment we enter law school to temper our emotionalism, quash our idealism. Most of us were taught that our heartfelt instincts would subvert the law and defeat the security of a well-ordered civilization; but faithful adherence to the word of law, to stare decisis and clearly stated authority, would lead as a matter of course to a bright clear world in which those heartfelt instincts would, like the Wizard of Oz, be waiting. Form was exalted over substance, and cool rationales over heated feelings. Yet being ruled by the cool formality of language is surely as bad as being ruled solely by one’s emotions.
But undue literalism is only one brand of sleight of tongue in the attainment of meaningless dialogue. The defense in the Bumpurs case used overgeneralization as an effective linguistic complement to their aversion of the issues; it is an old game, Enlargement of the Stakes, and an ancient tactic of irresponsibility. Allegations that the killing was illegal, unnecessary, and should be prosecuted were met with responses like: “The laws permit police officers to shoot people.” “As long as police officers have guns, there will be unfortunate deaths.” “The conviction rate in cases like this is very low.” (This was part of the basis on which two lower courts had vacated the 1985 grand-jury indictment of Officer Sullivan, before it was finally reinstated in November 1986, and the basis on which the Police Benevolent Association staged a continuing protest against Sullivan’s being tried for anything.) The observation that tear gas would have been an effective alternative to shooting drew the dismissive reply that “there were lots of things they could have done.”
I have tried to ask myself a progression of questions about the Bumpurs death… What I found more difficult to focus on was the “why,” the animus that inspired such fear and impatient contempt in a police officer that the presence of six other well-armed men could not allay his need to kill a sick old lady fighting off hallucinations with a knife. It seemed to me a fear embellished by something beyond Mrs. Bumpurs herself; something about her that filled the void between her physical, limited presence and the “immediate threat and endangerment to life” in the beholding eyes of the officer. Why was the sight of a knife-wielding woman so fearful to a shotgun-wielding policeman that he had to blow her to pieces as the only recourse, the only way to preserve his physical integrity? What offensive spirit of his past experience raised her presence to the level of a physical menace beyond what it in fact was; what spirit of prejudgment, of prejudice, provided him such a powerful hallucinogen?
However slippery these questions may be on a legal or conscious level, unresponsiveness does not make them go away. Failure to resolve the dilemma of racial violence merely displaces its power. The legacy of killing finds its way into cultural expectations, archetypes, and isms. The echoes of both dead and deadly others acquire an hallucinatory quality; their voices speak of an unwanted past, but also reflect images of the future. Today’s world condemns those voices as superstitious, paranoid; neglected, they speak from the shadows of such inattention in garbles and growls, in the tongues of the damned and the insane. The superstitious listen, and perhaps in the silence of their attention they hear and understand. So-called enlightened others who fail to listen to these voices of demonic selves, made invisibly uncivilized, simply make them larger, more barbarously enraged, until the nearsightedness of looking-glass existence is smashed in by the terrible dispossession of dreams too long deferred.