Last summer, as cellphone footage and Make America Great Again rallies held up a mirror to America's red-blooded policing and politics, I thought back to growing up in Virginia as the son of two immigrants. After graduating from Thomas Jefferson's school, the University of Virginia, I did social work in the jail one blue ridge west from his old plantation home on Monticello. That summer,August 2004, was the first time I saw—up close—a man who had been shot by cops. I was HIV-testing inmates in the jail's medical unit, and he was moaning for hours on a cot a couple cells over.
When I asked a nurse about him, she said he should've known better than to resist arrest.
I went to law school partly to reduce the shock of seeing our criminal justice system up close. It's easy to be mortified by something, and much better to understand it. I studied criminal procedure, I've spoken with clients on Rikers Island, and argued with prosecutors on Staten Island. I am black and raising light-skinned, mixed-race boys who can pass for white in Brooklyn. I know the legal standard that might apply if a cop were to reasonably mistake me for a kidnapper and fearfully shoot me down. All this under Barack Obama's administration, withblack folk like Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch the top prosecutors in the land.
So what should my children and I expect come January 20? What might President Trump tweet or his attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions—whose confirmation hearings began Tuesday and continued Wednesday—do when state-issued ammo puts American blood on the ground?
The last time Sessions sought confirmation on Capitol Hill, it was 1986. Congress still had at least one former Klan member in it, along with men who had filibustered the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Still, that Senate ultimately seemed to conclude Sessions was too openly—if only occasionally—racist to serve as a federal judge.
Of course, in his opening statement Tuesday, Sessions professed a deep understanding of civil rights history and awareness of "systemic discrimination." Yet he does not see any role of his own in that system, calling "damnably false" widespread allegations of racism underpinning his chilling 1985 prosecution of Alabama civil rights workers who were helping black people to, at long last, cast a vote. But Sessions seems poised to radically reshape the Justice Department, and for many of us, that's a scary prospect.
The Civil Rights Act of 1957 paved the way for a division in the DOJ to ensure the Bill of Rights is protected for all citizens; President Eisenhower signed the bill and all 46 Republican senators voted for it. And from Ferguson to Baltimore, the feds under Obama have investigated dozens of police departments for allegedly stopping Americans without probable cause, holding them without proper charges, using excessive—and sometimes lethal—force, and otherwise violating Fourth Amendment rights written by our founding fathers back when America was first becoming great. These facts—agreed to in federal court—could only surprise those who do not believe in equal protection under the law or do not see our criminal justice system clearly.
This is why I shudder when Trump seems to think "blacks" are an inner city dilemma in need of additional "law and order," or Sessions suggests the consent decrees used to hold rogue police departments accountable are demoralizing to cops on the beat.
Right now, the Civil Rights division of the DOJ is enforcing 14 of those decrees, mandating that police departments from inside Cleveland to outside Baton Rouge reform and improve and respect constitutional rights, even for poor and black people. When I recently asked a trial attorney in the DOJ's Civil Rights Division what he expected under Trump and Sessions and whether this sort of federal vigilance would continue, he replied ominously, "I wouldn't count on it."
"I have no doubt that Donald Trump would love nothing more than to zero out the budget of the Civil Rights Division," the attorney suggested, echoing widely reported anxiety in the department.
He and I talked for a while about justice—and the fear and uncertainty in his department today. We talked about the last time the Republicans were in political leadership of the department, and how federal civil rights enforcement fared under John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales of the Bush administration. Career US attorneys were scandalously fired for refusing to bring trumped-up charges against Democrats, leading Gonzales to hastily resign and avoid bipartisan investigation.
Our conversation brought me back to 2008, when Obama was first elected. I remember marveling that America had voted for a man of color, and hoping that we would refrain from assassinating him. I thought back to a few weeks ago, when President-elect Donald Trump first walked into his newly won White House. Trump and Obama met the press in front of a fireplace with an old portrait of George Washington hanging above the hearth behind them. Obama sat before a bust of Abe Lincoln, and behind Trump was a black bust of Martin Luther King Jr. These men are all linked by an American lineage of revolution, race, and violence. The constitutional convention that brought Washington to the presidency passed the slavery question down a generation, and Lincoln's answer to it got him shot dead. Lincoln's abolition of slavery came without an instruction manual, and MLK's efforts to build on that got him shot dead, too.
Now, in just a matter of days, the man who championed birther-ism nonsense, with the alt-right and Klan backing him, will show Obama the door to the White House. There is death in effigy here, for Obama and his policies. But America did not murder him—no one did. That's a low bar, but we've cleared it and that is real, if macabre, progress.
Obama has the federally funded Secret Service to protect him. But I suspect that in the months ahead, black folk from Cleveland to Baton Rouge can expect less federal interest, funding, and protection even than the sort that brought us the bloody summer of 2016. Like many Americans, as I watched blood flow out of Philando Castile, I was tempted to look away. But we must open our eyes and be vigilant, rather than let our guilt-ridden American dream of a color-blind society blind us to all the red in a broken justice system.
Amdé Mengistu is a recovering attorney raising two boys in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.