America's Two-Tiered Justice System -- And Why Trump Is Not Its Victim

January 6 riot

Police munitions explode as Trump supporters riot at US Capitol on January 6, 2021

Photo by Leah Millis/REUTERS

It may come as a surprise to hear that I actually agree with Donald Trump on something: America does have a two-tiered system of justice. In fact, you could say I beat him to it since I reached that conclusion long before the former president adopted it as his mantra.

I was not even in grade school when my older brother was arrested. While I didn’t know much about the world, I always thought that you had to do something terrible for law enforcement to haul you away. I also knew my brother Tony. And, though he teased me in the annoying way big brothers do, I valued him not only as a brother and friend, but as a pretty cool dude. So, I knew he couldn’t be the bad guy.

I still remember that night.

My mom and dad, fresh off the joy of a church dance, were confronted with the crisis when they hit the front door, and they scrambled to find the deed to the house in case they needed it to bail their son out (because if my father had anything to say about it, Tony was not going to spend a night in jail).

I was more confused when I discovered his “crime,” sitting down in a diner and ordering a burger.

That was it?

It really was the “system,” I realized, not my brother. Maryland law, at a time not that long ago, allowed business owners to bar Black people from their establishments. What the state did was technically legal — but wrong. I was sure of it.

An unjust law allowed the police whose salary my parents paid with their taxes to handcuff, fingerprint and jail my big brother because people who looked like my family were not included in an oath to “protect and serve.”

It was definitely a two-tiered system of justice, one that folks like my three eldest siblings and civil rights lawyer Juanita Jackson Mitchell — whose expertise brought my brother home — worked to correct with activism and courage, an adjective that definitely does not apply to Trump’s January 6 army of lawbreakers.

That the activists’ job is not done is clear when poor folks and minorities, often represented by overworked public defenders, languish in jails when they haven’t been tried or convicted of anything.

It’s why my solidarity with Trump ends when you dive into the actual details.

No matter how much he tries to align himself with civil rights martyrs or find common cause with Black voters whom he insists feel his pain, the current GOP presidential candidate’s actions and promises reveal a different truth.

Staring down charges in federal and state court, Trump has not spent time in handcuffs or a cell, he has a high-powered team of lawyers to delay and defend, and he has the luxury of raising money for a presidential campaign while complaining about his misfortune, even running on it.

The man who has no problem repeating the word “illegals,” with a heavy dose of dangerous dehumanization — calling those who cross our borders “animals” — reveres and elevates felons who bought into his stolen-election lies and decided to act.

Trump refuses to say “criminals” when referring to the thugs who attacked the Capitol on January 6, 2021, while trying to overturn the results of a free and fair presidential election.

On the campaign trail, he is saying that, if elected in November, he will pardon and let loose a bunch of people I surely don’t want running around the streets of my neighborhood or anywhere in this country. Most of their sentences are already below what prosecutors recommended.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, as of January of this year, “Approximately 452 defendants have been charged with assaulting, resisting, or impeding officers or employees, including approximately 123 individuals who have been charged with using a deadly or dangerous weapon or causing serious bodily injury to an officer.” About 140 police officers were assaulted. And 718 of those charged have pleaded guilty to a variety of federal charges, including four to federal charges of seditious conspiracy.

One man, sentenced to six years and six months, blindsided a police officer — an Army veteran who had served in Iraq — knocking him off a five-foot ledge. Another was charged this month with firing a gun into the air that day.

Yet, Trump was cheered as he made a mockery of America’s national anthem in an Ohio speech over the weekend, offering a twisted rendition to honor those who did his bidding, calling them “unbelievable patriots.” The man who never served in the military and disparaged those who did finally found an occasion to salute.

Hypocrisy is too mild a word to describe Trump, his adoring crowd and the members of a Republican Party campaigning on “law and order” while agreeing with the boss’ autocratic agenda — or staying silent and looking the other way.

Trump’s supporters, many of them lawmakers who cowered in fear that January day, have gained amnesia and lost a spine since then.

They should be ashamed.

It does make perfect sense that Trump has a soft spot for the criminals who broke down doors and smashed windows, assaulted police and relieved themselves in the pristine halls of my House and yours — they were breaking the law not in the name of an ideal, but on behalf of a man unwilling to loosen his grip on raw power, even after a majority of Americans said “no.”

The societal changes they were fighting for were far from noble, far different than the ideals that drove my brother, who has been vindicated by the moral arc of history.

It’s been a lot of years since my young eyes were opened to the gulf between what America promises and what it delivers. I lost innocence I will never recover when I saw my usually bubbly mother, in party dress and high heels, crying on the night of her son’s first arrest — yes, there was another diner and another arrest before his activist days were done.

I see a system of mass incarceration that outpaces other countries, still tainted by racism and inequities.

Then why am I less cynical and more hopeful about what justice should mean in America than those who have always enjoyed the privileges of resting on that top tier, yet are still outraged, screaming about the unfairness of it all?

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call "Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis" podcast. Follow her on X @mcurtisnc3.

Reprinted with permission from Roll Call.

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