After Ralph Yarl was shot in Kansas City, police didn't arrest the suspect and later allowed the man to turn himself in. (Douglas Sacha/Getty Images)
Sitting in a top-floor newsroom years ago, a colleague called me from the lobby to warn me that police planned to arrest me. They were on their way up the elevator.
“Arrest me?” I asked, horrified about the prospect of a humiliating perp-walk through the newsroom in front of my supervisors and peers. “Arrest me for what?”
“I don’t know, but they’re on their way up.”
I shushed down the back stairway like a gold-medal skier, made my way home and started making calls to figure out how I’d become an outlaw. I learned I had an overdue parking ticket. Yes. A parking ticket.
Herein lies a fundamental racial caste difference in our society. The threshold for arrest seems lower for Black people. If you’re white, there’s actual suspense sometimes that you’ll even face an arrest, let alone be charged and convicted. It remains one of the most conspicuous examples of our tiered society, an unfairness tolerated, perpetrated and maintained by people who need to believe our system is fair and implicit bias doesn’t exist.
When 84-year-old Andrew Lester, who is white, shot Black Kansas City teenager Ralph Yarl through a screen door on April 13, police interviewed then released him two hours later. Days later, authorities issued a warrant for Lester’s arrest but allowed him to turn himself in.
His leisurely pace toward arrest suggests police and prosecutors extended Lester more grace than Black suspects receive. Where was the sense of urgency?
“This situation scares me, quite frankly,” Kansas City Councilwoman Melissa Robinson wrote to federal officials. “Kansas City needs this investigation to be thorough and done right. … Black citizens need to feel confident that we cannot be ‘hunted.’ ”
According to the New York Times, Lester fired his gun “within moments” of seeing Ralph on his doorsteps. Lester shot Ralph again after the teen fell and said: “Don’t come around here.” Authorities allowed Lester to turn himself in days later.
Consider 2021’s C.J. Lofton case. C.J., 17, died in custody. The coroner declared his death a homicide.
Police arrested no one. Prosecutors charged no one. The employees still work for the county. Strangest of all was the “stand your ground” defense. Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett essentially said there was no use charging the county employees since they were standing their ground.
– Mark McCormick
But police arrested no one. Prosecutors charged no one. The employees still work for the county. Strangest of all was the “stand your ground” defense. Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett essentially said there was no use charging the county employees since they were standing their ground.
“The JIAC and JDF employees acted in self-defense under Kansas law,” Bennett wrote in a 45-page document that read more like a judge’s decision than an attempt at prosecution.
No one will be held accountable in the death of a 135-pound teen suffocated in custody, despite the fact that the George Floyd tragedy taught us the dangers of restraining someone face down for extended periods of time because of positional asphyxia. Someone in that position could draw enough breath to gasp or speak in spurts, but, unable to breathe fully, they’d gradually fall unconscious.
An outraged world had just watched Floyd die. Wasn’t this common knowledge? Wouldn’t simply rolling C.J. on his side have saved his life?
But our sense of urgency seems to differ depending on the race of the accused and the race of the victims, whether it’s about which people will face the death penalty, whom prosecutors allow to serve on juries or how aggressively to pursue an arrest or charge.
- After Dylan Roof killed nine worshippers in a South Carolina church in 2015, police arrested him alive, then bought him food.
- After a Florida dispatcher warned George Zimmerman to stop following Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman followed Martin anyway and killed him. Authorities arrested Zimmerman only after weeks of protests and a jury set him free.
- After three white men cornered and killed Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, it took authorities two months to arrest his killers. Prosecutors initially instructed police not to make any arrests, but a video of the shooting surfaced and led to arrests and convictions.
It matters that Ralph had to stumble to three houses before finding help. No one hated Ralph, but his pigmentation meant his life mattered less in our society.
Journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates once said: “Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some, and broader skepticism toward others.”
We saw this in both cases.
Sympathy for Lester. Sympathy for the employees present at C.J.’s death. Less urgency for holding anyone accountable in Ralph’s shooting and less aggression in securing justice for C.J. In CJ’s case, news media floated stories about his supposed drug use, the kind of public character assassination Black crime victims and their families frequently endure.
What can you do? You can care more, engage more and risk more civically. There aren’t sufficient repercussions when these things happen, especially for those public officials charged with upholding the law. The public must make it abundantly clear to police and prosecutors that they won’t tolerate these double standards.
Until then, us Black folks with parking tickets will need early warning systems, and some nifty escape routes.
Correction: C.J. Lofton was 17 when he died. An earlier version of this article misstated his age.
Mark McCormick is the former executive director of The Kansas African American Museum, a member of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission and deputy executive director at the ACLU of Kansas. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.