The Empty Chair

When Tyre King was shot and killed by officers from the Columbus Police Department Wednesday evening, I was less than a mile away, sitting in a meeting room at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church. I was there for a Candidates Forum organized by the People’s Justice Project and the Columbus People’s Partnership, listening to a group of candidates for Franklin County Prosecutor and Court of Common Pleas Judge answer questions from concerned citizens. Questions about issues such as mass incarceration, racial profiling, the school-to-prison pipeline, and police accountability.

I was impressed by the turnout. Not only the number of citizens who packed the hall, but also the high percentage of candidates who had responded to the invitation. Nine judicial candidates attended, either in person or by proxy, as well as two candidates from the prosecutor race. The one person who did not show up, and neither sent a proxy nor offered any apology or explanation—the one person whose glaring absence at the table spoke volumes—was incumbent Prosecutor Ron O’Brien.

It’s a good thing Mr. O’Brien is not a comedian, because his timing is atrocious.

" Lonely Chair " by  Sharyn Morrow  is a Creative Commons image, licensed under  CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

"Lonely Chair" by Sharyn Morrow is a Creative Commons image, licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

A major reason the organizers had called the forum was to give the candidates an opportunity to respond to questions from community members still dissatisfied with the CPD and the prosecutor’s office and their investigation into the death of Henry Green, a 23-year-old black man shot by plainclothes officers on a street corner in the Linden neighborhood in June. Green’s parents and their attorney were present at the forum Wednesday night. His mother told the assembled crowd that the family wants an independent investigation into the shooting. “We want justice,” she said, then remarked that the one person who could ensure that justice was done had not bothered to show up at the forum, looking pointedly at O’Brien’s empty chair.

I’m new to Columbus, having just passed my one-year mark as a resident of this fine city, but I’m beginning to get the sense that there are actually two Columbuses. In this we are not unique; all over our country we continue to see evidence that affluent white people get one standard of justice and poor people and people of color get another. In the Columbus I live in, I don’t need to fear the CPD coming into my neighborhood in their unmarked SUVs and shooting me dead. Even if I happen to be in the act of committing a crime. In the other Columbus, as in the other America, I have no guarantee that the police will not target my community for extra scrutiny and then shoot first and ask (minimal) questions later. As Judge Kimberly Cocroft, one of the candidates running for re-election to the Court of Common Pleas bench, said Wednesday night, “You can’t have justice that is relative to one’s ZIP code or income bracket.”

But that’s what we have. In Columbus, as in the US as a whole, some lives just seem to matter less.

Now we have another situation, admittedly complicated, in which police officers have shot and killed a 13-year-old boy who was carrying a realistic-looking BB gun with a laser sight. (Why are we now manufacturing and selling BB guns that look exactly like real guns and have laser sights? Who thought that was a good idea?) Putting myself in the shoes of the officer who shot King, I can imagine that if the boy had in fact pointed that BB gun in my direction, I might have made the same decision he did. From even a short distance it looks exactly like a real handgun.

At yesterday’s press conference, Mayor Andrew Ginther blamed the easy access to firearms and our culture’s “obsession with guns and violence” for King’s death. I do not disagree. In fact, you may have heard something along those lines from me in the past. Repeatedly.

But there is another element in this terrible event, and that is the context in which it took place. Only a mile away, citizens had gathered to question candidates for public office about whether they believe (although the question was not framed this starkly) that Black Lives Matter. Do they believe that the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal justice under the law is not a guideline or a suggestion but a promise that they will do everything in their power to keep? Do they understand that they are accountable to the people who elect them, and that they have an iron-clad obligation to serve all the people of Franklin County, regardless of ZIP code, skin color, tax bracket, or party affiliation?

Ron O’Brien apparently didn’t think this forum was important enough to attend, so we didn’t get to hear his answers to these questions. But his empty chair may have answered for him.