Civil rights activists said they fear the U.S. Justice Department’s recent decision not to charge two white officers in the 2016 death of a black man in Louisiana signals that civil rights protections in the United States could erode.
“This is a seminal moment, and there will be many of them,” Melina Abdullah, a Black Lives Matter organizer, said in a telephone interview.
“We are not going to sit in the house. We are not going to submit,” said Abdullah, who is chairwoman of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles.
The Justice Department said on Wednesday that there was insufficient evidence to support federal criminal charges against Baton Rouge officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake in the highly publicized death of Alton Sterling, who was 37 at the time.
Federal prosecutors said they could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers’ use of deadly force violated Sterling’s civil rights, in part because they could not confirm whether he was reaching for a gun when he was shot on July 5, 2016, outside a convenience store.
“They are signaling that they do not want to hold any police officer individually or any police department as an institution accountable,” Abdullah said.
Sterling’s death was one of a number of killings of black men by white officers that helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement. Caught on video, it ignited national protests.
After some high-profile shootings such as the 2014 killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, the Justice Department under Obama investigated an entire police departments for possible bias.
“That is what will be missing now,” said Jeffery Robinson, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has pledged to hold law enforcement officers responsible for civil rights offenses, but he also has said the Obama administration unfairly targeted police in such investigations. He has ordered a review of federal civil rights agreements with police departments.
The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division declined to comment on criticism of the office, and White House officials were not immediately available for comment.
Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, said most of the investigation into Sterling’s death likely was conducted before Trump took office.
“I don’t think that we can draw any conclusions” from Wednesday’s decision, she said. “One case does not signal a trend.”
Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color Of Change, a national racial justice organization, said civil rights advocates should seek focus attempts to seek justice for victims of excessive force by police at the local level.
“Communities of color have to be more vigilant in our participation in local elections for races, such as district attorney or mayor or the people who hire and fire police chiefs,” he said in a telephone interview.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin; Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Ft. Lauderdale; Editing by Colleen Jenkins)