White Kids, Black Kids and the Presumption of Innocence

Over the weekend, we all messed up. We all saw the video of the confrontation between the teenagers with the red MAGA hats and the Native American veteran. And depending on our partisan mindsets we all had an opinion on who was right and who was wrong. As more videos came out it became apparent that we all jumped to conclusions too capriciously, but there’s a larger lesson to learn from the ordeal. The more I’ve thought about the situation, the more I’ve asked myself how differently it would have played out if the races of the actors were reversed, and how differently the media would be talking about it.

 I come from a pretty conservative area, so as I scrolled through Facebook this weekend there were a lot of folks defending the teenagers. Every single defense of the kids that I saw claimed they were only defending themselves against the “black Muslims.” In other words, there was a presumption of innocence for the white protestors, while there was an automatic presumption of guilt for the lesser known African American protestors.

In 1989, then-real estate magnate Donald Trump called for the return of the death penalty when he took out four full-page advertisements in New York City’s major newspapers. Trump said he wanted the “criminals of every age” who were accused of beating and raping a jogger in Central Park “to be afraid.” Trump continued, “I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer.” In an interview with Larry King, Trump said, “Maybe hate is what we need if we’re going to get something done.” The five teenagers, four black and one Hispanic, were convicted and sentenced to prison. 

In 2002, after the boys had served seven years in prison, Matias Reyes, a violent serial rapist already serving a life sentence at Riker’s Island, confessed to the rape. DNA evidence corroborated his confession, and just before Christmas the New York Supreme Court vacated the convictions against each of the wrongly accused teenagers. Donald Trump still disagreed, describing the case in an opinion piece as the “heist of the century.”

When stories like these break it seems easier for people – especially the people on my Facebook newsfeed - to automatically assume that the black or brown person is guilty. Remember when a black man was charged with voter intimidation while standing at a Philadelphia voting precinct in 2008, although there were no complaints from voters?

We don’t need hate, as Donald Trump wanted in 1989. Hatred and the automatic presumption of guilt towards black and brown people has resulted in the unjustified murder of young men like Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Grey and Trayvon Martin. Imagine for a moment that the video we all saw over the weekend was different; imagine that many black teenagers surrounded a white kid in a public space and were chanting “Black Lives Matter”. We’d instead be talking about whether it was justified for the police to use deadly force on an unarmed minor.

This event should serve as a lesson for all people – to not jump to conclusions and to not automatically presume guilt or innocence for superficial reasons. In a time where 24/7 news outlets and our political leaders (specifically the President) are tackling any controversial issue possible to further advance their agenda, it’s on us to take a moment, breath, and weigh the facts. And if we don’t know the facts, to keep quiet before someone gets hurt.

— Dylan Frick, Chair

Dylan Frick