clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

DeAndre Harris was attacked by racists in Charlottesville. Now he faces criminal charges.

The situation is illustrative of why many people of color don’t trust the police.

A video shows a black man surrounded by white men donning racist symbols. The men hit him with weapons, and he falls to the ground. He is kicked. He stands up and attempts to flee, collapsing. But he finally gets away.

Yet while many of his attackers remain uncharged, he now has an arrest warrant in his name as a result of the clash, according to the Washington Post.

The video, which went viral shortly after the protests in which white nationalists, members of the Ku Klux Klan, and neo-Nazis descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, shows members of those protest groups attacking DeAndre Harris, a black 20-year-old. According to his attorney, Harris ended up with a concussion, a head laceration that required staples, a fractured wrist, a knee injury, and other abrasions and contusions across his body as a result of the clash.

For many, the video symbolized the aggression and hatred behind the racist demonstrations — culminating in a literal assault on a black man.

Law enforcement has so far charged just two of the men who assaulted Harris with malicious wounding: 18-year-old Daniel Borden of Ohio and 33-year-old Alex Michael Ramos of Georgia. Most of the men involved have not been publicly identified, despite an official investigation and unofficial efforts by activists online, led by Black Lives Matter activist and columnist Shaun King. (Activists have identified a third man, but police have not confirmed his identity or filed charges.)

While that investigation continues, Harris now faces an arrest warrant and felony charge for unlawful wounding. A man — identified as Harold Ray Crews by Harris’s attorney — said he was wounded by Harris during the filmed encounter. Video of the incident shows Harris swinging a flashlight at Crews after Crews apparently tried to jab a counterprotester with the pole of a Confederate flag.

Harris’s attorney, S. Lee Merritt, told the Post that Harris’s flashlight didn’t “make significant contact.” He also provided photo evidence to the Root that he said shows Crews being hit by a masked white man with what appears to be a metal pipe, claiming that’s the incident that led to Crews’s injuries.

If that’s true, why the potential arrest warrant and charges? It has to do with the low bar in the process for issuing an arrest warrant in Virginia: After filing a police report, a victim can approach a magistrate for an arrest warrant against someone accused of a crime. The magistrate then needs only probable cause based on the victim’s testimony — a fairly easy requirement — to file an arrest warrant. This is what Crews reportedly did.

Whether this leads to formal charges depends on the local prosecutor, who declined to comment to the Post on a pending legal investigation. Harris, who is a hip-hop artist and educator from Suffolk, Virginia, and his attorney are now making arrangements with police for his surrender, Merritt told CBS News.

But racist activists online are already celebrating. White nationalist Hunter Wallace, for one, claimed this proved the story “was another race hoax.”

With this latest development, a situation that already looked bad now looks even worse. There have been many protests about the massive racial disparities in law enforcement, particularly as police have made little notable progress in the Harris investigation over nearly two months. Now the black victim of a vicious attack faces potential felony charges. It all further adds to the growing distrust toward the criminal justice system.

This only compounds distrust in the criminal justice system

For the past few years, there have been a lot of protests against the criminal justice system, built on the perception that it’s very unfair to black communities in particular.

The Charlottesville protests demonstrate this. There were many criticisms at the time about why police did little to stop clashes between protesters and counterprotesters. (Virginia’s governor later suggested that police were simply outgunned by the racist protesters, so it was too risky to intervene.)

The attack on Harris is emblematic of this. A black man was brutally assaulted by several protesters, and police didn’t interfere as he was knocked to the ground and tried to get away (although it’s hard to make out police in the videos, given that so many protesters dressed up in riot gear). The official investigation has dragged on for months — with only two of the men who attacked Harris so far charged. And it’s been left to activists online to actually investigate who the remaining perpetrators against Harris were.

Then Harris was charged. As King told the Post, “I am disgusted that the justice system bent over backwards to issue a warrant for one of the primary victims of that day, when I and others had to fight like hell to get that same justice system to prosecute people who were vicious in their attacks against Harris and others. Now, we’re seeing white supremacists celebrate on social media, bragging about Harris’s arrest. They’re hailing this as a victory.”

It’s not just this one case, though, but also broader disparities in the criminal justice system. Based on nationwide data collected by the Guardian, black Americans are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be killed by police when accounting for population. In 2016, police killed black Americans at a rate of 6.66 per 1 million people, compared to 2.9 per 1 million for white Americans.

There have also been several high-profile police killings since 2014 involving black suspects. In Baltimore, six police officers were indicted for the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. In North Charleston, South Carolina, Michael Slager was charged with murder and fired from the police department after shooting Walter Scott, who was fleeing and unarmed at the time. In Ferguson, Missouri, Darren Wilson killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. In New York City, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner by putting the unarmed 43-year-old black man in a chokehold.

One possible explanation for the racial disparities: Police tend to patrol high-crime neighborhoods, which are disproportionately black. That means they’re going to be generally more likely to initiate a policing action, from traffic stops to more serious arrests, against a black person who lives in these areas. And all of these policing actions carry a chance, however small, of escalating into a violent confrontation.

That’s not to say that higher crime rates in black communities explain the entire racial disparity in police shootings. A 2015 study by researcher Cody Ross found, “There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates.” That suggests something else — such as, potentially, racial bias — is going on.

One reason to believe racial bias is a factor: Studies show that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it’s possible the bias could lead to even more skewed outcomes in the field. “In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training,” he said, “we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them.”

All of this, along with other racial disparities in mass incarceration and other criminal investigations, has fueled distrust in the justice system. It’s why public surveys by the Pew Research Center, for example, show that black Americans are much more likely to have negative feelings toward police than their white counterparts.

A chart of views of police by race, based on surveys by the Pew Research Center.

For police, that’s bad not just from a public relations standpoint — but for their ability to actually do their job.

Distrust has a real-world impact on the criminal justice system

There’s a longstanding criminological concept at play: “legal cynicism.” The idea is that the government will have a much harder time enforcing the law when large segments of the population don’t trust the government, the police, or the laws.

This is a major explanation for why predominantly minority communities tend to have more crime than other communities: After centuries of neglect and abuse, black and brown Americans are simply much less likely to turn to police for help — and that may lead a small but significant segment of these communities to resort to its own means, including violence, to solve interpersonal conflicts.

There’s research to back this up. A 2016 study, from sociologists Matthew Desmond of Harvard, Andrew Papachristos of Yale, and David Kirk of Oxford, looked at 911 calls in Milwaukee after incidents of police brutality hit the news.

They found that after the 2004 police beating of Frank Jude, 17 percent (22,200) fewer 911 calls were made in the following year compared with the number of calls that would have been made had the Jude beating never happened. More than half of the effect came from fewer calls in black neighborhoods. And the effect persisted for more than a year, even after the officers involved in the beating were punished. Researchers found similar impacts on local 911 calls after other high-profile incidents of police violence.

But crime still happened in these neighborhoods. As 911 calls dropped, researchers also found a rise in homicides. They noted that “the spring and summer that followed Jude’s story were the deadliest in the seven years observed in our study.”

That suggests that people were simply dealing with crime themselves. And although the researchers couldn’t definitively prove it, that might mean civilians took to their own — sometimes violent — means to protect themselves when they couldn’t trust police to stop crime and violence.

“An important implication of this finding is that publicized cases of police violence not only threaten the legitimacy and reputation of law enforcement,” the researchers write, but “they also — by driving down 911 calls — thwart the suppression of law breaking, obstruct the application of justice, and ultimately make cities as a whole, and the black community in particular, less safe.”

This concept is one reason the Obama administration put an emphasis on pulling back the police’s use of military weapons. By looking like an occupying force, cops can worsen relations with their community — leading to distrust, which potentially leads to more crime and violence.

That’s why, especially in the context of racial disparities in police use of force, experts say it’s important that police own up to their mistakes and take transparent steps to fix them.

“This is what folks who rail against the focus on police violence — and pull up against that, community violence — get wrong,” David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College, told me last year. “What those folks simply don’t understand is that when communities don’t trust the police and are afraid of the police, then they will not and cannot work with police and within the law around issues in their own community. And then those issues within the community become issues the community needs to deal with on their own — and that leads to violence.”

The Harris situation speaks to this: The activists involved are not just upset that, from their view, police disproportionately brutalize people of color. They are also upset that the criminal justice system as a whole doesn’t seem to take criminal investigations in which black people are the victims seriously. And so distrust continues to build, making it all the harder for police to do their jobs in the first place.

For more on American policing’s problems and how to address them, read Vox’s explainer.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.