An eye for an eye

In some countries, if a person is caught stealing, then their hand is cut off. I guess the thinking behind this is that a thief who gets his or her hand chopped off will think a little longer and a little harder about whether it’s really worth trying to steal anything else. Some folks might say that this particular brand of justice is somewhat barbaric, let alone drastic.

I would agree.

Still, regardless of what your opinion might be about such harsh measures, no doubt potential criminals think longer and harder about stealing in countries where thieves get their hands cut off than in countries where the punishment isn’t quite so limb-threatening. It’s effective, in other words.

Hmmm ...

So here’s what I’m thinking: Maybe that security guard who killed Frederick Finley last month outside of Lord & Taylor at the Fairlane Town Center in Dearborn was just trying to make the world a better place by wiping out a thief. No, seriously. I mean, maybe the poor guy is just a misunderstood Good Samaritan who put a bit too much zeal into this particular incident of civic duty.

Same goes for those LA cops who were filmed beating Rodney King, those New York cops who gunned down Amadou Diallo, those Detroit cops who beat Malice Green to death, and all those other civic-minded authority figures who love ridding the urban landscape of folks they regard as human refuse. Sure, there are thousands of police officers and security guards who could have easily handled each one of these situations in a considerably less life-threatening fashion — and who have done so repeatedly in innumerable instances that have received far less media attention. But why bother with such level-headed professionalism when it is so much easier — and maybe even more fun — to give in to the rage within, let loose and whup some heads?

Last month, Frederick Finley was killed outside Fairlane Town Center by Dennis Richardson, a 29-year-old African-American security guard. This month, Richardson was charged with involuntary manslaughter. According to police reports, and at least one eyewitness, guards followed the Finley family into the parking lot after they claim hidden video cameras caught family members in the process of stealing merchandise. After a resulting confrontation between Finley and the guards, Finley later found himself handcuffed and on the ground. Richardson allegedly had his knee hard on Finley’s neck, and this is said to be what killed him.

Not surprisingly, the incident has drawn a considerable amount of attention from civil rights figures such as the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, not to mention a long list of local leaders and activists. There have been protests, threats of boycotts, and other actions taken, all of which is pretty much par for the course.

However, once it was suggested that one or more of Finley’s party might actually have been shoplifting, you could almost reach out and touch the sense of embarrassment that some black folks were experiencing:

Why did it have to be someone like that? How is this gonna make us look when we’re out there protesting and demanding justice for a couple of folks who take their own children to the mall to teach them how to steal? On top of that, the guard who killed the guy was black, so how are we supposed to yell racism about that?

True, it might be harder to pin the racism label on this particular incident — even though there have been complaints from black folks experiencing racism in Dearborn going back for nearly as long as there has been a Dearborn— but that doesn’t detract from the seriousness of the matter any more than that Frederick Finley may not have been a prime candidate for sainthood.

It also doesn’t detract from black men being so much more likely than men of any other race to experience this type of treatment. And just as white men are less likely to have a white security guard pin them down to the floor by the neck for misbehavior in a shopping mall than black men, you’d better believe white men are far less likely to experience this type of treatment from a black security guard at a shopping mall or anywhere else.

The rate at which young black men are dealt with more harshly by the law than young white men for the same crimes has been documented fairly extensively, including one well-publicized study that was released just this year. But it shouldn’t require a well-researched study to make plain what is right before our own eyes.

So why did Frederick Finley die? Maybe he sassed the security guards, maybe he threw the first punch, maybe a lot of things. But he never pulled a weapon and his only crime was coming to the aid of suspected shoplifters. For this he was killed. Accidentally? Sure. But that doesn’t make Finley any less dead.

In some countries, a thief is punished with the loss of a limb. Many of us are quick to shake our heads in wonder and exclaim how “backward” these countries are. In this country, a man was killed for such a crime — and that was before he even had his day in court.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. E-mail [email protected]
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