You might think it was a crime, but last week, a grand jury did not.
The reference is to the case of one Jared Lafer. He is a white man in his 20s who, in September of last year, was driving in Johnson City, Tenn., when he came upon a small group of Black Lives Matter protesters in a crosswalk. According to witnesses, Lafer’s SUV bumped a man named Johnathon Bowers, whereupon Bowers, standing directly in front of the vehicle, smacked the hood to get Lafer’s attention. In response, Lafer allegedly accelerated, plowing through the group and leaving Bowers with two broken legs — all of it captured on cellphone video.
Instead of stopping, Lafer continued home to Bakersville, across the border in North Carolina. There, he hired a lawyer and turned himself in two days later. His level of contrition might be judged from his social-media activity afterward. The Tennessee Holler, a self-described “progressive news site,” grabbed a screenshot of a since-deleted posting: a meme of a relieved-looking man with the caption: “When you thought you hit a dog but turns out it was just a looter.”
To which someone named “Jared Lafer” responds, “This is GREAT!” with a laughing-till-you-cry emoji. Lafer is also reported to have called Black Lives Matter a “Marxist” group.
Yet the grand jury declined to indict him, determining that — the video and the eyewitnesses notwithstanding — there was insufficient evidence to do so. “This is not a case about racism,” defense attorney Mac Meade said. Because of course not. It never is. The attorney, according to WLOS-TV in Asheville, explained that Lafer simply “did what he felt was necessary to get out of a situation that he felt was dangerous to his family.”
So, just to make sure we’ve all got the picture: He’s the one who was armed with over two tons of motor vehicle while the protesters were armed with signs, peaceably using a crosswalk. But he’s the victim. He’s the one who was so threatened he was entitled to use potentially lethal force.
As signs of the times go, this one is neon.
It is impossible to separate this from a spate of laws recently passed or under consideration in Republican fiefdoms to protect motorists who drive through — or over — protesters. But more broadly, what happened here is reflective of what is happening in this country as it abandons the process of seriously grappling with its heritage of racial oppression — and with the effort to repair the damage thereof — that began in the civil rights years. We have slid from that lofty peak of aspiration and idealism to this marshy ground of delusion and lies where many white people now firmly believe they are the true victims of racial oppression, where it is a matter of controversy just to declare that Black lives matter, where Jared Lafer walks free.
That process has gone on for decades, but it accelerated under the last president, who coddled white supremacy, who gave it a platform and a sheen of respectability it had not enjoyed since the 1950s. Now its theories are promoted on cable news and embraced by Republican lawmakers. The motto of these last years might as well have been “Make Bigotry Great Again,” because that’s what the GOP did.
And this is the price we pay. A white man with a demonstrated antipathy toward Black Lives Matter protesters drives through them in a crosswalk, injures a man — and flees the scene. You’d think that would be a crime. But this is America in 2021.
So you would be mistaken.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.