By Riley Bisher: Local media recently reported that Frederick Spencer followed a vehicle into a convenience store parking lot. The reports said he was furious. He was said to have believed a person in the car had flipped him off after they passed him. The allegations and reports say that Spencer got out of his car, approached the other vehicle, began a confrontation, and, then, pulled out an AR 15 rifle. Spencer then allegedly lifted it up and slammed down the butt of the gun onto the other car, leaving a large dent. Moments later, he allegedly retrieved a second, loaded firearm and began to point it at the men he believed wronged him, innocent bystanders, and the convenience store employees. According to the report, a female clerk then approached Spencer, attempting to help, but as soon as she got close enough Spencer grabbed her, threw her to the ground, pointed the loaded gun at her, and threatened to shoot. He then got into his vehicle and drove away.

What happens next in the story – Spencer’s subsequent arrest and the resulting media coverage – is a case study in how a person’s race too often determines how they will be treated in the criminal justice system. Our criminal justice system plays out like a lopsided game of Chutes and Ladders. If you are white, you are statistically more likely to roll a number leaving you at the bottom of a ladder to climb to freedom, to your previous place in society. You will make bail more quickly and you will receive a shorter sentence than if you were black or Hispanic and had committed the same crime. Instead of a mug shot, the media will use your school photo, with your shining, beaming face like a beacon signaling to all that you are really not a bad guy; you just happened to make “one stupid mistake.” Even if you committed a violent, heinous crime, you are likely to be walked out in handcuffs by the police instead of rolled out in the thick plastic of a body bag.

If you are a person of color, the dice lead you down chute, after chute, after chute. You will continue to fall deeper into the cracks of the justice system. Judges are more likely to hand down longer sentences to people of color, even if they have less of a criminal record. Even if you are the victim of the crime and not the criminal, the media will use the most “intimidating” photos they can find and label you a “thug.” Your defenses, no matter how legitimate and relevant, will be ignored by those strangers on the sidelines watching and judging -- knowing better.

So what happened to Spencer after he allegedly waved a loaded gun at people? Did the dice send him to a ladder? Will he slowly climb his way back up the rungs one by one to his former place in society, with this “little incident” to be forgotten? Or, is his fate a future of chutes?

Frederick Spencer was born with the privilege of ladders. After he left the convenience store, he was later arrested at his home. He was not killed or harmed during his arrest - unlike many black men before him who committed nonviolent, misdemeanor crimes. Strangely enough, Spencer, who happens to own a gun shop, was arrested without incident for pointing a loaded gun in the faces of innocent people. It’s unlikely that a black man would have received the same treatment. In fact, the police stated that this extraordinarily chilling encounter was “the result of a bad day.”  It was reported that this was “out of character” for Spencer.

This level of understanding and empathy is lacking for people of color – both for offenders and for victims. It’s incredibly important that as a community, we see these disparities and address them. Let’s demand equal treatment for all of our citizens. Let’s find the same level of empathy Spencer received for people of color who have also had “bad days.” In fact, we have systematically built this benefit of the doubt into our criminal justice system. It is called the presumption of innocence. That presumption should not be undermined or thrown away in its entirety because of the race of a defendant or a victim of a crime.

I’m tired of the politics of the “colorblind.”  These racial disparities are real. They affect real people in our communities. And until they are taken seriously, some members of our community will continue to have the privilege to climb out, to “have a bad day,” to “act out of character,” while others will continue to slide into the deep, dark cracks of our justice system, left to be forgotten.  

Riley Bisher is a former ACLU of Oklahoma legal intern, graduate of the University of Oklahoma and the University of Oklahoma College of Law. She lives and practices law in Oklahoma City.