ABRACADABRA! Or Notes on the War on Crime, Redux

In 1989 I wrote an award-winning essay, “ABRACADABRA! Or Notes on the War on Crime.” In it I mentioned those magic words crimefighting politicians would utter as the solution to the “crime problem”: “more police, more prisons, longer prison terms.” (Thirty years later we know those were failed policies that exacted a heavy toll on communities of color and our society at large.)

A little more than 50 years ago, in 1968, when America’s cities were burning – “burn, baby, burn” – in the aftermath of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, presidential candidate Richard Nixon declared President Johnson’s Great Society “lawless.” The assassination of MLK, I argued, marked the end of the Civil Rights Era, and the beginning of the modern war on crime and what would become but incorrectly be termed “mass incarceration; (according to the sociologist and social anthropologist Loic Wacquant, “mass incarceration” is better described as “hyper incarceration,” since a specific group of people, Black and Brown men, and not the “masses,” are disproportionately imprisoned because they are targeted and processed different than white men accused of the same crime, specifically drug crimes, which was one of the greatest contributor to the exploding prison population). Since then, many politicians have used this sleight-of-hand and have taken this tactic out of Nixon’s playbook and uttered the mantra that seems to mesmerize Americans, “more police, more prisons, longer prison terms, Ronald Reagan, Bush I (think the infamous revolving prison door ad based on the crimes of Willie Horton, a Black man accused of attacking a white couple), and even William Jefferson Clinton. Clinton was the first Democrat in the era of the ABRACADABRA Crimefighting politics to steal the Grand Old Party’s thunder on crimefighting. In fact, to demonstrate his crimefighting toughness, while campaigning for the presidency, Clinton left the campaign trail to oversee an execution in his home state, Arkansas. Throughout his presidency Clinton continued to prove his “toughness” on crime, and would ultimately outdo the GOP (think the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, and making federal block grants available to the states only if they passed legislation to hold more people in more prisons for long and longer periods of time).

Today, the Don…ald, who is looking to resurrect what I called back then the Anti-Crime Party – this administration I would call the Crime Party — is deep in the Crimefighter playbook, declaring, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, ex-Minneapolis police officer, the protests and looting – “burn, baby burn” – “I am your president of law and order.”

“Law & Order” is an American drama series….

“Dun Dun.”

 

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The Fires This Time

Last year, 2019, we marked 400 years since Africans were brought to Virginia and America’s “peculiar institution” took root. Since then, in the annals of American history, there has been systematic oppression and brutality against the descendants of Africans in America.

My father was born in North Carolina in 1926, but grew up in Virginia. As a teenager he served in the segregated U.S. Army during World War II. One of his uncles, my great uncle, served in the U.S. Army during World War I. When World War I ended in 1919, my maternal grandfather came to America by way of Panama — he had worked on the Canal — from Barbados, through Ellis Island. That same year Claude McKay penned his famous poem, “If We Must Die,” about that year’s large and violent race riots, and for those who equate riots with Black people, note that these violent race riots were perpetuated by whites, going into Black neighborhoods, beating and killing Black people.

I was born at the very beginning of what one historian has called the Decisive Decade, the 1960s. I was 7 years of age when Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. From that year, 1968, I remember two things: one, the adults saying, “They [white people] killed another good Negro male,” and two, “Burn, baby, burn!”

Once again, cities in America are burning. The racial embers are always burning, ready to be stoked.

The fires this time were stoked by yet another killing of an unarmed Black male by white police officers.

“Burn, baby, burn!”

I smell the fires and they conjure up my memories from the ‘60s, and then the mid-70s, when I’m 15 and attacked by a white cop. Despite my family history in America, going back to 1805 in the Carolinas, probably way before that, but that’s how far I’ve dug up the roots of my family tree, in Beaumont, NC, as a Black male I can still be in “the wrong place at the wrong time.” Such was that day when I was 15, despite being in an inner city neighborhood familiar to me, a place where I belonged, because the police were looking for a Black male for some crime unknown to me.

I don’t like the fact that traveling down memory lane has these violent markers, but it’s a fact of my existence, and many other Black and Brown men in America, since 1619.

Is this finally that moment in time when “justice rolls down like waters” and washes away America’s Original Sin in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd?

Posted in being a teenager, Black patriotism, James Baldwin, Justice Chronicles, juveniles, Lest We Forget, Martin Luther King, police involved shooting, police-involved killing, Politics, race, raising black boys, Relationships, Revolution, Slavery, Streets of Rage | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Race factors in reporting of criminal justice”

In the above referenced editorial, Len Levitt’s “NYPD Confidential” column, he notes a few criminal legal cases where race may or may not have been a factor, and how readers responded.  Ironically, by the responses, you could safely bet your last dollar that the readers are white, maybe not for obvious reaons….  Before concluding his column, Levitt mentions the case of Amber Guyger, a white female cop in Dallas, who murdered Botham Jean, a Black male who was an accountant, in his apartment, which she said she mistook for her own.  Levitt writes how Botham’s brother asked the Black female judge for permission to give Guyger a hug, probably just what she needed.  The judge even gave Guyger a hug, and a Bible.

Levitt concludes, “These gestures, like the readers’ reactions, suggest that reporting on the criminal justice system involves issues that are more complciated than race.”

On the contrary, nothing is more complicated and contentious than race in America.

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Happy Black Independence Day!

Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States, a day more important to descendants of Africans than the Fourth of July.  (Read Frederick Douglass’ classic speech, “What is the Fourth of July to the Negro?”)  In fact, Juneteenth is also called Black Independence Day.  On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger led thousands of federal troops to Galveston, Texas to announce that the Civil War had ended.  About 250,000 Texan slaves had no idea that their freedom had been secured by the Union, a little more than two months after the end of the Civil War.

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Linda Fairstein’s reckoning, not her demonization

Len Levitt, in an Op-ed piece in amNew York, 6/18/19, “The campaign to demonize Linda Fairstein,” as it relates to her behavior to convict the Central Park Five, writes that we “seem to be going through a period of racial reckoning.  But do Fairstein’s pursuers actually think they can help undo, or repay, 300 years of past injuries to blacks by demonizing her?”  (This is about the last 30 years, and this is about this one case!)

That’s reaching!  Linda Fairstein was not alone in demonizing the young men wrongly convicted of a terrible crime they did not commit.  The tabloids also demonized the young men.  The Donald demonized the young men, even took out a full page ad in the New York Times, a paper he now hates, calling for the death of the young men.

The bottom line is that in the annals of criminal jurisprudence, there are numerous cases where prosecutors did not pursue justice, but were intent on securing convictions, by any means necessary, which has included knowingly using false testimony.  (There’s a famous United States Supreme Court case on the knowing use of false evidence that overturned a bloody murder conviction because during his summation the prosecutor repeatedly mentioned “bloody” garments found at the crime scene, when all along the prosecutor knew that it was paint on the garments, not blood.)  And then there is the sophistical rationalization in trying, railroading and convicting people when there is less than sufficient evidence to secure their convictions, in fact, that they might even be innocent, that they are “guilty of something” if not this crime.  This even stretches the legal concept of “vicarious liability.”

So Fairstein’s publisher dropped her.  (I confess that I’ve read and enjoyed about ten of her books.)  That’s a drop in the bucket to what the innocent young men went through.  So Fairstein had to resign from a few Boards.  That will not dramatically alter her life in the way that a wrongful conviction altered the lives of the innocent young men.

Anyone familiar with the criminal legal system knows that many a prosecutor, not just Fairstein, used it as a launching pad to further their careers in law and in the literary world.

“When They See Us” is simply one case, one glaring example that exposes how the criminal legal system typically manufactures a case.  Prosecutors have enjoyed absolute immunity from the behavior demonstrated by Fairstein, behavior that should be criminal.  Is this a reckoning for Fairstein?  Yes.  But in no way is it a “racial reckoning.”  It’s a reckoning about justice, which we have come to equate with guilty verdicts, which isn’t justice at all.  It’s a reckoning about fairness, which Fairstein wasn’t in the Central Park Five Case.

#WhenTheySeeUs #CancelLindaFairstein

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“NYPD detective indicted on perjury charges: DA”

Joseph Franco, a suspended NYPD detective, was indicted for perjury, official misconduct and filing false documents in connection with narcotic cases he was involved in between 2017 and 2018.  As a result of Franco’s perjury and related charges, three people pleaded guilty and two were serving state prison sentences before prosecutors, while probing official corruption within the NYPD, unearthed Franco’s lies.  It is once again worth noting that innocent people plead guilty to crimes they did not commit because they know that the scales of justice are unbalanced and heavily weighted against them and places those accused of crimes at a distinct disadvantage.

For quite some time I have argued that people who knowingly and falsely accuse people of crimes, including police officers and prosecutors who ignore and or withhold exculpatory evidence that would exonerate innocent people, should be subject to a sentence equivalent to the charges they falsely accused people that led to convictions.

As of now, Judge Mark Dwyer released Franco on his own recognizance.  Where is the justice in that, not withstanding the presumption of innocence?

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On this Day in American History, April 24, 2019 – White supremacist killer of James Byrd Jr. Executed

Some say it was “one of the most notorious hate crimes of modern times.” James Byrd Jr., a 48 year old Black male, was targeted and murdered by white racists in 1998 in Jasper, Texas. They tied him to their 1982 Ford pickup truck and dragged him approximately three miles before dumping his body in front of an African-American Church.

For his crime, John William King, 44, was put to death by lethal injection and pronounced dead at 7:08 p.m. on April 24, 2019 at the state’s death chamber in Huntsville.

I just wonder if Donald Trump considers King one of the “good people.”

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#NationalRacistAnthem (My Favorite Things)

Blood drops on roses
And nooses on niggas
Bright copper kettles and boiling some jiggers
Brown men and brown women hung up on trees
These are a few of my favorite things

White-hooded Klansmen and black burning bodies
Nazis and skinheads
And thugs with thick ropes
Wild men who rage with blood on their wings
These are a few of my favorite things

Men in white dresses with red satin sashes
Blood drops that that stay on my nose and eyelashes
Blazing hot summers that lead to tall trees
These are a few of my favorite things

When the dog barks
When the hose stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad

Blood drops on roses
And nooses on niggas
Bright copper kettles and boiling some jiggers
Brown men and brown women hung up on trees
These are a few of my favorite things

White-hooded Klansmen and black burning bodies
Nazis and skinheads
And thugs with thick ropes
Wild men who rage with blood on their wings
These are a few of my favorite things

Men in white dresses with red satin sashes
Blood drops that that stay on my nose and eyelashes
Blazing hot summers that lead to tall trees
These are a few of my favorite things

When the dog barks
When the hose stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad
P.S. Inspired by VA Gov. Ralph Northam,and the “good [white nationalists] people.” Forgive me Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers

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Amadou Diallo — 20 years later

Today is the 20th anniversary of the killing of Amadou Diallo by New York’s “Finest.”

All those years ago, I wrote the following poem, which is included in my collection, “Sometimes Blue Knights Wear Black Hats”:

ON A BRONX STREET AFTER THE AMADOU DIALLO TRIAL

Wrinkled black baby flesh

Held in trembling wrinkled black hands.

(SHOUTED) “Kill him now!  You may as well kill him now!”

It was a scene reminiscent of Abraham

In the land of Moriah,

A father offering his son as a sacrifice.

(SHOUTED) “Kill him now!  You may as well kill him now!”

As clueless as Isaac,

As innocent as the babe he was.

If he could only talk, like Isaac.

“Father, where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

It is a tale as old as the Bible:

God requesting a burnt offering;

Pharaoh commanding every Hebrew boy

Be thrown into the Nile;

Herod killing all the children

In and around Bethlehem

Who were two years or under.

Wrinkled black baby flesh

held in trembling wrinkled black hands.

(SOFTLY) “Kill him now!  You may as well kill him now!”

The above referenced book is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Sometimes-Blue-Knights-Wear-Black/dp/1481722867/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1549279733&sr=8-1&keywords=sometimes+blue+knights+wear+black+hats

 

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Ham Sandwiches, Indictments, and Unjust Convictions

One of the fundamental problems of the U.S. criminal legal system is the nearly unfettered power of prosecutors to indict, so much so that Judge Learned Hand once quipped that a prosecutor could get a ham sandwich indicted.  (Note that this quip is often ascribed to former New York State Court of Appeals Chief Judge, Solomon “Sol” Wachtler, who was ultimately indicted, and pleaded guilty to harassing his former lover and threatening to kidnap her daughter.  He would spend a total of 13 months in federal prison and a halfway house.)  What should be added to that quip, known by most people not professionally affiliated with the legal system but working outside of its structures,  that is, advocates and policy makers seeking to right the sales of justice, is that these indictments often lead to convictions, many “erroneous,” which have led to far too many innocent people spending decades in prison.  A case in point: Jonathan Fleming was convicted of a 1989 murder that was committed in Brooklyn when the prosecutors knew that when the crime was committed Fleming was with his family in Disney World in Florida.  With typical prosecutorial arrogance, the prosecution left this exculpatory evidence, which had not been turned over to the defense, in Fleming’s case folder.  After spending nearly 25 years in prison, Kenneth P. Thompson, elected as Kings County (Brooklyn) District Attorney in 2014, looked at a number of cases of his predecessors, Charles Hynes and Elizabeth Holtzman, and unearthed Fleming’s case and the blatant prosecutorial “misconduct” that led to his conviction.  Fleming was ultimately released and exonerated.  (There are a number of other cases where people who served decades in prison under Hynes’ watch were exonerated.)

When a prosecutor brags about his or her conviction rate, just think what lengths they have gone to achieve such: knowingly using false testimony in order to obtain a conviction, withholding exculpatory evidence, that is, evidence that may prove innocence, and even manufacturing evidence.  In the final analysis, prosecutors are supposed to seek justice, not convictions, but in a nation where “justice” is equated with convictions and punishments, we have pigs flying out of Grand Juries handing down indictments, most which are tantamount to convictions.

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