Mourning the Loss of a Democracy That Never Was

If there was one thing I took away from my high school civics class was that America was a democracy, brilliantly constructed by men who were determined that under no circumstances could this country become an autocracy or a monarchy.

The system of checks and balances was perfect in my mind. The three branches of government would check each other to keep the power on the highest level evenly distributed and applied. Given what I had read about monarchies and Nazism and Fascism and about tyrannical rulers, I was comforted. Even though I as an African American had real and specific concerns and complaints about this government, at least it had the blueprint to be fair to all of its people.

But if we define a democracy as a government which is ruled by the people, something has been wrong from the beginning. A formal definition of democracy is “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” A democracy, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “government by the people, especially the rule of the majority.” That’s what I learned in high school; that’s what I thought I was being taught.

And I was …except that it was an erroneous lesson from the beginning. The Founding Fathers didn’t intend for this government to really  be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” They wanted this to be a government where a few people – notably, white, wealthy, male, Protestant landowners, to rule the many. They didn’t include in their formation of this government any intention of ever including everyone. Some people were more worthy of governing and some’s place was to “be governed.”

The right to vote – I thought the right of all Americans to vote – was at the heart of what made this government different. One person, one vote became the ideal for fledgling democracies all over the world. But from the beginning of our existence as a nation, the right to vote has been compromised, messed with and messed over. The recent mid-term elections, with wide-spread voter suppression, is not a new thing – which says to me that while some of us are alarmed at what is going on in our federal government, the cry (my cry, specifically) that our democracy is in danger of failing, is not true.

We have celebrated a “democracy” that never was.

From our beginning, people in power – most specifically white men – have done all they could to keep the masses from voting. Ari Berman, in his excellent book, Give Us the Ballot, describes the brouhaha that developed after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It seems that many white folks were appalled at the notion that black people should have the same right to vote as did white people and they did all they could to keep that from happening – in spite of the VRA. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who pushed for the passage of the VRA in spite of the huge price he paid politically, said that “the vote is the most powerful instrument devised for breaking down injustice.” But if my reading of history is correct, a large contingency of white people in general, and white politicians in particular, had little to no interest in breaking down injustice, and in spite of claiming that they lived in a democracy, and in spite of taking oaths to defend, preserve and protect the United States Constitution, they had no intention of doing so.

I was always appalled at the tricks devised and carried out to keep black people from voting, but as I have learned more about the efforts to keep America’s power in the hands of white people, my anger has only increased. In Berman’s book, he describes black people going to the polls to vote – people who had previously voted – only to be told that they were no longer eligible. There were no more jars with jelly beans to count, and no more literacy tests, but the schemes to keep black people out of the “I am an American and I vote” club were there. In his chapter entitled “The Counterrevolution (II),” Berman recounts several of these instances, including that of one Willie Steen, an African American who was a Navy vet who served in Operation Desert Storm. He took his 10-year-old son with him, but when he got to his polling place to vote, he was told he could not vote because he was a convicted felon.

He was no such thing.

He tried to clear up the confusion to no avail. He left the polling place that day angry and embarrassed, concerned about how he would explain all of this to his son. It turns out that somehow, he had been confused with a convict named “Willie Osteen,” who committed a felony at the same time Willie Steen was serving in the Persian Gulf. Berman says that same type of thing was happening to African American voters throughout the state of Florida.

We all saw what happened in the midterms; we have all heard the charges of voter fraud levied against Democrats by some members of the GOP, in spite of there being no evidence of the same, while at the same time there is massive evidence of voter fraud in several locations, including North Carolina. (https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/07/north-carolina-early-voting-midterms-a-diabolical-new-republican-ploy-to-suppress-black-turnout.html)  Those who believe that African Americans and other members of other ethnic groups are not worthy of voting have continued to do all they can to make sure they keep things like they want them – which does not include people of color.

That being said, in a country where all its citizens are not encouraged or even permitted to vote, democracy has to be called a sham.

We have all been duped.

Some kind of way, however, we have to right the wrongs and try to make this country live into the words penned by the Founding Fathers – words which, ironically, not even they intended to apply to everyone.

We are in mourning some of us, for a democracy that never was.

A candid observation …

Stand Your Ground Only If You’re White?

So, Marissa Alexander still faces 60 years in prison for shooting a warning shot into the air to ward off her abusive husband.

Meanwhile, while she is awaiting a new trial, George Zimmerman is walking free. Alexander faces three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Prosecutor Angela Corey, who failed to gain convictions in the Zimmerman case and, for all intents and purposes, in the case of Jordan Davis, is going for blood.

Both Alexander and Zimmerman  “stood their ground.” Zimmerman is free. Alexander may wind up in prison for a long, long time.

Where is the justice? Put another way, “where is justice, period, for black, brown and poor people?”

The historical narrative for black people being incarcerated, or, even worse, just being denied justice, is sad. One in three black males, reports say, can expect to be incarcerated in their lifetime. http://http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/04/racial-disparities-criminal-justice_n_4045144.html.

Black people are still objects, deserving of the bad things that come their way, seems to be the prevailing attitude. Marissa Alexander is not a frightened woman, a mother tired of being beaten by a crazed man. She is an object who shouldn’t have fired a gun. Prosecutor Corey doesn’t see her as a woman in distress, but, rather, an object which she can use to bolster her conviction record. Prosecutors are famous for going not for justice …but for convictions….because they are elected and need to be seen as “tough on crime.”

Their lack of willingness to seek justice for black, brown and poor people …and for women …is a crime in and of itself.

Hopefully, there will be a ground-swell of support for Marissa, although the justice system doesn’t often listen to or respect ground-swell when it comes to people accused of crimes. Nor does the justice system move quickly to admit mistakes it makes in order to free people who have been wrongly accused, convicted and incarcerated. People sit in prisons for years while the justice system lulls over new evidence that it very often disregards and deems insufficient.

Marissa Alexander’s attorneys sought to get her a new “stand your ground” hearing, based on revision of the controversial law which is used in at least 26 states. The judge ruled it didn’t prevail in her case. She, a black woman, who shot nobody, is facing up to 60 years in prison for firing a warning shot in the air to scare off her abusive husband. George Zimmerman, a white man (though some say he is not) is walking free, and Michael Dunn, who murdered Jordan Davis, would have been free had he not tried to kill three other black youths.

The man who shot Renisha McBride, Theodore Wafer, is on trial now. I am holding my breath, hoping to God he is convicted, but not all that optimistic about that hope becoming a reality.

It’s the dehumanization of black people, which began at the dawn of the creation of this country, which has aided prejudice, bigotry and been the basis and justification for the type of injustice black, brown and poor people have gotten in the courts.

Justice, it seems, is evasive if you don’t have the right skin color.

A candid observation …

 

 

Why Doesn’t Donald Trump Take Out Another Full Page Ad?

By now, the news of the $40 million settlement from the city of New York being given to the Central Park 5 is old news.  The five men, all black and Latino, who were teens at the time of the rape of the jogger,  were accused, convicted and thrown into prison despite their claims of innocence. They were completely exonerated after the real rapist confessed and his DNA was the only DNA found on the victim and are out of prison, but one can only wonder what their lives have been like since being released…and what their lives will be like as they move forward. Some will never accept the fact that these men were/are innocent,  in spite of the confession of the real rapist.

Which brings me to the issue I’ve been struggling with for a while. When the boys, who were accused of “wilding”  were arrested, the city of New York and indeed, the entire nation was outraged. That these black and Latino men would be so primitive, so savage, was insulting to the conscience of the nation, it seemed. Donald Trump took out a full-page ad in a New York newspaper and wondered out loud, in print, where the death penalty was.

That the rape was troubling is understandable; that it was so brutal is disturbing…but what is troubling is that the nation is not as incensed at the wrong done to these young men as it was at the thought that they had raped that unfortunate woman.  The Ken Burns documentary, “The Central Park 5,” showed a rape of a different sort: the rape of innocent young black and Latino men, forced into making confessions, and then being railroaded through a trial and thrown into prison with little effort to hear them, believe them…and look for the real rapist. (http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/centralparkfive/)

Black, brown and poor people have been “raped” by the justice system in this nation since the beginning of our existence. In spite of touting the fact that the United States has the greatest justice system in the world, the fact is that when it has come to black, brown and poor people, justice has seldom worked. In the case of black people, the race card has been played as a matter of course. A black person accused of any crime has been presumed to be guilty even going into a trial; a black person accused of talking to, accosting or threatening a white woman has been decided to be guilty and the courts have refused to exonerate them even when it is clear white women have lied about their supposed experiences too many times.  In many cases, the justice system and white community have colluded and brought not justice, but horrific injustice to innocent black people. I just finished Fire in the Canebrake by Laura Wexler, the story of the “worst mass lynching” in the history of our nation. Four people, two black men and two black women, were lynched…and their families never got justice. In Gilbert King’s book, Devil in the Grove,  justice for four black men, falsely accused of raping a 17-year-old white girl, was elusive; they were all headed for the electric chair in spite of evidence that they had not raped the girl and in spite of heroic efforts of then-attorney Thurgood Marshall and his team to free them. The “justice system” was bound and determined that “outsiders,” in both these cases, would not bully them into doing things differently than they had always done. The “nigras” were deemed to be unworthy of justice, and so they got little.

I couldn’t help but think of those stories, and the story of what happened with Trayvon Martin and Kendrick Johnson and so many other young black people who have gotten in trouble with the law and are either still in prison for crimes they have not done or have been executed already. This nation has not owned up to its troubled record of dishing out injustice to black people, especially, but to brown and poor people as well.  Rather than admitting that America still has a problem seeing black people as human beings and not objects, America continues to insist that nothing is wrong. But something very definitely is.

If we go back to the Central Park 5, it would have been nice to see Donald Trump take out another full-page ad, this one apologizing for what he had pronounced when the boys were arrested and for proclaiming their guilt. Instead, he sought to justify his stance and said something to the effect that they were “not innocents.” He said that the settlement was a disgrace and that it was the “heist of the century.”  (http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/central-park-dad-40m-settlement-article-1.1837710)

There was no grace from him, only his typical rich-boy white arrogance.

There are black, brown and poor families throughout this nation that are looking for, needing, justice and will never get it. The nation is not committed to giving justice to all people; prosecutors are, for the most part, more interested in obtaining victories than in obtaining justice.

America’s disease of white supremacy and its attendant racism is terminal. A nation cannot thrive if it ultimately denies justice so regularly and systemically to a group of people – people who, by the way, work for this nation, have helped defend this nation, and pay taxes in this nation.

What happens to a dream deferred, asked poet Langston Hughes?

Why does the caged bird sing, asked the late Maya Angelou?

And what happens if America continues to ignore those questions, and more?

A whole group of people is crying, but the nation seems not to care.

A candid observation …