Forty Years Later- Justice

I breathed a sigh of relief, revealing a breath I had unknowingly been holding, as I read that outgoing North Carolina Gov. Beverly Purdue gave a full pardon to the “Wilmington 10.”

But I also felt a familiar tinge of anger and bitterness.  Justice often comes slowly, especially when it comes to cases or situations involving black people.

In her pardon, Gov. Perdue said “These convictions were tainted by naked racism and represent an ugly stain on North Carolina’s criminal justice system that cannot be allowed to stand any longer. Justice demands that this stain finally be removed.”  (http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com/2012/12/31/north-carolina-governor-pardons-wilmington-10/?iref=allsearch)

The Wilmington 10 became nationally known in 1972 when nine black men and one white woman were accused and convicted of conspiracy and arson in the firebombing a white-owned store in a black neighborhood. Among the 10 convicted persons was Ben Chavis, who at age 24 at the time of the incident, was the oldest of the group. Chavis was sentenced to 34 years in prison, and was imprisoned from 1972 to 1979.

In 1978, the sentences were reduced for all of the Wilmington 10, and two years later, North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt overturned their convictions. Among the reasons cited was misconduct by the prosecutor of the case. Gov. Perdue said, in her comments about why she granted the pardon, that information given to her had revealed that there had been much injustice served in the case.

In an article on CNN, the author wrote, “Perdue said that among the key evidence that led her to grant pardons of innocence were recently discovered notes from the prosecutor who picked the jury. The notes showed the prosecutor preferred white jurors who might be members of the Ku Klux Klan and one black juror was described as an “Uncle Tom type.”

The author continued, “Perdue also pointed to the federal court’s ruling that the prosecutor knew his star witness lied on the witness stand. That witness and other witnesses recanted a few years after the trial.”  (http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/31/justice/north-carolina-wilmington-10/index.html).

All along, the 10 people had protested that they were innocent, but to no avail. The case received international attention and condemnation.  When the United States criticized Russia for having political prisoners in the 1970s, that country commented that the United States had little  ground for its criticism, citing the political prisoners in America known as the Wilmington 10.

That it took 40 years for this pardon to be granted is one issue, but a larger issue is that this type of injustice, so often meted out to African-Americans and other persons of color,  is and has been so much a part of the American justice system. Michelle Alexander lays out the scope of the injustice experienced by African-Americans in her landmark book, The New Jim Crow, pointing out how the “war on crime” adversely and disproportionately affected African-Americans, but even before that, it was clear that America had a justice system that was anything but just for them.

In the book Slavery by Another Name,  author Douglas A. Blackmon brilliantly lays out how the convict leasing system was based on and depended upon, injustice as concerned mostly people of color. One could be arrested for just about anything and, through an unsophisticated yet highly successful system of cooperation between the justice system and farmers and businessmen who needed cheap labor in order to realize huge profits. Blackmon describes how that system essentially criminalized black people, mostly men, and kept them enslaved to those farmers and corporations for years, and nobody said anything about it, though what was being practiced was peonage, which was illegal.

Thus, the roots of injustice toward black people are deep, watered and nurtured by, none else than the “justice system” itself. It became easier and easier to label black people as “criminals” as they were frequently arrested for the slightest “offense,” something that could be as minor as being stopped on the way to looking for a job because they had no money. The things black people were arrested and sentenced to a life of slavery to farms and corporations garnered no questions or outrage from an apathetic country that was being led to believe that these troublesome black people were in fact bad, and deserving of getting “justice” so that society would be safer. It was a manipulated image that took hold.

So it is not surprising that when Chavis and the others who comprised the Wilmington 10 were arrested that the prosecutor did whatever he had to do in order to get them convicted. The justice system supported injustice toward blacks. The Wilmington 10 reportedly had two trials; the first one ended in a mistrial when the prosecutor, Jay Stroud, said he was sick. In that trial, the jury was made up of 10 blacks and 2 whites. In the second trial, which resulted in the conviction of the defendants,  the jury was made up of 10 whites and two blacks.

Chavis, who was once a member of the United Church of Christ, never stopped working for justice. From the beginning, he and the others knew that they had been wrongly accused and wrongly convicted; bigger than that, he knew that the injustice had been allowed to take place because of the racial tensions in North Carolina and in the United States.

“Although we were totally innocent of the  charges, it took almost a decade of court appeals, state-witnesses recanting,  federal re-investigations, years of unjust imprisonment and cruel punishment  before the Wilmington Ten had our unjust convictions overturned, names cleared,” Chavis said in an article which appears on his website (http://www.drbenjaminchavis.com/pages/landing/?blockID=73315&feedID=3359). He said that the arrests and convictions were the result of  “federal  officials (who) conspired together to unjustly frame, arrest, try, imprison, and  repress members of the Wilmington Ten who were actively protesting the  institutionalized racial discrimination and hostilities surrounding the forced,  court-ordered desegregation of the public school system in New Hanover County  and Wilmington, North Carolina from 1968-1971.”

It is good that Gov. Perdue issued the pardon, but it begs the question of how many other unjustly accused and convicted people of color, most often African-American, are sitting in prisons today. Some whites may be surprised and shocked that such a travesty of justice occurred “back then,” but here is what is sobering: this type of injustice is still happening. Racism, resulting in bigoted attitudes toward and beliefs about black people,  still accounts for many arrests today. Prisons are overflowing with young black men many of whom, in the final analysis, were arrested for minor drug possession charges. Their presence in our prisons is making someone wealthy. Prisons-for-profit are cropping up more and more. Institutionalized slavery still exists.

So, I am glad for the pardon of Chavis and the others. Because of the pardon, those of the group who remain alive will get some monetary remuneration, and that is a good thing. They will get some money for each year they were incarcerated. I am glad about that.

But I am sad, too, because, the more things change, the more they remain the same …

A candid observation …

 

A Nation in Denial Exceptional?

I keep thinking about the concept of “American exceptionalism” and the reality of the rampant bigotry, hatred and violence in this nation, and how a nation cannot be “exceptional” if such violence is part of the thumbprint of its existence.

Somewhere, in spite of this nation being “the most religious” of all nations ( I read that somewhere), something has been lost – and that is the Christian and indeed, religious concept that believing in God means that people love each other.

It is just amazing that so much violence is carried out by religious people. Pat Robertson made the claim that recent shooting in Wisconsin at the Sikh Temple there happened because “atheists hate God.” He was making an assumption that the accused shooter, Wade Michael Page, was atheist.

There was no evidence of Page being an atheist as of this writing. In fact, it’s been reported that he was part of a white supremacist group and had predicted a racial war. White supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, have a history of being religious, Christian, to be exact. So Robertsons’s claim seems a bit off…

But here we are again, a white male gone mad, using a gun to express his anger and shooting people at random, in spite of God. Page used a 9 mm gun and was able to purchase ammunition, in spite of having been under observation by the Feds since 2000.

While the tragic shooting in Aurora did not seem to be based on hatred or bigotry, the Sikh Temple shooting seemed to be a part of the tradition of American violence based on bigotry. Page apparently did not like people of the Sikh community, so, he aimed to destroy at least some of them.

American exceptionalism, right?

Stephen Prothero, a professor of history and scholar, wrote an engaging piece on CNN.com about the American propensity for violence based on bigotry. (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/08/07/an-american-tradition-of-bigotry/?hpt=hp_t2).  The article says it all…

It says it all except my point that a nation cannot be exceptional, if exceptional means that that nation is better than others, if it has such a deep culture of bigotry, and a culture that stubbornly refuses to at least tighten up gun laws so that people who are prone to violence because of their bigotry cannot destroy scores of people at will.

We already imprison more people than any other civilized nation. In an article which appeared in The New Yorker in January of this year, author Adam Gopnik wrote: The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is just as startling as the number of people jailed: in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education. Ours is, bottom to top, a “carceral state,” in the flat verdict of Conrad Black, the former conservative press lord and newly minted reformer, who right now finds himself imprisoned in Florida, thereby adding a new twist to an old joke: A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged; a liberal is a conservative who’s been indicted; and a passionate prison reformer is a conservative who’s in one.” ( http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2012/01/30/120130crat_atlarge_gopnik#ixzz22tcoTEO)

That our high incarceration rate is based largely on the “war on drugs” according to Michelle Alexander in her book, The New Jim Crow,’ and that many of those incarcerated are African-American men says something about the yet-to-be-healed bigotry against black people in America.

And that these mass murders keep happening, carried out too many times by angry white men, says something about our culture which has seen the problem over and over, but has refused to really deal with it in any meaningful way. We seem more interested in protecting the right of people to own guns than we are interested in finding out why “angry white men” is such a reality in America.

I am afraid that, though I love America, I cannot buy into the “American exceptionalism” mantra. We seem rather to be a culture of denial, and that reality is really eroding at the possibility of us being exceptional at all.

A candid observation …

African-Americans and PTSD

Sign for "colored" waiting room at a...
Sign for “colored” waiting room at a Greyhound bus terminal in Rome, Georgia, 1943. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In  book that I am writing, I offer the opinion that African-Americans have suffered or do suffer from post traumatic stress disorder due to racism.

Somebody will groan, but the possibility of this being very true is real. Racism, or acts of violence due to racism, have done nothing short of creating terror in the hearts of individuals and the African-American community as a whole.

I can remember my mother telling us to be careful and to be wary of police officers, because they were not “always on the side of African-Americans.” I can remember doing stories as a reporter where individuals had been terrorized, brutalized by police, but were afraid to talk about it.

In earlier times, African-Americans were terrorized by the ever-present possibility of being lynched, with no legal protection against the same. In fact, it very often turned out that those who participated in lynchings or those in the Ku Klux Klan were members of the judicial system, charged to protect all citizens. That “all” did not include African-Americans.

African-Americans have seen loved ones cut down by law enforcement officers and get away with it. Neither the courts nor the jury system have been particularly “safe” these members of American society.

An article I read in The New England Journal of Medicine said that symptoms of PTSD include high anxiety,depression, bouts of anger…maladies which are all too often found in the African-American community in large numbers.

African-Americans have learned to cope and to push through the barriers put in place by institutional and structural racism, but the end-result of having to fight harder than the majority population for a “place” in this society, for decent and right treatment, for civil rights…has been a group of people who have developed a specialized set of coping mechanisms. We are here not because of the U.S. Constitution, and have made gains not because of the Constitution or of democracy, but in spite of those two supposed guarantees.

My musings on this made me think about what America would be like if such a large segment of its population were not working with and through PTSD. Even our children, caught too often in poor public schools in horrible condition that legislators seem to care nothing about, suffer. From the time they come out of the  womb, people who are “pro-life” turn their backs on them and begin to count them as part of the banes of our society, participants in entitlement programs that are considered a waste of American dollars.

I am not sure of the treatment for PTSD, but I do know that when people are traumatized, it causes a change in behavior. What the mind has seen and internalized cannot be extinguished or erased. There are people who have been traumatized in a number of different ways, years ago, who are still suffering as though the trauma happened only yesterday.

If it is (and I think it is) the case that African-Americans suffer from PTSD due to racism, how can it be fixed?  It seems pretty clear to me that if such a large segment of our nation is suffering from a disorder due to the way racism has flourished in this country, that something ought to be done about it so that we do not keep on repeating acts of domestic terrorism, albeit more subtle than before, that adversely affect citizens of our nation.

It seems to be that no nation can be as great as it has been intended to be if any segment of its population is so systematically and consciously terrorized and basically ignored.

Just a candid observation…

The Convenient Use and Disuse of God

Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyp...
Image via Wikipedia

When I visited the Holy Land some years ago, I remember standing on what I guess was a plaza. In back of me was the Wailing Wall, where Jewish men (no women !!) were praying fervently; to my left was the Dome of the Rock, or the Temple Mount,  built atop the earlier place where the Jewish Temple had stood before being destroyed in 70 ACE, and to my right was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

All three sites are awe-inspiring; all mark important holy sites with rich histories for all three major religions. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, for example, stands on the site where Golgotha, or Calvary was, the place where Jesus was hung on a cross to die, and that site is also believed to be the place where his tomb was originally. Just the thought of the importance of that site is chilling.

For the Muslims, the Temple Mount is third in terms of being a holy site, after Mecca and Medina, but it sacred to Jews and Christians as well. It was the location of the Temple of Jerusalem, that built by Solomon and the Second Temple which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 ACE.   It is supposedly the place where Abraham went to sacrifice his son Isaac. for Muslims, it is thought to be the place from which the prophet Muhammad journeyed to heaven.

The Wailing Wall is thought to be the western wall of the Second Temple. It is a moving site to see people praying there, sometimes wailing, and sometimes writing prayers and pushing them into holes that are in the wall itself.

The image of that place is something  I cannot get out of  my mind. The “truly religious” pray there, members of the three major faiths of the world. It is almost as if you can feel God himself there.

But in spite of the holiness of that place, the profound sense of the presence of God, there is the reality – and it hits you like a ton of bricks – that in spite of God and all this holiness, there is not peace but war, not a desire to be drawn together and live together, but a desire to use God and religious beliefs to keep apart and flame disagreements using God as the cover and the rationale.

The sense of holiness I felt was doused at that moment by cloud of sadness.

I thought about that site as I watched a program on the history of the Ku Klux Klan. I was mostly fascinated by what I was learning, but found myself deeply saddened as Klan members explained the meaning of the burning of crosses. Jesus was the light of the world, the Klansman said, and we light crosses to remind people that we bring the light of the world to a world of darkness, a world where (the “n” word) and Jews are not wanted.

Then the program showed a cross burning, or cross lighting ceremony, where scriptures were read and where, to my horror, the song “Amazing Grace” was sung as crosses were lit and were allowed to burn.

It hit me that God, or the sacredness of God, is different, and is explained and understood differently, by humans. The God of the KKK is one who allows murder and domestic terrorism in His name; this God condones racial and religious hatred. The God that everyone worships in Jerusalem on the site where all three major religions are represented is a God who allows, sanctions, enmity between religious groups, again in the name of God.

The God I believe in doesn’t condone or approve of any of that.

President Jimmy Carter explained, in an interview by Paul Raushenbush on the Huffington Post that he felt part of the reason he was elected president was to help bring peace to the Middle East. He was and is deeply religious, as was Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. Three people of different faiths, President Carter suggests in the interview, had like minds when it came to what God would have wanted. These men seemed all to have been whispered to by God to bring the confusion about who God is and what God wants to an end.

Their efforts were not appreciated.  Anwar Sadat was assassinated, and President Carter was voted out of office;Begin lost support amongst Israelis and after his wife died, became more and more depressed and kind o faded out of the spotlight.  Before that happened, Begin and Sadat signed a peace treaty; they had been brought together by President Carter.  The Camp David Accords were socially historic but religiously monumental. Here were three men who saw God in the same way, their different faiths notwithstanding…but they were not appreciated. Their people thought they were wusses.

I think of the first term of President Barack Obama. I remember him saying he was going to reach across the isles; he was going to try to make Washington a different place. It was going to be place where “change” included Republicans and Democrats actually working together.

Instead, it has been a mess, with the Republicans jamming the president at every turn and the president coming off and being touted as being “weak” and “too accommodating.” It is as though the Gospel precepts are good for church, but are damned if one tries to practice them in real life.

One must not appear to be weak, and how better to appear strong if you take controversial stands on things, like your political beliefs, and use God as justification?

I cannot help but thinking that believing in God is a hard thing to do, if one is genuine. Believing in God and trying to do what a loving God would want does not win people praise or accolades, but instead resigns them to places of despair and loneliness.

I found myself, as I watched the history of the Klan, being angry at God. “Why don’t You just fix us?” I asked, meaning,  why doesn’t God make us differently, wire us differently, so that we are not only capable of bringing real peace to the world, but willing as well.

Of course, God didn’t answer.

God usually doesn’t…

A candid observation.

© 2012 Candid Observations