Every year, the US State department releases a report that condemns countries whose governments allegedly abuse the human rights of their citizens and fail to uphold the rule of law. The report often reads like what the French philosopher, Michael de Certeau, described as the “puritanical execration of the fallacious charm, the journalistic brilliance of a rotting culture, and the drivel that resembles them;” or, as he expressed another way, “nonsense that enjoys authority”. Reading the report, one gets the impression that the US is a paragon of democracy, beyond reproach because of the purity of its democratic practices. However, Hubert Harrison said it best early in his career when asked about American democracy: “As long as the Color Line exists, all the perfumed protestations of democracy on the part of the white race must be simply downright lying. The cant of ‘democracy’ is intended as dust eyes of white voters… it furnishes bait for the clever statesman.”
There are several studies in the US that document racism in the American criminal justice system from, as Republican congressman Steve Cohen observed, “initial law enforcement contact with a suspect to the percentage of racial and ethnic minorities in prison” ; thus, placing African Americans outside the protective ambit of that most pivotal institutions in any democracy-the courts. Alton H. Maddox, an attorney, explained that US prosecutors always overcharge black suspects in order to pressure them to plead guilty to a lesser charge to avoid lengthy jail sentences.
“Black defendants are under pressure to plead guilty to lesser charge especially if he alleged crime cannot be proven, in a court of law, to have been committed by those defendants,” Mr. Maddox said.
Most black suspects are usually poor and, therefore, cannot afford to pay for effective legal counsel. According to Maddox, “lack of adequate legal representation coupled with a high charge and the threat of complete and substantial punishment hanging over the heads of suspects” compel many black suspects to plead guilty to felonies so as to avoid spending a long time in prison. Maddox, one of America’s leading human rights lawyers, referred to the 20-year-old case of six black men who were sent to prison for raping a white woman in Central Park, New York.
The young men, all minors, were arrested by New York City police officers. They were not arrested at the crime scene, nor were they arrested while running away from the crime scene. They were interrogated, continuously, for over 30 hours, in windowless rooms, without their attorneys or parent present. They were deprived of sleep during their interrogation which, under article (7) (I) (f) of the International Criminal Court statute, is torture.
All the young men were convinced, based on their tortured confessions, and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences. Their convictions were overturned after they completed their sentences because the real rapist, one man, was linked to the crime through DNA evidence.
The city of New York has refused to compensate these young men for their wrongful convictions, prompting New York City Council Member, Charles Baron, to introduce a resolution last May in the council demanding that the City pay “to try and correct this monumental miscarriage of justice”.
Kory Wise was a 16-year-old student when he was arrested for raping a white woman. On the night of his arrest, he said five police officers arrested him in his apartment building with a list of names. His name was not on the list. However, he was convinced to the precinct with promise that he would be “back home before you know it.”
Wise did not see his home again until 15 years later. His father died while he was in prison and his mother still suffers emotionally and physically because of her son’s ordeal. Now 36, he cannot get a job because he is branded a sex offender.
Raymond Santana was 14 years old when he was arrested for the same crime. He was a talented art student whose life was interrupted by his wrongful arrest and imprisonment. He was incarcerated for over six years. Now 35, Santana is a personal trainer, his dream of being an artist deferred forever.
Cynthia Mckinney, the former African American congresswoman and Green Party presidential candidate during last year’s elections, believes that young, unarmed black men are under siege across the USA in states such as Texas, New York, Georgia, California and Mississippi.
She called on Congress to intervene to halt these deadly law enforcement attacks against African-American, such as the killing of the 22-year-old Oscar Grant in Oakland, California.
Grant was shot in the back and killed by a policeman while lying face-down in handcuffs on train platform last January; or, take the case of Jessie Lee Williams who was murdered by white corrections officer, Ryan Teel, in a Mississippi jail. Mr. Teel is now serving two life sentences for his crime.
“if members of Congress wanted to make it priority that young, unarmed black men must not be murdered by agents of the state, then any such law enforcement department under whose jurisdiction these murders take place should be denied access to federal funds and equipments,” Cynthia McKinney suggested.
In fact, according to Mckinney, there is a federal law that compels the US Justice Department to subject local police departments to review if there is a pattern and practice of discrimination in the discharge of their duties. However, that particular law is not upheld.
New York City Council Member, Helen Foster, doesn’t expect police attitudes toward black people to change given the history of America. “When you have a history of a country that is based on the exploitation, rape and murder of a people, you can’t expect the police to change on their own,” she said.
Many people do not expect the Obama presidency to make any difference either. In fact, Dr. Molefi Asante of Temple University even thinks Obama’s election has “unleashed a powerful attack on the black [American] community”.
The attorney, Alton Maddox, agreed: “There has been no indication as yet from the Obama administration that the president is prepared to depart from the indifference of other administration in terms of protecting our rights.”
Molefi Asante’s colleague, Dr. Anothony Monterio added that “the glare of Obama becomes a way to make invisible the suffering of black people”, and urged the president to “begin a series discussion on substantive issues” affecting the African-American community such as police and other law enforcement killings.
Without such a discussion, leading to a resolution, African in America will continue to be subjected to capricious and deadly attacks by American law enforcement officials; thus, seeing American law not as a beacon of hope and justice but as a scepter of oppression and death.
Source: NewAfrican Magazine
August/September 2009. No 487