America paused for Thanksgiving, the national holiday that has nothing to do with religion or patriotism. Jesus isn’t mentioned and there are no Thanksgiving national heroes we honor. The holiday is rife with no particular meaning at all – unless you’re a Native American. Then you might have something to say about immigration policy. Those folks were wiped out by a massive wave of uninvited foreign folks, speaking a different language and taking over the place, marginalizing them and then pretty much eliminating them. They have a grudge, but everyone else gives thanks for living in the land of lots of good stuff, however you managed to accumulate it. On Thanksgiving, no one asks questions.
It’s kind of National Smug Day. The family, all of it, even the questionable relatives, gets together, for better or worse, and all is forgiven, or not mentioned that day. Everyone agrees that life is good, and then, well fed, goes home and moves on. It’s a way for all Americans to acknowledge, for one day at least, that things aren’t that bad, really. One day a year should probably be set aside for that. Everything isn’t that good of course, but despair is no fun at all, and it’s not very American either. They don’t do Thanksgiving in France – too many existentialists, and they also know that turkey cannot be transformed into anything remotely edible. Snails can, but not turkey. And life is too complicated for generalized blanket thanks.
We do know better too. This year old wounds have been opened. We should have never been involved in slavery, because we never did figure out what to do with all the black folks after the Civil War that freed them, more or less. Reconstruction didn’t go well. The Jim Crow South was not a nice place, and that whole separate-but-equal thing just didn’t work out. It took almost ninety years to finally desegregate our public schools, in 1954, and that didn’t go well either, even in the north. South Boston wasn’t that much different than Little Rock. The turmoil of the early sixties, with its violence and death, and the nonviolent persistence of Martin Luther King, brought us the Civil Rights Act of 1964, desegregating housing and public accommodation and commerce, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the Republicans are dismantling state by state with the help of the current Supreme Court. Until 1967 states could declare interracial marriage a crime, and even now cops do shoot unarmed young black men dead and walk away, heroes to many on the right. We have a black president, but we cannot seem to shake off what some have called our Original Sin – we really shouldn’t have grabbed those folks in Africa long ago, for use as our slaves. What do we do with them now, or at least with their descendants?
That’s always been the problem, and this year it came back to haunt us again. After what happened in Ferguson, the early sixties returned, on the Saturday after this year’s generalized Thanksgiving:
Late on a day when a large column of protesters began a 120-mile march to the governor’s mansion and several hundred more laid plans to expand the movement, Officer Darren Wilson announced his resignation from the police force where he served for six years before fatally shooting Michael Brown on Aug. 9.
Wilson said he was resigning because of threats of violence against the Ferguson Police Department or the public if he remained on the job, according to a report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“I’m not willing to let someone else get hurt because of me,” Wilson told the Post-Dispatch.
It’s that hot, and the march that followed was pure sixties:
Earlier in the day, 150 demonstrators singing hymns and invoking sacred moments in civil rights history started a seven-day march from the spot on Canfield Drive where Brown’s body lay in the street for 4½ hours to the home of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) in the state capital of Jefferson City.
Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP, led the procession, called the Journey for Justice, which included local residents and allies from as far as California and North Carolina. When the group reaches the governor’s mansion, Brooks vowed to demand a change in leadership of the Ferguson police department and to call for legislation to stop racial profiling, require police to wear body cameras and reform the way communities are policed.
“Marches have a deep grounding in American history and civil rights history,” Brooks said. St. Louis County Police controlled traffic to allow the marchers to walk in one lane of the streets. “This march, like the Selma to Montgomery march, is really a pilgrimage, predicated on prayer and a moral grounding.”
Brooks noted that the 1965 Selma-Montgomery march was prompted by a police officer shooting a young black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson. The NAACP itself was formed a century ago in response to racially motivated lynchings.
We’re there again, and so are the St Louis churches:
At worship services around this region, clergy on Sunday called for recovery and healing after a week that began with an announcement that a grand jury would not indict a white police officer who shot an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson and that then careened through looting, fires, and tense standoffs with the police and National Guard soldiers.
Yet in many of the messages, there were also calls to continue a movement raising questions about race and police behavior that followed the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. That momentum and those concerns, some clergy members said, should not be allowed to fade away or be forgotten.
“I’m tired of living a certain way in our city,” the Rev. Shaun Ellison Jones, the assistant pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church-Christian Complex here, told the mostly black congregation in a simple room with tile floors. “I’m tired of some unjust laws.”
“As Christians, our church encourages us to be engaged in the life of the city, the life of our community,” Mr. Jones said. He urged congregants to ride a chartered bus to Jefferson City, the state capital, on the first day of the legislative session in January to make their views known.
And it wasn’t just the churches:
Before the St. Louis Rams’ football game here on Sunday, five Rams players appeared on the Edward Jones Dome field with arms raised in the hands-up motion that has become the symbol of this case. Outside the stadium, a group of protesters gathered, yelling chants like “No justice, no football” as the police stood watch.
Even as some school districts in the area were preparing to reopen schools on Monday for the first time since the grand jury’s decision was announced last Monday, more protests were planned. They included a walkout at schools and offices at 12:01 p.m., the time of day when Mr. Brown was shot.
And there were the white-bread folks too:
At the Episcopal cathedral in downtown St. Louis on Sunday morning, the Rev. Michael D. Kinman did not immediately begin a sermon, but instead led his congregation in a song from South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. “Oh, yes, I know, freedom is coming,” the mostly white parishioners sang along with him.
“This past Monday night, for the second time this year, we watched parts of our beloved city burn on live television,” Mr. Kinman said. “For nearly four months, we have heard powerful, young, nonviolent demonstrators cry out that black lives matter. We have heard terrible stories of the treatment of people of color at the hands of the police, which many of us have had to hold in painful tension with the relationships we have with beloved friends and family who are those police.”
That happened in white churches in the sixties too, and such things force a president’s hand:
President Barack Obama will meet at the White House on Monday with Cabinet members and civil rights leaders on issues related to Ferguson, Missouri, where a grand jury decided not to indict a white police officer in the death of an unarmed black teenager.
The meeting with Cabinet members will include a discussion of a review Obama ordered in August of federal programs that provide equipment to local law enforcement agencies, the White House said in a statement on Sunday.
As in the sixties, the federal government will get involved. Attorney General Eric Holder did announce that the Justice Department’s investigation into the shooting remains “ongoing” and “thorough” and “independent” – to keep alive the hope that the federal government may yet charge Wilson for criminally violating Brown’s civil rights, for what that’s worth. Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern sees little hope there:
The law under which Holder could theoretically charge Wilson, now called Section 242, was passed in 1870 to secure robust legal protections for newly freed blacks in the South. Congress had recently passed amendments guaranteeing former slaves citizenship, equal protection of the laws, due process, and voting rights, which the states (including several under Reconstruction in the South) then ratified. But a number of viciously racist groups, including the newly formed Ku Klux Klan, had effectively negated these new rights, terrorizing black communities through arson, beatings, and lynching.
Congress had already passed laws requiring Southern states to recognize their black citizens’ newfound freedoms. But violent groups like the KKK were often aided if not led by local governments and law enforcement. Blacks suddenly had a vastly expanded roster of rights, yet racist officials and crooked cops were colluding to ensure that they couldn’t exercise any of them. So Congress passed the Enforcement Act of 1870, part of which survives today as Section 242. As its title suggests, the act enforced the new amendments by making it a federal crime to deprive any person of his constitutional rights while acting “under color of any law.”
In addition to voting rights and equal protection, the law’s supporters had a particular right in mind: the Constitution’s command that no person may be “deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” When a police officer kills or beats a citizen unjustifiably, he’s depriving him of “life” or “liberty” without due process – a clear violation of Section 242.
That was probably a good idea, but the devil is in the details:
For decades, this plain reading of this law was understood, and Congress periodically amended the law to keep it clear and up-to-date. But in 1945, the Supreme Court muddied the waters. The court reviewed the conviction of Claude Screws, a sheriff in Baker County, Georgia. Screws had arrested a black man, Robert Hall, for the alleged crime of stealing a tire, and then driven him to the courthouse, accompanied by two other officers. When Hall exited the car, Screws and the officers beat him with their fists and a club for about half an hour. They then dragged his unconscious body into a jail cell and called an ambulance. He died in the hospital soon after.
Screws was convicted under the law known today as Section 242. He promptly appealed, challenging the constitutionality of his conviction. (While his case was being reviewed, Screws ran for re-election and won by a 3-to-1 margin.) He argued, somewhat ironically, that he, not his victim, had been deprived of due process. The law he had been charged with, Screws claimed, was unconstitutionally vague; in other words, it was so nebulously worded that he couldn’t have known he was violating it.
The details mattered:
The Supreme Court agreed and overturned Screws’ conviction. On its own, the justices held, the statute was too hazy to serve the demands of due process because it contained no “ascertainable standard of guilt.” So, failing to find a standard, the court made one up. In 1909, Congress had added the requirement that one must “willfully” deprive another of rights in order to violate Section 242. With the addition of the “willful” standard, the court decided, the statute now required a specific intent to violate someone’s constitutional rights. Thus, while the prosecutor may have proven that Screws deprived Hall of his constitutional rights, he hadn’t proven that Screws intended to deprive Hall of these rights. Screws was given a new trial under the new standard. The jury let him go.
By essentially rewriting the statute, the Supreme Court was responding to legitimate constitutional concerns. But the extraordinarily high “intent” requirement quickly hamstrung prosecutors, who could rarely prove to a jury that even a Klansman had lynched his victim for the purpose of depriving his victim of rights. Section 242 became a rarely used tool, employed only in extreme cases – like the infamous Mississippi murder of three civil rights workers, which, the Supreme Court agreed, was committed with the intent of preventing them from securing voting rights for blacks.
It gets complicated:
The Screws opinion suggests several times, bizarrely, that acting in “reckless disregard” of constitutional rights could qualify as “intent” and satisfy Section 242. Recklessness isn’t the same thing as intent, and this wording was probably just a fumble – but some courts have grabbed the ball and run with it. In one such ruling, the 3rd Circuit found that when a police officer chooses to disregard a citizen’s constitutional rights, he’s met the “intent” standard and violated Section 242.
But these courts are in a minority, and most judges still read Screws to mean that you can’t win a Section 242 case without demonstrating actual intent. Can the Justice Department prove to a grand jury (let alone a trial jury) that Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown for the purpose of violating his rights? The answer is almost certainly no – which is why the government won’t bring any charges.
Forget that route. Stern offers much more detail – legal reasoning either way – but the law itself is the problem. It cannot be used effectively. Its successful use in the murder of three civil rights workers back in the sixties was a one-off, and, in Ferguson, there are those who would rather take the law into their own hands:
When Sam Andrews awoke on Tuesday morning, he found his wife watching a television interview with a woman whose bakery had been vandalized during the violent unrest here on Monday.
“She said, ‘You’ve got to go help her,’ ” Mr. Andrews said in an interview on Saturday morning.
And so Mr. Andrews, a former Defense Department contractor who is now a weapons engineer in the St. Louis area, set to work. Under the auspices of a national group called the Oath Keepers, Mr. Andrews accelerated plans to recruit and organize private security details for businesses in Ferguson, which are receiving the services for free. The volunteers, who are sometimes described as a citizen militia – but do not call themselves that – have taken up armed positions on rooftops here on recent nights.
“It’s really a broad group of citizens, and I’m sure their motivations are all different,” said Mr. Andrews, who is in his 50s. “In many of them, there’s probably a sense of patriotism. But I think in most of them, there’s probably something that they probably don’t even recognize: that we have a moral obligation to protect the weakest among us. When we see these violent people, these arsonists and anarchists, attacking, it just pokes at you in a deep place.”
Mr. Andrews declined to say how many people were assisting in the effort, saying only that the number was “more than five, less than 500.” He estimated that men make up about 80 percent of the volunteers. About 80 percent are white, and 10 percent are black.
They’ll shoot the bad guys – no fuss, no muss – and they can see who they are because they are patriots. That’s what patriots do, although not everyone agrees:
On Saturday, with the county police said to be threatening the Oath Keepers with arrest, the volunteers decided to abandon their posts and instead protest against the authorities. During the evening, Mr. Andrews and some of his colleagues appeared on South Florissant Road, conducting a protest of their own. They ate pizza and stood beneath a handmade sign critical of Chief Jon Belmar of the St. Louis County police.
That some business owners accepted aid from a group regarded by some as an antigovernment militia is a testament to the rawness of emotions here…
It’s getting rough out there, and this is a standoff:
The St. Louis County police, Mr. Andrews said, and other law enforcement officials have expressed misgivings.
“When we hear information that someone, or a group, is providing security without a license, our department has to investigate the issue,” a police spokesman, Shawn McGuire, said in an email on Saturday.
Mr. Andrews said that the warning on Friday was tantamount to a temporary shutdown order, and he said he did not expect his volunteers to defy it.
Yeah, but you never know. A patriot of this sort in Nashville took out Marin Luther King after all. Of course King wasn’t a looter or an arsonist, but one thing leads to another, and you know how “these people” are. One guy knows how those people are:
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani again weighed in on tensions between members of the black community and police officers in an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.”
Giuliani said that he thinks that some police officers do discriminate against blacks, but he went on to say that blacks are partially responsible for that.
“There is more interaction and more unfair interaction among police officers, white and black, in the black community than in the white community. And I think some of that responsibility is on the police department and on police departments to train their officers better and to make their police departments much more diversified,” Giuliani said Sunday. “But I think just as much, if not more, responsibility is on the black community to reduce the reason why the police officers are assigned in such large numbers to the black community.”
Dylan Scott provides some background:
Giuliani isn’t a stranger to racially charged rhetoric, dating back to his time as mayor, but these recent comments were striking even to one of Giuliani’s biographers who was quite familiar with the former mayor’s past rhetoric on these issues.
“Some of this stuff has struck me as a little over-the-top even for him,” Andrew Kirtzman, a former journalist and now a vice president at Global Strategy Group, who wrote a 2001 book about Giuliani, said in a phone interview. “But this is the man who when asked what he had done for the black community in New York, back in the 90s, he said, ‘Well, they’re still alive to begin with.'”
“So this is not completely out of character for him, and it’s a theme he relishes,” Kirtzman said. “But there does seem to be kind of a lack of restraint, even on the Giuliani scale, for some of the things he’s been saying.”
The guy is who he is:
After the news of no indictment for Wilson and resulting protests that turned violent, Giuliani went on CNN on Tuesday to talk about “racial arsonists” and the need for the black community to be “trained.”
“When the president was talking last night about training the police, of course, the police should be trained,” he said. “He also should have spent 15 minutes on training the [black] community to stop killing each other. In numbers that are incredible – incredible – 93 percent of blacks are shot by other blacks. They are killing each other. And the racial arsonists, who enjoyed last night, this was their day of glory.”
These people are animals, at least that seems to be the general idea, although Scott says there’s more to it:
There might also be a personal element, too, Kirtzman said. Rev. Al Sharpton has been one of the most vocal civil rights leaders talking about Ferguson and he has appeared alongside the Brown family more than once. He and Giuliani, of course, were bitter rivals during the latter’s mayorship, with the mayor trying to box Sharpton out of the city’s power circle and Sharpton retaliating by leading anti-Giuliani protests.
Those past battles came to mind when Giuliani started talking about Ferguson so inflammatorily, Kirtzman said.
“Part of this is just his visceral revulsion at Al Sharpton. They have a very long history and this to me kind of has an element of an old battle playing out on the national stage,” he said. “All these years later, it’s really Sharpton’s star that has ascended. He’s more powerful than ever.”
“When I listened to Giuliani’s comments,” Kirtzman said, “it all resonates back to the old battles from 1993 to 2000.”
Everything old is new again, and Michael Eric Dyson, the professor of sociology at Georgetown who is a regular on MSNBC (never Fox News) has a few things to say about all of this:
My recent dust-up with Mr. Giuliani on national television tapped a deep vein of racially charged perception. In a discussion on “Meet the Press” of Ferguson and its racial fallout, Mr. Giuliani steered the conversation down the path of a conservative shibboleth: that the real problem facing black communities is not brutality at the hands of white cops but brutality in the grips of black thugs. He cited the fact that 93 percent of black homicide victims are killed by black people; I argued that these murderers often go to jail, unlike the white cops who kill blacks with the backing of the government. What I didn’t have time to say was that 84 percent of white homicide victims are killed by white people, and yet no language of condemnation exists to frame a white-on-white malady that begs relief by violent policing.
This doesn’t mean that black people aren’t weary of death ravaging our communities. I witnessed it personally as I sat in a Detroit courtroom 25 years ago during the trial of my brother Everett for second-degree murder, and though I believe to this day that he is innocent, I watched him convicted by an all-black jury and sentenced to prison for the rest of his life.
Many whites, who point to blacks killing blacks, are moved less by concern for black communities than by a desire to fend off criticism of unjust white cops. They have the earnest belief that they are offering new ideas to black folk about the peril we foment in our own neighborhoods. This idea has also found a champion in Bill Cosby, who for the past decade has levied moral charges against the black poor with an ugly intensity endorsed by white critics as tough love and accepted by most black journalists as homegrown conservatism.
But Mr. Cosby’s put-downs are more pernicious than that. How could one ever defend his misogynistic indictment of black women’s lax morals and poor parenting skills? “Five, six children, same woman, eight, 10 different husbands or whatever,” he liked to recite. “Pretty soon you’re going to have to have DNA cards so you can tell who you’re making love to. You don’t know who this is; might be your grandmother.”
Well, Cosby is out of the equation now given all the recent rape claims by so many white women, but Dyson is more concerned with the other guy:
Bill Cosby didn’t invent the politics of respectability – the belief that good behavior and stern chiding will cure black ills and uplift black people and convince white people that we’re human and worthy of respect. But he certainly gave it a vernacular swagger that has since been polished by Barack Obama. The president has lectured black folk about our moral shortcomings before cheering audiences at college commencements and civil rights conventions. And yet his themes are shopworn and mix the innocuous and the insidious: pull your pants up, stop making racial excuses for failure, stop complaining about racism, turn off the television and the video games and study, don’t feed your kids fried chicken for breakfast, be a good father.
As big a fan as he is of respectability politics, Mr. Obama is the most eloquent reminder that they don’t work, that no matter how smart, sophisticated or upstanding one is, and no matter how much chastising black people pleases white ears, the suspicions about black identity persist. Despite his accomplishments and charisma, he is for millions the unalterable “other” of national life, the opposite of what they mean when they think of America.
Barack Obama, like Michael Brown, is changed before our eyes into a monstrous thing that lacks humanity: a monkey, a cipher, a black hole that kills light. One might expect the ultimate target of this black otherness to have sympathy for its lesser targets, who also have lesser standing and lesser protection, like the people in Ferguson, in Ohio, in New York, in Florida, and all around the country, who can’t keep their unarmed children from being cut down in the street by callous cops who leave their bodies to stiffen into rigor mortis in the presence of horrified onlookers.
Dyson is not impressed:
Mr. Obama’s treacherous balancing act between white and black, left and right, obscures who has held the power for the longest amount of time to make things the way they are. This is something, of course, he can never admit, but which nevertheless strains his words and turns an often eloquent word artist into a faltering, fumbling linguist. President Obama said that our nation was built on the rule of law. That is true, but incomplete. His life – and his career, too – are the product of broken laws: His parents would have committed a crime in most states at the time of their interracial union, and without Martin Luther King Jr. breaking what he deemed to be unjust laws, Mr. Obama wouldn’t be president today. He is the ultimate paradox: the product of a churning assault on the realm of power that he now represents.
Maybe a conservative white guy has to say what Obama cannot:
New York Times columnist David Brooks told “Meet the Press” Sunday morning that the legacy of racism had to be confronted when discussing matters of white police forces and black communities, and that white people needed to see issues of race and law enforcement from the point of view of black communities.
“We all have to have a new social compact on this,” Brooks said. “Whites especially have to acknowledge the legacy of racism and have to go the extra yard to show respect and understand how differently whites and blacks see police issues. So whites can’t just say ‘Does this look right to me,’ but ‘Does this look trustworthy to the black community.’ That has to be the standard.”
Then he took most of it back:
“At the same time we have to understand that we are no longer in the Civil Rights Era,” he added. “This is not a question of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong. Racial inequality has become entangled in all sorts of domestic problems of disappearing jobs, family structure. This is mostly a question of good intentioned people trying to do the best they can with very knotty social problems, which now overlap with racial problems.”
We are no longer in the Civil Rights Era? It doesn’t seem so. We had our day of smug generalized thanks, acknowledging, for one day at least, that things aren’t that bad, really. Everyone agreed that life is good, and then, well fed, went home, and discovered that’s just not the case. It never is.