Breaking the Silence

This talk was given by Friends of Justice Director Alan Bean at a Restorative Justice Conference held at St. John the Apostle United Methodist Church, February 24th 2010.

The headline in the local paper nearly knocked me off my chair: “Tulia’s streets cleared of garbage.”  Forty-seven local “scumbags” had been arrested by dozens of Panhandle police officers.  These “known drug dealers”, the article said, were a “cancer on the community” and it was time for local juries to give them a little “chemotherapy behind bars.”

I didn’t know much about the “scumbags” in question and I suspected the newspaper editor didn’t either.  But they were children of God.  They were American citizens.

My wife and I were attending a Sunday school class dominated by retired farmers and agribusiness managers and when it was “prayer and share” time I shared my outrage about the “scumbag editorial” in the paper.

“They are scumbags!” the man across the table from me roared, molten rectitude smoldering in his eyes, “and they’re all going to jail.”

When a hog farmer named Joe Moore went to trial in December of 1999, we learned that all 132 indictments on 47 people rested on the uncorroborated word of a single police officer, Tom Coleman.  A few weeks later, we learned that Coleman had been arrested on theft charges in the middle of the 18-month operation, that he had been fired from every law enforcement job he ever held, that he had a reputation for racism, had once kidnapped his own children, and had left every town he ever worked in owing local merchants thousands of dollars. 

Those of us who didn’t like what was happening had a tough decision to make.  Either we ignored what was happening around me or we dedicated our lives to fighting it—there was no middle ground. 

 Several months after we started our struggle for justice, my wife Nancy and I took three children into our home: Kayla, La Kendra and Laramie.  Their mother and step-father were both in Texas prisons for selling drugs to Tom Coleman.  One evening, I saw six-year-old Kayla hurling little Lego people into a windowless Lego-room.  “What are you doing?” I asked.

“They’s all goin’ to jail,” Kayla replied.

“And why is that?” I queried.

“Cause they’s bad.”

“What did they do?” I asked.

Kayla tossed another Lego person into her Lego-box as if to make a point.  “They’s just bad,” she said.

Imagine that you are seven years old and half the people in your social world suddenly disappear behind bars.  You either conclude that folks are getting what they deserve, or you abandon hope.  You can’t deal with the thought that the authorities aren’t there to protect you and people like you.  That’s too threatening for a six year-old.

If you lived in Tulia it was impossible to think and speak clearly without committing social suicide.  Tulia was typical.  People of faith are called to live outside the parameters of the possible, but it takes a kind of miracle to make it happen.

Eventually, we were able to attract media attention and world class legal talent to the cause, Tom Coleman was convicted of aggravated perjury, Governor Perry pardoned the defendants and the city of Amarillo paid them $6 million.

I am currently working on the case of Curtis Flowers, a black resident of Winona Mississippi accused of killing four people in a local furniture store in 1996.  In June of this year, Curtis will go to trial for an unprecedented sixth time.  The first three trials were overturned by sustained charges of prosecutorial misconduct or ended in hung juries.

Now state Senator Lydia Chassaniol, a resident of Winona, is pushing a bill that will allow prosecutors to expand the jury pool into neighboring counties.  Her bill sailed through the Senate with the vast majority of white senators voting yea and all but one black senator voting nay. 

What created this profound perception gap between black and white citizens of Mississippi?

A short history lesson.  In 1963, Fannie Lou Hamer and several other civil rights activists were arrested at the Trailways depot in Winona when they tried to eat at an all-white diner.  A few hours later, Hamer was beaten half to death by two black inmates working under the supervision of Sheriff Earl Wayne Patridge and his deputies.  When Bobby Kennedy’s Department of Justice tried to prosecute the officers responsible for assaulting Ms. Hamer and her friends, not a single district attorney in the state of Mississippi would take the case.

In 1963, when the Mississippi criminal justice system was for whites only, Senator Lydia Chassaniol was attending Winona’s all-white public schools.  Like little Kayla in Tulia, she was too young to discern right from wrong so she took her cues from her elders. By the time Ms. Chassaniol graduated from Ole Miss with a degree in education, little segregation academies were popping up all over the state.  She spent several decades teaching in Winona’s all-white private school (now called a “Christian” school) then went into politics.

When Trent Lott was associated with an overtly racist organization called the Council of Conservative Citizens, his political career was over.  This summer, when Lydia Chassaniol admitted that she belonged to the same ardently racist organization no one in Mississippi was surprised or seemed to care. 

Lydia Chassaniol was born into a culture committed to the principle of white supremacy, a commitment that has never been rescinded.  Like most of us, she lives and works within social parameters she did not create and for which she is not personally responsible.

A few years ago, Mark Peffley with the University of Kentucky and Jon Hurwitz of the University of Pittsburgh asked 600 white adults and 600 black adults if they believed the death penalty should be an option for people convicted of premeditated murder.  65% of the white folks thought it should be compared to 50% of the black participants.

Then each participant was read a statement: “Some people say that the death penalty is unfair because most of the people who are executed are African Americans.” Black support for the death penalty fell by 12 percentage points, but this argument increased white support by 12 percentage points, from 65% to 77%.

The researchers concluded that “Many whites begin with the belief that the reason blacks are punished is because they deserve it, not because the system is racially biased against them.  So when these whites are confronted with an argument against the death penalty that is based on race, they reject these arguments with such force that they end up expressing more support for the death penalty than when no argument is presented at all.”

There is a strong relationship between support for the death penalty and civil rights resentment. 

During the glory days of the civil rights movement, support for the death penalty plunged from 68% in 1953 to a record low of 42% in 1966.  Then widespread rioting, the rise of the black power movement and agitation over the war in Vietnam created a powerful backlash against the civil rights movement.  By 1994, support for the death penalty had soared to an unprecedented 80%.

There was more involved than resurgent racism, however.  During this period, bipartisan support for neo-liberal economics created an ever-expanding gulf between the wealthy (who were doing better all the time) and the poor (who were being negatively impacted by globalization, and the shift of manufacturing from inner cities to the suburbs).

Between 1983 and 1998, average household net worth increased by 25% for families in the upper 40% of income.  For families in the bottom 40%, household net worth dropped by 76%.

This widening disparity created a crisis of conscience for those at the positive end of the continuum.  It was in this context that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made an amazing claim.  “There is no such thing as society,” she said.  “There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.”

Skyrocketing crime rates in the eighties and early nineties encouraged this fixation on personal responsibility.  The crack epidemic hit America’s poorest neighborhoods like a sledgehammer.  Competition among street dealers for market share sent the homicide rate into the stratosphere and property crime perpetrated by desperate addicts swelled the overall crime rate. 

Murder rates for white males showed little fluctuation during this period, and rates for black males over 25 fell dramatically. But for black males 24 and younger, the homicide rate almost tripled.  Anyone who seemed to be making excuses for “the thugs” was shouted down. 

These conditions created a perfect storm for tough on crime politicians.  The Texas prison population soared from 39,000 in 1988 to 151,000 in 1998—an increase of 387%.  Mass incarceration became the order of the day and every little rural community in Texas had its own prison. 

But there were problems.  Mass incarceration encouraged prosecutors and judges to avoid the time and expense of jury trials.  Asked to choose between a virtual life sentence if convicted at trial and a plea offer of five or ten years, most defendants took the plea. 

Unfortunately, these tough bargaining techniques worked just as well with the innocent as with the guilty.  In recent years, improvements in DNA testing have reversed over 250 felony convictions.  If these cases are representative, African-American defendants are more than 12 times as likely to be wrongfully convicted as white defendants.

As rehab centers and mental hospitals downsized or closed their doors, prisons were flooded with folks whose major problem was a chemical dependency, mental illness, or a severe learning disability.  Eventually, the crack epidemic ended and crime rates returned to normal levels, but the mills of mass incarceration continue to grind.

What we see, what we think and what we say is usually defined by the parameters of the possible.  Too often, the price of peace is silence.  When Jesus considered his social world, God’s words to Isaiah came to mind:

This people’s heart has grown dull,

and their ears are hard of hearing,

and they have shut their eyes;

so that they might not look with their eyes,

and listen with their ears,

and understand with their heart and turn—so I could heal them.

I am not asking you to accept my analysis of our shared history, nor am I challenging you to see things as I see them.  But if you are a person of faith, I ask you to pray for the grace to see what only Jesus can see, to think the unsearchable thoughts of the Spirit and to echo the unspeakable words of a just and loving God.

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