Our Umpteenth Effort to End Racial Murder and Abuse

June 28, 2020

I wanted to deliver this last week but Trump’s use of the military against domestic protestors had me fear for the future of our republic and I put this off.

But I want to talk about these horrible scenes of murder of African-Americans by police. People killed who posed no threat, where the police had everything well under control, and it wasn’t even clear if the victim had done anything meriting police attention, let alone murder. Breonna Taylor, an EMT, was killed in her bed in Louisville.

This reminds me of the Civil Rights Movement I grew up with. People in prayer outside boards of election that wouldn’t let them register. 14-year- old Emmet Til killed on a visit to Mississippi relatives, accused of whistling at a white woman. Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights worker shot in her car. Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, an integrated trio of civil rights workers, released by police in front of thugs who followed, murdered and buried them where they were not expected to be found.

The murders and lynchings stayed in front of our eyes until we hurt, just as we are hurting for George Floyd, choked to death in Minneapolis; Walter Scott, over a brake light in Charleston, SC; Ahmaud Aubrey, killed for jogging while Black in Georgia; Tamir Rice, a twelve-year old, in Cleveland; Stephon Clark, killed for holding a cell phone in his grandmother’s Sacramento backyard;  Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.; Eric Garner, in Staten Island; Tony McDade in Tallahassee; and Trayvon Martin, a teenager, killed by a neighborhood vigilante who thought he didn’t belong, compounded by the jury’s acquittal. Their stories, and so many more, are unacceptable. The police are supposed to protect us. But they kill too. African-Americans have learned not to call the police in order to protect their own families. I can’t forget the acquittal of four officers here in Albany for killing Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant, in a barrage of forty-one shots for trying to put a key in his door.

The U.S. Supreme Court enabled a century of lynching in 1876 by holding that a U.S. Attorney had no authority to prosecute the perpetrators of the Colfax Massacre.[i] After that, police and the Klan, which also infiltrated the FBI, acted with impunity in much of the country. The Court now does its best to restore the worst abuses of that century of intimidation and impunity.[ii] I recently worked on a brief in support of the family of a Mexican boy, in a cross-border shooting by American officers for playing too near the border. The Supreme Court protected his killer. As Pete Seeger asked, “When will it ever end”?

And yet we can’t get tired, we can’t stop, we can’t let all the abuses this country has tried to stop elsewhere define life for a third of our citizens at home. No one is free when anyone is in chains. I don’t want to have the deaths of thousands of decent people on my conscience. I don’t want my darker skinned friends, colleagues, clients, neighbors, essential workers, athletes, entertainers or any other good people and their families having to worry day and night about eluding people who want to kill them or think they aren’t worth living?

When Yugoslavia started to come apart, we had an exchange student living with us who was from Belgrade. She cried about what was happening to her country – the whole country, Yugoslavia. There was intermarriage, friendship, strong neighborhoods, business partnerships, and none of that protected people. When things start to fall apart, there is no safety. We need to stand up for decent people of all backgrounds. And remember that none of us and none of those dear to us are safe when shooters are empowered, with or without a badge.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on the WAMC Northeast Report, on June 30, 2020.

[i] LeeAnna Keith, The Colfax Massacre: The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction (Oxford Univ. Press 2008); Charles Lane, The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction (Henry Holt & Company 2008); and United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1876), the case that turned a massacre into a century of intimidation and impunity.

[ii] Stephen Gottlieb, Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics 189-208 (2016).


Happy New Year

December 31, 2019

I’ve been recording commentary on WAMC for approximately 15 years. Christmas and New Year’s are always different. It doesn’t feel like a time for argument, for praising some and condemning others. So I and many in similar positions usually talk about the joys of the holiday season and individual plans for the New Year. I tend to do it a bit multi-culturally but it really doesn’t matter; we all share the same dreams.

In reality, though, I realize that those who govern us have an enormous impact on our health and happiness – whether we’ll die on a war front, as refugees from battle or other disaster, or for lack of roads, doctors or access to health care. So I want to address my hopes for the New Year to those who have those powers.

It’s hard to read or hear the news without finding more evidence that power corrupts. George Mason, a Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and a slave-owner himself, told his colleagues, on August 22, 1787, that “Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant.”[1] Talking about lessons from slavery seems extreme to some except that we see frequent examples of masters taking cruel, often deadly, advantage of those who are called employees or are otherwise vulnerable. Let us not sire petty tyrants.

The promise of America goes well beyond class, race or religion. Thaddeus Stevens, a Pennsylvania congressman and a Republican leader in the fight for the 14th Amendment, expressed the American dream when he told the House that he dreamed of the day when “no distinction would be tolerated in this purified republic but what arose from merit and conduct.”[2]  Our Constitution makes no other distinction. If you’re here you are protected. It protects not only citizens but residents, travelers, visitors, everyone. It does that by using broad terms, “people,” “persons,” without limitation. That’s one of the great features of our Constitution. Our country pioneered the concept of human rights, guaranteed for everyone.

Paul Finkelman, an old friend and former colleague, now a college president, showed me a draft he’s been writing on the point. He goes through each Amendment which make up what we call the Bill of Rights and the language of who gets those rights. The 1st, 2nd, 4th, 9th and 10th Amendments are directed to “the people.” The 5th protects “any person.” The 6th protects “the accused.” Otherwise the Bill of Rights simply prohibits government from infringing rights and the language is again universal. Attacks on people and their rights which depend on where they come from conflict with the great principle which this country pioneered – universal human rights.

The late, great, vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, broadened the point at the dedication of the Hubert H. Humphrey Building, on November 1, 1977, saying “The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”[3] That we may treat each other well are my wishes for the coming year. And, as Pete Seeger sang, “Pacem in Teris, Mir, Shanti, Salaam, Heiwa!” which spells peace in many languages, and in some it also means good health. Happy New Year.

[1] 2 Max Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 370.

[2] Cong. Globe,  39th Cong., 1st sess. 3148  (1866) (June 13, 1866).

[3] Congressional Record, November 4, 1977, vol 123, p. 37287, available at https://en.m.wikiquote.org/wiki/Hubert_Humphrey.


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