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Imagine for a moment that a man's neck was almost severed, nearly clean cut in the most painful way possible, while in the custody of the people charged with the duty of protecting and serving. Imagine that man died, alone, in a prison cell, while his cries for help were blatantly ignored. Now imagine that in the wake of that tragedy, a government had been infantile in its ability to explain even the basic details of what happened.

That's the revolting reality in Baltimore. And through it all, the dominant white response was muted. From different reaches of the Internet, prominent civil rights leaders weighed in on the travesty, offering perspectives on another data point in an ever-growing body of evidence that the police state is still being mobilized against black Americans. And sure, the death of Freddie Gray received some national media attention.

But it wasn't the concern of the average guy who looks like me. White Americans are immune to these problems, isolated from the realities of police brutality and oppression. Severed spines are a problem in the abstract, but certainly not something to get all bothered about. For some of us, the Freddie Gray travesty was another opportunity to reflect on the moral failings of the afflicted, noting that if Freddie had been a law-abiding choir boy, he wouldn't have found himself in the crunching grasp of Baltimore's police force. For others, it was an opportunity to remind the world that not all cops are bad, an impulse that's certainly correct, even if ill-timed.

But the brutal death of Freddie Gray, an example of police brutality that could have reminded us all of the dangers faced by inner-city black men on a daily basis? Well, that's just not occasion enough for us to offer an opinion.

Now imagine that in response to this one particular tragedy, the citizens of Baltimore - most of them black, but many white - rose up to question the culture of brutality that's produced more than 100 successful claims against police over the last few years. Imagine that in the midst of those protests, a debatable number of mostly young, mostly angry men smashed some windows, threw some rocks and bottles, and destroyed some property. A few of those men even got violent with those around them.

After sitting on the sidelines, silent at the lynching of Freddie Gray, you'd think that some property damage and non-lethal violence would fail to shake the conscience of the average white viewer. You'd be wrong.

It's in the defense of that property - those CVS stores owned by faceless individuals and those police cars being bashed in - that we've seen the strongest response from the dominant element of society. Social media is a good indication, but certainly not the only one. There, on sites like Facebook and Twitter, folks have spoken up about Freddie Gray for the first time. They've not come to the defense of the oppressed. Rather, they've spoken up in condemnation of those "animals," "thugs," and "criminals" who are "destroying their own city."

It's some combination of historical illiteracy and racial animus that drives the response. The prevailing white view has been tragically non-curious from an intellectual perspective. Rather than asking what might cause a people to risk life and limb in an effort to smash to bits their own neighborhoods, we've responded with a stupid, incredulous look on our faces. "Look at them," we've said. "Burning down their own city." We understand that we would never do something like that - not even when our favorite hockey team failed to win Lord Stanley's Cup. But we fail to ask that critical next question - if these people, who are in so many ways like us, would do something that we wouldn't think of doing, what must the conditions be like to drive that behavior?

To put all of the blame on the lack of historical literacy of white folks in America would be letting too many off the hook. Even if they don't know about the history of red-lining, the effects of the drug war, and how Jim Crow has shape-shifted into the modern criminal justice apparatus, many of these people would be unmoved if their eyes would open. Simply put, for them, it's racial animus that drives the boat.

But white Americans, many by their own choosing, are painfully unaware of the historical context in which a mostly-black protest in Baltimore might take place. What are these people so mad about? we ask, as if the answers are too complicated to be discerned from one extended reading of anything by Ta-Nehisi Coates or Greg Howard.

As a white man, I'm in little position to pass judgment on the behavior of people so beaten down that they have little hope. I'm certainly not in a position to offer the tired white liberal tripe, asking black folks in places like Baltimore to sit quietly and trust the system, waiting for me and those like me to rescue them through legitimate democratic means. While rioting, looting, and lighting stuff on fire is certainly not a productive way to achieve equality and real civil rights, I won't lie to these people and tell them that by doing so, they're undermining progress that might have been made through legitimate protesting.

That's because I understand the unfortunate reality that powers this kind of destructive protesting. That is - these people are aware in a way I can never be aware, that whether they choose to jump on cars, sing Civil Rights hymns, hold signs, or stage peaceful letter writing campaigns to their local congressperson, the situation is going to stay mostly the same.

Why do you see destructive rioting and looting? It's not because people think it's the best way to get things done. It's because the people have finally come to realize that no matter what they do, nothing gets done. No matter how loud they scream, the system still crushes them under its weighty wheels. Their macro situation in many ways mirrors their individual situations. These people are expressing not just anger and frustration at another black man killed by another group of police officers. Rather, they're expressing anger and frustration at a socio-economic reality in which they are the bones and scraps left over after the best meat's been taken.

Despite living in the wealthiest state in the country, the residents of Baltimore's inner city find themselves in abject poverty. No group is hit harder than young people. In fact the child poverty rate in Baltimore is 36.5-percent, according to a 2014 report by Catholic Charities of Maryland. Around two in every three high school students will graduate, a number that is even an improvement over how things were just a few years ago.

These are young people who live in communities torn to pieces by the War on Drugs, where violence is the norm. They're young people who are considered a "success story" if they achieve what people in my community would call the base level of productive existence - graduating high school without dying or being sent to prison. They're young people who, if they were to achieve what my parents would call success, will be a story so rare that Hollywood might come calling for the movie rights. The handful of young people who escape horrible Baltimore neighborhoods and find themselves in the middle class are the exception that proves the rule.

And they're smart enough to know it. Centuries of oppression, and more specifically, decades of policies targeted at the economic destruction of black communities in places like Baltimore, have led to this reality. They're the bubbling furnace that powers the kind of frustration necessary for destructive protesting.

As a white male, I don't particularly care for looting and rioting. I wouldn't like to be one of the store or property owners who will have to replace or rebuild. But I'm forced to recognize this destruction as the final option for a group of people so systematically disenfranchised that their voices have not been heard. And I have to ask myself a difficult question - who is the worse moral monster: The young man whose hopelessness leads him to jump on the hood of a cop car, or me, a person who has acquiesced to a system that creates justified hopelessness among young people in places like Baltimore?

When we, as white folks, seem more eager to speak up in defense of property than we are to speak up in defense of another slain black man, we demonstrate that the righteous anger of those doing the rioting is justified. We show that our unwillingness to invest resources in their future is not a coincidence, but rather, the intentional workmanship of our decrepit value system, which tosses away young black men as readily today as it did 200 years ago.

David R. Dow, left. With Franklin.
Meet David R. Dow. I've written about him a handful of times on this very site, usually in a space describing laudable educators or men who have motivated me to get off the couch and make something of my life.

He's a well-respected Texas death penalty lawyer, featured in a TedX speech that you can see here. He's the author of a handful of books, including a life-changing memoir called The Things I've Learned From Dying. He's written from the heart on the death penalty for a very long time, in book and brief form, challenging the Texas death machine along the way.

As the representative of more than 100 Texas death row inmates, Dow's learned to celebrate the little successes. On a few occasions, he's saved the life of his clients. In his litany of positive outcomes was the Anthony Graves case. Dow was a part of the team that secured an exoneration for Graves, who in 2010 was set free from Texas's death row after spending 16 years awaiting his death. He's extended the lives of countless other clients, giving those people an opportunity so spend valuable time with family.

Dow would probably shrug aside this heroic characterization. He'd probably tell you that he's trying to martial his considerable ability in a cause that he's found worthy. And he'd be right. My experience with him has shown a ruthless dedication to the logic and logistics of death penalty practice. It's a constant effort to navigate the procedural hurdles and minefields that are specifically designed to make the job really hard for the last guy to sign on when a client's life's being threatened. And it's in one of those hurdles that we have our current story. Dow's been suspended for a year by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

As Maurice Chammah of the Marshall Project described the situation:

On Wednesday, the judges of Texas’ highest criminal court told a defense attorney named David Dow he would not be able to practice in front of them for the next year. The Court of Criminal Appeals decided that Dow had filed a motion to stop the execution of his client, Miguel Angel Paredes, too late, and that since he’d done the same thing in a different case in 2010, he will now be suspended.
For the uninitiated, that might sound strange. And it should. Death penalty cases necessarily bring into play tight deadlines. Lawyers like Dow are often working against the clock, sorting through the myriad issues at their disposal, looking for that special chestnut that might just save a man's life. They're deciding which argument is their best, and they're often waiting for information that just doesn't come. These situations are fluid, too, dependent upon the whims of forensic testing, jailhouse snitch testimony rescission, and other such evidentiary components.

Judges often accuse death penalty lawyers of filing late and frivolous appeals in an effort to delay the process. Ignoring the absurd characterization of any appeal that seeks to save a man's life as being "frivolous," in some circles, one might see a death penalty litigator's attempt to extend a man's life as noble. Like the doctor finding a few more months for his sick patient, the death penalty lawyer's "win" is often that extension, especially in places like Texas, where real death penalty wins are rare.

Dow's first notable clash with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on the issue of deadlines came back in 2007. Dow and his team worked feverishly to finish an appeal on behalf of Michael Richard. As they closed out their work, they experienced a computer crash, and asked the court to stay open for 20 extra minutes after their five o'clock closing so that the team could send a representative to personally deliver the appeal. The appeal, we'll remind you, was about the outcome of a human being's life.

Judge Sharon Keller, whose career casts a long shadow of enormity, responded simply:

We close at five.
You'll have to excuse Dow and other death penalty lawyers if they have something of a burr under their saddle on the issue of deadlines.

This latest round even implicates one of the more convoluted interpretations of Texas procedural law. Chammah sought to untangle the difficulties, writing:

"In June 2011, Keller’s court issued a new rule about filing deadlines. A pleading would be 'deemed untimely' if it was filed 'fewer than seven days before the scheduled execution date.' The rule goes on to say that a 'request for a stay of execution filed at 8 a.m. on a Wednesday morning when the execution is scheduled for the following Wednesday at 6 p.m. is untimely.' Dow filed a motion to stay Paredes’ execution at 12:37 p.m. on October 21st. The execution was set for October 28th at 6 p.m. It was more than seven days in advance, but violated the rule’s example. Pull out a calendar if you find this all a bit confusing."
Dow found himself on the Paredes case in a way that should feel familiar for those who have worked for or studied under Dow. As the founder and lead of the Texas Innocence Network, Dow harnesses a small number of resources and the work of a team of lawyers and students to pursue claims of actual innocence from death row inmates and "normal" inmates alike. During a given year, the Network receives thousands of letters from people who are desperate for legal representation. Most of these people are guilty. Some invariably are innocent. But each has a story, and when they plead for their lives in a letter, lawyers like Dow volunteer their time to take the case. That's what happened this time, when Dow, without even being appointed to the case - and thus not receiving payment for his time - decided to investigate on behalf of Paredes.

Paredes is now dead, of course. And Keller's court found the perfect opportunity to take their shot at personal enemy number one - David Dow.

Having high standards for law practice is certainly not a bad thing. In the criminal law setting, and especially in the death penalty setting, it's even more important. But that same Texas Court of Criminal Appeals hasn't shown a strong record of caring much lawyers coloring between the lines. That is, until the lawyer was one who challenged the court on a regular basis.

Readers of my work will remember the name Joe Frank Cannon. Cannon, of course, was a member of the "Dream Team" before O.J. Simpson ever assembled his group of legal eagles. No, Cannon wasn't a good lawyer. In fact, he was hardly a lawyer at all, assuming we use "awake" as one of the characteristics of a functional attorney. Cannon slept through the cases of at least two men who were executed under his care.

It feels strange to even use the name Cannon in an article about David Dow, considering that much of Dow's work as a death penalty lawyer is necessary because horrid lawyers like Cannon made lethal mistakes at the trial level. During the first week of a class with Dow, I finally piped up from whatever was distracting me when Dow intimated that human beings die when lawyers don't do their job. It was serious business, and it was in this criticism of bad trial lawyers that I decided to become one. My motivation from that day forward was to be the kind of lawyer that never gave Dow a reason to do his job. To be a good trial lawyer is to keep people off of death row. And in Texas, even if you sleep through a trial, you can avoid sanction and be deemed competent in appellate review. When you're helping to grease the wheels of the death penalty machine - and not putting up a fight against the state and its agenda - you'll scarcely generate the kind of vitriol that's necessary for a one-year suspension.

The Court of Criminal Appeals in Texas issued this one-year suspension in service of a personal vendetta against a man who dared challenge what he has called the "Texas Machine of Death." While Dow is not your typical abolitionist - he's more pragmatic than that - he has become an outspoken critic of capital punishment. And his criticism focuses mostly on the inherent absurdity of allowing human beings the power to make decisions on the life and death of other human beings. He's reticent to grant this power to the state mostly because he's seen too much. Dow has not been shy in his speeches, in his briefs, and in his books, about the failings of various courts at various levels. From prosecutors who withhold evidence to defense attorneys who fail their clients, he's unashamedly critical of people whose mistakes - either innocent or malicious - lead to a human being's demise. He's been outspoken against trial level judges who seem indifferent to life, bending the rules only when it means Texas can stick another needle in another arm.

And he's been most critical of those people who should be playing referee in the appellate courts where he practices. Texas's Court of Criminal Appeals is notorious as a rubber-stamp for executions. You'll have to excuse Dow for questioning more than just the legal reasoning of judges who might let a man die just because a lawyer's computer system broke down.

You might excuse Dow for being critical of a system that's demonstrated around a 90-percent success rate in choosing who is guilty and who is innocent for the purposes of death row. When he sees someone like Anthony Graves walk triumphantly into the sun after leaving the dark cage that is death row, you'll forgive Dow if he's not into playing nice with a court who specifically designs rules that act not as facilitators of justice, but rather, as hurdles.

Dow, after all, is the man representing Jerry Hartfield, a Texas man of limited intellectual capacity who has been sitting in a Texas jail cell for more than 30 years without a valid conviction to hold him there.

David Dow has spent his career doing two things - standing up for those people who no one else will, and making sure that people who railroad the vulnerable are held to the carpet for it. Unfortunately for him, when you take on such a lofty challenge, and when you square up against a heavyweight, you better be prepared to take some punches. And punch they have, slapping Dow with a suspension that will cause many of his clients to lose the services of a high quality death penalty lawyer in a legal environment where there just aren't enough jurists willing to take on these cases. In its quest for personal retribution, this particular court has done more than take shots at a single lawyer. They've also done what they do best - inflict pain on the condemned.

If you think that's petty, just remember that the same court that handed down this ruling, when faced with the prospect of waiting 20 minutes to receive an appeal for a man's life, responded:

We Close At Five.

The local television news uttered a foreboding refrain.

"When we return, some sad news about a local college football player."

At 13, I hadn't experienced much loss. All of my heroes were going to live forever, of course, and if one had to pass, it certainly wouldn't be anyone in college at that moment.  I had been out of the house serving as a standard bearer for a local golf event put on by the Nike Tour, a minor leagues of sort that featured only a handful of unforgettable names. It was the age when 13-year olds didn't all have cell phones, and I wouldn't get my Nokia with the chewable antenna until a few months later. That fact established, it's easy to see why my grandmother couldn't reach me that day despite her frantic attempts.

I returned home to turn on that news broadcast. Before I knew it, the anchor had returned to deliver the news:

Brandon Rouse, a sophomore defensive end at Clemson University, died today of a cardiac event at the Astro Theater in Clemson. The Darlington native was 20.

I cried. Broke down, really. Brandon Rouse had been a special part of my life. Before games, he would promise to "bounce" for me when he'd make three-pointers, a promise that he followed through on with his customary dance move. I was a waterboy on his high school basketball team, which advanced to the Lower State Championship Game his junior year.

On the football field, he'd starred, doing enough to earn a scholarship to Clemson University. This was no small feat for a young man who escaped poverty in Darlington to earn his place among college football's elite. Like many of the players on that Darlington team, he'd taken the time to mentor me. As a young white kid, surrounded by a team of mostly black players, his impact shaped me in ways that other friendships could not.

When Brandon went to Clemson, he still somehow made me feel like an important part of his life. He dressed for a single game at Clemson, and afterward, he gave me his jersey and both gloves. All signed, of course, it was another promise he'd fulfilled. Perhaps Brandon took to me because I took to him. Perhaps it was because I was one of the only people to enter Clemson's stadium that year hoping to see him. As writer David Hood wrote shortly after his death:

Rouse was 20 when he collapsed Saturday night from a congenital heart defect. That's hard to understand. It shouldn't have been the first time his name was in the paper. It's not the end of his story, though.
The entirety of Clemson's team piled into chartered buses to attend the funeral in my hometown. Then-head coach Tommy Bowden spoke at the memorial service. Keith Adams, a major contributor on that team, embraced me in a minutes-long hug as I sobbed at the sight of Brandon's body.

Later, I spent time with his mother, talking about her son and the impact he'd had on me. I wore the jersey into her home, and I offered it to her. She wouldn't take it, and told me that if Brandon had given it to me, then he meant for me to have it. At 13, I understood that this woman had lost more than just her son. She'd lost the love of her life, and the great hope of her family. Her living room stood as a shrine to his legacy and his accomplishments, of which there were many in his young life.

Flash forward to 2011, and I found myself in a tent at the Houston Rodeo. There stood Reggie Herring, the former defensive coordinator at Clemson, and a man who I'd met many times as a child. I introduced myself to Reggie, and I told him that he'd once treated me with kindness when I was young. He was happy to meet someone who recognized him. Even as a linebackers coach for the Houston Texans, he's the sort of person who could have a meal at almost any restaurant in Texas without arousing suspicions of celebrity. Eventually, I asked him about Brandon, and what he remembered about my friend's passing. Reggie Herring had coached Brandon Rouse. He had recruited him. And Reggie couldn't recall the name.

Herring was horrified, of course, when I told him why he should remember Brandon Rouse. I don't blame him, really. He's coached thousands of players. But I couldn't help thinking that if my friend's college coach couldn't remember his name, then we were drifting dangerously close to allowing Brandon Rouse's name, and his legacy, to drift into the smoky abyss.

That's why, this year, for the first time, I'll be awarding the Brandon Rouse Memorial Scholarship, both as a means of celebrating my friend and doing something to help my hometown.

According to the New York Times, the average income in Darlington, South Carolina just more than $37,000. That doesn't tell the whole story, though. The town features an unemployment rate of more than 10-percent. 41-percent of its citizens are obese, and many live beneath the poverty line. Just more than one in every 10 citizens has a college degree. In many ways, it's typical of Southern rural areas, where the well-to-do make out alright, but the poor are sometimes neglected.

Darlington is a former mill town, and the remnants of that legacy dot its geography. Mill Hill houses the homes of those who used to depend on such industries. Many young people are born into untenable situations, and the social safety net has been ripped from beneath them. South Carolina routinely ranks at or near the bottom of educational rankings, including in metrics like "student performance." Throughout this area, many of the brightest white students are re-routed to private schools, with many more finding their way into Mayo, the high-performing magnet school.

To its credit, Darlington High School has been a bright spot in an otherwise struggling community. Under new leadership, the high school has provided more opportunities for students, and its teachers have been recognized as some of the best in the state. But a lawsuit just decided in the state's supreme court tells the story of how young poor kids are treated around this place. More than 20 years ago, nearly half of the state's school districts - 40 in all - sued the state for inadequate funding. They claimed that the state had failed in its duty, creating a so-called "corridor of shame," where students were neglected and their opportunity stunted. Darlington was not a part of that lawsuit, but two neighboring counties - Florence and Lee - were both involved.

Brandon Rouse escaped his upbringing, which was characterized by the love of his mother and the institutionalized lack of opportunity for people like him, through supreme talent. Most kids are not built like college linebackers, though, and most won't be able to use Division I talent to find their way to college. For many, college is a dream that even if they could achieve, they could not afford.

Because of this, I am awarding the Brandon Rouse Memorial Scholarship for the first time. This winter, I will award a scholarship to one young person, in hopes of helping that child pay for books or whatever other incidentals might go along with college. The scholarship will seek to honor, and celebrate, a young person who embodies the legacy of my friend. Brandon Rouse was brave, resilient, smart, and ambitious. His story has motivated me, and I hope that by telling it, I can motivate others to take action to help not only this community, but similar communities across the country.

I will be funding the initial offering, but in the future, I hope to raise funds, allowing whoever wants to contribute to be a part of some small solution in our town.

Brandon Rouse was a light in the world. He helped me bridge racial gaps, he elevated his mother and their household to something truly special, and he left behind a legacy that should be celebrated. Ultimately, his heart was so big that it burst. While he might be gone, with this scholarship, we can ensure that his story, and the story of struggle for many like him, will never be forgotten or ignored.


Meet the football team at Academic Magnet High School, a public school near Charleston, South Carolina.

As you can see here, they're almost entirely white, with the exception of a single teammate. Recently, they've played a number of games against teams that look like this:
On the left, you see the Raptors of Academic Magnet. On the right, North Charleston High School, a team that's made up almost entirely of black players.

During a recent winning streak, Academic Magnet has developed what you might call an odd tradition. They smash watermelons on the ground, then eat them. This alone might be offensive after defeating a mostly black team, but the fine folks at Academic Magnet have added something extra to their little celebratory routine - making "monkey noises."

A parent of an opposing team took issue with this practice and complained to the local school board. After investigating, the school took action against the coach, firing him, despite what many people claim is a prolonged run of success.

As you might suspect, some people have really taken issue with the "sensitive" and "overly PC" response to this incident. Just to provide some picture of what we're dealing with:

On local radio this morning, broadcaster Emerson Phillips, who has been honored by the SC Broadcasters' Association with awards, went on a prolonged rant in which he bemoaned the fact that "some people" - namely, black people and Jewish people - "see racism or anti-Antisemitism in everything." According to him, those people "let racism effect everything they do."

These are typical refrains from racists and those who look to cover for racists in all parts of the country, but especially in the Deep South. This event has been met with incredulity on the part of many white people, who seemingly cannot understand how something as innocuous as a watermelon and "monkey noises" could ever be viewed as racist. These people, of course, are either extremely disingenuous or have been living in a cave.

It's in this light that a "Dear White People" lesson is needed.

As white people, we do not get to tell black people what they can and cannot be offended by. Offense is the province of the offended, especially when such offense is objectively reasonable.

More than that, we inherit - and in fact, occupy - the actual world, complete with its full history. We do not occupy a world where watermelons are neutral fruits in the context of a white person speaking to a black person. Likewise, we don't occupy a space in which one group making monkey noises toward the other constitutes a signal of mutual appreciation for the local zoo.

Rather, we occupy a world in which white people have used symbols - be they the confederate flag, watermelons, fried chicken, nooses, or anything else - to intimidate, de-humanize, and otherwise demean black people. And black people cannot be blamed for learning and understanding that history. When black people understand that in the early 1900s, white people dressed in blackface in order to highlight the "simplicity" of the black man by showing that black man content with just having his fill of watermelon, then we have a duty to moderate our use of those symbols.

When black people understand that even today, the president of the United States is depicted as a simpleton after a juicy watermelon treat, we must understand that the context in which they view, and receive, messages about things like watermelon are through the context of that distant and not-so-distant history. For centuries, watermelons have been used to demonstrate that the black man is so stupid that he would be content with his lot in life - that of the oppressed, the enslaved, and the downtrodden - if a white man would only give him some watermelon. Understanding that, it becomes very easy to understand why a black person today would take great offense at a nearly all white football team celebrating a win over a nearly all black football team by smashing watermelon and ripping a few primate noises.

I don't buy that the Academic Magnet team engaged in its little ritual without nefarious intent. There are few contexts in which young, white boys would use monkey sounds and eat watermelon on the same field as young, black boys that do not suggest the intention of racial subjugation. But even if one gives these boys a benefit of the doubt they have not earned, it is still the responsibility of white folks to understand history and to avoid those symbols which will rightly be offensive to black people or any other ethnic group.

And when those people speak up about the offense, it is incumbent upon us not to tell them that they are wrong - another form of racism in which we elevate our judgment over theirs - but rather, to listen to what they have to say, to study the history behind it, and to understand how, given the hundreds-years context, black people would be angered at the suggestion of their simplicity.

Updated: To add this nugget from News 4 Charleston:

"Further, the students also drew a face on each watermelon and named them, according to McGinley. She said the investigation revealed the students also named the watermelons Junior and Bonds Wilson.
Bonds Wilson is the name of the formerly predominantly-black school in North Charleston where Academic Magnet now sits."

The above image was uncovered in the investigation. It's a sketch that administrators believe the students used to draw faces on the watermelons. It doesn't take a history scholar to see that that picture is a really poor high school artist's rendering of some of the old sambo "art" that was produced in the early 1900s. The overdone smiles. The red eyes. The overdone nose. I know that racists will deny it, but I've seen enough of those types of illustrations to know what these students intended.
A couple of decades ago, before he had made waves by bringing the Equal Justice Initiative to prominence, before he had written transformative books, and before he launched me on my path to public service, Alabama-based attorney Bryan Stevenson represented a man named Walter McMillan. McMillan had been condemned to death under questionable circumstances in an Alabama court. His case had almost everything that you might look for when chronicling Southern-fried injustice - a black defendant, a young white victim, an all-white jury, and a prosecutor unwilling to turn over potentially exculpating evidence to the defense. It also had an unqualified defense attorney at trial, and quite amazingly, a judge named Robert E. Lee Key, Jr.

That judge acted in accordance with his name, overriding a jury that had actually decided to give McMillan a life sentence after finding him guilty of murder. Alabama, of course, is one of a small number of states that gives judges the power to overrule juries on the question of life versus death. Citing the viciousness of the crime, Robert E. Lee Key, Jr. decided to "enhance" the sentence, sending McMillan to the electric chair.

McMillan was a respected member of his community. He had no criminal record, and dozens of witnesses confirmed that during the time the crime was committed, he was at a church function. Stevenson took his case, and after a significant amount of investigation and some of the best lawyering east of the Mississippi, earned McMillan's freedom.

A black man stood trial in Alabama in front of a white jury and a judge named Robert E. Lee Key, Jr. Let that sink in for a moment. Imagine a world where Jewish men and women stood trial in German courts lorded over by men named Hitler or Goebbels. That would shock the conscience. Yet in modern America, these situations happen with alarming frequency. A system that prides itself on the appearances of fairness abandon even the show when institutional racism runs so rampant.

Decades later, Bryan Stevenson is still at it. This week, he'll release his book, a sure-to-be classic entitled Just Mercy. A couple of years ago, in a well-traveled TED talk, Stevenson reflected on his life as a lawyer, and his central thesis encouraged listeners to "hold on." There's power in identity, he wrote, and despite all that he had seen, Stevenson held firm to the belief that the next century might be better than the last.

How do we have hope in a world where black men face white judges named Robert E. Lee? What can we cling to when young black men are more than 20 times more likely to be killed by police than young white men? When the average black family understands that a routine trip to the store might end in an illegal search of their car, and when young black men are shot like dogs for the crime of reaching for their wallet, how can we be hopeful?

It's a question I often confront when writing about race, injustice, and poverty. There's something downright depressing about having to fire up the computer in the wake of another slaying of a young black man, seemingly having to pound out 5,000 words in defense of that young man's very right to live. That seems to be a common refrain among those who write about these topics - we're angry not only that another something has happened, but also that our points even have to be written. Pointing out that Michael Brown did not deserve to die at the hands of police should be like writing that the sun is hot, the moon is far away, and that skiing in Colorado is better than challenging the icy slopes of West Virginia. These things should be met with cries of, "Yeah, duh." But they're not, and writers much more talented than myself have spent hours explaining to white America why young black men are even deserving of the most precious right - that right to life.

At times, I find my own tone retreating to a dark place. I balk at the teachers who failed to inform me that Christopher Columbus, whilst sailing the ocean blue, also slaughtered most of Haiti. I rebuke those who argue that disabled folks on welfare should just "get a job." I chastise those who view high incarceration rates among young black men and draw the conclusion that "those people" are predisposed to crime, rather than recognizing that the root of crime lies in decades of intentional policing and the economic disparities whose roots can be traced as far back as slavery.

While I'm crushed with indelible sadness at the lives lost, and at the conversations that black parents have to have with their young children in light of the seeming open season on young black men, I'm heartened by those, like Stevenson, who have dedicated their lives to the struggle. I'm heartened by the thousands of public defenders around the country - in places like Phoenix, Houston, Kentucky, and everywhere in-between - that sacrifice their financial futures for the good of their clients.

More than that, technology is making it so that good people have more options than ever for correcting some of the injustice that continues to plague communities across the country. When a white lawyer used her privilege in Washington, D.C. to ensure that a disabled black man was not hassled further by police, we restored a small amount of humanity. When she filmed the encounter, we moved forward a little more.

I'm often asked, after I publish a particularly depressing piece on racial injustice - "WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP?" For the longest time, my response has been, "Pray. And vote." Perhaps it's simpler than that. Perhaps the answer lies in making use of the technology that almost all of us have in our hands.

Two weeks ago, I captured almost an hour of footage of a small town police officer - in Darlington, South Carolina - stopping a black family. I was on my way to a movie with my parents when an officer flew by me with blue lights flashing. Seeing that the family had been stopped, I got out and began filming. What unfolded was not extraordinary. It was remarkable precisely because it's become so routine. I filmed as two officers removed the entire family from their vehicle. Two of the members of the family were handcuffed, including what appeared to be a woman at least 50 years old. A second cop riffled through the car for an extended period of time. He searched every compartment and the trunk. Eventually, finding nothing, he uncuffed the two family members, letting them get back into their vehicle.

They waited 15 more minutes until the officer finally handed them a traffic ticket and sent them on their way. This is what the average traffic stop looks like for black people in America. I don't know why the officer stopped them. I don't know what probable cause he had to search the vehicle, if he had any at all. I do know that he found nothing, and the fact that there was no arrest suggests that perhaps the probable cause wasn't so probable after all. This family had been subjected to an hour of hell, having their possessions taken out of the vehicle on the town's busiest street. They were forced to wait around in handcuffs while hundreds of cars passed. An average traffic stop turned into humiliation, all because black people are inherently suspicious in places like Darlington, South Carolina.

I filmed that encounter because I hoped my presence would prevent police violence. I also filmed it because I wanted one more data point on what the black experience is like in America. I'm now more hopeful because this is something that we can all do. We can all take the time to get out of our cars, use our privilege in constructive ways, and install police accountability even where none has existed previously.

#FilmYourTruth, even if your hands shake.

Bryan Stevenson is a black man in America who has seen some of the worst that the country has to offer. He's seen juveniles sentenced as adults, and he's seen men sent to the electric chair. He's sat with Rosa Parks to discuss what might be done to improve the world. And through all of that, he remains hopeful. If he can retain hope, then so can you and I.

And with technology, we can all be a part of the solution.


Cross-posted from TheLoneDissent, the new home of my anti-racist and criminal justice writing.

Levar Jones was shot by a (now) former member of the South Carolina Highway Patrol earlier this month. The disturbing video hit national media today, showing that Sean Groubert, the officer in question, wildly discharged his firearm as Jones attempted to comply with the officer’s request to produce identification. Groubert had taken valuable time out of his day, during the middle of the capital city’s rush hour, to write Jones a $25 ticket for a seatbelt violation.

After being suspended pending an investigation, Groubert was fired, and prosecutors pressed felony charges today.

One might be tempted to levy some praise on Richland County, and on the South Carolina Department of Public Safety, for handling the matter in a swift and egalitarian manner. These parties did what many police departments have not by firing and charging the officer in question.

But that ending just seems a little bit too perfect for South Carolina, now doesn’t it? The state’s been known for its criminal justice fumbles, and deeper digging shows that you can add this one to the list.

Enter Dan Johnson, the solicitor of South Carolina’s fifth circuit. For the uninitiated, South Carolina has its citizens elect the top prosecutor in each part of the state, with that prosecutor hiring a team of assistants to handle most cases.

In the immediate wake of the shooting, having viewed the video tape, Johnson called the incident a “clean shot.” FITSNews and the DailyBanter have both reported that Johnson told the chief of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) that the use of force was warranted.

Dan Johnson has been accused of sexually harassing “multiple women” in his own office. He’s been accused of using a firearm to threaten the life of an FBI agent. He’s also alleged to have had an affair, then used his position to make difficult the life of the man married to his mistress.

Johnson’s questionable background not withstanding, his past employment sheds some light on why he might claim that this shooting was “clean,” and it also suggests that he may be unfit to prosecute this particular case.

According to his bio:

He served as Chief Deputy and Legal Counsel for the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, where he worked for eight years.  While there he assisted the Sheriff in directing the county’s law enforcement programs and performing various legal and administrative duties to ensure the strict enforcement of state and local laws relating to the public’s safety and welfare.
Johnson is an eight-year veteran of the Richland Police Department, and while prosecution personnel and local police often have a cushy relationship, that past, combined with his statements on this case, call into question his ability to oversee this particular case.

Rogue cops and lone actors are scary, especially if you’re a black man in America. Johnson, who himself is black, presents perhaps an even greater problem. When the chief executor of the law in one of South Carolina’s largest counties provides his personal stamp of approval to an incident so clearly unlawful, what does that suggest about the system?

After reviewing a report from SLED, and under tremendous pressure from local and national forces, Johnson’s office did press charges against Lance Corporal Groubert.

But Johnson, and potentially his office, should recuse themselves from this case. His judgment has been compromised, and his credibility to prosecute this crime has been undermined by his public statement on the lawfulness of the act.

And for the love of God, fine people of Richland County - it’s time to vote out the alleged sexual harasser who believes that the officers patrolling the streets of your country should have open season on young black men. It’s far past time to eradicate this disease.


Author's Note: As most of you know, I have written on race, criminal justice, and politics here at DailyKos for more than two years. While I will continue to contribute to this community, I have decided to launch my own personal site for this type of work. I will cross-post to here, and I will post on politics at DailyKos alone. But I invite all of you to join me at my new home on occasion. It's called The Lone Dissent, and can be accessed at

In 1896, Justice John Marshall Harlan, of Kentucky, filed the lone dissenting opinion in the famed civil rights case Plessy v. Ferguson. His unpopular opinion has stood the test of time, as he wrote, presciently:

"Our constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. . .The arbitrary separation of citizens on the basis of race, while they are on a public highway, is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the Constitution. It cannot be justified upon any legal grounds."
I hope that my work can honor the legacy of Harlan, who was a man before his time, and who overcame a racist, Southern upbringing to be a voice for justice. With that, here is this post, which will be the first at The Lone Dissent.


John Crawford was holding a toy gun and talking on the phone to the mother of his children when, out of seemingly nowhere, two police officers arrived. One in an offensive, crouching position approached, and when Crawford came around a corner, that man opened fire.

Crawford yelled - no, pleaded - “it’s not real,” but the bullets flew anyway. When that moment of terror had passed, Crawford was dead, and the state of Ohio was left to sort out the details.

Today, a grand jury declined to bring charges against the officer who pulled the trigger, and in doing so, that body closed the book on an event that demonstrates, once again, just how little we in America value black lives. Many people colluded to murder John Crawford. It appears that none of them will be held responsible.

Before a trigger-happy officer got to live his dream of taking down a man who he perceived to be a bad guy, a young, white male picked up the phone. Video of the shooting, which the FBI synced with the 911 call, demonstrates that Ronald Ritchie, a self-professed former Marine, lied to a dispatcher about what he saw. In doing so, he effectively signed Crawford’s death warrant at the hands of police force that can be increasingly expected to do no better in these situations.

As Crawford meandered through the Wal-Mart, seemingly unaware of the danger that he, as an “afroed” black man presented to the public, Ritchie described something very different to dispatchers. Crawford passed multiple people while holding an air rifle sold in the store. None of those people seemed to flinch. Even seeing Crawford holding the gun, one man neglected to move more than a few inches as Crawford passed him. Those people, it seems, recognized that Crawford posed no threat.

Yet Ritchie reported to police that Crawford was “pointing the gun at people,” a claim that immediately raised the intensity of the movement. Later, Ritchie stalked Crawford, telling police that Crawford was “loading” the weapon, which would have been quite a trick considering Crawford had one hand on his cell phone at all times.

At one point in the video, which was released by police following the grand jury’s decision of “no bill,” a family consisting of a mother and two children meanders toward Crawford. Ritchie reported that this family was putting itself in grave danger. The family, though, calmly looked at something on the shelves before slowly turning to head the other direction. Their lack of reaction, of course, was not reported by Ritchie to the dispatching officers.

Upon hearing Ritchie’s reports, dispatchers sent police to the scene, warning them that a “black man with an afro” was holding a black rifle and pointing that firearm at random customers. On guard, the police arrived, snuck up on Crawford, and shot him down on sight.

With today’s no-bill, the citizens of Ohio have demonstrated that when a black man is murdered, there’s just no enough collective outrage to make anyone pay, even when multiple parties are at fault.

The 911 caller Ritchie shoulders much of the blame. Whether out of malice or an institutionalized need to play the concerned citizen hero, he embellished in his phone call. Those were no small embellishments, of course. In a state like Ohio, which is an “open carry” state, people are legally allowed to walk around with real firearms. This means that Crawford’s carrying of a fake firearm should have prompted no alarm, and it didn’t do so for the other customers in the store. When Ritchie lied about Crawford pointing the gun at customers, he both reported Crawford for a crime - aggravated assault with a deadly weapon - and provided police with the cover it needed to act in its default para-military way.

The police officer who earned a pre-mature stamp of approval from the grand jury shoulders blame, as well. Even though he was acting on the bad information given by Ritchie, he responded in a manner least likely to resolve the situation safely. By approaching Crawford in the way he did, the officer put his own life in danger, put Crawford’s life in danger, and put the rest of the store’s shoppers in danger. He fired bullets at a man who presented no clear threat to him, and in fact, he invited a situation where he could use lethal force.

The officer’s actions demonstrate a callousness toward black life that continues to permeate officer-involved shootings. In Ferguson, Missouri, an officer shot first to ask questions later when an unarmed Michael Brown stood more than a few yards away. In North Carolina, an officer killed an unarmed former college football player who had just been in a wreck and approached the officer for help. In Florida, of course, two vigilantes took out their aggression on young black men by firing bullets into their unarmed bodies. The shoot-first plan is disproportionately applied to young black people, who, on the basis of just their skin color, are assumed to be dangerous until they demonstrate some outstanding quality which redeems their humanity in the eyes of police officers and other elements in the white world.

As a white man, I suspect that I could waltz through any Wal-Mart in open carry country, carrying a very real rifle, and I would never encounter police. I would likely not have a stalker watching my every move while on the phone with the authorities. And in the rare occasion that those authorities arrived, evidence suggests that they would have done everything possible to talk me down before they riddled my frame with bullets.

Today, an Ohio grand jury has been complicit in an institutional mindset that sees the criminal justice system as a bear trap designed ensnare those scary elements of society - young and old black men. We’ve designed our trap indiscriminately, of course, but when we find an unintended party - like a venerable police officer or a well-to-do white kid - trapped, we do our best to untangle him before the effects of that trap can do irreparable damage to his future. At Deadspin, Greg Howard wrote eloquently that America is not for black people. And what he meant was that the systems and institutions view black folks not as equal partners in the human experience, but as predators to be watched, and at most, tolerated. When the purpose of the criminal justice system is to shoot first at people who look like John Crawford, just to assuage the irrational fears of people who look like 911 caller Ronald Ritchie, it should come as no surprise that the same system can’t manufacture enough outrage to hold anyone responsible for the death of another young black male.

A man has died, and instead of a community being able to express its grief, it must once again express its anger. Many different parties - both institutional and individual - colluded to murder a black man in Wal-Mart. And none of them will be held responsible.

Let me start here: David Woodard, Clemson professor of political science, should be fired tomorrow.

Clemson University, a place that honors segregationist Strom Thurmond, murderous lyncher Ben Tillman, and slavemaster John C. Calhoun in various ways around campus, has an ugly racial history that's largely whitewashed to make its mostly white student and alumni base feel better.

As a graduate of Clemson and a history degree holder from the university, I can attest that the university does more than just shy away from an actual discussion on the realities of its racial history. Instead, it goes so far as to dedicate buildings to Strom Thurmond, stating on its website that the building is designed to promote the "values" of Thurmond, one of the country's most vile racists through much of the 20th century.

This is the place where students threw a "Living the Dream" party in full blackface to mock the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on MLK weekend while I was in college. It's the place that's football crowd  booed the very mention of the office of the presidency, a show of disrespect for Barack Obama, during the commissioning of new ROTC grads during Military Appreciation Day two seasons ago.

And as Clemson student A.D. Carson points out, it's a place that was literally built on the legacy of white oppression. John C. Calhoun, whose famed plantation "Fort Hill" is the site of Clemson's campus, owned his share of slaves. And when the school was built in the late 1800s, it relied on the forced labor of black convicts, many of whom served sentences unjustly applied to consign them to bondage in the wake of emancipation.

Carson's new campaign, "See the Stripes," which he wrote about here a few days ago, seeks to promote a conversation about the legacy that Clemson likes to sweep under the rug. Carson's built a coalition of people interested in this kind of reconciliation, not because the Clemson of today is a racist, murderous institution, but because it's good and fair and noble to acknowledge the wounds of the past.

In seeking to promote this conversation, Carson's seized on the concept of stripes. As the video he skillfully produced makes clear, this was not an arbitrary choice. Slaves and forced convict laborers suffered through the stripes that came from lashes out of angry racist whips. Those lashes are wounds, and Carson believes Clemson would rather pretend the wounds do not exist.

He's also seized on the concept of "solid orange," Clemson's less-than-creative marketing campaign that asks fans to wear orange on Fridays and to all Clemson events. In symbolic fashion, Carson asks what a Tiger would be if he was really solid orange. Would a tiger be a tiger without its stripes? It's his way of asking, "Would Clemson be Clemson without the pain upon which it was built."

Let's be clear - there's nothing particularly menacing about Carson's campaign. It's certainly an uncomfortable topic for racists in the upstate of South Carolina, who will undoubtedly be angry at that uppity boy trying to make Clemson look bad. But in general, Carson's received strong support from the black community at Clemson and some of the more evolved members of the white community. His campaign seeks a difficult goal in places like Clemson - to unite all thinking people for a real conversation about the white-washing of history the people of Clemson feel is necessary for preserving Clemson's legacy.

You would think that a student taking the initiative to produce some excellent content and stir a thoughtful conversation about race would be well-received by the faculty of a university with the stated goal of landing itself in the country's top 20. You would think that Clemson, which apparently dedicates itself to racial understanding, would employ professors who foster the kind of creativity and moxie exhibited by Carson.

You'd be wrong.

Right-wing nutjob David Woodard just called Carson a fascist.

In an interview with Campus Reform, Woodard said:

“It’s fascism. It’s looking at things only through racial lenses and not seeing anything else when in fact there is no racism associated with this,”
I'd like a more detailed explanation from Woodard, who apparently is entrusted with teaching people about political science, how an inclusive campaign to ask questions about the white-washing of Clemson's racial reality remotely relates to the 20th century authoritarian regimes of Italy and Germany.

Woodard should issue an immediate apology to Carson and to all students, faculty, and alumni who support the See Your Stripes campaign and who support general calls for Clemson to own the horrid nature of its past.

Woodard, of course, is unlikely to do such a thing. After all, he's the "Thurmond" - yes, that Thurmond - Professor of Political Science. In his book, The New Southern Politics, Woodard is like a child gushing with love and adoration for the "culture" of the South, which he sees as most distinctive in comparison to the country at large. Not surprisingly, he also wrote a biography of Ronald Reagan, and has consulted for such venerable voices on the issue of race as: Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Former Congressman Gresham Barrett (R-SC), Congressman Trey Gowdy (R-SC), and Congressman Jeff Duncan (R-SC).

Want an easy way of knowing that the "stripes" of history still aren't history? It's when your university employs a professor who attempts to stomp out a conversation on race by comparing the black student who started that conversation to murderous political regimes of the 20th century.

When I inevitably get fed up with well-traveled right-wing cliches and write a book detailing the supposed "truisms" that are trotted out in response to a litany of events, the first chapter will probably deal with the Right's feigned interest in victims of black-on-black crime. There's only one time a victim of gun violence in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood is on the mind of these folks, and it's when those opportunists can use that murder victim as a political tool to obfuscate and deflect attention from a particularly heinous piece of white-on-black crime.

The circumstances surrounding this feigned interest are highly predictable. Another police officer or neighborhood vigilante shoots another black guy for jaywalking, seeking assistance after being involved in an accident, picking up a toy gun in a Wal-Mart, selling loose cigarettes on the street, playing his music too loud in a convenience store parking lot, or otherwise just being scary and in public. The thinking public responds with bewilderment at what appears to be another case of young black people being treated like less than human. Our right-wing troll then chimes in - "If you care so much about black people killed by guns, why don't you care about black-on-black crime?"

In Chicago, they'll remind us, a black kid is much more likely to be killed by another black person. The sheer numbers mean that our interest in the police murder of another black kid is misplaced. Our time would be better spent focusing on fixing the black pathology that leads to black people killing black people.

So let's dance. Let's discuss the nastiness that is black-on-black crime.

The claim that "we," the liberal, race-conscious element of the public, do not "care" about black crime victims is an obvious strawman with no basis in fact.

Perhaps more important, however, is an analysis of just what black-on-black crime is, what it represents, and how it relates to those increasingly not-rare instances when black people are gunned down by the authority figures who are sworn to protect them. Crime, it seems, is one of the many issues where people have intense interest but no real knowledge. Most people are far more willing to engage in a conversation about crime than they are to engage in the study of what's behind crime. From this we get the overly simplistic and unhelpful idea that crime reflects only personal defect rather than systematic environmental conditions.

Black-on-black crime could and should be called by another name - Crime. That is, black-on-black crime is, in almost every tangible sense, emblematic of all crime that takes place within a given society, and especially within American society.

Though popular television shows depict the psychotic murderer or plunderous burglar who victimizes a total stranger, actual crime plays out in a very different manner almost every time. Simply put - for almost every category of crime, you're more likely to be victimized by someone you know. If you have a two-year old daughter, she's some multitude of times more likely to be injured or raped by someone you've invited into your home than by a total stranger. You are more likely to be assaulted by someone you know than by someone you don't.

Crime, it seems, happens among people who live in close proximity. Because white folks just can't seem to stand living in neighborhoods suddenly populated by black people - the so-called "white flight" effect - America is very much segregated in this regard. When black people live with their kind and white people do the same, crime will tend to be intra-racial.

This is not particularly new. A 1985 study published in Crime and Delinquency found that of violent crime victims nationwide, 77-percent of white victims were victimized by white people. The study found that the same percentage of black victims were victimized by black people.

When you talk about black-on-black crime, and about "fixing" it, what you're really talking about is something much more complex. You're talking about the age-old question of stopping crime itself.

But what do we know about crime? Opinions vary on what causes crime, and it's unlikely that any one factor can be singled out. Still, international studies on crime have suggested that overall inequality in a society is an excellent proxy for high crime rates. This is not to say that poverty in the abstract begets crime. It is to say that poverty in a society with great wealth creates the conditions that promote crime.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's 2009 book The Spirit Level reviewed hundreds of studies before concluding, quite definitively, that crime rates correlate to income inequality levels. In those societies where there are major differences in economic starting points and outcomes, crime is much more prevalent. Of course, it's worth noting that correlation does not equal causation, and those societies that have low income inequality are also nations that have a tendency to invest in things like mental health services and drug rehabilitation. They're also more likely to have prisons that focus more on turning offenders into law abiding citizens, as opposed to American prisons, which tend to turn non-violent offenders into career criminals. Even with those limitations noted, there are legitimate reasons why income inequality will almost always track well with crime rates.

In societies where people are highly unequal, there exists a hope deficit. Would any honest person be comfortable walking into a low income neighborhood in a place like Ferguson, Missouri and telling the young black kids there that if they play by the rules, they're likely to rise up the ranks to the American middle class? It's a nice idea, of course, but it's becoming American fiction more and more.

The Brookings Institute lays out the macro-level data on black economic mobility. Even in a country where poor white children have a very difficult time rising the economic ranks, poor black children are significantly less likely than them to achieve any form of economic success. The situation isn't much better for children born into the middle class, as the hold of black families on that "American Dream" seems to be tenuous.

-More than one third (37 percent) of white children born to parents in the middle income group move up to the fourth or fifth quintile, compared to only 17 percent of black children whose parents have approximately the same levels of income.
-Startlingly, almost half (45 percent) of black children whose parents were solidly middle class end up falling to the bottom of the income distribution, compared to only 16 percent of white children. Achieving middle-income status does not appear to protect black children from future economic adversity the same way it protects white children.
-Black children from poor families have poorer prospects than white children from such families. More than half (54 percent) of black children born to parents in the bottom quintile stay in the bottom, compared to 31 percent of white children.
It's certainly true that a small percentage of black kids in poor neighborhoods play by the rules and climb the social and economic ladder. However, the overall trends are reflective of an opportunity gap. Don't think that this reality is lost on kids in these neighborhoods. While the average ten-year old in a tough urban environment might not be able to quote the stats according to Brookings, he knows all-too-well the outcomes of the older black men in his community. And if you tried to lie to him by suggesting that his prospects were rainbows and unicorns, he'd be right to laugh you out of the building.

The worst thing a society can do is create a class of people without hope. Economic inequality does just that, reinforcing the notion that some are worth more than others. As a middle class white guy, I was reasonably sure that if I worked hard enough and got a couple of decent bounces, I would find economic success. Crime wasn't on my radar, but it's because I generally believed that the law respected me.

When a person grows up in a social order where his outcome might well be dictated for him regardless of how hard he tries, why would he respect the rule of law in that arrangement? Society has failed in some respects to give these individuals anything to lose. One of the strongest crime deterrents is the opportunity cost of committing that crime. A young, middle class white kid will know that by committing a crime, he's giving up the chance to go to college. He's giving up the opportunity to hold down a professional career where licensure requires a clean record. Those are some of the fabrics that bind people to the law in a reciprocal relationship. The law respects their ability, their humanity, and their worth. It says to them that their efforts will be rewarded. What we're experiencing is a fraying of those social fabrics in low-income communities. Crime, at least in some respects, is a conditioned response to a social arrangement where outcomes are largely dictated for most of the residents in the first place.

Wilkinson also cited a 2004 study demonstrating that the implicit social judgments made upon the poor in an unequal society can have tangible effects on health. Rising cortisol levels, fueled by the exclusionary nature of an income-unequal society, can lead to impaired learning and memory loss, further exacerbating problems already felt in poor communities. These problems are made even worse by the lack of available healthcare in poor communities. It's a vicious cycle where the poor are made poorer and unhealthier by the very nature of their poverty and bad health.

How does this all relate to Mike Brown and the situation on the ground in Ferguson? And how does it relate to black-on-black crime?

The research tells us that more crime will tend to take place in those societies with higher income inequality, and that crime will tend to be concentrated in the parts of that society that have, in essence, been thrown away. Black-on-black crime, then, becomes a symptom of the same insidious disease that contributed to Mike Brown's slaughter.

Mike Brown was murdered for, among other reasons, the fundamental truth that much of America simply does not highly value the lives of young black people. Darren Wilson might have acted alone, but he acted under the implicit authority of a country that's embraced the perceived economic utility of throwing away urban communities. Wilson and many officers like him pull the trigger ten times because young black life does not get the presumption of value. Because there's an understanding that's what's being taken is not something worth preserving.

In that way, Mike Brown serves as a symbol for all poor communities, and Darren Wilson one for the institutions that have forgotten those communities. White flight and property-tax based school funding have left many schools, including the one in Ferguson, without the funding to provide enough graduation gowns for students, must less stock classrooms with the technology needed to teach in the 21st century. We've experienced significant divestment in communities across the country, with the social safety net being slashed, lawmakers proposing that welfare benefits be tied to the grades of poor students, and many of the working poor falling into the Medicaid abyss created by grandstanding governors.

We've failed to provide adequate protection for people in these communities against the modern-day loan sharking done by payday lenders and traditional banks alike, which milk poor communities of any wealth they might have, in fees that pile up a few dollars at a time.

The message we've sent is loud and clear - you're not worthy of our time, our money, our ideas, or our attention. It's a disease that has many symptoms, with white-on-black police violence and black-on-black crime being two of the worst.

Why don't we talk about black-on-black crime? We do, you just can't hear it above your noxious pontificating about the moral failings of the black community. When we talk about divestment from poor communities and an economic reality that makes it somewhere between very hard and impossible for a poor kid to ever achieve financial success, we're talking about black-on-black crime. When we talk about creating a judicial system that treats people with humanity and fairness under the law, we're talking about black-on-black crime. And when we talk about the social consequences of a new economic order where economic opportunity is increasingly gobbled up by an insatiable machine under operation of the American oligarchs, we're talking about black-on-black crime.

Decisions have consequences, and when your policies reflect the comically small worth you give to the people in poor black communities, we end up cops acting out that reality. We also end up with "black-on-black" crime, or just crime, a social consequence of America's incessant greed.


Kajieme Powell was executed last weekend by two St. Louis police officers who were either too scared to properly do their jobs or too incompetent to properly know when an ambling young man with a small knife goes from being a criminal nuisance to being a threat to life.

If you have the stomach to watch the video of this execution, after you recover from the flood of adrenaline and emotion that will inevitably follow, you might notice something.

As the police vehicle approaches, Powell himself walks backward before finally moving toward the officers as they draw their weapons. He goes close enough to the officers to draw their ire, and understanding that this event may lead to his death, he takes a final look backward.

He sees the attendant of a store standing right behind him. He sees a civilian filming the event. Both of those men were directly in the line of fire had any of the police's bullets missed Powell.

Kajieme Powell knew, even in the midst of what some might call a mental health emergency, that the St. Louis police could not be trusted to do their job in a way that would minimize the danger to the people of that particular community.

He looked back and saw two people might very well be killed or injured in a hail of gunfire, and as a result, he chose to move left, hopping a small wall. His instincts were correct, as police ended his life a few seconds later in a manner so callous that it shocks the conscience even of people who have been following unjustified police slayings for the better part of two weeks.

The contrast is stark. And it's clear. Kajieme Powell, the man we're led to believe was a danger, made a decision in whatever decision-making fog he operated under, to keep two men's lives out of danger. He showed the sort of human decency and care toward the lives of others that we respect in law-abiding society.

His executors - those great defenders of our collective - did the exact opposite.

A chilled wind blew blustery on the campus of my university on a Thursday night almost ten years ago. It was November, and I'd just left the weekly meeting of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, an event I'd thought might save my soul, which was certainly in need of saving. Shortly after the music ended, a friend approached.

"What's been going on, man? You need to pick up the phone."

"I've just been off the radar. Sorry."

"No, it's more serious than that. They have a warrant out on you."


I sought the counsel of another friend, who called his lawyer brother. "What should he do," my friend asked. "Turn himself in, immediately," the voice on the other end replied.

I raced the more than three hours home a few minutes later. I drove through the night, arriving at my parents' house for a kitchen table sit-down that still haunts me after all these years. "What were you thinking?," my parents asked, in a tone that communicated the seriousness of what I'd found myself in.

I had been a straight-laced kid for most of my life. My mom used to tell stories about the notoriousness of my rule-following as a very young man. No criminal record, of course, but that didn't mean much. In the part of the world where I grew up, and with the kind of family I had, it would have been very difficult to casually collect a criminal record. Boys will be boys, and all, and when those boys are white, South Carolina cops tend to let parents handle most things.

But this time was different. I'd stolen, and from a close friend. The challenges of college, the lack of maturity, and my parents' quickly deteriorating financial state explained, but certainly did not excuse my taking of what was not mine. The amount was large - just over $1,000, which I intended to pay back, just like most people who covertly steal.

The conversation with my parents meandered between a problem-solving session and a very private form of shaming. On one hand, they were interested in helping me out of trouble. Another part of them wanted me to face down what I'd done. My dad, always strong in a crisis, worked his back channels like a seasoned pro.

We weren't rich. Not even close, really, but my dad had enough money to pay back the victim. He also had the sort of social capital - the right appearance, the right dress, and a clean record of his own - required to hold a reasonable conversation with police and other personnel about how this might be handled.

We decided I would turn myself in to police the following Monday. In the meantime, I returned to my university Friday night, just in time to take in our game against Duke the following Saturday. Then came the longest 24 hours of my life.

My parents made the drive up, and we went to the police station together. I was booked, fingerprinted, and processed. I sat in a cell at the city jail. There, a detective allowed me to keep my cell phone while I was in the holding cell awaiting an arraignment. I shared my space with no one, but a few men occupied the cells beside me. In the toilet, fresh urine from the night before festered. I made the mistake of using the bathroom myself, stirring up an unspeakable smell that I can still recall with enough effort.

There were bars and a small, cloudy window. It was a type of dungeon, and I spent what seemed like 12 hours staring at the door, hoping someone would enter to take me out. I cried. It was fear and little else. That short time spent in jail, not knowing exactly what my fate might be, produced a sort of anxiety that's still not been matched in any other of my life's experiences.

The detective finally came in to retrieve me after two hours. He laughed as he said, "I'm glad you didn't hang yourself with your tie." At some point, he said, "Why'd you do this?" I answered honestly that I didn't know.

At my arraignment, the judge discussed the seriousness of the charges. I got to sit in a small room occupied by only the judge, me, and my father. I was released on a PR bond, saving my parents the money they might have spent hiring a bail bondsman.

That set into motion a few critical steps. We discussed the many options. Maybe I would do pre-trial intervention, a program designed specifically for non-violent first-time offenders. It never came to that, though. I never saw the inside of a courtroom again. In fact, I never even had to hire a lawyer. My dad consulted with a few lawyers he knew, asking for advice on how to handle the situation, but I was only represented by my father and my white privilege.

We approached the victim, a high-school teammate-turned college buddy, who was hurt, but accepted my apology. It took many years to re-build that relationship, but at the time, he was willing to cooperate with anything I needed. I met with his mother, explaining to her the circumstances that led to my action and taking responsibility for my mistake. She eventually wrote a letter to the solicitor asking that the charges be dropped.

There's just not much political gain in going after a nice looking white kid, especially when the victims aren't pushing for it. At the preliminary hearing - the portion of the case when the state makes the case that it has a case - prosecuting attorneys announced that all charges had been dropped. I didn't even have to go. The backchannels had been successfully worked, and I'd had a felony dismissed without so much as a community service requirement.

This week, noted anti-racist author Tim Wise asked his followers on Facebook to face their privilege, writing and talking about their experiences with law enforcement that have ended very differently than they might have if those people had looked like Michael Brown. For a long time, I've had to face that. What I've learned is that my experience has both shown me some of the things faced by mostly poor black kids and many things that they don't face.

Young black kids face the fear - the terrifying, paralyzing fear - of jail cells. The bars are real, and they say something to a young person about his identity. You're a criminal. An animal. Not fit for public consumption. In many parts of this country, young people are housed in prisons with adult offenders. The state of Florida, for instance, holds more than 350 young people in adult prisons, including kids as young as 13. These kids are significantly more likely to be sexually assaulted, as they're seen as easy prey in a system that treats them like adults in the face of extraordinary evidence that they are still vulnerable children.

I experienced the reality that circumstances influence behavior. Given my past, my behavior as a 19-year old flew in the face of what almost anyone would have expected of me. I made a terrible decision, but it did not arise from thin air. Rather, it was the result of my own stupidity combined with pressure-inducing circumstances. I used poor rationalizations to justify an easy way out of a difficult financial situation.

I recognize that young black men growing up in poor neighborhoods may see no legitimate way out of their financial plight. There's certainly nothing that excuses crime, but there are many things that can explain why a person breaks from the straight and narrow. Living in poverty can be one of those things.

These experiences have brought me closer to the communities I will soon represent as a public defender. I have a very real way to connect with the fear I see in a young client's eyes when he realizes that the jail cell is real. I can understand the frustration of knowing that you don't have enough. I can also identify with the guilt and self-loathing that follows when you make a terrible decision and experience the public shame that accompanies an arrest.

As I've gotten more involved in the criminal justice system - this time on the right side of the aisle - I've seen that my situation is better used as a teacher if I think about what I did not experience.

Young black men who steal things do not get the opportunity to surrender peacefully, in a starched shirt and tie, five days after their crime is discovered. If they tried to flee town - as I did - they'd be marked as fugitives, and their crime might turn into a capital one. When I face my privilege, I see that a young black man in my situation would never get to enjoy one last college football Saturday in the very town where a warrant was out for his arrest. More likely, he'd have his door knocked down by a fleet of Marine-like SWAT members.

Young black men who steal things don't always get the benefit of a PR bond, especially when they're facing felonies. More often, they have bond set in the five figures. For many kids, whose families don't have the money to pay or the collateral to satisfy a bail bondsman, this means sitting in prison for weeks or even months. It means missing out on classes - high school or college - if they happen to be in them. It means losing jobs and apartments all because the judge in their case established a financial litmus test that determined whether or not they could walk free for a non-violent charge.

Many of the things that allowed me to wiggle off the hook with no official consequences would scarcely apply for a young black man who stole something. He wouldn't be granted the presumption of innate goodness that I was granted. Throughout the proceeding, there was a very real sense among everyone involved that I was a good kid who had done a bad thing. Operating within that framework, it made sense that all parties would seek a resolution that would allow a good kid to go back to doing good things. Did I deserve this presumption? Maybe. I tend to think - and must hope - that the presumption was true. And maybe it worked. I haven't accrued a criminal record since, I graduated college, got into and finished from a good law school, and have set out toward a career in public service. I wrestle with the question of the best means of achieving equality. Ultimately, I've found we might be asking the wrong question.

Sports talking heads often talk about how they want "consistency" in their quarterbacks and their shortstops. But they're wrong. A QB who throws the ball to the other team every time he drops back is perfectly consistent. A shortstop who strikes out every time up is consistent. What these people want is someone who is consistently good. When we say that we want "equality," we're using the wrong term. A criminal justice system that treated every young first-time offender like dirt - black or white - would be equal. But it might not be effective. I was granted the benefit of the doubt and the ability to outlive my mistake. While I could never argue with a straight face that I deserved the kind of leniency I received, the system would benefit from a face lift in which black kids were given the presumption of goodness rather than the assumption of criminality. It'd be a paradigm shift that might provide those young black offenders with a chance.

I know that few black kids would have had the opportunity to work the back channels like I did. In places like South Carolina, judges, prosecutors, and most upper-level detectives are white. As a white business person, my dad had the sorts of connections that were able to work the system in my favor. The assistant police chief in my town is my parents' neighbor, and he advocated the idea that I was a pretty good guy. These things don't happen by accident, and they're the sorts of connections not available to most of the kids picked up out of poor, urban neighborhoods.

It should be clear to most that the final outcome of my case - walking with only stories to tell about a few days spent in the system - would have looked very different for the average black kid. This is not to say that all municipalities throw away the key when young people commit their first non-violent offense. Houston, for instance, is notorious for handing out two-year deferred adjudication offers to a certain class of non-violent offender. While this is a deal that might let that kid walk, it looks very different from the one I got. Deferred adjudications come with a long list of requirements, and they force the defendant to stipulate his guilt. If he fails to adhere to any of the conditions, or if he's picked up on any charge in the subsequent period, his admission of guilt for the original charge will be entered, and he'll be subject to whatever sentence accompanied that first crime.

While you can argue the merits of this system - some argue it's a good way to cut first-time offenders a break, while others argue that the high fees and cumbersome requirements are designed so that poor offenders must fail - you can't argue that it's an arrangement that looks very different from the justice system I saw. And that's a real shame.

Nearly ten years later, I've dealt with my guilt. I've taken the steps necessary to ensure that I don't make the same mistake again, and I've made right with the parties I hurt, including my parents. It's taken a long time, but I've found the meaning in that particular struggle, not allowing a moment of weakness to define me, but rather, allowing it to power my own desire to do right by young, poor offenders who won't be given treatment commensurate with mine. I benefit from the very real truth that when nice, middle class white kids like me commit crimes, those crimes are seen as an aberration in an otherwise valuable trek through life. They're painted as the time a person of good character broke bad. They're bewildering, and even if they're looked on with regret, those events don't define who I am or who I can become.

Young black kids don't get to shake their criminality, and often, they wear the scarlet "C" even when they've done nothing wrong. It's why one study done recently suggested that white people with a criminal record are still more likely to get hired than black people without one. The very fact that I can tell this story is a testament to my white privilege. That I can use my story as a way of shining light on inequality sets me apart from the young black kid whose criminal conviction will forever keep him from a job, career, bank account, or even an apartment.

There are two Americas. And certainly two criminal justice systems. And when I think back to what I've done, and what I've been able to accomplish since, I'm saddened by the number of potentially valuable black lives our system throws away.  

When the Washington Post's Wesley Lowery and his counterpart from the Huffington Post were arrested inside a McDonald's, something bigger happened. The St. Louis County Police revealed a lack of awareness that's contributed both to the horrific killing of Michael Brown and the ridiculous response to the subsequent protests.

"It's fine if you want to stay, but if you don't leave, we can't protect you."

That was the message in so many words from the police to Lowery before the arrest was made.

Patrons working in the McDonald’s, which reporters had been using as a staging area near demonstrations, were ordered to leave, Lowery said. When the journalists said they were working members of the media, the police told them that was fine, but they couldn’t guarantee their safety.
Ask Lowery and company a couple of days ago, and they'd probably tell you that they were in Ferguson to cover a case of police brutality - a murder - and the subsequent military-style protest response that turned a peaceful demonstration into a dangerous, violent one. Ask them today and they'd certainly tell you that.

That Ferguson Police believe they must "protect" seemingly "good" guys from the "bad" guys out in the street reveals too much about their mindset. Remember, of course, that this entire ordeal began because a cop emptied his pistol into an unarmed citizen.

Toward the end of Breaking Bad, Walter White had a conversation with his wife, Skyler. During that talk, Skyler suggested that they might not be safe, that Walt would never know when a person might knock on the door ready to do him harm.

Walt responded in now iconic fashion: I Am The Danger. I Am The One Who Knocks.

At least Walt knew it. Here's a clue to the occupying officers in and around Ferguson: You Are The Danger.

Don't try to sell people who look like me - a lily-white middle class guy - or a nice-looking reporter, though admittedly not-white, that we need your protection. You are the one who knocks, and we know that we're significantly more likely to be injured, assaulted, or killed by someone like you than we are by the young black kids you've painted as so dangerous. I'm not playing your game. And I don't need your protection against "those people." I'd rather be with "those people," singing songs and screaming for justice, even if it means you hit me with your rubber bullets and your tear gas canisters.

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