Ashamed…in a Land Where Justice is a Game

I don’t want to use this blog for running comments on the news. But I want to note three things today.

As everyone knows, Paul Manafort received a 47 month sentence for multiple serious crimes, a slap on the wrist from a judge who was appointed by Ronald Reagan and gave an impression of bias during the trial. Likely Manafort will serve his time in a white collar prison, and it is plausible that his associate and probable co-conspirator Mr. Trump may pardon him before his 47 months minus good behavior are up.

The Onion’s comment seems on point: “I don’t like the sentencing, but, hey, in a democracy you have to be okay with the decisions made by a judge who was appointed for life by the president.”

Meanwhile, in the New York Review of Books, Joe Penney reports that Josh Williams, a Black Lives Matter (BLM) activist from Ferguson, Missouri received eight years in prison for “arson, burglary, and theft”—operationalized as “lighting a garbage can on fire while protesting the police killing of another black man.”

Yes, this seems, at least on its face, to be “double Manafort” for setting a fire in a garbage can.

I should note that I have not researched this to check how a supposed “otherwise blameless life” of Manafort (according to the judge) may have “justly” lightened Manafort’s load–nor conversely what forms of “blameworthiness” (alongside activism) were deemed relevant for Williams. Let’s be clear, however, that if Manafort’s crimes so far don’t make him a repeat offender, he seems on track to become one later.

This is not the even most disturbing case flagged in Penney’s article, which lays out five cases of BLM activists dying under suspicious circumstances—plus many other cases like living with death threats or finding a six-foot python in one’s car. Despite lacking “smoking gun” evidence in every case, the cumulative questions raised are chilling. Surely this would dominate the news cycle if the protagonists were rich white conservatives. (Recall the level of attention and outrage when conservatives were confronted in restaurants.) Most gravely, the 24-year-old son of a BLM activist was found hanged in his backyard, under circumstances that the police quickly deemed a suicide. The parents’ version (judged by NYRB as plausible) was as follows: “They lynched my baby.”

Meanwhile, The Root reports on cases of crime and corruption comparable to Manafort’s, but involving black people. In one case an “elderly and seriously ill” mayor whose corruption netted him a quarter million dollars (chump change for Manafort) received 15 years: the full remainder of his life minus a “compassionate release” eleven days before he died. Then there is a 22-year old named Mecenia Dials, who was caught with nine ounces of cocaine. According to The Root, “investigators knew that the drugs didn’t belong to her,” but they “wanted to ‘flip’ her in order to catch a bigger fish.” (Recall how this matches the logic of prosecutors pressuring Manafort for cooperation early on, before he lied to and double-crossed them.) Despite no criminal record Dial received 25 years without the possibility of parole.

If you suspect that I am cherry-picking evidence or taking things out of proportion—that these are not examples of grave systematic problems—then you are like I was for much of my youth. Also you are probably white, and you may have limited exposure to a full range of news reporting, as I did for much of my youth. (Perhaps I still do, although I try harder now). If so, I challenge you to read Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. The extreme injustice and pervasive double standards that Alexander documents in compelling prose may surprise you. To my shame it surprised me—although I had been giving non-trivial attention to the issues for years and thought I knew plenty.

land of the free

I have cited Bob Dylan before on this blog to comment on the criminal Mr. Trump’s pardon of the sadistic Sheriff Joe Arpaio. (“You who philosophize disgrace/And criticize all fears/Bury the rag deep in your face/Now’s the time for your tears.”)  Today I will give Dylan’s song “Hurricane” the last word. The above cases are not about being framed (as Rubin Carter’s case was in Dylan’s song) but you will get the point:

“All the criminals in their coats and their ties/Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise.”  [Meanwhile Carter is in jail.] “To see him obviously framed/Can’t help but make you feel ashamed/To live in a land where justice is a game.”


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