Ashamed…in a Land Where Justice is a Game

I don’t want to use this blog for a running comment on the news. But I do 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 seems at least plausible that his associate and probable co-conspirator Mr. Trump will 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 young Black Lives Matter 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 personally researched this to fact-check how the supposed “otherwise blameless life” of Manafort (according to the judge in his case) 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 multiple crimes so far don’t make him a repeat offender, he seems well on track to become one later.

This is not even the most disturbing case flagged in Penney’s NYRB article, which lays out five cases of BLM activists dying unexpectedly under suspicious circumstances—not including many other “lesser” cases like living with repeated death threats and finding a six-foot python planted in one’s car. Despite lacking definitive “smoking gun” evidence in every case, the cumulative questions raised are chilling, and would surely dominate the news cycle if its 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. However, the parents’ version (judged by NYRB as at least plausible) was as follows: “They lynched my baby.”

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

If you suspect I may be cherry-picking evidence or taking things out of proportion—that these are not examples of truly grave systematic problems to worry about—then you are like I was for much of my youth. Also you are probably white, as I am, 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 structural double standards that Alexander documents in compelling prose may surprise you. To my shame I admit it surprised me—even though I had been giving non-trivial attention to these issues for many years and thought I knew more than enough.

land of the free

I have been thinking about Bob Dylan lately, and have cited him 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 lines from his song “Hurricane” the last word. The above cases are not about framing (as Ruben 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 jailed. “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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