How the Law Complicates Tracking Hate in Oregon

Some hate crimes are so heinous there’s no debate about whether they should be prosecuted. But the law isn’t always so clear-cut for police. Oregon is a good example.

Hassania heard the footsteps one late summer evening in downtown Portland, Ore.

She was on her way home from work. Hassania, a Muslim woman from Morocco, wore a hijab, as she does every day, and bright-colored clothing bejeweled at the wrists. The hem of her kaftan hovered just barely off the ground.

The footsteps grew closer. Then she saw him — an older white man with gray hair and glasses ran at Hassania from behind and then got in her face, blocking her way. He stood just inches from her.

“Too close to my body,” Hassania said.

The man raised his middle finger at her, then spat at her feet.

She gasped and shouted a sarcastic remark about his impoliteness. The man ran off.

As the noise of his footsteps receded, she asked herself one question over and over:

“Why? Why? Just why?” Hassania said. “Maybe because I’m a Muslim, African woman?”

Hassania came to the United States in July to share the work she’s doing teaching Moroccan girls from the countryside about leadership skills and gender equality issues. The image of America she had formed in her mind while studying U.S. history in books and classes 5,700 miles away — an America where racism is a thing of the past, where everyone, regardless of background, is welcome if they’re willing to contribute to society — began to unravel.

Once safely home, she called friends to ask for advice. One told her to take off her hijab. She couldn’t fathom that.

“’No, don’t say that to me,’” she remembered telling the friend. “’Please, this is my identity, this is me. This is not easy to take it off.’”

Another friend advised her to call the Portland Police Bureau. That friend told her to report the incident as a hate crime.

She tried.

Within hours of last month’s horrific attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue, federal prosecutors charged the shooter with multiple hate crimes: obstruction of the exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death and obstruction of religious beliefs resulting in injury to a police officer.

In Kentucky, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called for the death penalty for the man accused of targeting and shooting two African-Americans last week at a grocery store in his home state.

“If these are not hate crimes,” McConnell said, “I don’t know what a hate crime is.”

But the judicial system isn’t always so clear-cut, and people who lash out in hateful ways aren’t always criminals according to the law.

Under Oregon law, a hate crime occurs when a person or group damages property, does something threatening or subjects another person to offensive physical contact “because of the person’s perception of the other’s race, color, religion, sexual orientation, disability or national origin.”

It’s a very specific legal definition, one that police, sheriffs and district attorneys say often falls short of satisfying people who have experienced hateful behavior.

“It is really difficult to provide the solution a community member is looking for and is asking for,” said officer Natasha Haunsperger, who works in the Portland Police Bureau’s community engagement office. “It’s such a major disconnect in what we can do versus perception once you’re a victim of a hate crime.”

That’s because law enforcement officials must have enough probable cause to determine an alleged perpetrator intentionally threatened or assaulted someone because of a victim’s race, color, religion, national origin or sexual orientation. Unless they occur in conjunction with a crime, derogatory statements about a person’s race or religion, while hostile, aren’t unlawful.

In fact, they’re protected by the First Amendment.

“You are allowed to use hurtful, awful, disgusting words; you’re allowed to say that under our Constitution,” said Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel. “You’re not allowed to threaten somebody, put someone in fear of imminent physical violence.”

Hassania called Portland Police a day after she was accosted.

The officer she spoke with wouldn’t take a police report because, Hassania later recalled, he said what had happened to her was not a crime.

If the police arrested everyone in Portland who offended someone, the officer added, police would have to arrest everyone in Portland. Under the law, he explained, there was nothing they could do.

Hassania, who asked to be identified by just her first name to protect her from further abuse, said the officer she spoke with made her feel like an idiot.

“My dream of America became nightmare of America,” she said.

Hassania wasn’t alone when she called the police. Seemab Hussaini, who chairs Oregon’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, was with her when she made the call and was appalled at what he overheard.

On Aug. 24, the day after Hassania called the police, CAIR-Oregon publicly denounced the Portland Police Bureau’s response.

“These are statements that marginalize affected communities, remove power or any hope of being recognized for victimhood,” Hussaini said.

That tension between what people — particularly people of color — expect when they call the police for help and what law enforcement officers can legally prosecute under the law plays out time and time again in communities across the Northwest and around the country.

Within many communities of color, skepticism toward law enforcement is rooted in historic precedent. And now, with a spike in reported hate crimes since the election of President Donald Trump and a spate of attacks fueled by hate, there’s more pressure for law enforcement to get it right. If they don’t, critics say, hate festers and the people police have sworn to protect end up feeling even less safe.

Documenting Hate To Address Hate

Hassania’s call to the police would have been handled differently just a few hours south in Eugene, Ore., which has the largest number of documented hate crimes in the state, and where city officials have taken a different approach to hate.

There, she would have had the option to report what happened to her to the city’s Office of Human Rights and Neighborhood Involvement even if the police decided there was no crime to investigate. Information about the incident would then also be collected by the Eugene Police Department and reviewed by city officials and police, who meet quarterly to make sure each complaint about hateful behavior is correctly labeled.

Those results are put into an annual report analyzed by the city’s Human  Rights Commission.

So far, all that additional information and analysis haven’t led to specific policy changes in Eugene. But just keeping track is important, city leaders say.

Hate crimes

Lt. David Natt of the Eugene, Ore. Police Dept. says the city’s approach to documenting hate crimes and bias incidents helps. Photo by Conrad Wilson/OPB

“It allows us to give them something that’s more actionable than showing the empathy of understanding how they feel about something and explaining to them it doesn’t necessarily rise to a criminal level,” said Lt. David Natt, who heads up bias crimes and documentation for the Eugene Police Department.

“We still get the opportunity in the community to recognize that we’ve had this event.”

Eugene residents say that process gives law enforcement a clearer sense of what’s happening in their communities. That’s important because hate and bias crimes tend to be under-reported nationwide.

Eugene’s unique system of documenting hate and bias incidents has a magnifying effect:

The number of hate crimes reported in Oregon nearly doubled from 2015 to 2016 — a jump from 66 to 104. Portland — Oregon’s largest city — had 10 hate crimes reported in 2016, according to data voluntarily reported to the FBI. Eugene had 38.

The numbers in Eugene last year, which include both incidents and actual crimes, are even higher, at 139. According to the most recent data, vandalism replaced intimidation as the most common hate crime charge, and race remains the leading motivating factor. Reports of vandalism involved swastikas; racist, homophobic and transphobic slurs; and white nationalist recruitment material.

The data also shows African-Americans are significantly overrepresented as victims of hate and bias crimes. Of the 31 reported race-related hate crimes, 25 were committed against African-Americans.

“Those reporting mechanisms have helped,” said Eric Richardson, president of the Eugene chapter of the NAACP. “It’s a way for us to see what the problems are.”

By documenting hate, he said, you address hate.

Eugene’s approach casts a wider net because it documents bias incidents on top of hate crimes. Hussaini, with CAIR-Oregon, said that would be helpful in Portland, where only hate crimes — those incidents that appear to meet the legal definition of a hate crime — are tracked.

“Track the culture,” Hussaini said. “Track the culture behind what causes a hate crime to occur. They can be circumvented, stopped if they are found early.”

Portland Considers Another Approach To Hate

Recently, the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) invited officers from Eugene to exchange information about how they document hate. They met with Natt, the Eugene lieutenant who heads the city’s bias unit, and a representative from Eugene’s Human Rights and Neighborhood Involvement division.

Eric Richardson

Eric Richardson, president of the Eugene, Ore., chapter of the NAACP. Photo by Conrad Wilson/OPB

In August, following that meeting, PPB launched a public database of potential bias and hate crime statistics.

But the data doesn’t include incidents such as Hassania’s. Rather, the data only illustrates incidents that officers have deemed a crime, meaning they took the initial step of officially documenting what happened. In launching the new public tool, PPB said it hopes to “increase transparency and encourage the community to report instances of possible bias and hate crimes to the PPB, regardless of the nature or type of incident.”

Portland police say when it comes to documenting more bias incidents, they need help from the community. In fact, the city already has a foundation for a system like the one that exists in Eugene.

Portland Detective Jeff Sharp, who investigates bias crimes, said the bureau is hoping to work with Portland United Against Hate, a partnership of community organizations, neighborhood associations and the city. Portland City Council awarded $40,000 to PUAH in 2017 for a pilot project to collect, track and analyze hate incidents.

Findings from the program’s first year show that hate crimes go unreported in Portland because of an expectation of inaction when a victim reports: People don’t call the police because they don’t think the police will do anything. Organizers also found that the process for reporting hate crimes needs to take into account a victim’s trauma and, above all, avoid exacerbating it.

There’s also the Police Bureau’s Muslim Advisory Council, which is made up of leaders in the Muslim community. Its members meet every month with officers. Those interactions help the community feel heard, said Laila Hajoo, president of the Islamic Social Services of Oregon State, a Portland-based nonprofit.

“A lot of the refugees that come here are terrified to bring up issues with authorities because they are afraid of deportation, or because it’s going to make their life more miserable,” Hajoo said. “If they can confide in us, then we have an opportunity to discuss this at the council” — and police officers can engage.

While the bureau is making strides, it still falls short of a system for tracking incidents such as Hassania’s. And from Hassania’s perspective, the reality is that talking about hate isn’t as powerful as documenting it.

“Now, I felt like, ‘No, I have to protect myself,’” she said.

It took Hassania weeks to process what happened to her. She missed several days of work because she was afraid to go outside. She even attended the Portland Police Bureau’s “WomenStrength” self-defense workshops.

More than a month after the incident, Hassania attended a seminar titled “Islamophobia Workshop: Strategies for Survival” at a mosque in Beaverton, Ore. She was eager to hear other people’s experiences with hate and reflections on why they occurred.

Among the attendees were Destinee Mangum and Walia Mohamed, the two girls who prosecutors say were targeted aboard a MAX train in 2017, just before a white man stabbed three people, killing two. Mohamed wore a hijab at the time of the attack, just as Hassania does.

Hassania stood and faced the two girls. “I want to thank you so much for being here,” she told them.

Then, she retold the events of that late summer evening on her way home from work to those in attendance at the seminar. She turned to the dozen or so people in the room, and posed a question: “Who will protect me if the police didn’t protect me?”

What Hassania wanted, and still wants, is for someone from the city of Portland—anyone—to say that what happened to her matters in the eyes of law enforcement.

This is a slightly edited version of a broadcast report by Erica Cruz Guevarra and Conrad Wilson of Oregon Public Radio. Wilson is a 2018 John Jay Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. For the complete broadcast, please click here.


Keeping Blacks Off Juries With the ‘O.J. Strategy’

A California death row inmate is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review a prosecutor’s practice of asking potential jurors about O.J. Simpson’s acquittal as a way to remove blacks from the jury pool.

It’s illegal to dismiss prospective jurors because of their race. Civil rights advocates say some California prosecutors have found a way to keep blacks off juries without using overtly racial criteria. You might call it the “O.J. strategy,” the San Francisco Chronicle reports. The first step is asking prospective jurors how they felt about the 1995 acquittal of former football star O.J. Simpson, who is African American, in the killing of his ex-wife and her friend, both whites. The next step is to dismiss black jurors who agreed with the verdict, while offering a non-racial explanation that satisfies the courts. Attorneys for two black men on California Death Row say their clients were denied a fair trial in the 1990s, because prosecutors used the O.J. question as a “proxy for race” to cull black people from juries.

One man is seeking review in the U.S. Supreme Court after California’s Supreme Court upheld his death sentence without deciding whether the Simpson question was a tool for racial exclusion. California courts have banned racial discrimination in jury selection since 1978, eight years before the U.S. Supreme Court reached the same conclusion as a matter of constitutional law. Defense lawyers, joined by the NAACP, say San Bernardino County prosecutors used the O.J. strategy as a thinly veiled loophole. Using the O.J. question responses to strike jurors, said defense attorney Alexis Hoag, was “something that the D.A.s inserted into these cases, in what I argue was a very meaningful and intentional way.” If the Simpson question is a stand-in for race, it isn’t the only one. Federal and state courts in California have found racial discrimination by prosecutors who said they had removed jurors because they lived in heavily black communities of Los Angeles County.


Black and White in Alabama: The Scarred Legacy of a 1975 Police Shooting

The death of Bernard Whitehurst Jr. at the hands of a white Montgomery policeman 43 years ago raised unsettling questions of police bias and official coverup, foreshadowing the #Black LivesMatter movement. A new book re-examines the case, prodded by a son’s quest for restitution and justice.

On a December afternoon 43 years ago, a white police officer in Montgomery, Ala., shot and killed a black man during a foot pursuit in connection with a $45 grocery store holdup on the city’s poor west end.

Officer Donald Foster Jr. claimed he shot only after Bernard Whitehurst Jr., a 33-year-old father of four, had gone into a “shooting crouch” and fired first. He was hailed as a hero.

But there were problems from the start with his account.

The first police backups to arrive found no gun near the dead man. A short time later, a .22-caliber pistol materialized 27 inches from Whitehurst’s body.

The weapon was found to have been confiscated in a police drug raid a year before. It was a throw-down gun, an old-school cop trick in bad shootings. Whitehurst was not the stickup-man, and an autopsy—conducted after an exhumation—showed he was shot in the back.

The shooting, on Dec. 2, 1975,  has hung like lumber-mill stink over Montgomery for decades, despite a belated city apology to the Whitehurst family and erection of two memorial markers in recent years that condescendingly cast the case as a learning experience “to teach powerful lessons to police officers seeking to understand the line between right and wrong.”

book coverA new book by Montgomery native Foster Dickson takes the first long retrospective look at the case, whose racial overtones resonate today in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, in a book published last week, Closed Ranks: The Whitehurst Case in Post-Civil Rights Montgomery.

Just a decade after Alabama’s capital city had gained infamy as a southern bastion against civil rights, the shooting and ham-fisted coverup seemed destined to further scuff Montgomery’s reputation.

But police circled the wagons against a criminal investigation and civil lawsuit. In the end, there were no consequential convictions or civil judgments against anyone. In a final preposterous twist, the fate of accused cops hinged solely on lie detector tests.

One of the driving forces behind the book was the youngest of Whitehurst’s children, Bernard III, who was just 10 weeks old when his father was killed. His family was left fractured and deeply impoverished.

Whitehurst III, a boot-strapper who emerged from housing-project destitution and now operates a successful contracting business, told me that the Montgomery power structure was clinging to institutional racism in the 1970s.

“Black lives didn’t matter in 1975,” he said. “It would have been a totally different outcome if he was killed today. Police officers would have been charged with murder, tampering with evidence, etc. That would have been unheard-of back in 1975.”

Along with his mother and siblings, Whitehurst III has pressed for financial reparation from the city. So far, they have been rebuffed.

“I don’t think compensation will ever heal the pain and suffering my family has endured,” he told me. “But we do deserve some kind of compensation. He was the breadwinner of the household. He worked two jobs to provide for his family, and the City of Montgomery murdered him.”

Key court transcripts were missing; so Dickson, born in Montgomery a year before the shooting, cobbled his narrative largely from interviews and newspaper accounts.

He presents a warts-and-all portrait of the shooting victim, who was the subject of a scathing campaign by cops desperate to show that he was guilty of something—anything.

In one egregious move, police conjured an “eyewitness” six months after the shooting who identified Whitehurst as the robber and a gun-owner.

District Attorney James Evans described the alleged witness as “mentally retarded and a functional illiterate” who was “incapable of self-maintenance.”

Dickson writes, “No matter who we believe or how we judge Bernard Whitehurst Jr. as a person, one truth cannot be denied: He was effectively arrested, tried, convicted, and executed for a robbery he did not commit, all before any police laid a hand on him.”

Officer Foster, a 25-year-old five-year veteran, was absolved of blame under protocols of that era—long-since tightened—that allowed police to shoot at “fleeing felons.” And even that was a contrivance, since Whitehurst did not match the description of the robber, beyond being black.

Foster Dickson

Foster Dickson. Photo courtesy New South Books.

Police chased him for up to 30 minutes, and his flight suggested guilt to Foster.

Running from a cop is not illegal—although it does make the officer’s heart pump and blood boil. Dickson makes a point that Whitehurst had a longstanding reputation as breaking into a trot whenever he saw a police car.

So why did he run from police? Considering the way his life ended, perhaps he was simply clairvoyant.

As Dickson documents well, DA Evans and Harold Martin, editor of The Montgomery Advertiser, were viewed as police adversaries during the investigation and were subjected to “whisper campaigns” about their personal morals.

This back-alley combat continued for 18 months after the shooting. Finally, in 1977, a strange deal was struck in which police officers and bosses implicated in the coverup would take lie detector tests and face dismissal if they failed.

Several cops quit preemptively, including Foster. Five others were fired. Colonel Ed Wright, the city’s hulking public safety director, failed his test and “voluntarily retired.” Mayor James Robinson resigned under pressure, despite passing a polygraph exam. That outcome was big local news at the time, but the historical view is that the men got away with murder.

In 1975, the racial demographic ratio in Montgomery was about two-thirds white and one-third black. Those numbers have flipped today to nearly a 60 percent majority for African Americans.

Dickson told me that his hometown has changed during his lifetime— “and mightily in the last 20 years.”

“I would say that post-Civil Rights Montgomery (and Alabama) maintained a certain status quo through the end of the 1990s,” he said. “The city still has issues to face now…but there are signs of hope that a 21st century mindset is prevailing, albeit slowly.

David Krajicek

David Krajicek

“There is a new kind of honesty about our past and about our challenges. If you ask me, the main difference is our candor about the challenges of racial division and poverty, coupled with a more progressive willingness to address them and seek solutions.”

The body of Bernard Whitehurst Jr. lies moldering beneath the rubble of that progress—shot to death in the twilight of the Jim Crow era, when a white city directorate managed to finesse an outcome in an appalling shooting that left no one notably discommoded but the dead man and his family.

As Herman Harris, a pioneering African-American city councilman in Montgomery, explained to Dickson, “Well, you know, the general pattern in this state or this area of the country at that time: blacks usually came out on the short end of the stick, so to speak.”

David J. Krajicek (@djkrajicek) is a contributing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.


U.S. Black Male Murder Rate Called ‘National Crisis’

“Each day in America, the number of black homicide victims exceeds the toll in the Parkland, Fl., mass shooting,” says Josh Sugarmann of the Violence Policy Center. As of 2015, a homicide rate of 18.68 per 100,000 people among African Americans, compared with an overall rate of 4.62 per 100,000.

Lorease Mumford of Detroit still is reeling from the loss of her only son, whose December 2016 killing remains unsolved. She is not alone, the Detroit News reports. African Americans die from homicide at much higher rates than other racial groups, especially in Michigan and its largest city, Detroit. The toll on African-American males is relentless, as evidenced by the fatal shootings of three young men, all in their 20s, in the lobby of a White Castle restaurant last month. FBI data analyzed by the Washington-based Violence Policy Center showed that there were 7,014 black homicide victims in the U.S. in 2015, a homicide rate of 18.68 per 100,000 people among African Americans, compared with an overall rate of 4.62 per 100,000.

Of those 7,014 victims, 88 percent were male. In Detroit, of 312 homicide victims in 2016, 279 were African American; 246 of those black victims — 88 percent — were male. While Detroit’s rate of black male homicide is high — 97 per 100,000 — it trails that of Chicago, where the rate is 120 per 100,000. As of Aug. 1, 64 African-American men between the ages of 18-35 had lost their lives to gunfire in Detroit, out of 175 homicides. Detroit Police Chief James Craig says while crime in the city has gone down overall, the homicide rate among the city’s black male population, especially young people, remains stubbornly high.  “It’s not just a Detroit thing,” said Craig. “It’s a national problem.” Josh Sugarmann of the Violence Policy Center says the analysis points to homicide as a “national crisis” for African Americans. “Each day in America, the number of black homicide victims exceeds the toll in the Parkland, Fl., mass shooting,” he said. “And just like Parkland and other mass shootings, these deaths devastate families, traumatize whole communities, and should provoke an outcry for change.”


Black MO Man Accuses Police After Loft Episode

A St. Louis man says police officers “treated me like a criminal” after a white neighbor tried to block him from entering his downtown loft. A video got five million Facebook views.

Videos showing a white neighbor blocking a black man from entering his downtown St. Louis loft got national attention, with more than five million views on Facebook. The man who was followed by the woman to his apartment said he is “looking into legal options” in light of how St. Louis police handled the situation. He also said that the woman falsely accused him of attacking her, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. D’Arreion Toles, 24, was trying to enter his home Friday night when a white woman guiding a dog on a leash blocks him and asked what unit he lives in, show videos he posted to Facebook. The post says the videos show what it’s like to be a black man in America. “I’m uncomfortable,” the woman says in the video, arguing that he pushed his way into the building.

“OK, you can be uncomfortable,” says Toles. He tells her he used a key to get in and said he didn’t have to give her his unit number. The video shows the woman getting into an elevator with Toles and following him to his apartment. The woman watches as Toles enters with a key. Toles said he was “accosted, harassed and stalked” by the woman, who “got in my face, demanded to see my key fob, and proceeded to berate me and harass me for merely trying to go home after a long day of work.” Thirty minutes later, St. Louis officers knocked on his door, presumably called by the woman. Toles says the woman claimed he “choked and assaulted her,” which Toles denies. Toles said police “treated me like a criminal until they viewed the video recording that I made.” The woman’s employer, Tribeca-STL Management, a property management company, said she was fired.


Texas State University Targeted with Neo-Nazi Propaganda

Between the November 2016 election of Donald Trump and December 2017, neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups targeted Texas State University at least 10 times, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The school’s administration has struggled to respond.

The morning after the unexpected victory of Donald Trump, a series of flyers appeared on the Texas State University campus in San Marcos featuring a photo of armed men set against the backdrop of an American flag. “Now that our man Trump is elected,” the flyers read, ”(it’s) time to organize tar and feather vigilante squads and go arrest and torture those deviant university leaders spouting off all this Diversity Garbage.”  Students and faculty immediately began imploring university administrators to move quickly to quash what they considered dangerous hate speech spreading across campus. Yet internal communications obtained by the Austin American-Statesman show that administrators struggled to formulate a response — not just to that first propaganda attack, but to waves of similar incidents over the next 13 months.

Between the November 2016 election and December, neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups targeted Texas State at least 10 times, more than any other school in the U.S., according to the Anti-Defamation League. At Texas State, which fought to withhold records related to the incidents, emails show officials carefully monitored the impact of rising racial tension on donations, admissions and even the school’s Facebook rating. Yet as administrators tried to walk a careful line of political neutrality and free-speech rights, students and faculty complained they did not act decisively to denounce and fight back against the white supremacist flyers, banners and posters. In a written response to questions, Assistant Vice-President for Communication Sandy Pantlik wrote, “During these incidents, there is a need to inform and reassure our campus community. At the same time, we don’t want to give these hate groups the attention and publicity they seek. It is challenging to strike the appropriate balance.”


Suit Alleges Racial Bias in S.F. Drug Arrests

San Francisco police officers targeted 37 black people with arrests for selling “small amounts of drugs” because of their race, six arrestees contended in a federal lawsuit.

San Francisco police officers targeted 37 black people with arrests for selling “small amounts of drugs” because of their race, six arrestees contended in a federal lawsuit filed Thursday, Courthouse News Service reports. The arrests took place in a joint operation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Attorney called “Operation Safe Schools.” The operation targeted drug dealers in the Tenderloin, a downtown neighborhood notorious for illegal drug use and sales, in 2013 and 2014. One officer involved in the arrests was caught on video voicing racist views about black people. Another was seen refusing to buy drugs from an Asian person and instead waiting for a black woman to get off her phone so he could target her, the suit said.

After a judge granted a request to seek additional evidence of alleged racial bias in a criminal case, federal prosecutors abruptly dropped charges against 12 of the 37 people still fighting the charges in court. “Neither the police department nor the federal prosecutors provided any meaningful explanation for why these defendants had been targeted for arrest and prosecution over others similarly situated, or what compelled the sudden dismissals of the charges against them,” the suit says. The San Francisco City Attorney denied that officers selectively targeted black people during the operation. The goal was to go after people selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school, a crime that comes with enhanced sentencing. About 46 law enforcement officers were involved in the operation, including 34 San Francisco police officers, 10 DEA officers, a U.S. marshal and a Daly City, Ca., police officer.


Why Black Lives Still Don’t Matter

A Washington State inmate casts a skeptical eye on efforts to eliminate the racial bias that often fuels police treatment of African Americans. Based on his experience of the charged race relations within prison walls, he argues that fear will continue to drive prejudice, despite activists’ efforts to change institutional behavior.

In 1956, Harrison Finley, a black man, was shot dead in front of his parents’ home in Washington, DC by police officers for purportedly resisting arrest— “a catch-all charge that covers practically everything from loud talking to necking”—according to a leading African-American newspaper at the time.

He was a World War II veteran and father of two young children.

That same year, also in DC, Nelson Marshall, a Safeway truck driver, also black, was killed by a police officer during a traffic stop. The officer was indicted for homicide but later found not guilty by an all-white jury.

These accounts are highlighted in Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. The author, James Forman Jr., also notes that throughout this period, “black citizens were consistently subjected to verbal disrespect from the very people whose job it was to serve them.”

While we have come a long way since the days of endemic racial prejudice within police departments, some things seem impervious to change.

I lack the imagination to depict what it was like to have an encounter with the police—as a black male—in 1956. Yet, despite the melanin in my skin, I cannot tell you what this experience is like for a black man in contemporary America either.

My status as a convict has shaped me far more than my experiences in society, given that I have been confined since the age of 14.

As a consequence, my world view is far different than many of those who share my complexion but have been fortunate enough not to have had their existence defined by mass incarceration. Whether this background has made my opinions enlightened or naive probably depends on whether the reader agrees with my commentaries.

With this prelude, I will admit that I am often perplexed by African Americans who came of age in an era when video cameras are utilized by police officers while performing their duties, and when anyone can unleash his or her cellphone to capture encounters between the police and the citizenry.

Through the lens of my television screen, I regularly see young black men and women displaying dismay, frustration and fury when their fellows suffer injustices at the hands of the police. Such encounters and their aftermath are replayed on CNN and MSNBC for the world to see.

A black man is shot to death by a police officer under circumstances that appear suspicious and, sure enough, there on the screen, I will see black folks giving a press conference featuring the requisite man in a bowtie looking like he’s itching for a fight with “Whitey.” There’s the local preacher man in his Sunday best acting as if he’s the voice of the black community; and the family of the deceased (if he happened to be a crook) acting as if he were a college student whose death by violence was unimaginable, and as if he never hurt anybody.

As if such injustices are a new thing.

Frequently, it galvanizes people to march and chant in front of television cameras.

It is a show that I have seen time and again. The faces of those leading the chorus of outrage have changed, from old-school luminaries like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan to a new generation of activists, but as far as I can tell, watching from my prison cell, the message hasn’t changed.

The new activists, like their predecessors, apparently believe that protesting, tougher prosecutions, and mandates compelling police departments to implement new practices and policies will ultimately make black lives matter to the powers that be. While I have a personal interest in seeing a reduction in the probability that an unarmed black man will be shot down by the police (especially since I may be paroled, and the victim could be me), I doubt that such a result will ever be achieved in the 21st Century.

There are three reasons why I am skeptical.

First, black people continue to be seen as dangerous. As the authors of the recently updated The Black Image in the White Mind show, the media has a long history of portraying black men as violent, and white people have been a receptive audience.

Fear-of-the black-man is not “taught” in police academies. The book’s authors, Robert M. Entman and Andrew Rojecki, make clear that such fear is the byproduct of a cultural meme that was implanted in police officers’ subconscious during their formative years—long before they chose a career in law enforcement.

It is as American as apple pie—and lynchings.

This is the grim reality through which efforts to deter officers from using deadly force without justification, ranging from de-escalation training to the threat of prosecution, must be seen. They will make little difference to the black man who gets stopped and frisked, because such efforts won’t change hearts and minds.

To expect otherwise is to believe black men can be made to no longer feel anxiety when confronted by the police.

As a parallel, I have watched the Washington Department of Corrections make futile attempts to change the mindset of correctional officers in order to make imprisonment less dehumanizing to those who have lost their liberty. Administrators wanted them to refer to us as “individuals” but pushback from officers resulted in the quick reimposition of “offender.”

They have been instructed to log positive interactions with prisoners as opposed to only negative encounters. Yet try as they might, they cannot help but focus on the latter.

The ugly truth is that most correctional staff cannot perceive us as anything other than convicts who are unworthy; just as police officers are primed to see that black man as a potentially dangerous criminal.

The second reason that makes me skeptical about black lives mattering is this: police officers are not robots; they are emotional human beings.

When their authority is challenged, some become angry. When a suspect flees like a cheetah down an alley, leaps over several fences, and barrels through sticker bushes and poison ivy, the pursuing officer can become enraged at the very man that he has come to fear subconsciously.

Anger and firearms can be a deadly combination. I know that from personal experience.

While it is true that police officers are trained on the proper use of deadly force, every now and then anger will get the best of one of them. You only need to view one graphic police bodycam video of a 2018 police chase to see the ugly results.

In fact, were you to review video footage inside of prisons, you would see the same phenomenon at play. Prisoners know full well that challenging correctional officers’ authority often leads to arbitrary and sometimes violent reactions. The training that these officers received—to be measured and consistent when dealing with “offenders”—often goes out the window in the face of defiance.

It comes as no surprise, then, when I see people on my television screen experience this backlash during encounters with law enforcement. Prison is just a microcosm of society.

Finally, police officers exist within a subculture that fuels negative perceptions about (primarily young) black males (and black police officers are not immune when it comes to brothas that fit a “profile”).

I too live in a subculture that fuels a heightened level of prejudice. My prison experience has led me to believe that Chicanos feel animus towards black men. More than any other group around me, I feel unsafe when in their midst. Were I in the wrong place at the wrong time, I am convinced that I could be assaulted.

I deal with them cautiously as a consequence.

I rarely seem friendly due to my mindset.

It is noteworthy that I have yet to suffer an attack. But plenty of those who look like me have fallen victim at other facilities. I therefore perceive the threat to be real and conduct myself accordingly. As Al Gore notes, in The Assault on Reason, “When an emotional reaction like fear is especially strong, it can completely overwhelm our reasoning process.”

Fortunately, I have the luxury of avoiding those I believe pose a threat to my safety. Police officers must confront those they perceive as their adversaries.

While he may never have been assaulted in the line of duty, he may know a fellow officer who fell victim during an encounter with a black suspect, as this disturbing video shows. Or, while she may never have been injured while making an arrest, she may have been exposed to a training video like this one, showing a female officer being mercilessly pummeled by a black suspect.

Such incidents rarely fall within the experience of average white Americans. But if you spend your professional life knowing you face such risks, you are likely to be “prejudiced to the extent we feel threatened or fearful,” in the words of social psychologist Michael K. Lovaglia.

That being said, I have yet to meet a black prisoner who is surprised by the fact that police officers are often hostile, abrasive and aggressive. Fear and prejudice apparently make it too difficult for police to serve and protect without bias and to avoid confrontations with African- American citizens.

That such encounters occasionally escalate into violence does not surprise me in the least. That the unarmed man loses in the end is the natural order of things.

Forgive me if I seem to lack empathy. I wish the world was different.

Jeremiah Bourgois

Jeremiah Bourgeois

Yet at the end of the day, protests, prosecutions and changes to policies and practices will not make black men seem peaceful and law abiding to those with guns and badges. Likewise, better training is not going to render police officers incapable of overreaction.

The new generation of African-American activists who believe in justice and equality should be cautious. They should therefore never forget the racial prejudice that can erupt with little warning, if they want to be sure their last moments aren’t captured on video for the world to see.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR, and an inmate in Washington State, where he has been serving a life sentence since the age of 14. He welcomes comments from readers.


Racial Justice Should Be Cornerstone of Criminal Justice, Conference Told

Unless Americans come to grips with the long, ugly history of race relations, there is little hope of making fundamental changes in the criminal justice system, speakers told the Smart on Crime conference at John Jay College Tuesday.

Lawmakers and activists cannot tackle criminal justice reforms without addressing systemic racial disparities in the U.S., a conference at John Jay College was told Tuesday.

“They go hand-and-hand,” G.T. Bynum, mayor of Tulsa, Okla., told a discussion panel exploring the continuing impact of racial bias on the criminal justice system.

Bynum noted that his own political career was inspired by the responses to the “massacre” that destroyed Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood in 1921, leaving at least 36 dead, and some 10,000 homeless. Often called the country’s worst “race riot,” the incident was sparked and led by whites, effectively obliterating what was then considered the wealthiest African-American community in the U.S.

He noted that none of the ringleaders of the massacre were ever prosecuted, even though police could have easily found out who they were, and compared it to the swift law enforcement reaction to the deadly 1995 Oklahoma City bombing seven decades later.

Other members of the five-person panel made similar points about the nation’s failure to acknowledge the lingering effects of racism on official behavior. The panel was part of the college’s second annual Smart on Crime Innovations Conference, a two-day event where scholars, activists and politicians from across the nation convene to discuss innovative strategies to replace the now-discredited “tough-on-crime” approaches of the 1990s.

Bynum cited as one example from his own city a community-policing model that calls for residents to play active roles in maintaining public safety in their neighborhoods. He said placing the burden solely on police officers can create a disconnect between residents and often overworked and understaffed police forces.

“Criminal justice in the community is reliant on the community,” he said. “It’s every citizen’s job in the community to make that community safer.”

The community-policing model, he added, will not only control crime but also help police officers and residents view one another as allies.

Jason Hernandez, whose life sentence for selling crack cocaine was commuted by former President Barack Obama in 2013, said he doubted that he would have received similar treatment by a white president. Though he championed more diversity in the criminal justice system, he said the issue is deeper than that.

“When you have a Hispanic or African-American officer, prosecutor, or judge—they’re usually one of the worse ones,” he says.

“We have to change their mindset. There is no connection between the defendant and the ones that are arresting them, prosecuting them and imposing their sentences.”

Kimberly Foxx, State’s Attorney for Cook County, Il., said it all comes down to access.

As a black woman who lived in public housing in a single-parent household, she argued that she has more in common with the defendants and victims that walk through her courtroom than with the lawyers that work for her. She described how external factors, such as the lack of access, can ruin people lives and lead to mass incarceration.

“It doesn’t begin with the criminal justice system,” she says. “Every piece of those factors—education, affordable housing, mental health access—ends with the criminal justice system.”

For Jeffrey Robinson, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Deputy Legal Director, said learning the true history of U.S. race relations should be the first start of anyone looking for solutions to racial disparities.

“This history is hidden, but it’s hidden in plain sight,” he said. “If we don’t have a common baseline of what race has done to us in America, then it will be impossible to go forward, because we’re all talking about different things.”

Candice Jones, president of the Washington, DC-based Public Welfare Foundation, discussed racial disparities in incarceration and warned people not to rely solely on politicians to find solutions.

“I don’t think we should get under any illusion that one political party is going to save us on this issue,” she said.

“In this nation, we’re dealing with a crisis of human bondage that groups profit from. We have to get concrete pretty quickly on how we’re going to address this stuff. We don’t have another two generations to sacrifice.”

The Smart on Crime conference continued Wednesday.

J. Gabriel Ware is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.


The Unbroken Link Between Slavery, Jim Crow and Mass Incarceration

Belton “Money Rock” Platt, a young, flamboyant drug dealer in Charlotte, N.C., spent 20 years in prison before emerging to become a minister.  In a new book, journalist Pam Kelley places his life story in the context of generations of southern racism, and in a chat with TCR she explains why such stories remain painfully relevant today.

Belton “Money Rock” Platt was a young, flamboyant drug dealer who had a near-monopoly on cocaine in the Piedmont Courts housing project in Charlotte, N.C., during the 1980s cocaine epidemic. After spending 20 years in prison, he devoted his life to God and became a minister.

Journalist Pam Kelley, who covered Belton’s trial in 1986 as a 26-year-old reporter for the Charlotte Observer, chronicles his story in Money Rock: A Family’s Story of Cocaine, Race, and Ambition in the New South. What she found offers some object lessons about race, crime and drugs today. In a chat with TCR’s J. Gabriel Ware, Kelly explains her motives behind writing the book, why she decided to place the Platt’s family generational misfortune, filled with drugs, prison, murder and suicide in the context of Charlotte’s determination to become a prosperous “world-class” city while still suffering from the effects of Jim Crow, and how Belton turned from an interview subject into a friend.

The Crime Report: Before this book, you hadn’t seen or talked to Belton in more than 25 years. What made you track him down? And were you surprised to find out that he was now a Christian preacher?

Pam Kelley: I bought Jay-Z’s autobiography “Decoded” in December 2011. It was Christmas present for my daughter, but I read it and became engrossed in Jay-Z’s life as a young crack dealer in Mary Projects. That made me think about “Money Rock” and Piedmont Courts. I just didn’t know what to expect, but I wasn’t totally surprised to find out he was a minister. I’ve heard about people coming out prison and becoming ministers. And as I’ve gotten to know him, I’ve learned that he has a number of friends from prison who also became ministers.

TCR: A generational curse appeared to have terrorized Belton and his family—first with his father, and then him, and then with his sons. How did you make sense of that?

Kelley: An important part of the book is the collateral damage of mass incarceration, and I think Belton family, unfortunately, can almost be a case study. I think a lot of Americans are aware of what mass incarceration is, but I don’t think they understand that this gift that keeps giving in terms of creating these terrible problems for our society.

Pam Kelley

Pam Kelley

In the book, I quote an academic book called Children of the Prison Boom where the researchers shows a causal relationship between kids who had a father go to prison are at a higher risk for behavior disorders, etcetera—the authors basically say this is widening inequality. You send these fathers to prison for decades, and their kids grow up without fathers, and the kids have behavior issues and get into trouble and the cycle we’ve created.

TCR: How has your relationship with Belton evolved over these past 30 years?

Kelley: I first met Belton in Central Prison and we were both pretty young. I was 26 and he was 22. When we finally met again, he said to me “I thought you were like in college.” But I didn’t really know him then. I was reporter, so the relationship was professional. But I did kind of like him because he had a sense of humor—even though I was interviewing him for a big story and he lied to me and didn’t tell me very much. But when you write a book and you talk to someone over years, you get to know them and their family. I went to his previous wife’s funeral after she died of cancer. I remember him telling me on the phone and breaking into tears.

I still stop in to see his mom and enjoy talking politics with her. She’s 82 and still very opinionated and wise. When you do these narrative nonfiction book projects and you’re writing about real people, you become part of their lives and they become part of your lives. Today, I regard Belton as friend, and I think he regards me in the same way.

TCR: “Money Rock” is not just a biography. It’s also a history lesson that covers a wide-range of social issues including the cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, mass incarceration and racial inequality. What do you want readers take away from the book?

Kelley: This is an American story in pretty much every way. You can tell similar stories in any city in the New South—any city that once had slavery. I want people to be curious about  how our past created our present situation. Because if you don’t understand the past—Jim Crow, redlining, urban renewal and lack of opportunity for black people to accumulate wealth—then you’d look at a high-crime neighborhood of black people and say “well, if  those people would just work harder, or have better habits…” But once you know the history, you can’t do that.

Since I began writing “Money Rock,” a lot of things have happened in Charlotte that really throw light on some of the issues I addressed in the book. Exactly two years ago, Keith Lamont Scott, a black man, was shot and killed by police. There were some protests in Charlotte that got pretty violent—one man was even killed. Charlotte has always managed to smooth over its racial strife, but this kind of unmasked Charlotte and brought it all out in the open. And this narrative is taking place in different ways in many, many cities across the country. They are beginning to see how their past is still affecting their present. So, I think it’s really important for white America to know the history. And I think there are black Americans who don’t know this history, too, because a lot of it wasn’t taught.

TCR:  Is there anything you discovered about yourself personally while working on this book or as you reflect on covering Belton’s story from the 1980s until now?

Kelley: Just how much I didn’t know as young reporter. I grew up in the Midwest in a town where I had no black kids in my classes, and I moved to the South for college—I went to Chapel Hill. There was plenty of racism and segregation in the North but living in the South and covering public housing projects were all pretty new to me. When I went into Piedmont Court and saw that the buildings were run down, and the crime was terrible—right in the middle of this prosperous city—I kind of took it at face value like “Oh this is what a public housing is like.” it didn’t really occur to me to ask why. I didn’t have the context to ask some of the bigger questions that I have explored in this book.

I’m also more aware of my white privilege and how it benefited me. Imagine if somebody came here from another planet and they knew nothing about our history, and you were showing them around town. Suddenly, you stop at a place that looks worse than everywhere else, and the people who live there just happened to have darker skin: how would you explain that? When you start pulling that thread, it goes all the way right back to slavery. We created this construct to justify slavery—that’s the only way to explain it.

I think that’s how a lot of white people go through life because we don’t have to think about that. But the one thing that changed me is that I see it now. I can’t not see.

TCR: What’s your stance on the criminal justice system?

Kelly: First of all, we need to stop putting so many people in prison, and we need to stop putting them in prison for so long. We need to find alternatives to incarceration. Incarceration in the United States has been coming down a bit, but we still have the highest incarceration rate in the world—and the same thing with black men and the incarceration rate. There’s a lot of systemic racism in the system that needs to be address. Also, when people get out of prison. And once people get out of prison we need to make it easier for them to get back into society. It’s so hard now that if you don’t have a family to support you, you can end up homeless.

Gabriel Ware

J. Gabriel Ware

I’ve learned a lot about North Carolina’s state prison policies while writing this book. In the book mention that Belton’s oldest son was in prison and he spent more than three years in solitary confinement. They have since dialed that back, but to me that just has been an embarrassment and a tragedy. I think a lot of states, including North Carolina, need to reduce their use of solitary confinement.

J. Gabriel Ware is a TCR News Intern. He welcomes comments from readers.