Don't be a Part of the Lynch Mob

I first laid eyes on a postcard of a lynching in my early 20s.  I was horrified - the mutilated human body swinging from the tree, surrounded by joyous crowds of Southern white men and women dressed in their Sunday best, accompanied by their children.  In America today, the lynch mobs continue. With the advent of smart phones and police body cameras, we are all bystanders to these murders: unjust police killings all across America.  We watch on social media, and when justice never comes for the victims we go on about our business, sometimes even applauding the killing of the “thugs” before any charges or a trial, and all the while our children watch and learn. Then and now I wonder about the consequences to the soul of a people who, because of blind racism, can be witness to a lynching and who even bring their children to watch.  What psychological consequence does witnessing a lynching have on a nation of people who pledge to be “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”?

The foregone conclusion is that the Republican-majority Senate Judiciary Committee will approve President-elect Donald Trump’s appointment of Alabama Senator Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff Sessions III to be Attorney General of the United States. In 1986 President Ronald Regan nominated Sessions, who was then U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, to be a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District. At that time, he failed to get enough votes from both Republicans and Democrats who believed he was unqualified and unfit for the office. Now, Republican Senators are willing to risk reversing the criminal justice reforms made in the last eight years under the Obama administration and revert back to an unethical and draconian “law and order” style of criminal justice that Trump called for on the campaign trail in his quest to “make America great again”. 

As District Attorney, Sessions’ record on protecting civil rights was inadequate at best.  As Senator, he voted against bills designed to bolster the civil rights protections of our nation’s most vulnerable people: the poor, women, African-American voters, LGBT persons, immigrants, victims of sex trafficking, and the disabled. His record should disqualify him from the position of top law officer of this country.

The stakes are particularly high for African-Americans as many prominent police association groups in the country endorse Senator Sessions. These police associations feel maligned by a vocally outraged public who support the Black Lives Matter movement, and by the scrutiny from the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, led by first Attorney General Eric Holder and then Loretta Lynch in the Obama administration. The police associations in this country see Senator Sessions as their man in the White House; President-elect Trump couldn’t have appointed someone more sympathetic to his “law and order” mandate. Ultimately, as both Senator Sessions and Donald Trump have said, they believe African-American communities should respect and unquestioningly obey the police rather than demand that police departments uphold their duty to fairly serve and protect the constitutional rights of all citizens.

Long after the national media had departed, the DOJ under the Obama administration investigated police departments across the country using civil rights investigations and consent decrees that resulted in justice for family members of victims of unjust police shootings and unconstitutional policing in cities like Ferguson and New Orleans. There are currently 20 U.S. cities under a consent decree, meaning they have agreed to a “Memorandum of Understanding” to work with the DOJ, and in effect, reform themselves.

At yesterday’s hearing, Hawaii Democratic Senator Mazie K. Hirono asked Senator Sessions if he would commit to maintaining and enforcing the consent decrees that the DOJ negotiated during the Obama administration. This is a great question, considering Senator Sessions once wrote, “consent decrees have a profound effect on our legal system that constitute an end-run on the democratic process.”

In his response to Senator Hirono, Senator Sessions said, “those (consent) decrees will remain enforced until and if they are changed...” He continued, “I think there is concern that good police officers in good departments can be sued by the Department of Justice when you just have individuals within a department that have done wrong, and those individuals need to be prosecuted... these lawsuits undermine the respect for police officers and create the impression that the department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity for the law and fairness and we need to be careful before we do that.”

This response is hogwash! The fact is, consent decrees usually follow as a result of a proven pattern of unconstitutional behavior in police departments and are not initiated after a single rogue police officer commits a crime that would be deemed unconstitutional.

Senator Sessions is like most American politicians, at best reluctant and at worst unwilling to accurately frame the history of policing African-Americans, tied to our slavery and post-slavery history. The majority of police departments do exemplary work, but when police departments have a pattern of violating the constitutional rights of African-Americans the results are often deadly.

The softball questions yesterday and today from Republican Senators belie the importance of the Attorney General’s Office. Senator Corey Booker’s testimony on the other hand presents a more accurate picture of what is at stake for African-American communities.

To understand the role the DOJ has played in defending African­ American communities in the last eight years, look no further than the Danziger Bridge case in New Orleans.  Last month the City of New Orleans settled with families of victims killed or injured by police in the days leading up to and after Hurricane Katrina. The settlement included payments to the families of victims killed or injured in the shooting of unarmed civilians on the Danziger Bridge: the beating death of Raymond Robair, who was killed before the storm; and the fatal shooting of Henry Glover, who was killed by a police officer standing guard outside a grocery store.

The Danziger Bridge shooting is a stark counter-narrative to the prevailing messaging that police shootings are almost always justified, and that the victim must not be as innocent as claimed. In New Orleans, the courts have proved this to be a fairytale.  If this narrative has been disproved in New Orleans, surely the story must also be deeper in many other cases. The Black Lives Matter movement is not a result of 3 to 5 years of police brutality, but rather the experience of generations of African-American citizens.

The settlement was accompanied by an apology from New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu on behalf of the city, as he accepted responsibility for the slayings: “We are going to change as a people and we are going to change as a city because we choose to,” Landrieu said. He went on to say that the city has taken major steps toward improving the operations of the police department to ensure that such violence and the subsequent cover-up would not occur again.

“In some small way, the lives that have been maimed and the lives have been taken were not lives that were or will be lived in vain,” Landrieu said as the families of the victims stood behind him. “The people standing behind you have chosen to give us the grace and the blessing of forgiveness for what it is that happened to them.”

It is our moral responsibility as citizens to no longer accept the role of lynch mob. We must understand exactly what happened on the Danziger Bridge in New Orleans that day, and demand that police departments across America do everything in their power to prevent such events from occurring within their ranks ever again. The egregious nature of the shootings and subsequent police cover-up provides a meaningful case study for Americans.  As hard as it may be to read,  it is incumbent upon us to know the details of the stories of these lost lives.

Four officers - Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Robert Faulcon and Anthony Villavaso - were convicted in connection with the shootings of multiple victims, two of whom died. The four officers and a supervisor, Arthur “Archie” Kaufman, were also convicted of helping to obstruct justice during the  subsequent investigations.

Five days after Hurricane Katina had flooded New Orleans Susan Bartholomew, along with her family members,  were pushing a grocery cart up the bridge on their way to get medical supplies.

The evidence at the federal trial established that officers Bowen,  Gisevius,  Faulcon and Villavaso opened fire on an unarmed family on the east sideof the bridge,  killing 17-year-old James Brissette, and wounding Susan Bartholomew, 38; Leonard Bartholomew III, 44; the Bartholomew’s daughter, Lesha, 17; and the Bartholomew’s nephew, Jose Holmes, 19. The Bartholomew’s 14-year-old son ran away from the shooting and was fired at,  but was not injured.

Responding to a police distress call that an officer was down and reports of shots being fired from the bridge, a group of at least nine New Orleans police officers drove a Budget rental truck from the 7th District makeshift station to the Danziger Bridge.  Witnesses said the police were firing at the Bartholomew family before the truck even stopped and had not identified themselves as policemen.

The police officers shot at the Bartholomew family with shotguns,  AK-47s,  and M-4 assault rifles. The family jumped behind a concrete barrier that lined a pedestrian walkway seeking shelter from the barrage of bullets. James Brissette died at the scene from six gunshot wounds, two of them to his neck. Leonard Bartholomew III was shot in the left heel and upper back, and survived a gunshot wound to the head,  which exited his right ear.  Susan suffered gunshot wounds to the left leg and another bullet went through her her right arm.  Lesha Bartholomew was shot in the middle abdomen, in her buttocks and in her back. Jesse Holmes was shot in the abdomen, left arm, and left hand and left jaw.

“I never thought I’d be shot. And I never thought I’d be shot by the police. I thought the police were there to protect,” Susan Bartholomew told National Public Radio in 2006.

“When I look, we’re all on the ground and all you can see is blood. Everywhere. You can hear everybody hollering, moaning, everybody been shot and in pain,” Bartholomew says.

She continues, “My right arm was on the ground lying next to me. The only thing that was attached to it was a piece of skin. It had been shot off.”

A bullet struck Holmes in the right arm, shattering his bone. As he cowered behind the low concrete wall, he says a police officer walked over to him:

“He leaned over the cement block, he put the rifle to my stomach and shot me twice. They left, and about a minute later, an ambulance came and picked us up,”

According to testimony, the second shooting occurred minutes later on the east side of the bridge, where officers shot at brothers Lance and Ronald Madison, killing Ronald,  a 40-year-old man with severe mental disabilities. Witnesses testified that Faulcon shot Ronald Madison in the back as he ran away. Furthermore, Bowen stomped and kicked Ronald Madison while wounded, but not yet dead. Ronald Madison later died at the scene.

The cover-up began before the paramedics arrived to treat the victims. According to testimony at trial, officers at the scene of the shooting arrested Lance Madison and charged him with eight counts of attempting to kill police officers.  Officers collected no guns or shell casings on the day of the shooting, and the 30 casings that were collected more than a month later were fired by officers and not civilian guns. Madison was held in jail for three weeks,  but was eventually released without indictment.

The evidence at trial established that Kaufman joined the other four defendants in a conspiracy to cover-up what had happened on the bridge and to make the shootings appear justified. According to testimony, Kaufman obtained a gun from his home and claimed to have found the gun at the bridge on the day after the shooting. He also made up witnesses and created statements from fictional witnesses to help justify the shooting. Finally, there was testimony that Kaufman held a meeting in an abandoned, gutted out NOPD building where he instructed officers involved in the shooting to get their stories straight before giving formal audiotaped statements about the shooting.

Kaufman, who concluded in a formal report that the shooting was justified and that Lance Madison and Jose Holmes should be arrested, was also found guilty of conspiring with other officers to have Madison and Holmes prosecuted on the basis of false evidence.

“One of the worst things that happened was the cover-up,” Lance Madison wrote in a statement that was read by his brother Romell Madison at the settlement announcement last month. “It took 11 years for the police officers responsible for these crimes to admit their wrongdoing. I hope that in the future, if something bad happens,  that police officers will come forward and tell the truth and not try to cover it.”  Only two of the officers -Robert Gisevius and Arthur Kaufman - through their attorneys,  offered courtroom apologies to the surviving shooting victims and the families of those killed.

It cannot be overstated that it was prosecutors from the FBI’s New Orleans Field Office that successfully prosecuted the officers for violating the victims’ civil rights, four years after the shootings. This investigation was supervised by the Obama Administration’s Justice Department, whose focus on Civil Rights for the last eight years has been an attempt to break our historical ties to racism. Ultimately federal investigators cracked this case with the help of New Orleans officers who in the face of overwhelming evidence by the federal agents crossed the blue line (finally).

African-Americans, like all Americans, deserve respect and enforcement of their constitutional rights from the United States government. The phrase “law and order” is simply a further justification for the long history of racist policing, and not a furthering of equality under the eyes of the law.

On the surface, Senator Sessions seems like a nice guy, but we should not judge his fitness for this office on his courtesy. We must judge his fitness for this job on his civil rights record. At a congressional ceremony last February honoring the Selma marchers, Session admitted, “As a child and a teenager, I saw evidence of discrimination every day,” he said. “Certainly, I feel I should have stepped forward more.” It is clear that his own predilection to view black and brown people through a different lens than whites prevented him from him acting on behalf of the oppressed when he was the U.S. District Attorney for Alabama, and it will be the same when he is the Attorney General of the United States. Jeff Sessions is a product of his environment - the culture that grew strange fruit swinging from trees in the Southern States. Perhaps he was one of the children in the crowd seen in the lynching postcards - perhaps Jeff Sessions and his conscious and unconscious bias, translated to action over the course of a career, is the embodiment of the consequence to being witness to a lynching, preventing any hope of “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”. It is for this reason that Jeff Sessions must not be confirmed as Attorney General of the United States if we are to continue with the small steps towards progress we have made these past eight years.

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