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The Casualties of Justice

A scathing new report and data from a growing chorus of experts suggests Jim Crow is far from over.

The death of Jim Crow laws in 1965 was supposed to mean the end of government persecution of African-Americans, while a scathing new report and data from a growing chorus of experts say otherwise.

International terrorism always gets headlines. Getting much less attention is the ongoing government-sanctioned terror against blacks in America.

This is not hyperbole. The problem is real, and systemic, and a new report out this month confirms it.

Terror is terror, and it often ends in incarcerating the innocent – or worse.

Domestic terror against blacks includes a death count at the hands of “police, security guards and vigilantes,” resulting in the fatality of an African-American every 28 hours.

That calculation comes from new research by Kali Akuno of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), a nonprofit that has chapters in Atlanta, Oakland, New Orleans, Detroit and elsewhere.

Entitled “Operation Ghetto Storm,” MXGM’s report is detailed and extensive in its findings and includes abundant annotations for the 313 wrongful deaths that they cite. “The practice of executing Black people without pretense of a trial, jury or judge is an integral part of the government’s current overall strategy of containing the Black community in a state of perpetual colonial subjugation and exploitation,” reads part of its preface, and one of the most horrifying aspects revealed by the report is that 66 percent of the “extrajudicial killings” were of individuals between the ages of 2 and 31.

As an African-American male, I first sensed the threat of judicial injustice as a teenager and later experienced it first-hand in my mid-20s, when I was charged with a crime I did not commit. The charges against me came from an angry landlord on whom I had blown the whistle for her slumlord style of property management.

Although I have never had a criminal record, at our first meeting – and without asking my innocence or guilt – my court-appointed attorney told me that I should plead guilty and ask the court for a plea bargain, telling me that if my case ever went to a jury trial, I would be assumed guilty based on the fact that I was a young black male, with no property or prestige, and the former landlord was wealthy and white.

At 26 years old and faced with the prospects of being charged with a felony, which would forever strip me of my right to vote – essentially making me a second-class citizen for the rest of my life – I refused my court-appointed attorney’s recommendation, and instead, reported him to his supervisor. Without money for a private lawyer and without faith in the court’s attorneys, I spent two years fighting for my legal life all on my own before the court realized it had no case, and all charges were dropped.

Sure, I won the fight, but still carry the painful memory of that experience, and since then, I often wonder how many young black men have been frightened into pleading guilty of something they did not do or were simply shot and killed by police, with no one ever bothering to ask any questions.

In a March 29 video essay, “The Hypocrisy of Justice for All,” Bill Moyers – author and elder statesman of independent journalism – talked about the anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling of Gideon v. Wainwright, which mandated the constitutional rights of defendants to legal representation, even if they cannot afford it. Yet 50 years on, Moyers says, our justice system has “turned a deaf ear” to the notion of justice for all.

“Of the $100 billion spent annually on criminal justice . . . only two to three percent goes to defend the poor,” and of “97 countries, we rank 68th in access to and affordability of civil legal service,” Moyers says. “Somehow we can’t afford it,” he adds, noting that just a decade ago, America started “shelling out $2.2 trillion for a war in Iraq born of fraud.”

The next time you say the Pledge of Allegiance, says Moyers, remember that the part where it says “justice for all” is a lie, a “whopper of a lie.”

From Jim Crow to “Stop and Frisk,” government-approved terror has ensured the subversion of social and economic freedom for African-Americans, which attorney and author Michelle Alexander discussed in an interview I conducted with her, in which she said America has a caste system that “functions without using nooses and racial slurs.”

When I spoke with Alexander in 2011, I shared the experience I had had of being falsely accused. Alexander seemed distinctly unsurprised, and here’s an excerpt of her reply:

I think most people have this romantic idea of how our criminal system operates, perpetuated by shows like Law & Order.

What you just described is routine. People are arrested and often meet a few minutes with an attorney, waiving all their rights, pleading guilty to serious crimes. Supposedly good deals with only probation that will brand you for life as a felon, make it impossible to find work afterwards.

It’s easy to look at public defenders and say they should do this or that better, but they are so overwhelmed with so many cases that they are often doing the best they can do.

The bar has been set so low that in many instances our system acts like a processing system, trying to get as many dockets cleared as possible in order to clear case loads. There are many people in jail who are innocent of the crimes accused. They have been forced into pleading guilty with the threat of harsh mandatory sentences. So yeah, it’s a very, very sad scene of affairs.

Moyers, Alexander and Akuno agree, and have proven: For African-Americans in the United States, justice is often more illusion than a guaranteed right.

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