Friday, July 13, 2007

Witness Intimidation and the Black Urban Crisis: The Democrats' Missed Opportunity

I shouldn't be amazed by the Democratic Party' s misplaced priorities, as indicated by the discussion among the top-tier candidates at yesterday's two-hour NAACP forum in Detroit. The Los Angeles Times reports that issues of poverty and gun violence came up, only to be overshadowed by President Bush's commutation of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby:

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) on Thursday decried the lack of outrage over gun violence in urban America and criticized President Bush's decision to commute the prison sentence of former White House aide I. Lewis Scooter" Libby while black men serve time for lesser crimes.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) suggested the solution to urban violence was providing hope of a brighter future to young men, through better education as well as the occasional second chance after a run-in with the criminal justice system.

In fact, throughout a two-hour forum before the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, the full field of Democratic presidential candidates spoke about issues of poverty, justice and equality in the clearest terms to date in this campaign.
I didn't see the forum, so I can't really comment on anything beyond what I've read here. (Although this A.P. report suggests there wasn't too much more in the way of substance. Comments on black prison sentences were made with inevitable comparisons to Libby, and Hillary Clinton made sure she cited all the right literary references -- like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man -- in pandering to the membership of the historic civil rights organization.)

The candidates might talk sweet on poverty and the African-American experience, but what's really going down in the 'hood seemed to escape mention.

For example, I wrote yesterday on
witness intimidation and the crisis of the black community. That entry discusses the New York Times report on the inability of police to secure witness testimony in the gangland shooting of Tajhanique Lee, who was shot through the mouth at a Trenton public housing complex, with at least twenty people on the scene. I suggested that there was little substantive discussion in Washington and among the top presidential hopefuls on the black urban crisis. The NAACP forum, as far as I can tell, confirms my point.

What explains this? I think the candidates are mostly interested in grandstanding, for one. Blacks are the most faithful of Democratic constituencies, and securing the black vote is even more crucial in a wide-open election season such as this. More importantly, though, is that the candidates fear alienating a black elite culture that masterfully wields a "blood of martyrs" strategy of political mobilization, an approach that demonizes innovative, individual and cultural-level solutions to the plight of the black lower third (
click here for my earlier post on the blood of martyrs strategy).

This phenomenon, which is debilitating for African-American political and economic progress, is discussed at length by Juan Williams in his recent book, Enough. Williams also discusses witness imtimidation and the destructive tendencies of black crime. Williams notes that white racial stereotypes of black criminal culture are nowhere near as damaging as the crisis of black-on-black crime, what Williams calls "the enemy within." These sections of the book are some of the most disturbing:

In October 2002 the living hell caused by crime in the black community burst into flames in Baltimore.

A black mother of five testified against a Northest Baltimore drug dealer. The next day her row house was fire-bombed. She managed to put out the flames that time. Two weeks later, at 2:00am as the family slept, the house was set on fire again. This time the drug dealer broke open the front door and took care in splashing gasoline on the lone staircase that provided exit for people asleep in the second- and third-floor bedrooms. Angela Dawson, the thirty-six year-old mother, and her five children, aged nine to fourteen, burned to death. Her husband, Carnell, forty-three, jumped from a second-story window. He had burns over most of his body and died a few days later. On that chilling night, as she struggled against the smoke and heat, the mother's cries could be heard over the crackle of the flames on East Preston Street. "God, please help me," screamed Angela Dawson. "Help me get my children out."

Before she was silenced, Dawson made thirty-six calls to the police, from late-July until her death, to complain about the drug dealers who operated freely on the street in front of her house. About a month before she was killed, one of the the dealers had scrawled BITCH on the front wall of her house. As she was scrubbing away the graffiti, a young man who lived across the street, and eighteen-year old, appeared and boldly said he had written the word there, told her to leave it alone, and then hit her.
Williams goes on to recount that police apprehended the murderer, Darryl Brooks, twenty-one, who was later sentenced to life in prison without parole. The tragedy of Angela Dawson is a tragedy for the entire black community, however. The local papers reported on the gangland taboo against "snitching." Williams quotes the Baltimore Sun, which reported that:

Families...are often unwilling to join the battle against crime because it would mean turning in a child, grandchild, cousin, or uncle....Residents still may have to coexist with neighbors who might be criminals.
It'd be hard to find a more compelling theme of discussion at a major civil rights forum, but the Democrats and delegates to the meeting missed the opportunity. Barack Obama would be naturally eloquent in addressing this crisis, but he's developed so much crossover appeal he might be unwilling to alienate surburban voters, many of whom reside in affluent, gate-guarded communities.This is the ultimate tragedy, because the people who are terrrorized have no powerful voice of uplift truly championing their cause. It's not, by the way, a monopoly issue for the Democrats. The black crisis must transcend partisanship, and it must be brought into a broader political reform agenda of education, entrepreneurship, and opportunity. With rare exception, the GOP hasn't had a sincere voice championing individualist uplift in the black commuity since Jack Kemp served as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the first Bush administration.

The Republican Party is ideally situated, as the party of Abraham Lincoln, to provide the leadership for a new generation of rights activists who will work to combat poverty, and stand firm against the senseless and despicable violence, offering a new voice of hope for urban America.

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