Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Riots, Race, Stereotypes and the Law

Unrest in Milwaukee's Sherman Park
 after Police shooting of Sylville Smith
Are charges brought against police officers based only on the facts of a case and a strict reading of the law?  Or are prosecutors' decisions sensitive to unrest in the streets and other non-judicial factors? Consider two cases in Milwaukee.

Dontre Hamilton was shot by Milwaukee Police officer Christopher Manney April 30, 2014. Manney was fired five months later but Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm announced in December there would be no criminal charges against the officer. 

On December 15. 2016  Chisholm charged MPD officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown with reckless homicide for the shooting August 13 of Sylville Smith. In justifying his decision, he said:  “I have an ethical obligation to just look at those facts and ... not to consider extraneous things like public sentiment.”  

Really.  I think the contrary was more likely true.  These DA’s decisions were clearly responsive to public sentiment,  ie. fear or lack of fear of riots, rebellions, and unrest.   Additionally, the way police officers Manney and Heaggan-Brown have been "framed" in the public mind is related as much to racial stereotypes as any “facts.” 

First the “facts.”  Dontre Hamilton was sleeping lawfully in Red Arrow Park April 30, 2014 when he was confronted by officer Christopher Manney.  Dontre’s resistance to being poked by a baton, according to Chisholm, was legal justification for Manney to use lethal force.  The officer fired 14 shots at an unarmed Hamilton. There was no video.

MPD Chief  Edward Flynn fired Manney in October of 2014, more than five months after the shooting.  Flynn said Manney had not followed police procedures but also that he had not broken the law in shooting Hamilton.  The firing occurred only after local protests and more importantly major riots and demonstrations in Ferguson and other cities over other police killings. In December of 2014, after mass arrests on Milwaukee’s downtown freeway (full disclosure: I was among those arrested) DA Chisholm declined to indict Manney.  The arrests did prompt eight Milwaukee Aldermen to successfully demand police begin to wear body cameras. 

In the more recent Smith killing,  Mayor Tom Barrett said a body cam video — though incredibly he admitted he has never viewed it —  fully explained the indictment.  According to DA Chisholm, Heaggan-Brown fired one shot when Smith was holding a gun, which Chisholm said was justified.  A second shot, fired less than two seconds later after Smith had thrown his gun over a fence, was the stated reason for the homicide indictment.  The officer claimed he thought Smith was going for a second gun.  Similar to Manney he was not fired for the actual shooting.
Manney at his termination appeal

Heaggan-Brown’s defense, that he fired two shots within two seconds at an armed man,  seems to me stronger than Manney’s firing 14 shots at an unarmed man. Still Heaggan-Brown is headed for prison while Manney enjoys a full pension. Why was Manney not charged at all but Heaggan-Brown faces 60 years in prison? More than the law is at work here.

One difference between the cases is that protests were slow to break out after Hamilton’s April 30 killing. They gained steam after rioting broke out in Ferguson more than three months later in August of 2014 and as the country swirled with Black Lives Matter protests.  The Coalition for Justice in Milwaukee began small but persistent protests.  However the size and orderliness of the demonstrations likely led city officials to conclude there was not much of a chance of widespread unrest.  Manney was supported by the police union and enjoyed sympathetic treatment in the media.

The response to Smith’s killing was more immediate and violent.  Riots shook Sherman Park where the shooting took place. Businesses were burned, the National Guard was on stand-by.  Local officials were traumatized. Just firing Heaggan-Brown, local leaders must have been thinking,  might not be enough to pacify an angry and wary public.
Heaggan-Brown pleading "not guilty"

The two officers also presented contrasting portraits.  Heaggan-Brown was charged with a sexual assault soon after the shooting and newspapers discovered he had been an aspiring rapper.   In stark contrast to the mild mannered Manney, Heaggan-Brown looked more like “them” and pictures of him framed a narrative of Heaggan-Brown as a “bad apple.”  View the standard media images the public saw of the two presented here and above.  

I’ve learned one way to combat stereotypes is to “sub-type.” In other words the stereotype of someone like a gang member as evil —  or a police officer as good — is so strong, that it’s not likely to be overcome easily.  So one avenue is to argue that the stereotype may be true but “not for this case.”   The white, well-mannered Manney fit the police stereotype of “officer friendly” but  the black rogue male Heaggan-Brown did not.  In other words, the DA could successfully “sub-type” Heaggan-Brown as deviant while conveniently declining to demonize Manney.

Courts respond to the Streets
The point is not that Heaggan-Brown is a victim and should get to live on a pension like Manney.  To me, they both deserve prison if convicted at trial.  But our US culture is so racialized that it extends even to the police.  African American police officers have often found that black is more salient than blue, and have been victimized by white police officers

We also should not believe the fairy tale that a wonderful liberal Milwaukee DA strictly followed the law and was not influenced by "extraneous public sentiment."  No, in both cases city fathers feared unrest and the DA's response fit with a varying estimate of the probability of riots.  While legalities matter, DAs and judges  often frame decisions in response to broader events.  Does anyone believe that the indictment of officer Jason Van Dyke in Chicago was not related to the fear of an angry black response to the video of the killing of Laquan McDonald?  Police killings have been routinely covered up in Chicago and elsewhere until the Ferguson uprising and Black Lives Matter youth took to the streets.   

We need to be honest that in Milwaukee violence successfully produced an indictment in one case and peaceful protest failed in the other.  I do not advocate violence, but our non-violent protests need to be more tactically sound and combine small group action with broad mass demonstrations and exploitation of divisions of elites.   Donald Trump’s election, some surveys have found, has more to do with racial resentment than desire for a strong leader.  Sadly, this means will have likely have many more occasions to organize around police violence. 

I also see these cases as a demonstration of the ubiquity of race in the criminal justice system. The DA’s decision to prosecute Heaggan-Brown relied, consciously or not,  on the usefulness of racial stereotypes —  to the extent that a police officer was sub-typed to the public as a black “thug.”   Heaggan-Brown is finding out that blue doesn't trump black. 

While we need to insist on vigorous prosecution of killer cops, our main tactics are in the streets, not the courts.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Jacqueline Montañez and our Culture of Demonization

Today Jacqueline Montañez was re-sentenced for a highly publicized 1992 gang-related double homicide she participated in when she was 15 years old.  My bike accident hasn’t healed enough to allow me to travel so I watched the hearing live streamed by WGN-TV. For more than a decade I’ve been struggling with the meaning of this case Judge Alfredo Maldonado called “senseless.” Jackie’s hearing was a victory for the US Supreme Court’s Miller decision which overturned mandatory life without parole sentences for all juveniles. For Jackie the prison will not be a tomb.

For me however, this case did not result in justice. Rather it exposed serious defects in how we “do justice” in our courts and indeed in our broader culture.  I’ll start, incongruously,  with Donald Trump. 

I cringed when earlier this week Trump called Hillary Clinton “the devil” and said to her face she should be put in jail.  His venomous call to lock up a political rival is reprehensible and should be scary for us all. But his demonizing words are also merely a pale imitation of the unbridled rhetoric used by prosecutors routinely in trials of stigmatized defendants, like gang members.  For example Jackie was called the “teen queen of criminals,” a “cold-blooded…hitman” of whom “Al Capone could be proud,” a “rat in a corner” and many more horrific and depraved names.  In order to justify punitive sentences, like life without parole,  prosecutors routinely have relied on dehumanizing rhetoric which, I suspect, for them is not always just rhetoric.  Law breakers — otherwise known as human beings —  are essentialized as pure evil.  An evil nature, rather than evil deeds,  can never be changed so it must be punished or obliterated.

As the current political environment so sadly demonstrates it is fashionable to look at the world through Manichean lenses.  Our opponents are not just wrong they are deplorable, and we can’t or won’t understand them. In the criminal justice system,  this demonization is one cause of the mass incarceration that has earned the US world wide condemnation and shame.

I’ve learned through my many years of working with gang members  — and yes,  some who have murdered — that gang members, like all of us, are not one thing.  Jackie, for example, was shamelessly used by gang chiefs and tricked into thinking the gang was her “family.” Her childhood of abuse was not an excuse, but as the Miller decision explained, a factor to be taken into consideration in sentencing.  Jackie, like all of us, is a complex human being. But transcripts of Jackie’s trial display an all out deluge of demonization by prosecutors that reduced her to a one dimensional cartoon character and left no room for even a hint of capacity for rehabilitation. 

Gordon Allport first pointed out that we think in categories and this leads to what Hillary Clinton referred to as “implicit bias.” Implicit Association Tests demonstrate that we not only have categories like race and gender embedded deeply in our mind, but we unconsciously act on them.  Our culture ascribes meaning to race and gender — women are the “weaker sex” and thus seen by men as willing to accept any sexual advance.  African Americans are judged by whites as likely to be violent and often are charged,  convicted and sentenced on scant evidence.  Women who kill, like Jackie,  are de-gendered and transmogrified into monsters.

The stigma of blackness = evil has permeated our culture from slavery to Jim Crow to ghettos and mass incarceration as Loic Wacquant and Michelle Alexander have argued.  Patriarchal culture is even more powerful and invisible, like “water for fish,” as Judith Lorber said. We are not always conscious of this implicit bias because it seems normal. 

In the trial of Jacqueline Montañez attorneys were helpless as prosecutors raged and demonized a young teenage girl.  She was given a mandatory life sentence but a more appropriate charge by prosecutors could have resulted in a sentence that would have allowed parole and rehabilitation. One of her co-defendants, Madeline Mendoza,  received 35 years and has already been released.  It was Cook County prosecutors’ successful dehumanization and demonization of Montañez that led to her being charged in such a manner that life without parole was the only possible sentence.  

I have great sympathy for the families of the two victims, Hector Reyes and Jimmy Cruz. As Jackie’s tears and words in court expressed, nothing can be done to bring back their lives.  While today Chicago’s homicide rate is not nearly at 1992 levels, it is indeed a “cancer” as the judge said and has not gone away.  But a culture of demonization, so aptly demonstrated by Montañez’s prosecutors, flourishes as well.  It runs rampant in our criminal justice system but, sadly, also permeates American mass culture.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Violence and Healing

I’ve had some thoughts on violence and healing. They are personal but also reflections on what has happened to my city this past month.

On August 2 while riding my bike I was hit by a car. Witnesses said I was hurled two car lengths and landed on the side of the road.  I was taken by flight for life helicopter to Froedtert hospital. I suffered a broken neck, brain injuries and three breaks in my right clavicle.  I had spinal fusion surgery August 5 and was released from the hospital August 22.

I’m not able to concentrate on much besides my rehab.  Walking, eating, and sleeping are all difficult and require my full attention. I’m now in a long, hard rehab process and am on medical leave from my university job. I’ve had to postpone or bow out of several important legal cases where I am an expert witness. 

It’s time for me to begin to heal. But watching the “unrest” in Sherman Park from my hospital bed it occurred to me that it is not yet time for healing in Milwaukee. Healing is what you do after surgery or after major interventions to change oppressive conditions. Healing means the patient is on the road to recovery. That is not the situation today in MIlwaukee. Now is time for action. Healing comes later.

In the early 1980s I lived in Sherman Park and this was where I began my work with gangs.  In my first book, People & Folks,  I pointed out that the desperation in Milwaukee’s ghetto guaranteed the gangs would not go away. And they haven’t. In the 1990s I wrote an article titled “Milwaukee I Do Mind Dying”  and argued that unless radical measures were taken Milwaukee’s future would look more like Detroit or East St.Louis than Minneapolis or Indianapolis. Twenty-five years later we are Detroit’s equal in poverty, even more segregated, and by some measures the nation’s worst city for black people to live in. Thousands of Milwaukee’s black youth are as desperate today as they were when gangs first formed. The busy construction in today’s downtown is a sign our city leaders have embraced a “city of spectacle” but continue to ignore the “city of desperation.” 

And now these same leaders and their media call for “healing” with no accompanying agenda to bring us the sweeping changes we so desperately need.  Weeks after the police shooting of Sylville Smith, the body cam video has still not been released.  We don’t need healing when each day the wounds of oppression are inflicted anew in the nation’s fourth poorest city.  To call for healing as oppression continues is to provide a cover for our city’s inexcusable inaction on jobs, unwillingness to control police, and persisting policies of mass incarceration. This is what is meant by the slogan,  “no justice, no peace.”

I am a Unitarian and my partner Mary Devitt has been among those leading an effort to mobilize Milwaukee's religious community to “stand on the side of love.” To me this does not mean “healing” it means empathy for those who continue to be oppressed. Empathy means demands for action to address the real needs of the black youth living in our city of desperation.  Long ago, Dr. King called for nothing less than “a radical reconstruction of society.”  We've heard the empty words of politicians for decades and these failed promises are why youth have been incited to riot.  These angry soldiers of the night need our empathy and understanding as we stand on the side of love.

In the 1980s I wrote that Milwaukee’s gangs were signs of rebellion  — much of it destructive, but still rebellion against desperate living conditions, police violence, and a one-sided policy of jails not jobs. Nearly 30 years later these remain the principle factors that sparked the “unrest” in  Sherman Park.   

I am physically healing but our city can begin to heal only after our leaders wake up and begin needed fundamental changes, This awakening starts with  a major jobs program and concrete measures for greater police accountability. We can't begin healing "until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” 

Friday, April 15, 2016

Gangs, Racism and Homicide in Chicago

The Mayor’s Task Force has said the obvious: Racism is at the heart of the problems with Chicago Police Department. Consider CPD history.

Chicago Police looked the other way when racist gangs attacked the black community during the 1919 race riots. They enforced the “era of hidden violence’ from the 1920s to the end of the 1940s, when whites attacked any black family daring to move across segregated lines. They were paid off by the Outfit, Chicago’s mafia, in protecting Outfit gambling and vice businesses, but cracked down on black and Latino small scale hustling. CPD officers pretended they did not hear when Jon Burge physically tortured, in CPD stations, more than a hundred black gang members. The code of silence meant violence against African Americans, including police murder, has been business as usual for decades.

In recent years the excuse for police violence has been the need to combat gangs.  Gang violence, in the mind of much of the public, justifies brutal and illegal police tactics. After all, doesn’t everyone agree that gangs are behind Chicago’s high homicide rate?

I don’t. I’ve studied gangs and homicide in Chicago for the past 20 years. While gang members certainly account for more than their share of homicides, we might consider some discrepant information.

To start off with there are at least as many Latino gang members in Chicago as African American gangsters. Yet three quarters of all homicide victims and offenders are black, and have been for decades.  Hmm. We have Latino and Black gangs. Much higher rates among Black gangs?  Maybe being Black has something to do with it?

A recent UIC Great Cities Study reports nearly half of young black men in Chicago are unemployed.  Homicide worldwide, the UN Study on Global Homicide tells us, is related to the desperation of unemployed young men.  Conditions in Chicago’s African American communities qualify as desperation in my book. A war on gangs? Why not a war on unemployment or poverty?

Similarly claims by DEA’s Jack Riley that Chicago homicides are related to the Mexican cartels defies logic. If homicide is mainly about drug trafficking, why are are there so few homicides of Mexicans compared to African Americans?  Some say the six Mexican family members killed in February in Gage Park was a cartel hit.  Maybe, but regardless the vast majority of all homicides remain between very poor African Americans.

Today there are no citywide wars over drug turf as the organized gangs wars of the 1990s. The violence of that decade contributed to the shattering of Chicago’s African American “super-gangs.”   Black gang drug dealing today is small scale and local and that means deadly disputes have largely stayed local.  Despite scary violent drill rap videos, the number of homicides today is at half the level of the carnage of the 1990s.  

If gangs are the root of the homicide problem, why does Los Angeles, with as many gangs as Chicago, have a homicide rate of 7.3/100,000 while Chicago’s is at 17.2? Maybe the hopelessness of African Americans in the rustbelt has something to do with it?  Chicago’s homicide rate is similar to other rustbelt cities, like Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Cleveland or Memphis who are all between 20 and 25. While Chicago’s homicide rate is four times higher than New York City’s 3.9, thankfully, it has not risen to Detroit’s level of 44 or St. Louis’ 50.

Homicide in Chicago has been relatively steady since 2004 when the city wide gang wars ended. This year’s jump in the first three months is similar to jumps in 2008 and 2012 which saw small spikes that fell the next year.  The 135 total homicides in the first three months of this year are slightly more than the 114 in 2012 but far below the 200 in the first three months of 1991.  While homicide this year is likely to level off, the main point is Chicago’ homicide rates is steady and not falling.

Is there a “Ferguson effect?” The Sentencing Project doesn’t think so. The jump in St Louis homicides occurred before Michael Brown’s killing by police.  While the CPD claims the new policies of reducing Chicago’s stops of African Americans is responsiblefor Chicago’s 2016 uptick in homicide, it is more likely that the CPD’s behavior having "no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color" in the words of the Mayor’s Task Force has been a major factor contributing to the hostility of young black men over the years.  For example, the CPD’s 250,000 stops of citizens in 2014 “dwarfs” the rate of stops by the New York Police Department in their highest years.

A large percentage of Chicago’s homicides appear to be related in some way or another to African American gang or clique members.  However, in my opinion, gangs today are more effect than cause of high homicide rates.  I concur with the Mayor’s Task Force who argues:

We arrived at this point in part because of racism.
We arrived at this point because of a mentality in CPD that the ends justify the means.
We arrived at this point because of a failure to make accountability a core value and imperative within CPD.
We arrived at this point because of a significant underinvestment in human capital.

I’ve stated in this blog previously that the CPD bear a large degree of responsibility for our city’s entrenched gang problem.  Gangs make good headlines and scapegoats but Chicago has to take a hard look in the mirror at the desperate conditions facing black youth and the CPD’s responsibility for a culture of alienation and hostility.

There are no easy answers to reducing Chicago’s homicide rate. Police officers must follow the law and the blue code needs to be undermined. Radical changes in police culture must accompany investment in black communities, better and more stable housing and education, reductions in prison population, and more jobs.  The Task Force points out we have reached this crisis in policing because of racism. We have to also recognize the uncomfortable reality that our homicide rate is also more about race than gangs.  

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Amazing Transformation of William “Sonny” Fletcher

By John M. Hagedorn

Outta all the stuff I been through, I been shot and everything, left for dead and all this, it’s time for me to give something back and I’m doing it and I feel good about it.

Redemption. From the streets to the prisons and back to the streets. But now he isn’t robbing people — he’s helping them.

Born in 1957, his family was one of the first black families to move to Lawndale in 1960.  They owned the “Thirteen Ten Club” on Kedzie. As he grew up he watched the Vice Lords as they transformed from a street gang into a group that helped the community. He explains how the Vice Lords worked back then:

William "Sonny" Fletcher
…say that they snatched somebody’s purse …if Mrs. Johnson came up on the corner and told one of the guys “I know who did it my purse got snatched” call the police?  We’ll go get him and we’ll come up with the purse and mostly all the belongings maybe a little money be gone ‘cause drugs wasn’t that bad back then and we would deal with ‘em, you know what I’m sayin?  We’ll rough him up, where they know not to do it no more…  I mean Vice Lords did a lot, they paid some peoples rent…  They had buildings where people could stay in…..if you needed help they would help.

But Mayor Daley and his cops came down hard on the Vice Lords, cutting off funds for their programs and jailing Bobby Gore and other leaders.

…here’s a group of Black guys that trying to get together on something positive and you wanna destroy it, instead of saying “hey they doing something pretty good over there lets go over and talk to these guys and see what they doing? 

Sonny joined the Renegade Vice Lords and became a terror on the streets. He went to prison for the first time at 17:

Altogether I was incarcerated nine times.  I was just looking at it the other day and it was about 29 years altogether off and on.

He was a bright kid who fell under the lure of dope but gained a reputation in the prisons as someone to talk to, who would help with the law and getting along in prison. Then when he was released in 1981 he met Bobby Gore who was working at the Safer Foundation. He said he was Bobby’s “first success story.” Bobby told him:

“what are you doing here?” (I said)  I just come home man- Im trying to do something.  So he said  “look- don’t bullshit me, you want a job, you got a high school diploma.”    I said yeah I been going to college in the joint.  He said  “I can get you a job today.”

Sonny got that job at a gas station and within a month he was the manager. Today he works at St. Leonard’s, counseling younger men released from prison, leading them on a path away from crime. He has some strong, but simple advice:

But the young guys, they see me.  I’m talking ‘bout, they used to call me Mr. Buzzard.  I was a rough cat, anything goes.  Now I’m a substance abuse counselor.  When they say to me “Man, you don’t even come around no more, you don’t do this.”  I say “I come around.  When now when I come around.. you’ll say “what a transformation. No more robbing, no more dope.”  They ask me for money, but I’m not giving you any money to go out and kill yourself, I’m sorry.  “But you used to.”  I say “yes, think what you’re saying, I used to do a lot of things, I don’t do that anymore.”  And I try to explain to ‘em that doing what they doin’ now is easy.  Doing the right thing is hard.

You can still find William Fletcher at 16th & Lawndale. But now he isn’t robbing people but collecting food donations and sponsoring free meals. He’s organizing programs for summer jobs.  His plans include a social center in an abandoned building in the center of the “Holy City.”  He has found redemption in serving his community.   He’s doing the right thing and it ain’t hard no more.