Once upon a time, in a galaxy not so far away, Chicago’s Gangster Disciples invaded Mahnomen, Minnesota, a bustling “metropolis” 235 miles north of Minneapolis. Fear tore through the northlands as the “gang frame” was imposed to explain a local homicide.
A Gangster Disciple branch had secretly formed in upper Minnesota, two men said in a plea deal. They claimed the murder they committed was not their fault but ordered by Timothy Shanks, the “Pharaoh” of the gang.
The Minnesota Attorney General was so alarmed by their state being invaded by a notorious Chicago gang that they sent in a team of Minneapolis lawyers to make sure Shanks would be convicted for this heinous gang-related crime.
This trial is a successful illustration of reframing, one of George Lakoff’s key techniques on persuasion. Lakoff’s Don’t think of an Elephant was written in the wake of George Bush’ 2000 Republican electoral victory. Lakoff argues that Democrats tried to beat the Republicans by accepting their language and their “strict father” frame of reality.
For example Lakoff points out that when the right says “family values” they mean obedience to the rules of a “tough love” father and an absolute sense of right and wrong based in obedience to God the Father. The sanctity of unborn life is enshrined in the Bible and God and priest need to be obeyed. Rather than talk about family values as adherence to rules, Lakoff says we should “reframe” or suggest a different understanding of family, ie. the capacity of a mother to nurture and properly care for her child and who should be able to make her own decisions about her body. Lakoff’s books give numerous, rich examples of reframing, of getting others to see things through shared, empathetic values.
Lakoff doesn't deal at length with crime, perhaps because crime (and gangs) in a courtroom immediately and powerfully cue the strict father frame through our System 1 reasoning. From the judge sitting on high and a prosecutor who casts moral blame, gang-related trials reverse the presumption of innocence. Gang members are assumed guilty and defense attorneys need to prove otherwise. It worked that way in Mahnomen.
The prosecution of Timothy Shanks began as a gang-related murder and looked hopeless from the start. The judge who appointed local attorney Peter Cannon to defend Shanks, privately told his long time friend to forget about putting up a defense. The Minnesota Attorney General’s office had vast resources and in a trial of a black gang member in an all-white Scandinavian community, conviction seemed to be guaranteed.
Like many of my stories, the real hero is an attorney who refuses to surrender to stereotypes. Something didn’t sound right to Peter Cannon and after many phone calls looking for a “gang expert” he finally reached me. I talked with Mr. Shanks and quickly concluded that not only was this crime not gang related but Shanks was completely innocent. Shanks was being tried by the gang frame, not by facts. The actual shooters had got off with only a couple of years sentence by claiming Timothy, the “Pharaoh" of the GDs had ordered the “hit.” The key to this trial was to persuade the judge that the crime had nothing to do with gangs. And if it had nothing to do with gangs, there was no evidence whatsoever to charge Shanks.
My first reason for thinking the gang-related charge was bogus was that there is no rank of “Pharaoh” in the Gangster Disciples. In a written affidavit and later in testimony in court I disputed the gang frame in its entirety and went through all of the evidence, giving an alternative story that explained the crime without the gang frame. By doing so i encouraged the court to use System 2 reasoning and not settle for System 1 stereotypes.
Timothy Shanks was a black man from Gary making his living on the carnival circuit in northern Minnesota. He had a faded tattoo from his youth of the GD six pointed star. Having such a tattoo I explained was not evidence of current gang membership, but was normal for many poor black kids in the Chicago area and meant little a decade or so later. What about his “order” to murder? At a party the two shooters asked Shanks what they should do about money owed to them by the victim? By all accounts, Shanks, who was surrounded by several local girls, huffed “Do what you gotta do.” That was it. No gang meetings or evidence of any other gang activities. Just words at a party impressing a couple of young white girls.
Shanks’ murder charge, I argued, could be reduced to a desperate ploy by the shooters to cut a deal with gullible prosecutors. My cases are filled with allegations by jail house snitches or co-defendants claiming a crime actually was gang related in order to get a favorable deal for themselves. In this situation the two pleaders got the gang leader title wrong, but in others cases I’ve discovered “gang evidence” was completely fabricated. What is amazing is that such skimpy evidence could invoke a “gang as evil” frame that would cause prosecutors to imagine Timothy Shanks ordering a murder. This is the definition of System 1 thinking.
There was one other piece of evidence tying the carny worker to the Gangster Disciples. It was established in testimony that Shanks often used the expression “What’s up Folks.” By the time this came up in the trial things were already getting dicey for the prosecution. My reframing the crime as a ill-informed plea deal plus the rather questionable notion of gangs running wild in Mahnomen was raising doubts to the judge and even the prosecutors. I calmly explained that “what’s up folks” is a common greeting in black communities, not necessarily gang related. If everyone who said “What’s up folks” was a gang member, I testified, then the court ought to indict Porky Pig and his Disney folks gang.
Well the judge had had enough. He called the Assistant Attorneys General to the bench and it was agreed to drop all charges. Peter Cannon dug into his pocket and gave Timothy bus fare back to Gary. Justice was served, though Timothy had spent months in jail awaiting trial in what was truly a “gang frame-up.”
Lakoff gives four pieces of advice in how to win over the middle: Show Respect; Respond by Reframing; Think and Talk at the Level of Values; and Say What You Believe. In the Mahnomen courtroom I responded with reason and facts but mainly reframed the crime as having nothing to do with gangs. Rather than an actual gang hit what we had was 1. Two guys trying to avoid long prison terms; 2. The stereotype that black men + a murder means they must be in a gang; and 3. All-too-common macho talk at a party. Shanks’ old tattoo, his saying “What’s Up Folks,” and being black in Mahnomen are flimsy evidence to prove he was a “gang leader” who called a hit.
Unlike the Tennessee judges, these prosecutors were open to my arguments when I activated a different frame. They had read People & Folks, my first book, and in cross examination I was treated with respect and I gave it back on the stand. Prosecutors aren’t always so reasonable and most of my clients are not innocent. But the lesson is that among those who disagree with you there are some who can be won over by conscious reframing. In blogs to come, I’ll draw on more of my cases to explain the power of stereotypes in court and relay different tactics I’ve used to combat them.
Kahneman, Daniel. 2011. Think Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
Lakoff, George. 2004. Don't think of an elephant! : know your values and frame the debate : the essential guide for progressives. White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green Pub. Co.