Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Preacher, the Prosecutor, and the Lynch Law

Fresh from witnessing a real, live lynch mob licking their lips for blood in Khartoum, (yes, the victim was rescued, but the miscarriage of justice was there, the victim waiting in terror for the mob), we got our own problems here at home.

They’re getting up a lynching right here in Michigan.

It’s an ugly story, too, not exactly typical, but it's got a stubborn lawman in it, and a preacher man, too, who loves to talk about justice and peace.

Only this time, it’s the lawman who’s the hero, and it’s the preacher who's the one with blood in his eye, trampling truth and due process so he can get at his victim--and he doesn’t give a good goddamn about justice or peace.

Just What Is Lynch Law?
Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)

Lynch law \Lynch" law`\
The act or practice by private persons of inflicting
punishment for crimes or offenses,
without due process of

Note: The term Lynch law is said to be derived from a
Virginian named Lynch, who took the law into his own
hands. But the origin of the term is very doubtful.

But the victim doesn’t have to die to be a lynch victim. Just ask Clarence Thomas. Or Gillian Gibbons.

The ‘Noose Incident’ of 2007
Just around Halloween a few weeks back, in Mt. Pleasant where Central Michigan University is, a bored student in a science classroom picked up some 12-inch lengths of flexible hose used for compressed gas and tied them into nooses. He did it partly as a Halloween comment, partly to express that "I would rather be hung than do more work on this project", and partly just for something to do with his wandering attention. He hung the nooses, barely big enough to hang a cat, on a wall cabinet, where they didn’t bother anybody, nor draw any excitement, for about a week. He wasn’t intending a racial or any other kind of political statement. He likely learned his American history in American schools, which means he didn’t know much American history. He didn’t know anything about segregation or Jim Crow or strange fruit.

But he did know how to tie a hangman’s noose, God help him.

Then after a week a “male student” saw the nooses, (not identified in any reports as being African American), and he decided to report it to the CMU administrators. As far as anybody’s been able to tell, no black CMU students ever even saw the nooses, nor has any ever reported being threatened with them, by them, or by any suggestion that they existed to warn of an imminent lynching. No matter. It doesn’t take that much to get a University administrator to pee his pants. CMU police were ordered to investigate.

And just as CMU police were getting into asking questions, the preacher man in this story, the Rev. Charles Williams II, (who happens to be a young seminarian in the Rev. Al Sharpton’s Peace & Justice institute), was just being tipped off about a “noose incident” upstate.

Williams was already ambitious for his first big civil rights score. He was Sharpton’s Michigan presidential campaign manager in 2004, and currently leads the state chapter of Sharpton’s National Action Network. Williams had even gotten up his own shell civil rights action group, the National Council for Community Empowerment, so he’d be ready when his main chance came--his Tawana Brawley, his Duke “rape” case, his Jena 6.

Mt. Pleasant Gets Peace and Justice Like a River
And just like that Williams fell like a very fat avenging angel on Mt. Pleasant’s CMU campus, sticking his nose in, getting up impromptu rallies, threatening CMU officials with demonstrations, announcing that he’d already tattled to Sharpton, demanding federal intervention, and of course, leading concerned demonstrators in a call-and-response version of “No Justice, No Peace!” Williams never claimed he had any more facts than anyone else about what actually happened, but that didn’t stop him making baseless accusations, and asking for everyone else's rights to get trampled:

"This could have been a student group," Williams said.
He is hoping that CMU police will investigate student organizations on campus.

It was the urgency of Williams’s mission that made him so impatient with the slow process of fact-gathering; besides, he was past all that, anyway. He already knew exactly how everything had to be played. This is a hate crime, he said, and somebody’s gonna pay for a hate crime.[1]

Meanwhile, it appears that CMU just went about its business normally, in contradiction of one breathless report by a local journalist that the noose incident “sent shockwaves through the CMU campus.” (“Police Determining Whether Noose Incident Was Hate Crime”).

But Williams’s visitation was enough to scare the CMU police into boosting the reward they were offering from $500 to $5,000. A Michigan Senator from Detroit told the FBI they better get in on this, (so he could take credit in a press release). (“FBI Probes CMU nooses”). Then the feds promptly promised, before their investigation even started, that the bad guy was definitely going to face a federal rap. The Michigan Department of Civil Rights flew down to CMU to offer “crisis management.” Then Detroit’s NAACP made a press statement calling for tougher federal laws to “deal with displays of nooses.”). (“NAACP: Feds must toughen noose law”).

Enter the Hero
To hurry things up, Williams tried to intimidate the Isabella County Prosecutor, Larry Burdick, the man who would evaluate the evidence when the police were through investigating. Williams wrote Burdick, on his intimidating Council for Community Empowerment letterhead, trying to mau-mau him about the investigation going too slow, and demanding a meeting, or else, (I'm willing to bet), threatening him with a demonstration. Burdick ignored it. (When Williams later held a press conference denouncing Burdick for dragging his feet, the investigation was still only 14 days old). Why would Burdick need Williams? Burdick knew how to do his job, had confidence in the police investigators, and he knew Williams wasn’t interested in the truth anyway.

They speak of a legend in Isabella County that, right after the Duke lacrosse players case blew up in the corrupt Durham District Attorney’s face, Larry Burdick started going around with one of those little yellow wristbands inscribed with W.W.N.D.?, for What Would Nifong Do?--that way he'd always know to do just the opposite. In this case he knew that Williams was dying for him to go Nifong on this CMU thing--try the person in the press--skip the investigation--just throw the book at him. Burdick wasn’t going to let any of that happen.

'The Hanged Man'
Then, not even a week after the press ran just a few stories pushing around their few hard facts about the “noose incident” and misexplaining about “hate crimes,” a person claiming to be the one who tied the nooses wrote to a campus web site, and wanting to explain why he did it, (because it was Halloween, because he was goofing off, but there was no hatred involved). He also expressed no small amount of disgust at all the fuss.

He even said he was about ready to go to the police to calm everybody down, but he didn’t know if it would make things worse. In fact, he did go to the police next day, (for me, this lends credence to the anonymous web posting being authentic). The web post was presciently signed "--The Hanged Man." The next day he gave the CMU police a statement, and apparently left after without being detained. No report anywhere ever actually stated that he was either arrested, nor charged with any crime.

That is, unless you get your news from newspaper and TV, in which case he was a “suspect” who alternatively “surrendered” to police or was “arrested,” and gave them a “confession”, the error claiming there'd been arrest being especially inexcusable. Interestingly, aside from the fact that he was a “male CMU student,” the person’s identity has so far never been divulged to the public. Nor was his race, age, nor any ethnic identifiers at all. (This was the oddity that drew our attention to this strange case in the first place).

'He'll Be Given a Fair Trial, Then We'll Hang Him'
When he heard there was a student who admitted tying the nooses to police, Rev. Williams II searched his capacious and light-filled soul and could discern no reason at all why there should be any more delay in charging the student with a serious crime and throwing him in jail.

To get things moving, Williams held a stunt press conference in front of the courthouse where Burdick’s office was, and demanded again that Burdick speed up the investigation. Burdick did meet with Williams that day, but, as Williams himself said afterwards, “The meeting didn't go so good.”

His main complaint about that meeting was that Burdick wouldn’t agree with him that the investigation was taking too long: Burdick even told Williams he was going to wait until he had all the evidence before he made any decisions about prosecution! Burdick told Williams, and the press, that he had full confidence in the investigators.

“I have every expectation that it’s a thorough investigation,” Burdick said. Then he promised: “I’m not going to pre-judge a case before I even get the report.”

Williams’s blood pressure was going up and up. Imagine: If Larry Nifong had taken that sorry-assed attitude, where would civil rights be now?

So Williams issued another press release condemning Burdick’s slowness, and of course threatened more rallies.

“My main concern is that there has been no arraignment, no charge, and no movement on this issue,” Williams said.

“Nothing but an investigation has been done,” he said.

Of course! Who ever heard about investigating a crime before charging someone with a crime? Besides, there's been enough investigation:

“Williams said that the authorities have a confession and something needs to be done now.

“He must prosecute now,” Williams said. “Authorities have the confession.”

Man, this guy's in a hurry. He must really believe Al Gore.

Besides, authorities haven’t exactly said the student's explanation was a “confession.” They have a statement, voluntarily offered. We don’t know if it’s a confession yet, because we don’t know if there’s any crime. It’s hard to confess to police about something, no matter how goofy it is, if it isn’t a crime.

This is exactly Burdick’s sticking point.

Ah, but as far as Williams is concerned, it has to be a crime. It just has to be.

Why? Because who ever managed to create a national reputation as a civil-rights champion just holding mass rallies to condemn pranks? (We mean besides Reverend Al Sharpton, of course, and the Lord only made one of him).

So don’t even try talking to Williams about reports that the incident was only a Halloween joke. Rev. Charles Williams II isn’t “buying that.”

“That's not going to fly,” he said.

“This is not just a prank…This is serious and the Isabella County office needs to prosecute to the fullest extent, or we will be calling for a national protest,” Williams said.

This Is Serious?
In spite of what is being repeated in the newspapers, (the worst by far I’ve turned up being Paul Egan’s November 20 article in the Detroit News, ("NAACP: Feds must toughen noose law"), the mere act of “hanging a noose” is still not, per se, a crime under state or federal law. (Still not, that is, so far). While we're on the subject, the Stars and Stripes still fly over the Capitol. (So far).

Under Michigan law, an ethnic intimidation charge requires that a person maliciously, and with specific intent to intimidate or harass another person because of that person's race, color, religion, gender, or national origin, causes physical contact with another person, damages, destroys, or defaces any real or personal property of another person, or threatens to do so.

You can see how that another person technicalities bungs everything up, and also the part about having to show malice and intent.

A federal charge also would require proof that a defendant willfully injured, intimidated, or interfered with any person, or attempted to so by force of threat of force, because of that person’s race.

So federal law gives you the same problems with intent, and there's that need to show force or threat against an actual person. (Here are the sources: THE MICHIGAN PENAL CODE (EXCERPT) Act 328 of 1931, and DOJ summary of applicable federal laws).

The trouble is, none of the evidence that’s surfaced so far in the CMU story shows there was any intent by the student to harass or intimidate anyone, nor did his noose-tying entail any physical contact with another person, nor any threat to another person. And while we all know some angry people are always going to be willing to speculate about other people's bad motives, (and thus at least infer a bad intent when there may be none), there is still no making up for the lack of a victim of the gas-hose nooses.

And yes, there will be persons, angered by the nooses, (persons who never encountered the terrible nooses themselves except to hear rumors of them), who will claim regardless that the mere symbolism of the noose makes them victims. This perverse logic wins every time in public rallies and women's studies classes where the only standard of evidence is who can shout loudest. But fortunately, American law has not fallen so low as to recognize vicarious victimhood as a standard to hold innocent persons criminally liable. Our criminal prosecutions still require actual victims. (So far).

Which means this case is getting less promising by the day, that is, if you had your heart set on seeing a prank treated as a hate crime, and a student treated like a convict.

Last Chance Before the Facts Take Over
Now time's running out for Williams to salvage any of this fading race-hustling opportunity at CMU.

This Tuesday, Williams’s Council for Community Empowerment (bolstered by some Benton Harbor pastors and activists clear from the other side of the state), announced a “national rally” for this Friday in Mt. Pleasant, to show their “concern” about “an unresponsive prosecutor.” ("Benton Harbor Activists Plan to Protest Over CMU Noose Hanging").

But there's one sentence in the Council's own press release that indicates, probably by accident, just how much these concerned pastors and civic leaders already realize what the truth of the matter really is:

the council said a November 26 meeting with two CMU students at the prosecutor's office left them with a concern that the case may be viewed as a prank and may not be pursued as a racial incident.

Since the two CMU students aren’t the ones who are going to make any charging decisions, what this statement tells me is that the accounts of the two students, probably witnesses with personal knowledge, lend support to a conclusion by the prosecutor's office that the noose incident really was just a prank, and not a “racial incident.” And that kind of news, if you're in the professional racial justice business, (which means you are "troubled by," "concerned by," and naturally deplore ALL racial incidents), is one helluva letdown.

And yet, if there’s one thing Al Sharpton teaches you about peace and justice, it's that there's no reason why even a harmless prank, with skill, effort, and public prayer, can't be turned into a racial incident!

On the very same day as the Council's press relase, Burdick announced that he’s reviewed a 66-page report from the police investigators. ("More investigation sought in noose case"). He said after reading it, he turned around and “asked police for additional investigation,” specifically seeking facts “to determine if the elements of ethnic intimidation can be met.” All of which strongly suggest his 66-page report still hasn't shown him those basic elements, yet. (Prediction: he will never find the elements to bring a charge).

Burdick then carefully laid out precisely, for the 1% of the audience who cared about it, the legal burden he must meet before making a determination whether or not to file charges of ethnic intimidation. He said:

“That determination will be based upon the law, as applied to the facts presented. We are now engaged in the process that will facilitate that goal. We will do so as quickly, fairly and as thoroughly as possible.”

Burdick couldn’t speak any plainer that his determination is not going to be based on popular notions about hate crimes, threats of adverse publicity, or grandstanding scare tactics by the likes of the Reverend Charles Williams II. And in all likelihood, (especially in view of the two CMU students who persuaded the justice and peace councillors that the noose was just a prank), his remarks are a forewarning that the expected determination, when it is made, is more than likely going to clear this CMU student of any criminal blame.

Burdick says now that he understands that the noose led to understandable fear and outrage, but “It has provided a lesson that some know too well and others not at all, as to what a hanging noose could mean.”

Though that sounds as if it’s meant to scold the CMU student for his lack of racial sensitivity, I think it’s a backhanded knock at Williams and his fellow hustlers; you see, they also have no idea “at all what a hanging noose could mean,” because they’re so invested in the idea that every noose everywhere must mean an imminent threat of lynching, murder, and racial violence. They've got so much invested they will never admit that sometimes a noose could mean not a damned thing at all, could be just a prank, or a goof-off, with no harmful intent behind it anywhere. (Then again, how can they afford to admit it? Just look at the statistics on noose incidents. They try to make it sound like an epidemic, but really there aren’t enough noose incidents to go around--not if all of tomorrows aspiring Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons are going to have enough action to make it in the civil-rights racket. They've got to make every noose incident count.)

Lots of people know how to tie that hangman’s knot. Sailors tie them. Fishermen tie them. Rock climbers tie them. Even heterosexual scout leaders tie them. And in an idle moment anyone who has learned to tie a certain knot may just find himself absently tying one for practice, or for something to do with his hands, or for the challenge of trying it on a new material--like toilet paper or flexible hose. Should they then hang them to be found and turned over to excitable authorities? I have to say no to that one. Still I have to think if a guy’s truly planning to hang someone he’s going to stick to good old rope. And he won’t leave his nooses behind in the science lab with nobody's neck in them, or where all his labmates can see them.

Which is just my way of saying, (though the mountains may tumble and the skies fall), that sometimes a noose is just a noose.

In which case, people need to shut up and quit screaming that just the report of a noose somewhere turns on some Wayback machine that throws the whole nation back to 1912 Mississippi. As I mentioned before, we had a real-live lynching going on in Khartoum, and none of these concerned preachers had a word to say against it.

Can’t Wait Till the Facts Come Out
Now, I don’t pretend to have all the facts on this CMU thing, either: I’m at the mercy of the media (mercy!), and I’m too lazy to send a FOIA.

It may turn out in the end that this CMU student really is a closet racist: maybe police searches of his dorm room have turned up unwashed bedsheets with eye-holes cut in them, a bullwhip braided from varsity pennants, and proof of a conspiracy of midnight riders pledged to burn, hang, and terrorize minority students at CMU until the school adopts segregated restrooms and a ban on interracial dating.

But I find this unlikely. And not only because none of the evidence that’s surfaced supports that, but because recent historical trends suggest that attempted lynchings of blacks are a statistical anomaly almost reduced to zero, especially in Michigan[2].

But what’s not unlikely, and what's also based on the evidence and recent historical trends, is that self-styled civil-rights demagogues are willing to force prosecutions of innocent people for crimes that never took place, on behalf of victims who were never harmed or who don’t even exist, all in order to boost their own lucrative careers as race hustlers.

How Is This a Lynching?
Reverend Charles Williams II is prepared to destroy this man’s life with a criminal conviction, and a possible jail term, regardless of whether the facts show him guilty of any “hate crimes.” His methods demonstrate his utter contempt for due process, for the rule of law, for the facts, and for justice. All he’s got is blood in his eye.

In fact, Williams is working overtime to make sure this student is charged, prosecuted, and especially punished, when he has probably known all along there was never any criminal intention here.

I'm not making fun of murder by hanging. The noose can be a powerful symbol of the terrifying crime of lynching. But the noose isn’t the only symbol of lynching. There’s also the symbol of the angry unthinking mob, whipped up by some usually self-appointed rabblerouser who yelps impatiently that while everybody's “wasting time with all this legal mumbo-jumbo" the criminal goes unpunished, which is why people need to "take action now!” Sound familiar at all? Maybe that's one difference between real justice and a lynching. Real justice is never in a hurry, while you can't get a lynching done fast enough.

And this business at CMU is a lynching.

And the whole thing screams “no justice.”

[1] Williams had other reasons to be in a hurry. There were other “noose incidents” being reported around the country that he was too far away to exploit. In October there was an incident at Columbia University where a noose was tied to the door of a black professor’s office, for which a rival professor was unjustly blamed in the rush to lynch a suspect.

Then just before the CMU “crisis” in November there was a curious one at North Carolina State University where someone in a maintenance shop where students never set foot had hung a ten-inch noose, made out of toilet paper, in a rest room stall--and the North Carolina NAACP was already in full threat mode. When the NCSU administration sent out an email in response to that incident, student activists declared it lacked sufficient “strong emotion”; so protesters started demanding action first, talking and investigation later--or not at all. Sample student reactions were not promising that the demonstrations were not going to become hysterical circuses. "It's the embodiment of intimidation," senior Jaron Hinton said of the noose. "It should have gotten as much media coverage as the lacrosse incident." ("Noose angers students').

Candace Lee, the campus NAACP organizer at NCSU who threw together a "discussion" event with the guess-how-this-turns-out title of “Let's Talk About It -- Jena 6 Part II, It's Time to Act,” said “the administration needs to prosecute whoever made the noose, no matter who it is or what their ethnicity,”; and Lee had absolutely no patience for any stupid details about the lack of a victim--or for that matter--the actual levity of the underlying offense:

The materials used to make the noose were less important than its possible message, Lee said.
"It doesn't matter if it's tissue or a rope, if it's a noose," she said. "African Americans should be angrier," Lee said.

Another student protester, probably not a physics major, proposed this realistic civil-rights goal for his fellow activists:

"We need to keep someone from hanging from the other end of that noose."

[2] One source says Michigan’s last lynching/homicide was in 1893, and the victim was white. A more famous case of an attempted lynching is that of Dr. Ossian Sweet, a black man and prosperous physician, who moved his family into an all-white Detroit neighborhood in 1925, only to have a mob attack his house with stones, and scaring Dr. Sweet that he and his family would perish in a firebombing. Both he and his brother Henry ended up being tried for murder after Henry shot a white man in the mob to death while defending Sweet’s house. Sweet and his brother were acquitted.

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