Silver Rights

News, thoughts and comments on civil rights and related issues.

Thursday, August 26, 2004  


News: Policeman who killed unarmed man resigns

Sometimes the best thing a person can do in regard to a job is quit it. Yes, I said 'quit,' not 'get.' If someone is not suitable for a position, he should recognize he isn't. If his unfitness might cause harm to other people, he should act on that knowledge as soon as possible. A Portland cop implicated in the shooting of an unarmed motorist has done just that. He says the shooting, and community anger at him, did not influence his decision. The Oregonian reported his resignation yesterday.

Jason Sery, the Portland police officer who shot and killed an unarmed man five months ago in North Portland, has resigned from the Police Bureau, saying his decision has nothing to do with a pending internal investigation into the shooting.

Sery, 29, the focus of angry protests and an unusual public inquest into the March 28 shooting of James Jahar Perez, submitted a letter dated Monday to Chief Derrick Foxworth. He said he planned to become a minister and a teacher at his Beaverton church.

"I want to stress that my resignation has nothing to do with the events of this year," Sery wrote. "Rather, I am resigning because I feel that I cannot pass up the opportunity to grow in my faith and take part in this ministry."

Sery was the second white police officer to shoot a black motorist in Portland, Oregon, in a matter of months. The situation was described at Mac-a-ro-nies.

In Portland, we recently had the second shooting of an unarmed African-American in just 10 months. For the record, the black population of Oregon is about two percent. Less than 4,000 black men between 15 and 29 reside in the region. (And, nearly all African-Americans in Oregon live in Portland, Salem or Eugene.) Yet, despite the tiny population of African-Americans, police stops and arrests of persons of color are extremely common. There are good grounds for attacking racial profiling here.

. . .The latest victim of a police shooting is a man with an impressive record of felony convictions and drug use. James Jahar Perez , 28, had nearly toxic levels of cocaine in his system and baggies of the substance stuffed in his mouth and pockets when shot by the police -- 24 seconds after he was told to get out of his car. Since the shooting occurred eight days ago, the city's minority citizens have expressed both outrage and fear.

There is a good fact-based argument to be made that this shooting should not have occurred. There doesn't seem to have been probable cause to stop Perez. Less than 30 seconds is not very long to give a driver to get out of his car. The two policemen Tasered him for three minutes after shooting him. The manufacturers of the Taser say they have never heard of anyone using a Taser that long. (The blast is supposed to last a few seconds.) The cop who fired the shots has a record of pulling his weapon on unarmed people. His psychological profile says he was borderline mentally for being hired as a policeman.

Sery says that he is leaving the police force to become a minister. I am not sure what to make of that. I've known people who have used religion as a foundation for compassion and caring for others. But, I've also known people who use religion as a confirmation of their own self-righteousness. Not only do they approve of whatever they do, they believe God does, too. Though, predictably, Sery was not held accountable for killing Perez, the circumstances of the shooting are enough to give a reasonable person pause. Sery's record of pulling and pointing his weapon at unarmed people confirms one's doubts. I believe metropolitan Portland will be a safer place with Jason Sery wearing vestments instead of carrying a gun.

posted by J. | 9:00 PM

Tuesday, August 24, 2004  

Commentary: Understanding reparations for slavery

Someone recently posted an entry lambasting the idea of reparations for slavery, and, claiming African-Americans benefitted from one of the most monstrous acts in history, to a large blog. He stopped short of calling for the re-enslavement of African-Americans, but that would be the outcome if one took his beliefs seriously. Why end a good thing? Since the entry was posted to a Right Wing blog, Blogcritics, the perpetrator has supporters. The site's owner, Eric Olsen, refused to take issue with the overtly racist nature of the entry. Nothing new there. After all, this is the blogosphere.

So, why am I mentioning the racist propaganda of an ingrate? The entry reminded me that though there is intelligent, thoughtful information available about the idea of reparations to the descendants of slaves available, it does not get read often enough. Instead, the kind of nonsense in that entry is what most people know about the idea. The best article I've located online about reparations was published by Harper's Magazine in November of 2000. The periodical hosted a symposium on the topic, inviting legal experts Jack Hitt, Dennis C. Sweet III, Alexander Pires, Jr., and Willie E. Gary.

Does America owe a debt to the descendants of its slaves?

Hardly a week goes by that we don't read of another gigantic lawsuit with thousands of plaintiffs and billions in damages. Once an esoteric legal device, the class-action lawsuit has become the dominant form of litigation to resolve bitter disputes over collective guilt and innocence that not so long ago played out in Congress. Indeed, our preening national legislature, besotted with special-interest money, seems rivaled by the big budgets and major issues that now thrive in the class-action courtroom.

At the same time, one hears rumblings among historians and philosophers to consider a lawsuit for slave reparations. After all, class-action lawyers have ridden to the rescue of those forced into slave labor in Germany and prostitution in Korea. The academics discuss such a slavery suit in moral, historical, or metaphysical terms. That's nice. But in this, the land of show-me-the-money, the thinking quickly becomes practical: Who gets sued? For how much? What's the legal argument? How do you get a case into court?

To answer these questions, Harper's Magazine invited four of the country's most successful class-action lawyers to strategize about how to bring America's most peculiar sorrow into a court of law.

The article frames the issues well and explains how such a lawsuit would be planned and carried out. The discussion also dispenses with some of the misrepresentations made about reparations for slavery.

•Why should there be reparations? Because the damage from slavery is ongoing, despite its end in 1865.

•What would be the cause of action? Tort and breach of contract.

GARY: Specifically, it could be a breach-of-contract suit, too. After the war, former slaves were promised forty acres and a mule, and we never got it. That was a contract. It was a promise. We just have to stand up and tackle this wrong or try to make it right. So it could be a tort, it could be a breach of contract. You almost have to start a lawsuit to see where it can go. And I don't think that the fact that it's 135 years later should be a hindrance to people waking up, realizing that it was a grave injustice. And until America accounts for its actions, this friction is always going to be there.

•Who would be the defendants? The government and private companies who benefitted from slavery.

•What time frame would be considered? From slavery to the present.

PIRES: Since we've agreed that our case would extend beyond the end of slavery, it seems to me that the issue of plaintiffs would be best dealt with if you think of the suit as falling into three time brackets. There's slavery up until 1865. Then you have government-approved segregation for, what, seventy or eighty years? And then we have this kind of fuzzy land we lived in until the 1960s, and I don't even know what you call that.

SWEET: Denial.

•What would the remedy be? Programs that focus directly on correcting conditions, such as poor health care and education for African-Americans, that are vestiges of slavery.

SCRUGGS: Right. In other words, we would argue that what they were supposed to do was not a discretionary function of government. You must do it. The Constitution says, "You must." You don't have any discretion, you must do it. That's where I think the remedy lies. Because you force the Congress of the United States to pass laws -- whether monetary funding for programs or the creation of programs -- that pass the courts' scrutiny. Just like southern states were forced to do thirty years ago.

Quoting this article is really insufficent. I urge you to read it in its entirety. If you have been under the impression there are no reasonable arguments for reparations for slavery, you are in for a surprise.

Personally, I don't believe that any reasonable person truly aware of the history of race relations in America would question the justice of reparations to African-Americans. The barriers to reparations are political, not ethical.

What's the art?

A slave being whipped. Stewart White, the person who's blog entry generated this response, would have us believe such acts, the gist of slavery, were beneficial to African-Americans.

Reasonably related

There is a second article about reparations that I also found very informative when I read it years ago. It appeared in The Atlantic Monthly on October 28, 1998. Atlantic Online is now available only to members. However, you may be able to access the article through Magazines Online or other data bases. They are free if used through your public library membership.

posted by J. | 7:00 PM

Monday, August 23, 2004  

Soul man/rock star: Rick James is not the only one

Yes, we expect, um, excesses, from rock stars. But, do those excesses -- in drug use, sexually profligacy and financial fumbling -- define rock starism? Cultural critic Mark Anthony Neal thinks so. He believes that such behaviors made the recently deceased Rick James a rock star.

James was a Rock Star — he lived every bit of the excesses that have come to define that experience. There has always been this myth of the Rock Star and indeed figures like Jerry Lee Lewis, David Crosby, Steven Tyler, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, and even Janice (sic) Joplin lived up to everything the myth suggested — sex, drugs, hedonism, 13-year-old girls (in the case of Lewis) and even jelly doughnuts.

Jelly doughnuts?

I must disagree with Neal for two reasons. First, I believe that production of work that attracts the attention of a mass audience is the major criterion for any kind of stardom. A musician who plays the blues derived music that can be described as rock-and-roll, lays adolescents, is in trouble with I.R.S., and eats jelly doughnuts three times a day is not a rock star unless he has attracted that kind of attention. Rick James (pictured) was a a rock star because he produced rock and roll and attracted the attention of a mass audience -- mainly because of his music, but also because of his outrageous life style.

Neal provides his unacceptable definition of rock stardom while making another blunder. He believes that the soul man is a different type than the rock star.

The equally compelling myth of the Soul Man, has always suggested something much darker — something deeply connected to the spiritual and existential realities of the "people" with whom the songs of the Soul Man resonated most powerfully. Johnny Ace, Sam Cooke, Frankie Lymon, Otis Redding, Shorty Long, Billy Stewart, Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye, Ronnie Dyson, Walter Jackson, Donny Hathaway, David Ruffin, Barry White -- Wilson Pickett, Teddy Pendergrass, Al Green, Luther Vandross, Aaron Hall, R. Kelly (ya'll don't hear me now!) and even the mythical Eddie Cain, Jr. Complicated men, whose demons brought them in touch with the darkest aspects of our humanity and whose voices sang of the promise of transcendence — how Donny Hathaway put it? "Ya'll don't know what I'm talking about!" Rick James was arguably one of the few artists -- if not the only of his generation -- who embodied the myth of the Rock Star and the Soul Man.

Not so. Probe a soul man and, if he has the requisite popularity, you will find a rock star. Marvin Gaye did himself proud in exactly the vices Neal ascribes to rock stars -- sex, drugs and irresponsibility. So did Teddy Pendergrass, and the effects might have been the same as for Gaye if disability had not forced him to curb his appetites. R. Kelly, no longer indicted, but still morally reprehensible, has outpaced even Jerry Lee Lewis when it comes to sexually exploiting teenage girls. His pathetic excuse making would lead Elvis Presley to blush.

Neal has unwittingly fallen into the trap of assigning entertainers to categories based on race. He doesn't see the overlap between soul man and rock star because he thinks of the former as black and the latter as white. That shouldn't be the focus. The behaviors involved should be. And, when one examines the shameful behaviors of soul men and rock stars, it turns out that they are the same. The mistakes Neal made are related to what scholars in group studies do. They seek to examine the lives of the previously marginalized -- nonwhites, women and homosexuals. But, as occurs in Neal's essay, they sometimes fail to see the forest for the trees.

posted by J. | 1:10 PM