Monday, November 29, 2010

From Scottsboro to Gitmo: Owning Up to America's Lynch Mob Mentality

In honor of the 4-day weekend with friends and family, my friends and I decided to treat ourselves to a Broadway show in Times Square.  We saw the Scottsboro Boys, named after the infamous and tragic true-life story of the 9 young Black men wrongly accused of raping 2 White women in the deep South in the 1930's.  The national public outcry was heard from coast to coast; it was like the Jena-6 of its day.  (for more details go here and here)  It would be the understatement of the century to say that none of the young men received a fair trial (or rather, trials, plural) in Alabama where they received the Death Penalty by an all-White jury for the alleged rapes of the White women (not to downplay the seriousness of rape but it typically does not warrant the Death Penalty).  Even after one of the two White women later recanted her story on the witness stand and admitted that the charges were false, the men were still re-convicted of rape and given the life sentences again on their retrial.  I was familiar with the story of the Scottsboro boys before I went to see the Broadway show, but while hearing it again this weekend something stood out to me when the local Alabama Sheriff, after debating whether or not to have a trial, finally said to his deputy "well before we hang 'em we should probably have a trial first."  I found this interesting because, since 9/11, we've been hearing the same argument in modern form as to whether or not terrorists deserve to have a trial. America seems to struggle historically with the inconvenience of following its own rules whenever somebody does something that we find to be repugnant.  As a nation, we'd like to think that we've progressed beyond the days of lynch mobs, but even in 2010 we're still having national debates about whether or not people who have allegedly wronged us deserve a trial in our courts.  In other words, America has not shed its lynch mob mentality.

When I was fresh out of law school I had the extremely fortunate opportunity to work on a pro-bono death penalty case in Alabama where a young Black man was accused of murdering a White convenience store clerk.  When I went to visit the young brother on death row and talked to him about the legal defense (or lack thereof) that he received during his trial from the White southern lawyer assigned to his case, it became obvious that his conviction was not based on the facts (which were suspect at best) but rather it was based on the lynch mob mentality.  The lynch mob mentality rewards passion over reason, fear over facts, ignorance over understanding and punishment over actual justice.  It ruins lives, lowers our credibility around the world and shreds our Constitution.  And all while providing the illusion of safety.

Although lynch mobs have historically been associated with White people, one of the most interesting developments in this post-9/11 world is that ALL races, including Black people, willingly share in the lynch mob mentality when it comes to terrorism.  During my turkey day festivities, my New York friends and I engaged in some rather interesting Thanksgiving dialogue with our visiting mid-western relatives.  Although everybody in the room was Black, there was a clear divide between our relatives, who were very much pro-torture, and those of us on the east coast who denounced it.  One of them even said flat out "I'm a Christian so I personally wouldn't torture the terrorists, but I'm ok with the government doing it if it will keep us safe."  When this was said, the mid-westerners in the room began to nod their heads collectively in agreement while the rest of us "Yankees" couldn't believe our ears.  How could Black folk, of all people, think it is ok for the government to shred the Constitution and lock people up indefinitely whenever the lynch mob feels like it?  Did Scottsboro teach us nothing?

Fear is a powerful motivating factor.  500 years ago people used to literally go on witch hunts and burn people at the stake who they actually feared could cast magic spells.  About 250 years ago European "settlers" began the extermination of the Native Americans who they feared to be savages.  Less than 100 years ago lynch mobs strung people like the Scottsboro boys up from trees who they feared would take their women.  About 50 years ago so-called national leaders conducted a public witch hunt because they feared communists had infiltrated Congress.  Less than 10 years ago we invaded two countries and created the Gitmo prison to lock up those we feared were terrorists.  2 years ago millions of Americans cast ballots for the other guy because they feared that the Democratic candidate was a Kenyan-born Muslim.  Imagine what we will fear tomorrow.

So there's certainly nothing new about the fear that drives the lynch mob mentality in America.  It's been with this country before the Scottsboro boys were born and I'm sure it will undoubtedly remain long after Gitmo is finally closed.  However, if this country is going to be around for it's 300th birthday we have got to learn to overcome our fears and stick to the rule of law, no matter how inconvenient it is or how fearful we may be for our safety.  Benjamin Franklin once wrote: "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."  He was right.
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