An open letter to Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham, president of the Baltimore NAACP chapter:
Dear Mr. Cheatham:
This letter is in response to the e-mail you sent to Baltimore news media outlets Nov. 16. You chided us for not covering the march on the U.S. Department of Justice that same day. Several civil rights groups -- including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- and many individuals marched to protest what they perceive as the disparate treatment of black Americans in the nation's criminal justice system.
In your e-mail, you wrote, "We would like to express our displeasure with many of the Baltimore City Electronic and Print media in the limited coverage given the March on the U.S. Department of Justice today, Friday, Nov. 16, 2007. Shame on most, if not all, of you.
"We would appreciate hearing from each of you regarding the coverage you gave this event that we alerted you to more than two weeks ago. Your lack of significant coverage is unacceptable especially when one compares the extensive coverage given to negative things that happen in our community."
You wanted an answer, Mr. Cheatham, so I'll give you one. In fact, I'll give you several. I'll start with that "alert" you gave to the news media. That "alert" was part of the problem. If you're wondering why few news outlets bothered to cover the march, you might want to start there.
It began with bold letters at the top: "NAACP Declares 'State of Emergency.'" Then whoever wrote the news release ratcheted up the hyperbole.
"The increase in reports of violence and overly aggressive prosecution against African American youth by law enforcement officials symbolized by the boot camp beating death of Martin Lee Anderson, the assault on Selwanda Riley by a police officer and countless other recent dehumanizing attacks has led the NAACP to declare a 'State of Emergency' that requires immediate action by local and state authorities as well as the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Congress."
Then the news release quoted Dennis Courtland Hayes, the NAACP's interim president and chief executive officer, as saying "The NAACP denounces overly aggressive handling of black youth by law enforcement entities, a blatant disregard toward investigating hate crimes and racially discriminatory utilization of prosecutorial discretion. We demand that the American criminal justice system live up to its Constitutional obligations to serve and protect all Americans with dignity and fairness irrespective of race, ethnicity, gender, religious faith and other differences. Violence and intimidation of our young people is not acceptable, is against the law and must end now."
Ah, such noble language! Quite a pity that it reeks of hypocrisy. So Hayes "demands" that the "American criminal justice system" serve and protect "all Americans" regardless of race, does he? Did he make a similar comment when Mike Nifong, the district attorney in Durham, N.C., tried to railroad three white Duke University lacrosse players on bogus charges that they had raped a black woman?
Later on, the news release says that "for a year now the NAACP has been engaged in activities seeking fairness for the Jena 6, six teens who have faced overly aggressive prosecution and extended incarceration for fighting with a white classmate."
Fairness for Justin Barker, the "white classmate" in question, should have forced someone in the offices of the NAACP to acknowledge that this fight was more like what we Baltimoreans call "getting banked" -- punched, kicked and stomped to the ground by two or more people. But playing with the facts has been common in this case.
Supporters of the Jena 6 claim that Barker was beaten after nooses were hung from a "whites only" tree. We never heard that the claim of a "whites only" tree on the grounds of Jena High School has been disputed. Nor did we hear of Mychal Bell's previous convictions for assault. Bell is one of the Jena 6.
Including Riley on the list of victims of white injustice is also problematic. She's 15, was out after curfew and bit a Florida police officer who punched her once and sprayed her with Mace her after asking her 17 times to put her hands behind her back.
Even the inclusion of Anderson, who died in a Florida boot camp, and statistics about racial disparities in the juvenile criminal justice system aren't conclusive. Was a racial motive proved in Anderson's death? Don't some of these disparities exist in cities and counties where blacks are well-represented in all three branches of government?
That's not a "state of emergency," Mr. Cheatham. That's what we call a conundrum.