We Stand On The Edge Of The World And Dance

Geoffrey And Carmen Our Legaci

Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade – Library of Congress – Carl Van Vechten Collection – Photo Enhancement by OurLegaci

While riding the tides of turmoil, Black identity can seem overwhelming. We are cloaked in a wondrous mystic that the world both consumes and rejects. Yet, still a dancing spirit overrides hopelessness. The inner joy of elder generations that proclaimed, “The world didn’t give it, the world can’t take it away,” resounds more than ever.

I’ve felt this throughout my childhood.

During summer break, my mother made me read books to keep my mind sharp. History books and short stories were among my favorites. There was one book in particular called, Eyewitness Negro History. My eyes widened as I read about revolts, the Great Migration and anything Zora wrote.

Church also played a crucial role in crafting the vividness of black identity.

Before church service, the elders would sing old negro spirituals, the kind you don’t hear anymore. The really old ones. Though I hated going to church so early, I secretly loved this part. “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder”, “He’s A Lily In The Valley”, “You Don’t Know What The Lawd Tole’ Me”, “Come On In the Room” and “I Know I’ve Been Changed.”

On some songs, before every verse an elder sings the first few lines and then everyone joins in. You won’t find this on television. It isn’t for entertainment or show, it was just what we did.

Even then, I saw that we danced on the edge of the world.

I loved it all. It made me feel eternal. Connected. It was history. It was spirit. It was us. It was Blackness. There was no “proper” talk or no code switching.

“Jesus is my docta’ and he writes out alla my ‘scriptions.”

“The angels in heaven done signed my name.”

I was listening to a lively spiritual people.

Yet, this inner force was more than religion.

It was jazz, funk, soul, theater, poetry, story, dance and all the moving energies.

It was all the stories I read, watching them play out in my generation. It was Zora singing again. It was Carmen and Geoffrey. It was Maya’s Still I Rise.

It was everyone in the Gypsy Song performance.

It was my father’s Uncle Trouble.

It was the fact that people still cooked rabbit, coon and corn puddin. And it was Mother Burrell showing me how to do the  Suzie Q, they way she did it in Harlem.

It was the defiance of erasure, the boldness to live fiercely and joyously in spite of being marginalized and appropriated.

It was Langston‘s words :

They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,"
Then.

It was us still building for tomorrow. But until then, we stand on the edge of the world and dance.

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IMG_0054-ZF-7906-35913-1-001-006Jessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com. Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.

Follow OurLegaci at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.

 

 

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Ferguson Police Are Following These Guidelines

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The following guidelines are for police officers, neighborhood watchmen and anyone else that was “frightened” by an unarmed Black person. They’ve been utilized successfully throughout the Jim Crow era and are heavily based on 18th century Slave Codes. Yet even in 2014, these guidelines are as ripe as ever. During the Ferguson police press conference held on August 15th, 2014, they let the public “know” that they are carefully following these guidelines step by step.

1. Act Like It Didn’t Happen

Best case scenario is if the person killed was a prisoner, had a criminal past, was homeless or a sex worker. Generally society has marginalized these sets of people so much that their humanity and human rights are often overlooked.  In that case, someone is less likely to champion for them, come looking for them or report them missing. This is the easiest type of crime to push under the rug.

If they officer that killed the person is also Black, this makes it even easier. Then the public can’t blame racism.

2. Hide The Facts

If there are any key facts that can point to your wrongdoing, hide or destroy them before the media or an outside department gets wind of it. Remember that the evidence is in your control. Sometimes people catch feelings, so fire or publicly discredit any possible whistleblowers. Dig up dirt on them to make their words less credible.

3. Be Slow To Make An Arrest

No matter if the killing took place in broad day light or how many people saw it, don’t make an immediate arrest. It didn’t happen until you said it happened. You are the one to determine whether an actual crime took place. Take as much time as you need. Don’t worry about public push back. Let them eat cake! In due time you will make your decision on how to handle this. Don’t provide any information to the public while you’re getting your story together/or creating one.

4. Demand that the public believe you over their lying eyes.

What? That’s not a chokehold, that’s the police officer giving the Heimlich maneuver to a helpless man.
 
What? That’s not a long distance shot, that’s a close range shot.
 
What? That’s not a gun, that’s a taser. At least, we thought it was a taser.
 

No matter what the video shows, don’t allow the public to believe their own eyes.

5. Create an optical illusion.

Is it a bird, a plane? The public has a short memory. Work off of that, use this knowledge to your advantage. If you have any footage or videos potentially showing the person in perceived devious acts, send it to every news media outlet imaginable. Even the blogs. Make sure that every Tom, Dick and Harry knows that one time, the person smoked weed or gave “the finger.” They were bad, very bad and had to be stopped before they became a greater nuisance to society.

6. Criminalize, Criminalize, Criminalize

Can you link the person to a crime? Can you dig up something from their past? Did they ever attend a juvenile detention center? Did they have alcohol or marijuana in their system? If any of these things applies, use it as your greatest asset. This will prove to some members of the public that the person was not worthy of life.  If you can’t find anything, make something up. Try to make it sound as believable as possible. Say the person was a suspect to a recent crime.

Do this even if the “alleged” crime is as simple as selling cigarettes on the side walk or stealing a box of Swisher Sweets. In the legendary words of Tim Gunn, “Make it work!”

7. Push For No Blacks On The Jury Or No Jury At All

If the case actually goes to trial, there can absolutely be no Black people on the jury. None. Push for them to all be excused for some sort of inherent bias. If even one Black person is on the jury, consider the case over. They fight amongst each other a lot, but they tend to run a tight ship when things get rough. Also push for no jury, if applicable. In that case your local friendly judge can let you go home.


8. Glorious Freedom – Rinse & Repeat 

If you’ve managed to make it through the obstacle course of so called “accountability” you’re free to go back on the streets to protect and serve. This also goes for self appointed neighborhood watchmen and anyone else that has taken an issue with Black people just living their lives.

Writer’s Note: Everyone of these instances continues to happen. The police departments are meant to protect and serve. There are many police officers across the country that are working with their local communities but there are others that are terrorizing their local communities.  There needs be a change, bottom up, top down and every way imaginable. At the same time I recognize that many people say they hate the police, until they need them. Whenever we feel like our lives are in danger we reach for the phone to call the police. But we need stability, trust and respect. Communities can not be protected without mutual respect. Crimes can not be solved and lives can not be saved if police don’t listen to the local community. But the question remains, “Do the police and government care about Black lives as much as others?” History has shown us the answer to that question time and time again. 

 

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IMG_0054-ZF-7906-35913-1-001-006Jessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com. Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.

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Riots Are The Language Of The Unheard: If You Don’t Want Riots Listen

Ferguson-Language-Of-The-Unheard

“Come on you f*ckin animals,” said a Ferguson police officer. These disturbing words capture the root of the issue in Ferguson. The reason Mike Brown was murdered in the first place was due to the local community being perceived and treated as sub-human/animals by the local police.

Their voices, their pleas for justice go ignored after an unarmed man has died. No one is listening.

They’ve marched. They’ve prayed. They’ve tried it all. And now they’re rioting.

What exactly is a riot? Is it a chaotic brutal rebellion? Is it a nonsensical act of frustration? Or is it more?

I’d say it’s the hearts, souls, minds of a people bent, twisted and turned as they shout and their words become frozen in space, never seeming to reach the ears of the intended receiver. Or even if the words are reached, the receiver doesn’t want to hear what they have to say..because their words are not important enough.

During the “Race” riots of the late 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. stated, “I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”

He didn’t advocate for riots but he understood why they occur. It’s not because people are undignified lunatics, on the prowl for destruction. It’s because people are battered, bruised, downtrodden and silenced. Riots happen because the state makes them happen by failing the community.

Right now in Ferguson, Missouri people want answers. In return they are receiving martial law, no-fly zones, tear gas, wooden bullets and arrests. What’s next, Drones?

If anyone has no dignity it’s the local police department, as they try to suppress the 1st amendment rights of the local community and the national media.

There are pleas for the community to maintain it’s “dignity” and not riot. Yet this perspective negates that fact that the riot itself is about regaining “dignity.” The rioters are saying, “Look at me! I’m here. I’m a human being and you can’t ignore me.”

To those that believe riots have no merit, PhD candidate Dara Walker makes a significant point:

One of the consequences of the Detroit Rebellion of 1967 was the creation of New Detroit, Inc. While it wasn’t quite a revolutionary response to unrest, it did work to lower unemployment rates amongst black youth, seek and implement remedies to improve the quality of education, etc. Also, the federal govt issued the Kerner Commission report because they actually took the riots of the 1960s seriously. The connection between the two? Officials and laypeople listened to the concerns of the rioters and their communities AFTER the riot.

The Kerner Commission report also noted that even in 1967, the riots much like the ones happening in Ferguson, did not stem from one event but over a period of time in which a “disturbing” atmosphere was created:

Disorder did not erupt as a result of a single “triggering” or “precipitating” incident. Instead, it was generated out of an increasingly disturbed social atmosphere, in which typically a series of tension-heightening incidents over a period of weeks or months became linked in the minds of many in the Negro community with a reservoir of underlying grievances. At some point in the mounting tension, a further incident—in itself often routine or trivial—became the breaking point and the tension spilled over into violence.

“Prior” incidents, which increased tensions and ultimately led to violence, were police actions in almost half the cases; police actions were “final” incidents before the outbreak of violence in 12 of the 24 surveyed disorders.

It’s been over 50 years since this report and tensions are still running high, mostly being fueled by police actions or the lack thereof in pertinent situations. In this case, Mike Brown was killed by a police officer. The police department is in-turn is keeping the killer’s name secret, is refusing to interview key witnesses and offers the public absolutely no solid information about the happenings of the case. It appears that instead of serving the people, the local police department is busy coming up with a story that does not match any of the key witness accounts circulating and documented by local media.

The Facebook page Son of Baldwin, shared a quote that further explains the issue. In a 1966 article , the iconic poet and novelist James Baldwin noted:

Now, what I have said about Harlem is true of Chicago, Detroit, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco—is true of every Northern city with a large Negro population. And the police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in [their] place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function. They are, moreover—even in a country which makes the very grave error of equating ignorance with simplicity—quite stunningly ignorant; and, since they know that they are hated, they are always afraid. One cannot possibly arrive at a more surefire formula for cruelty.

This is why those pious calls to ‘respect the law,’ always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds themselves, is simply to surrender [their] self-respect.

This keeps happening, not because of the people but because of the state. There is no respect for the local community and fear is the driving force behind how the police interact with the community, which is why pictures of Ferguson, Missouri look like the scene of a war movie.

I’m not advocating for riots, but I’m cautious of any rhetoric that would serve to create a facade surrounding the local community of Ferguson. I implore that even in the midst of these riots, they are dignified.

Indeed, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” If you don’t want riots, listen.

 

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IMG_0054-ZF-7906-35913-1-001-006Jessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com. Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.

Follow OurLegaci at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.

 

 

We’re Making These People Famous

BGC-Chicago-Fight

I wish I were one of those “dignified” people that never watches reality tv or other trashy television shows, but the truth is I’m human. So I delve into the wacky world of reality tv from time to time. It all started when I was in middle school and MTV still aired the first 10 seasons of their leading reality tv show, The Real World. I can still remember the slap heard round the world from Real World Seattle (1998). I was 13 years old. Yes, I’m an old school reality tv viewer. I’m also ashamed to admit that I watched Flavor of Love (mostly out of confusion and horror). I didn’t make it through all of the seasons.

Over the last 15 years, reality tv has become a national past time in which viewers unite to watch the most outrageous, embarrassing and down right unbelievable antics ever seen on television. There is a good side to this and a bad side. The good side is, shows like American Greed highlight white collar crime in the corporate world, showcasing what shows like Cops refused to air. Shows like Shark Tank and The Profit highlight interesting business ideas along with basic business principles that aspiring entrepreneurs can learn from. There are many other examples of entertaining, yet educational reality tv shows. Yet, usually when reality tv is mentioned the first thing that comes to mind is Basketball Wives, Love and Hip Hop, Real Housewives and the Bad Girls Club.

I’m not going to pretend that I don’t watch some of these shows as well. It’s easy to get sucked into the seemingly never ending spiral of televised tomfoolery. I’d opt for a good PBS Frontline documentary over any of these shows. But when I do take that boredom inspired plunge towards VH1 or Bravo one thought continues to pervade my mind, “We’re making these people famous.”

As a culture critic, it’s imperative for me to know the latest television and digital trends. Yet, I can’t use this as a scapegoat. The truth of the matter is, every time I turn that channel, I’m helping to make people that would usually be non-factors (<–see what I did there) famous. It’s a scary fact that gnaws at my subconsciousness every time a bottle is thrown, a person is dragged, someone is punched in the facesomeone lands in prison or dead. Then there’s the pervasive yet subtle colorism, classist, handbag/hair obsessive ignorance that appears to heighten with every show. Now the reality tv legion has brought us BAPS (Black American Princesses and Princes).

I haven’t watched it and don’t plan on it. When it comes to reality tv, I’m quite simply tired of money hungry, violence and cattiness being popularized. And I actually feel sorry for many of the cast mates that feel like they must do outrageous things in order to stay relevant enough to come back for another season, keep receiving the grossly underpaid checks, and keep renting houses/cars they can’t afford. It’s people from all backgrounds and cultures, not just Black women as some would like you to believe. Meanwhile, the television networks bank millions due to the reality tv industry’s abusive and manipulative practices.

In the end, almost no one comes out on top. The few 15 minutes of fame will render Twitter followers, club party promotions, leftover trinkets and if you’re lucky another chance to make a fool of yourself on television. The one thing that most cast members come away with is a forever documented tape of embarrassment.

Even though this fame is temporary, it’s impactful. There is an entire generation of young women aspiring to be the “baddest bitch” in order to be on the “Bad Girls” club and etc. The lines between reality and fiction become more blurred everyday. Thus it’s not surprising that Facebook is flooded daily with videos of real life fights that are liked and shared for casual entertainment purposes. Even reality tv cast members are confused about what’s acceptable in the real world.

It would be both hypocritical and unrealistic to expect people never to watch these shows. However, it would behoove all of us to be more careful about the people and the behavior we popularize by increasing the ratings of certain shows. Whenever you see something heinous and sadistic,  remember that we’re making these people famous.

 

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IMG_0054-ZF-7906-35913-1-001-006Jessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com. Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.

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Did Anybody Care?

 

they-matter

Josefina Rivera, Agnes Adams, Sandra Lindsay, Jacqueline Askins, Deborah Dudley, Lisa Thomas

 

There were six of them, chained in the basement of a Philadelphia house. The police almost couldn’t believe what they were seeing. The horrors of what the women experienced were almost unbearable to hear. Their kidnapper, Gary Heidnik, chained them, enslaved them, raped them, starved them, murdered two of them and forced them to eat another human being (feeding the rest of the body to the dogs).

What did all of these young women have in common? They were young, black and brown girls from the lower echelon of society. They grew up poor, some of them were prostitutes, all of them perceived to be “unwanted.” Our America, hosted by Lisa Ling on the Oprah Winfrey Network, featured the stories of missing Black women and the now infamous Heidnik kidnapping case. A quick google search of his name will render headlines like “Heidnik’s House of Horrors.”

Indeed the women survived an unimaginable, terrifying ordeal. One of the survivors, named Jackie shared her experiences. She now suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression. Sometimes, she blacks out and unconsciously re-enacts being chained to the basement floor and eating dog food.

For months Jackie and 5 other women languished in a seemingly timeless agony, wondering if they would ever get their freedom.

When hearing about these types of stories, the blame is usually placed solely on the perpetrator. Yet, we need to realize that society plays a complacent role in allowing these types of crimes to occur. All too often perceived “respectability” trumps humanity. Lives are somehow worth less, or are less important if the victims did not lead “perfect” lives as dictated by societal norms. This is especially the case for young Black women, people living in poverty and for sex workers.

Jackie, being a symbol of this marginalized trifecta, was as they noted in the documentary, “lost before she was kidnapped.” As she lived on the margins of society, Heidnik presumed that no one would miss her. And for the most part he was right.

Jackie asked, “Did anybody care that we were out there? Just to call 911 and say, ‘she’s gone?’ Who cared about a Black prostitute, on drugs?”

So as four of the six women, survived until they were finally freed, time moved on without them. And as they finally regained their freedom, society gasped at the horrors they’d experienced, media focused on the perpetrator and in-depth discussions concerning why or how this truly could have happened in the first place, were passed over in the name of sensationalism.

Moreover, Jackie returned to a community that blamed her for being kidnapped and called her “the slave” and “the people-eater.” This severe lack of community support only exacerbated her fragile mental condition.

“She was a slut. She was a whore. She was high. She was drunk. She was in the streets. That’s what she gets. She shouldn’t have been [insert any excuse]. ” Whenever you hear someone say these things, whenever these words leave your mouth, know that these beliefs nurture the ambitions of abusers and murderers.

What she was, who she was, doesn’t negate her personhood. It didn’t negate her human right to live and be free.

There is a dispute over whether or not Gary Heidnik was sane while he was committing these unthinkable acts. His past medical records indicate that he may have been schizophrenic. But one thing is clear, Heidnik knew for certain where to find the perfect victims, the people that were would less likely be to be protected or fought for. He chose the people that had already been used, abused and thrown away by society….poor, young, Black women.

That’s what really enabled this crime…a mass societal lack of care and he knew it.

I guess he wasn’t insane after all.

 

Learn more about this case:

http://www.oprah.com/own-our-america-lisa-ling/Jackie-Returns-to-the-House-Where-She-Was-Held-Captive

http://www.phillymag.com/articles/inside-the-house-of-heidnik/

Learn how to prevent events like this from happening:

http://blackandmissing.org/what-to-do-if-someone-goes-missing/

http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2012/01/getting-more-to-care-about-missing-black-women/

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IMG_0054-ZF-7906-35913-1-001-006Jessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com. Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.

Follow OurLegaci at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.

 

 

Keeping Our Humanity In The Face Of Tragedy

Eric Garner

Members of the African American community and beyond are currently mourning the death of Eric Garner, a man that was accused of illegally selling cigarettes and was subsequently placed in a chokehold by police. Chokeholds have been against police policy for sometime in New York, but for some reason officers used it to subdue him. Needless to say, people are rightfully angry.

Protests are springing up and the community wants answers. Eric Garner’s name trended on Twitter for two days and is his image has been shared by thousands of people on Facebook.

We know by now, this is another injustice that led to another Black man’s death. It’s something we’re all too familiar with. Yet in the midst of the discourse surrounding his death, a commentary has been published by Kimberly Foster of ForHarriet.com. It’s titled, “Why I Will Not March For Eric Garner.” In the article, Foster expresses her sympathy for what happened to Garner. She knows the history behind it just as well, yet she is hesitant to march on his behalf due to the sexism, threats, violence and lack of support Black women face everyday in the Black community.

Foster states:

Black people, both men and women, experience coercive, violent and often deadly interactions with law enforcement. Abuses of the badge draw immediate outrage. In these tragedies, even the men who regularly assault or excuse the assault of Black women, can see themselves, and their fear is most legitimate.

We have been conditioned to believe the exploitation of Black women’s work to be a normal, expected part of our womanhood. Fear of being deemed selfish compels us to act against self-interest. But that which is good for women is good for all of us.

I’m not settling for anything less than reciprocity. If you refuse to hear our calls for help, then I cannot respond to yours. I have no desire, as a Black woman, to be placed on a pedestal, but I will not allow myself to become a footstool. Do not ask me for empathy if you are content to deny it in return.

Many women continue to believe that offering unconditional support to the men who dismiss their calls for help will result one day in a return of care–as though they are watering a seed. But I have yet to see the fruit from that tree of hope, and I’m tired of waiting.

In essence she’s rescinding her full support for Black men, since it appears they won’t support Black women in similar circumstances. Foster is expanding a very serious ongoing discussion. In the cases of Trayvon Martin and the Jena , Black communities instantly rallied in support of protecting Black boys. In similar circumstances, like in the cases of Rekia BoydRenisha McBride, and Yvette Smith the fervor behind the support is dramatically less. And it’s not surprising.

As a lifelong student of Pan Africanism and feminism, I know that the lives of Black women are undervalued in both mainstream society and our own communities. It’s a constant and sometimes vicious struggle to get many men and other women to support us unconditionally.  There are a series of reasons that can be attributed to this, two that come to mind immediately being patriarchy and respectability politics. This means that we’re living in a male-centered society that hinges respect of women on whether or not they fit into certain approved societal roles and pre-conditions. In fact, even if Black women do submit to these roles, they’ll often still face punishment, reprimand and backlash. As feminist poet Audre Lorde stated, “Your silence will not protect you.” Black identity, which is also undervalued in mainstream society, is used as a characteristic to further marginalize. Female+Black= Bottom rung

I say this, not to engage in any type of so called “Oppression Olympics.” The recent NWA movie casting call, referring to Black women women at “D GIRLS” is a painful but truthful narrative as to how we’re viewed by many in mainstream American society.

Yes, this is still happening. Yes, it takes a lot of emotional wherewithal to fight against. Yes, we need Black men to work with us and we should never stop challenging them on this front.

However, in the midst of this tragedy, we should be careful to keep our humanity it tact. As a fellow writer, feminist and activist I firmly understand Kimberly Foster’s perspective. However, I find it to lack humanity in addressing Garner’s life and family. Yes, we should talk about the lack of support Black women receive. We need to talk about it both steadily and extensively.  Yet this idea of “conditional support” of Black men that have faced injustices can have unexpected consequences. It teeters right back along those lines of respectability politics, that we so often try to avoid.

To my understanding, the essence of Black feminism is the recognition of wholeness, interconnectedness, freedom and the human spirit. Standing against injustices heaped on any human being, can not , should not be conditional, lest we stand the chance of becoming less whole in our quest for liberation.

We can’t lose sight of the fact that because of his death six children are fatherless and his wife, a Black woman, has lost her chosen life partner. There is no such thing as trickle down equality, i.e. the belief that because Black men are free Black women are automatically free. However, our interconnectedness makes conditional support against clear human rights violations, a further exacerbation of the problem. It won’t make us any less prone to violence within our communities and violence by the state.

But here is where I return to Foster’s original point. Black women shouldn’t have to do the majority of the double duty when it comes organizing in support of both Black women and men. There are some Black men that have been working towards increasing support of Black women. Some have even went as far as to call out other Black men that they feel should listen and increase their support. Still instances like these are too far and in-between.

As a people, we have to understand that our freedom hinges on the recognition of humanity within all of us. Sometimes, in difficult periods we forget this (especially when dealing with misogyny, gender bias and homophobia.) Yet, our support in the struggle for human rights, no matter how daunting, cannot and should not be hinged on “pre-conditions” and “respectably.” This thought process, while it may make a point, creates further openings for human rights injustices to swallow us whole…without much regard.

One of the most powerful tools in the Black Feminist Movement is the ability to showcase the multiplicity of humanity in order to teach, transform and raise consciousness. We can’t lose sight of this, right now or ever. It’s one of our greatest assets.

 

P.S. To readers of Foster’s piece, let it be an opportunity to really listen and take action. Work towards making sure that all members of our communities feel supported in the face of injustices. 

IMG_0054-ZF-7906-35913-1-001-006Jessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com. Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.

Follow OurLegaci at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.

How Innocent People Are Wrongfully Convicted

Wrongfully-Convicted-Of-Murder

“There is nothing funny about a Black man going to prison for something he didn’t do.” My excitement about watching the movie Life was quickly shut down when my mother stated those words. As a 14-year-old, I hadn’t looked at it that way before. Life, starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, was a hit comedy about the antics of two Black men in Mississippi serving life in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murder. She refused to watch it.

The truthful sting of my mother’s response was fully warranted. Being wrongfully convicted of murder happens far more often than people think and can happen to anybody but especially to African Americans. And indeed, there is nothing funny about it.

Even as far back as 1996, the book “Convicted But Innocent: Wrongful Conviction and Public Policy” estimated that there was an output of at least 10,000 wrongful convictions a year. The abstract states, “Even if the American criminal justice system proved 99.5 percent accurate, it would still generate more than 10,000 wrongful convictions a year and these would reflect only serious index crimes.”

More recently the Innocence Project highlighted that studies find,”between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent (for context, if just 1% of all prisoners are innocent, that would mean that more than 20,000 innocent people are in prison).”

According to a 2012 report by the National Registry of Exonerations about 2,000 people have been exonerated for wrongful convictions since 1989. Still, this number is in the least bit comforting. As the report notes:

…even 2,000 exonerations over 23 years is a tiny number in a country with 2.3 million people in prisons and jails. If that were the extent of the problem we would be encouraged by these numbers. But it’s not. These cases merely point to a much larger number of tragedies that we do not know about.

So how does this happen?

The Innocence Project lists the leading causes of false convictions as eye-witness misidentification, false confessions, improper forensic evidence and informants. One would think that these components would only lead to rightful convictions but each is severely flawed. For example, in 73% of convictions overturned with DNA, prosecutors used eye-witness accounts. But in many of these accounts there was “cross racial identification,” a known issue because studies show that it’s harder for witnesses to remember the facial details of people from other races.

False confessions are flawed due to pressures to accept plea deals and other coercion tactics. Informants are problematic sources because they are often offered plea deals and dropped charges in exchange for their testimony.

Dateline NBC recently featured a story about Eric Glisson, a man that was wrongfully convicted of murder and served over 17 years in prison. There was no physical evidence, only the words of one “eye-witness” and two other allegedly coerced witnesses. One of these witnesses recanted her testimony stating that she only testified due to police pressure of being threatened with jail time. It took 17 years, but Glisson and his co-defendants were finally freed. A total of five Black and Latino people (four men and one woman) had been in prison for almost two decades for a crime they didn’t commit.

Then there’s the story of The Central Park Five, who were recently awarded $40 million dollars after enduring 7-13 years in prison for a 1989 rape. In 2002, they were exonerated after a confession from the real perpetrator and DNA evidence proved their innocence. In another case, Jonathan Fleming was recently released after spending 24 years in prison for a Brooklyn, NY murder that was committed while he was in Florida.

There are many more stories like these that have yet to be concluded.

I recently learned of a case that hits closer to home. Jean Pierre DeVaughn is the older brother of a friend that I attended college with. Accused of murder-for-hire in the 2005 death of his cousin’s husband, Devaughn has maintained his innocence. He was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to life in prison with an additional 25 years. Having no prior record, he was offered a plea deal but refused to take it, wanting to fully clear his name.

His case is fraught with a series of issues. Devaughn endured an intense interrogation by police, during which a chair was thrown at him, he was taunted and his requests for a lawyer were denied. Additionally, there is no physical evidence linking him to the crime.

According to his defense attorney, a key witness in the first trial testified under the false pretense that Devaughn had accused him of being the murderer. Additionally, racial bias may have tainted jury selection leading to three African Americans being excluded from the jury.

In 2009, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. endorsed a letter written to the Fulton County District Attorney Office on Devaughn’s behalf. He is now represented by Janice L. Mathis, lawyer, activist and Vice President of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition Atlanta chapter.

Some may think it a bit presumptuous to believe that Devaughn is innocent, but history has shown us not to ignore pleas for a second look at trials that were once proclaimed to be “open and shut” cases. For now Devaughn waits in a Georgia prison for another chance to prove his freedom. The Supreme Court of Georgia will soon review his case.

Perhaps the most disturbing fact about these cases is this could happen to anyone and exonerations are rare occurrences. Many wrongful convictions include death row prisoners, which is all the more reason to support efforts to end the death penalty.

As an article from Scientific American highlighted, “Since 1973 144 death-sentenced defendants have been exonerated in the U.S. But Gross says that the analysis indicates that at least 340 people would have been put to death unjustly in that same time period.”

According to the Innocence Project, there have been only 316 post-conviction DNA exonorees, with 198 being African Americans. This is a daunting number considering African Americans only make up 13% of the US population. The numbers indicate that there is an overwhelming rate of bias concerning death sentencing for African Americans. Additionally, it’s hard to have many cases reviewed due to destroyed or lost evidence.

Something is devastatingly wrong here in the land of the “free,” especially considering the influence of corporate profits from the prison industrial complex. This is a real life horror story.

There is a perception that criminal convictions among African American youth are inherently just. But the fact is, many convictions stem from not having proper representation, not knowing the full scope of their rights when questioned by the police, being denied their rights and racially biased sentencing. An overwhelming amount of exonorees are Black men and women because an overwhelming amount of this demographic are wrongfully convicted or given harsher sentencing than their counterparts (sometimes even according to skin tone).

What can you do to prevent this from happening?

For now, it’s important to support initiatives like the Innocence Project and the Center on Wrongful Convictions that are doing the work to assist as many wrongfully convicted prisoners as possible. Push for your local jurisdiction to include preventative measures like recorded interrogations, proper and long-term preservation of forensic evidence, and advocating for eye-witness identification reform. 

Please do not republish this article without specific, written permission from Jessica Ann Mitchell.

IMG_0054-ZF-7906-35913-1-001-006Jessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com. Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.

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