Monday, 24 December 2007

Mr White's blackness

It must be vaguely disturbing to be born with dark skin, even today, even in this supposedly hip and liberal city. One goes about one’s business, interacts with whites, Chinese, Latins and Azerbaijanis, but there is always that subtle question of who or what will come to one’s aid in a pinch or what will be the outcome of a clash with the majority ethnicity or the powers of the state.

A black man, John White, was convicted Dec 21 of manslaughter for shooting a young Italian kid, and I can’t help thinking that if the skin colors were reversed, the guy facing prison would have been hailed as a hero in the tabloid press and his prosecution denounced by the chattering nabobs on CNN. The man had guns in his Long Island house for his family’s protection (that alone would give him NRA points) and pulled one out when a screaming carload of white guys pursued his own teenager up to their doorstep shouting racist threats. There’s a dispute about exactly what happened next, but if a white suburbanite had faced down a posse of drunken black hoodlums, something tells me he wouldn’t be facing 30 years.

Meanwhile, the trial of the three cops who shot at Sean Bell 50 times outside a Queens club in 2006 the night before his wedding are about to go to trial, too, and you can bet there will be plenty of support for them from the newspapers and from their uniformed colleagues, who invariably pack courtrooms to express their collegial solidarity. The three plainclothes detectives say they thought Bell and his friends had weapons (they didn’t) and blasted them without further ado. Bell might have mistaken them for muggers and tried to drive away. Even Mayor Bloomberg said at the time that 50 shots against unarmed suspects seemed a little excessive. Bell died, and his fiancée is leading the campaign for justice. The cops’ defense lawyers want the venue moved away from Queens so they can get an unbiased trial.

That doesn’t happen, however, when a police officer is gunned down, and fellow cops pour into the courtroom every day to glare. Then they mass outside to roar their approval at the police union head Patrick Kelly’s hysterical news conferences calling for the attacker’s head on a platter. A juror would think twice about that if he planned to live in the same city after the trial was over.

I’m reading about Cicero again (Imperium by Robert Harris) and his attempts to use the Roman courts against the powerful aristocrats who were used to bribing everybody and getting their way. It’s a reminder that the rule of law as a way of resolving disputes depends heavily on the relative balance of forces within a society. If things are too skewed one way or the other, the assumption that there is a set of rules that everyone must obey really doesn’t hold up though even the illusion sometimes can work in your favor if Cicero is your lawyer.

The one bright spot in the local judicial panorama is the new trial being granted to Martin Tankleff, who’s now spent 17 years in prison for killing his parents, which he didn’t. As a dazed 19-year-old he wandered downstairs in his Long Island home one morning in 1990 to find his parents’ bodies and then was tricked by the police detectives into thinking he’d blacked out and done it himself. The prosecutors did no forensic work since they had somebody to charge and then ignored ample evidence that someone else was behind the crime. Finally, an appellate court gave the whole system a tongue-lashing for caring so little about the facts and ordered a new trial. Tankleff, whose story was featured on a one-hour, prime-time investigative special a few months ago, may soon be a free man, and the long-suffering relatives are cheering at last.

On the other end of Long Island at the White trial, the attitudes outside the courtroom were a study in contrasts. Both before and after White’s conviction, he and his lawyers spoke with regret about the loss of the young man’s life; the Italian family high-fived each other as if they had just won the state basketball championship. This, they told reporters, proves that Daniel wasn’t a racist.

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