March 06, 2014
By Corey Arvin
Special to the NNPA from Black Voice News
Contrary to popular belief, today’s young African-Americans are not more skeptical of their value in the eyes of the U.S. justice system compared with previous generations. There is no reignited understanding of civil rights inequities in modern society, nor any renewed sense of duty to overcome systematic failures.
According to Brenda Stevenson, Professor of History at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), recent high-profile judicial cases involving young black men underscored a disparity in the justice system that African-Americans have always been aware of—and never forgot.
Earlier this month, the parents of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old black teen killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, organized a rally in memorial of his death two years ago. Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder charges. The case returned to the national spotlight on Feb. 15 when Michael Dunn, a white man facing first-degree murder charges in Florida after fatally shooting a young black teen, Jordan Davis, received a mistrial on the first-degree charges due to a hung jury. Dunn was found guilty on four lesser counts, including attempted second-degree murder.
“These aren’t just the opening of new wounds, it’s a combination of fresh and old wounds for African-Americans,” said Stevenson.
Stevenson, whose areas of research and publication include African American history, is also author of “The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots”. Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl, who was fatally shot in the back of the head in 1991 by a Korean store owner in South Los Angeles. The owner was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, yet sentenced to five years of probation, community service, and a $500 fine. Similarities to Harlins’ death and Martin were frequently recalled in the media during the Zimmerman trial.
While the Zimmerman and Dunn trials have inspired a national discourse on racial equality – a necessary conversation to improve race relations in America, according to civil rights advocates –it has also contributed to young African-Americans inheriting the attitudes and perceptions their families have always maintained about authority figures and the judicial system, said Stevenson.
“Younger African-Americans coming of age see what has happened with Trayvon Martin, they see what happened with [Jordan] Davis. They talk about it with their parents and their parents will say ‘that is what happened with Rodney King’, or ‘that is what happened with Latasha Harlins’, and their grandparents will say ‘that’s what happened with Emmett Till’ and so on,” said Stevenson.
Young African-Americans, particularly men, are informed early in life that they are more susceptible to being regarded as guilty by nature – and the lessons are not necessarily learned in the home, but on the streets. A police officer can detain someone who is black and they witness the ordeal, wondering if it was because of their race. The also see the victimization of blacks at the hands of other races is largely disregarded compared to their white counterparts, she said.
‘I didn’t feel like any justice was served’
Devon Johnson never harbored any animosity to law enforcement or the justice system. He never stood subjectively in front of a judge before, nor found himself the target of police officers.
From first sight, Johnson may seem as harmless as the average young man. The 20-year-old college student maintains a virtually non-threatening demeanor, with a waify 5-foot, 10-inch frame and signature red bucket hat. Johnson is more inclined to smile at his peers and strangers in passing than to sneer or intimidate. But placing himself in “the wrong place at the wrong time” contributed to an unforgettable encounter with authorities.
Johnson didn’t realize that his innocuous stature could easily transform to a guilty target at night while idling with his friends last month. A typical party-hopping night that attracted Johnson and his friends to a Cal State University Northridge dormitory landed Johnson in jail after several young visitors were reported vandalizing one of the buildings. According to Johnson, he was unaware who exactly was to be blamed as the suspected individuals responsible had already fled. Johnson left the building and he saw five campus police officers “charging” at him and fled on foot into the street where a police officer detained him. According to Johnson, five girls, who he described as white, identified him from across the street to police as the vandal based on his clothes, not his face.
“They said they recognized my black jacket and red hat … there were a lot of people wearing black and red,” said Johnson.
According to Johnson, he was the only person arrested for vandalism that night and was transported to jail in Van Nuys. His jail was occupied by others, but felt desolate as he worried his family would wonder about his whereabouts. Johnson was released on bond, but recalls being told before he left to not “plead not guilty” to avoid more trouble. His family advised him to follow his instincts and plead not guilty, but his public defender insisted he plead no contest to “avoid more court appearances”, he said. Johnson felt confused about his alternatives and pressured to plead “no contest”, which he did to move forward. He was sentenced to 2 years of probation.
Within the span of a night, in a small jail cell where he slept to kill time, Johnson found himself a part of a distressing statistic for African-American men. African-Americans represent 26 percent of juvenile arrests, 44 percent of youths who are detained, 46 percent of the youths who are judicially sent to criminal court, and 58 percent of the youth admitted to state prisons, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
“I have no court smarts whatsoever. I was looking for help and I thought that’s what the public defender was there for,” said Johnson.
“I didn’t feel like any type of justice was served. I don’t feel angry towards it or sad, I just felt like I got the bottom part of the stick this time.”
Johnson tried to preserve an indifferent attitude toward the justice system, but said he understands first-hand the cliché of being “unfairly” treated.
“I always knew the law was kind of a mess. You hear all of these stories of people being wrongfully convicted for what they haven’t done and you are aware of what the cops can do. It just reassures you. It’s nothing we don’t already know,” he said.
Intervening Before the Problems Begin
There’s little doubt young African-American men are at-risk youth, susceptible to violence as both perpetrators and victims. This week, President Obama planned to introduce his executive program “My Brother’s Keeper” in attempt to intervene with at-risk African-American men.
According to the American Community Survey, nearly one in every three African-American men between 20 to 29 years of age are under some form of criminal justice supervision whether prison, jail, parole, or probation. In addition, according to the Justice Policy Institute, more black males are in prison than enrolled in colleges or universities. In 2000, there were 791,600 black men in prison and 603,032 enrolled in college compared with 1980, when there were 143,000 black men in prison and 463,700 enrolled in college.
Reaching at-risk youth early is integral to their future success, deterring crime, and sustaining healthy communities, according to Sgt. Barry Montgomery, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).
LAPD is actively involved in community programs throughout Southern California aimed at juvenile men who could find themselves the victims or perpetrators of crime, said Montgomery. The programs, which include juveniles and parents, are even designed to address some of the nuances in approaching African-American at-risk youth compared to Hispanic youth, for example, he said.
The “Jeopardy Program” is one LAPD gang prevention and intervention program that targets children and teens from 8 to 17 years of age. The program is active in several communities that have high African-American populations, Montgomery said.
Montgomery, an African-American, credits the LAPD Cadets program, previously known as the Explorers, for inspiring him to become a police officer. He credits older African-American officers already employed with the department with motivating him to be directly involved with improving Los Angeles communities as a police officer.
I was taught “If you want to make change, you don’t make change on the outside, it’s on the inside,” said Montgomery.
Faith-based organizations, such as churches, have been a bedrock for African-Americans throughout U.S. history, used as an outlet to galvanize communities and educate congregations on civil rights issues. By-in-large, churches commitment to African-American social issues remains, but has expanded into educating and shaping young African-Americans.
West Angeles Church of God in Christ, founded in 1943, is one of the most prominent African-American churches in Los Angeles. The church’s outreach division, West Angeles Community Development Corporation (WACDC), hosts programs for at-risk, such as “Young N LA” and Manhood 101. LAPD has also worked in conjunction with the WACDC’s programs, said Irvin Shannon, program manager.
“Our calling is to ‘develop the beloved community’. As such, investing resources in our youth, specifically young men, is a part of developing our community. The vitality of South Los Angeles rests in the future success of our youth and it is our role to actively prepare them for success,” said Shannon.
“Historically, the church provided the African-American community with hope, a voice, and platform to advocate for social change. The opportunity is immense for other faith-based organizations to continue to engender change within our community.”
Johnson, who doesn’t believe he fits into the category of an “at-risk” youth, says his eyes are wide open to how “easy” it is for someone who shares his background to find himself in trouble with the law, even if it was inadvertent. He plans to avoid seeing history repeat itself.
“It was the realest scenario I’ve ever been in.”
March 06, 2014
By Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Several new studies confirm what most people have suspected all along: No group is harmed more by gun violence than young Black males.
“While 13 percent of Americans are black, in 2010, 65 percent of gun murder victims between the ages of 15 and 24 were black,” revealed a report by the Center for American Progress (CAP). “Forty-two percent of the total gun deaths of individuals in this age group were of black males.”
This trend has continued, the report noted, even as crime rates decline.
Another report on gun violence by the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) mirrors the CAP findings.
“Between 1963 and 2010, 59,265 Black children and teens were killed by guns – more than 17 times the recorded lynchings of Black people of all ages in the 86 years from 1882 to 1968.”
The Children’s Defense Fund study also reported that, “Black males ages 15-19 were nearly 30 times more likely to die in a gun homicide than White males.”
Yet another study on Black homicides in the United States by the Violence Policy Center, shows that 8 percent of Black homicide victims never reached their 19th birthday and the average age of Black homicide victims was just 30 years old.
But the numbers tell only part of the story.
“More than 1 million years of potential life are lost due to gun deaths each year,” the CAP report found. “These are years of life that young people killed by guns would have achieved educational milestones, entered the workforce, had families, and contributed to the social, economic, and cultural advancement of society in untold ways – all erased by gunfire.” .
Neill Franklin, a 34-year law enforcement veteran of the Maryland State Police and Baltimore Police Department, said that the proliferation of guns in the Black community is directly linked to the growth of illegal drug markets there and the failed War on Drugs.
Franklin worked as a narcotics agent early in his career and is now the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a nonprofit group of current and former law enforcement members that advocate for reform in existing drug policies in the United States. Franklin said that guns were tools of the trade for managing the drug territories.
Franklin said that there’s no major drug organizations controlling drug traffic in the cities anymore, just little independent drug dealers on the corners fighting for market share and the “stick up boys” robbing the drug dealers.
Part of the violence can be attributed to the way disputes are settled on the streets.
“Now whenever there is a dispute of any type, whether it’s over a girl or something that someone said, or if somebody’s shoe gets stepped on, the way to settle that argument is with a gun,” explained Franklin.
Add the easy availability of guns to that dangerous mix and the problem is compounded.
According to a report by the Children’s Defense Fund on youth gun violence “virtually anyone can buy a gun without a background check.”
A loophole in the federal law governing gun sales allows private sellers, even on the Internet, to peddle guns without submitting the buyer to a background check.
“In 2009, undercover stings at gun shows in Nevada, Ohio and Tennessee revealed that 63 percent of private sellers sold guns to purchasers who stated that they would be unable to pass a background check,” stated the CDF report.
It also found: “A 2011 study of internet gun sales found that 62 percent of sellers agreed to sell a gun to a buyer who said he probably couldn’t pass a background check.”
Researchers say that this is how guns often make it onto the black market – literally and figuratively – and it’s also the reason why many gun control advocates support background checks for every gun sale.
A law mandating universal background checks on all gun sales enjoys nearly unanimous support (92 percent) among with 18-29 year-olds.
According to the CAP report, 60 percent of people under the age of 30 were concerned that gun violence would affect them “personally or their communities in the future.” For people of color under 30 years old, that concern jumped to 73 percent.
“A vast majority of Americans support this idea: that every gun sale should have a background check,” said Chelsea Parsons, associate director of Crime and Firearms Policy at the Center for American Progress. “Without that, it’s meaningless to say that certain categories of people can’t buy guns.”
Although Franklin supports background checks on gun sales, he said that handgun laws don’t have anything to do with the massive gun violence in the Black community in cities like Baltimore.
“Criminals don’t care about the law,” said Franklin “They buy their guns illegally. They pay twice or triple what the gun is worth, because they have the money, because they are selling dope. These laws that we’re passing are only going to affect law-abiding citizens.”
Franklin said that background checks don’t get to the root of the problem: the continued drug war waged in our nation’s poorest communities.
The drug scene often attracts urban youth because they aren’t many attractive alternative economic opportunities for them, said Caroline Fichtenberg, research director for the Children’s Defense Fund.
“A smart, Black boy living in Southeast, Washington, D.C. may see the drug economy as the best way to get money and to be recognized as someone who has accomplished something,” said Fichtenberg. “And that is something we absolutely must change.”
Fichtenberg said that reducing the availability of illegal guns, teaching children that violence is not the way to resolve conflicts, making long term investments in communities and improving educational and economic opportunities for poor communities are just a few of the steps needed to change the tide of rampant gun violence that disproportionately affects young Blacks.
Franklin said that ending the drug war is paramount to stemming the tide of gun violence among Black youth.
“We have to end this drug war, we have to end drug prohibition,” said Neill Franklin, a 34-year law enforcement veteran of the Maryland State Police and Baltimore Police Department and executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a nonprofit group of current and former law enforcement members that advocate for reform in existing drug policies in the United States. “That’s going to halt the cycle of mass incarceration of sending all these young boys to prison. Once we end the drug war, we have to take some of the money that we’re not spending on cops and court rooms and prisons and we have to beef up these organizations that have these wonderful mentoring programs.”
Franklin continued: “If we don’t start now, outlining a long term plan to deal with these children and their families, beginning with ending the drug war, we’re going to continue to lose generation after generation. It’s been decade after decade after decade. We should know that by now.”
February 27, 2014
By Jennifer Bihm
John Punch is the first known slave in the United States and he is believed to be the ancestor of President Barack Obama. He arrived in the Virginia colony in the 17th century, one of a handful of indentured servants belonging to Virginia planter, Hugh Gwyn. In 1640 he attempted to escape Gwyn, along with two European indentured servants but was caught and sent back.
Punishment for the two Europeans was four years longer of servitude. But a judge ordered Punch to serve out the rest of his natural life to Gwyn. This incident is believed to have set the precedence for the institution of slavery in America.
It’s also the first documented case of differences in treatment based on race in America. According to historians, Punch had children with a white woman most likely an indentured servant (which was a common occurrence during the time).The children inherited the mother’s free status, causing legislators at the time to reconsider the slavery laws (children usually held the status of the father).
Most likely, said historians drawing from documents, and Y-DNA analysis, Punch’s descendants were called Bunch.
“Before 1640, there were fewer than 100 African men in Virginia, and John Punch was the only one with a surname similar to it,” they said.
“The Bunch descendants were free people of color who became successful landowners in Virginia. Some lines eventually assimilated as white, after generations of marrying whites.”
In the early 1700s, a man called John Bunch III, a mulatto, asked the court to publish proclamation of marriage to a white woman called Sara Slayden, causing another rule change, mulattos were now considered black, no matter what percentage of white DNA they had. Bunch didn’t marry Slayden, however, historical records show him fathering children with another white woman called Rebecca.
“He had moved to Louisa County as part of the westward migration of colonists to the frontier of Virginia.,” said historians from Ancestry.com.
“Through continued intermarriage with whites in Virginia, the line of Obama’s maternal Bunch ancestors probably appeared as and identified as white as early as 1720. Members of this line eventually migrated into Tennessee and ultimately to Kansas, where descendants included Obama’s maternal grandmother and his mother Stanley Ann Dunham.
“Another branch of the Bunch family migrated to North Carolina, where they were classified in some records as mulatto. They intermarried with people of a variety of ethnicities, including European. The Bunch or Bunche family was established as free before the American Revolution. The Bunch surname lines also became associated with core mixed-race families later known as Melungeon in Tennessee.
“Y-DNA testing of descendants of the Bunch family lines has revealed common ancestry going back to a single male ancestor of sub-Saharan African ethnicity. Genealogists believe this male ancestor to be John Punch the African. He was probably born in present-day Cameroon in West Africa, where his particular type of DNA is most common…”
In July 2012, Ancestry.com officials determined that President Barack Obama is an eleventh great grandson of Punch.
February 27, 2014
By MARK SHERMAN
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that police may search a home without a warrant when two occupants disagree about allowing officers to enter, and the resident who refuses access is then arrested.
The justices declined to extend an earlier ruling denying entry to police when the occupants disagree and both are present.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote the court’s 6-3 decision holding that an occupant may not object to a search when he is not at home.
“We therefore hold that an occupant who is absent due to a lawful detention or arrest stands in the same shoes as an occupant who is absent for any other reason,” Alito said.
Police found a shotgun, ammunition and a knife when they searched the Los Angeles apartment that Walter Fernandez shared with his girlfriend, Roxanne Rojas.
Fernandez told police they could not enter. But shortly after his arrest, officers returned to the apartment and persuaded Rojas to let them in.
Fernandez is serving a 14-year prison term on robbery and guns charges.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in dissent that “Fernandez’s objection to the search did not become null upon his arrest and removal from the scene.”
The court ruled 5-3 in 2006 that when two occupants who disagree about letting the police in are present, the objecting occupant prevails.
Ginsburg, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, also took issue with the notion that ruling for Fernandez would harm women who are victims of domestic violence.
Ginsburg said that police are justified in the immediate removal of the abuser from the premises. That, she said, is what happened in this case. But that shouldn't trump the need for a warrant to overcome Fernandez’s objection to the search of his home
When Rojas first answered the door for police, she was crying and holding her 2-month-old baby. She had a fresh bump on her nose, and blood on her hands and shirt. She said she had been in a fight.
At that point Fernandez appeared and ordered the police to get out, telling them he knew his constitutional rights. The police believed the couple had just been in a fight and removed Fernandez from the apartment in handcuffs. An officer noticed a tattoo on Fernandez’s shaved head that matched the description of a robbery suspect. Fernandez soon was arrested.
California maintained in its argument at the court that police had enough evidence at that point to get a warrant. But they said one was unnecessary because Rojas had the authority to let them in, despite Fernandez’s earlier objection.
The court agreed with that proposition Tuesday.
The case is Fernandez v. California, 12-7822.
February 27, 2014
By PAUL ELIAS
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Nearly 1,400 lifers in California's prisons have been released over the past three years in a sharp turnaround in a state where murderers and others sentenced to life with the possibility of parole almost never got out.
Since taking office three years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown has affirmed 82 percent of parole board decisions, resulting in a record number of inmates with life sentences going free.
Brown's predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, authorized the release of 557 lifers during his six-year term, sustaining the board at a 27 percent clip. Before that, Gov. Gray Davis over three years approved the release of two.
This dramatic shift in releases under Brown comes as the state grapples with court orders to ease a decades-long prison crowding crisis that has seen triple bunking, prison gyms turned into dormitories and inmates shipped out of state.
Crime victims and their advocates have said the releases are an injustice to the victims and that the parolees could pose a danger to the public. More than 80 percent of lifers are in prison for murder, while the remaining are mostly rapists and kidnappers.
"This is playing Russian roulette with public safety," said Christine Ward, executive director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance. "This is a change of philosophy that can be dangerous."
The governor's office said the overcrowding crisis plays no role in the parole decisions. Rather, the governor's office said, each case is addressed individually and Brown is bound by court orders that require state officials to ease the stringent parole requirements that have dramatically increased the time murderers spend in prison.
Today, an inmate convicted of first-degree murders can expect to serve an average of 27 years — almost twice what it was two decades ago before California became the fourth state to give governors the politically fraught final decision on lifer paroles.
Since then, the number of lifers has grown from 9,000 to 35,000 inmates, representing a quarter of the state prison population. But two seminal California Supreme Court rulings in 2008 have significantly eased tough parole restrictions.
The court ordered prison officials to consider more than the severity of the applicant's underlying crimes. It ruled that inmates' records while incarcerated plus their volunteer work should count heavily in assessing early release.
State figures show that since the rulings, the board has granted parole to nearly 3,000 lifers, including 590 last year and a record 670 in 2012. In the three decades prior to the 2008 rulings, only about 1,800 such prisoners were granted parole.
Davis allowed only two inmates released out of 232 board decisions granting parole between 1999 and 2002. Schwarzenegger sustained the board at a 27 percent clip during his seven years in office when he was presented with 2,050 paroles granted by the board.
Brown has allowed 82 percent of the 1,590 paroles granted by the board.
Brown's office says he is operating under a different legal landscape than previous governors, and that he is following court rulings and a 23-year-old state law that gave governors the power to block paroles of lifers who the state board found suitable for release.
A Stanford University study of lifer paroles between 1990 and 2010 found that a murderer had a 6 percent chance of leaving prison alive since governors were given the power to veto board decisions.
Gov. Pete Wilson, the first governor vested with veto power, used it sparingly, though the parole board was approving just a few dozen paroles a year compared with the hundreds the board has been approving in recent years.
Between 1991 and when he left office in January 1999, he approved 115 of the 171, or 67 percent, of the lifers the board found suitable for release.
"If an individual is eligible for parole and the board determines they are no longer a threat, the law says they must be paroled unless there is firm evidence indicating they are still a threat," Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said.
The few studies of recidivism among released lifers including a Stanford University report show they re-offend at much lower rates than other inmates released on parole and none has been convicted of a new murder.
Of the 860 murderers paroled between 1990 and 2010 that Stanford tracked, only five inmates committed new crimes and none were convicted of murder. The average released lifer is in his mid-50s. Experts say older ex-cons are less prone to commit new crimes than younger ones.
Brown has reversed the parole board. On Friday, his office announced it blocked the parole of 100 inmates deemed fit by the board for release and sent two others back to the board for reconsideration.
One of those inmates found fit for release by the board but blocked by Brown was James Mackey, a former University of Pacific football player found guilty of shooting his victim with a crossbow and then strangling him. Brown said Mackey hasn't sufficiently owned up to the crime.
"Until he can give a better explanation for his actions," Brown wrote, "I do not think he is ready to be released."
Ernest Morgan on the other hand, is a lifer Brown did let free.
Morgan, a San Francisco man convicted of the shotgun slaying of his 14-year-old stepsister burglarizing the family home, was turned down for parole five times before the board granted him parole, only to be overruled by Schwarzenegger.
Schwarzenegger wrote that Morgan posed "a current, unreasonable risk to public safety." And he noted that Morgan had at one point claimed that the shotgun had gone off accidentally, although he later acknowledged his guilt to the parole board.
"So I was devastated when Schwarzenegger denied my release," said Morgan, who now is majoring in business management at San Francisco State. "I felt I was a political pawn who would never get out."
In 2011, Brown approved his release after 24 years in prison. Brown made no comment in granting Morgan his release. Instead, the governor signaled his approval by taking no action within 30 days of the parole board's decision becoming official.
"It's been a remarkable and unexpected change," said Johanna Hoffman, Morgan's lawyer who has represented hundreds of lifers vying for parole since becoming a California lawyer in 2008. "The overcrowding issue has a huge amount to do with it."