Ewart Walters: Black Lives Matter – Throwing light on a sad and painful history

Ewart Walters

Ewart Walters

Blacks have “No rights which the white man is bound to respect.” – US Supreme Court

by Ewart Walters

Ottawa, July 17 – By law and Constitution, convention and practice, Black lives have not mattered in the United States for centuries. In fact the Americans fought a Civil War over it. The disregard for Black lives was largely promoted by slave-owners in the Southern States who flourished on the forced free labour of the Africans they imported.

The courts enforced it. Back in 1850, two escaped slaves, Dred Scott and Harriett Scott, had their petition for freedom overturned. After a decade of appeals and court reversals, it was finally brought before the US Supreme Court. In what is perhaps the most shameful case in its history, the court decided that no person of African ancestry — slaves as well as free Blacks – could ever become citizens of the United States, and therefore could not sue in federal court.

Chief Justice Roger Taney threw it out because, as he wrote, the Scotts were “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

The court also ruled that the federal government did not have the power to prohibit slavery in its territories. It was a time when the US Constitution considered Blacks 3/5th of a person. That was overturned by the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment and ratified in 1868.

It is rather uplifting that, 158 years later, the man elected to be the first Black President of the United States, Barack Obama, was able to stand outside that very same courthouse in St. Louis and gather perhaps the largest crowd of his presidential campaign.

That did not stop would-be Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, however. Huckabee told a radio show host in September 2015 that the Dred Scott decision of 1857 which says that Black people aren’t fully human, “still remains to this day the law of the land.”

In other words, a man who wanted to be President of the United States as recently as last year, is under the belief that Blacks are not eligible for U.S. citizenship and that slavery is, formally speaking, still legal.

Worse, he is not alone.

Driving back to Ottawa from Miami some years ago, I was forced to make a stopover in Florence, North Carolina, when the dashboard on my European car lit up like a Christmas tree and the car began losing power.

It was a Saturday afternoon, I was in the Deep South. A garage owner towed my car over to his garage. The mechanics had gone home. I was soon reminded what the Deep South meant. Seated in his office, the White shrimp of a man refused to accept my VISA card as payment. And then I saw it. Lolling against the wall within easy reach immediately behind his chair was the gun. It looked taller than him! I did not argue. I paid cash and got out of there. Quickly.

The alternator part I needed was not available in town. The only parts store that could help was on the other side of town. They promised to get it for me the next day when their truck came in from the neighbouring State, Georgia.

The taxi my son and I got to take us to the parts store was owned and driven by a Black man. On the way, he asked if he could divert a bit to drop something off at his home. No problem. And that is how I saw for myself life I had only read about in books like Mandingo and Blues for Mr. Charlie, or seen in movies like Beloved, Twelve Years a Slave, Roots, The Butler, In the Heat of the Night, and They Call Me Mr. Tibbs.

Soon we crossed a railway line. And I immediately understood the meaning of “on the other side of the tracks.” For I was in another world. A completely different world. Indeed, a different century. Absent were the customary paved streets, white picket fences, advertisements for milk, butter, television sets, McDonalds, Burger King and all the trappings of commerce that “adorn” modern America. The roads were dirt lanes. Instead of sidewalks, there were trees, and among the trees there were houses, bungalows of simple build.

And yet, there was a comfort there. The pace was unhurried. A deep calm was in the air.

The driver delivered his package, we went back into “civilisation,” collected the car part, and returned to my motel where I was able in the parking lot to install it myself.

Twenty-six years ago it was. But that experience has never left me.

It is an experience that frames the narratives of the difference in White and Black lives, a difference that attends the interactions of mostly-White police forces and Black citizens. The trouble is that in America, the shadow of slavery still attends those narratives. It is a shadow which proclaimed that Blacks were not persons (in much the same way that women were not persons here in Canada). Not being counted as persons, Blacks could not vote, were denied rights, were disbelieved, could not get loans, were not afforded justice.

It was not illegal to own human beings and work them as slaves. If you chopped off a foot to deter their quest for freedom, you were not arrested or charged with a crime. If you raped them, nobody was going to charge you with rape. Many Black women felt they had to kill their infant daughters to protect them from rape.  

And so we come to “modern” times, times like April 4, 2015 when Walter Scott, 50, was shot repeatedly and killed while running from a police traffic stop for a broken taillight. And to compound it, the policeman attempted to cover his lethal action by placing a gun near Scott’s body.

The list is long. In that year alone, 102 Black people, most of them unarmed, were killed by police. Except for eight of those events, there was no criminal charge against the officer.

The injustice system also plays its role. For even when there is a charge, the process of bringing that officer to justice is filled with obstacles, including some judges who collect pay on the side from the operators of private prisons, since the prisons are paid by the number of prisoners they keep.

In 2011, Former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella Jr. of Pennsylvania was sentenced to 28 years in prison for racketeering in a “kids-for-cash scandal. He was charged with taking $1 million in bribes from juvenile detention centers to fill their cells with Black teenagers who came before him in court.

The danger, of course, is that when people feel that there is no justice, when they have continually been harassed and subjected to racist perceptions and actions, when they think there is nowhere they can turn for help, when they have lost all trust in a system that should be protecting them, they will take matters into their own hands. They will march on the streets to bring their plight to widespread attention. They will go on the air to ventilate their angst. They will flood social media networks. And in extreme cases, some will turn guns on the police as happened in Dallas and Baton Rouge recently.

Case in point. A Baltimore police sergeant informed his Eastern District superiors on May 1, 2015 that things were getting “ugly.” Warning of heightening tensions between police and residents Sgt. Lennardo Bailey wrote: “I respectfully report that we are now being challenged on the street. I have been to five calls today and three of those five calls for service I have been challenged to a fight. Some of them I blew off but one of them almost got ugly. I don’t want anybody to say that I did not tell them what is going on. This is … my formal notification. It is about to get ugly.”

The argument that “all lives matter” does not help to bring us any closer to solutions. That is a monologue of the deaf. Nor does it help when an Ottawa radio news anchor and a CNN host seem to suggest that pulling out cell-phones to take pictures of deadly incidents and broadcasting them to the social media world is bad because it might generate hysteria and overreaction. Let us stay with the problem. And the problem is a tsunami of lethal force against Blacks, when the desired results could be achieved safely otherwise.

This is not simply a matter of individual police officers, even though the FBI now confirms that some of them were/are members of white extremist groups. Nor is it a matter of Ku Klux Klan and militia groups who advance the notion that “anti-racism” is code for anti-white, as some of them have said (See CNN’s United Shades of Black).

But it is also a matter of a blue-line police culture that envelops even some of the most upright citizens who become police officers, as was pointed out by former police officers themselves on the very important CNN program “Black, White and Blue” that was telecast Wednesday night July 13. That is why, in places like Ontario, the focus must be on changing police culture into citizen culture.

By citizen culture I mean

  1. a) that in a parliamentary democracy such as ours we all submit to the rule of law,
  2. b) that the rule of law means that the law applies equally to every citizen, including police,
  3. c) that Blacks are citizens who must be treated as if all lives are equal,
  4. d) that where equality is absent or endangered, corrective action must be taken,
  5. e) that we appoint and pay some members of our citizenry (police) to protect us,
  6. e) that those special citizens are not a law unto themselves but are subject to oversight (e.g. Police Service Boards).

We have seen the recent atrocities. It would be a mistake to believe that things are getting worse, however. They are merely becoming more visible. We are experiencing the technological apocalypse (unveiling, revelation) that began in the 1960s when television networks began bringing pictures of police brutality against Blacks into the living rooms of North America and helped bring success to the Civil Rights movement.

Today’s technology, however, is something else. The cell-phone is everywhere. It has placed the power of apocalypse into the hands of the masses. Anywhere you turn you are more likely these days to be photographed, and this cannot be a bad thing for democratic societies.

To be clear, we condemn shootings of police. We know police officers do not take on this mantle of discrimination on their own. If we exclude the rotten apples and the White supremacists who have joined the police, the overwhelming mass of police are solid citizens who uphold the safety of their communities with honour and integrity.  The problem arises when good cops remain blind and silent to the abuses they see, or just go along to get along.

And so I commend Dallas Police Chief David Brown who, in the face of the recent killings of five policemen, publicly invited protestors from Black Lives Matter to join the police.

Chief Brown knows what he is talking about. We in Canada have heard and seen the impact here of some of the not-best practices in the US. Between 1978 with Buddy Evans and 2006 with Duane Christian, some 36 unarmed Black men and a woman in the cities of Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa, were shot by police using excessive force. In most cases, no charges were laid, and when laid, the majority were found not guilty.

Yes, slavery was not a big thing in Canada, but there was slavery here. And one of Canada’s first police, an all-Black police force in Victoria, BC, was quickly disbanded because White people balked at being arrested by Black officers.

For racial harmony we all must live as one community under the rule of law with justice and peace. Attempts are being made, and although there has been reluctance to abandon carding, the Ottawa Police have one of the best records so far. However, there is a lot more to be done here.

About the writer

Ewart Walters was the editor and publisher of the Spectrum newspper. He is a recipient of the Order of Ottawa.

 

 

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