Friday, April 8, 2016

The crime bill in historical context

The year, 1995
Hundreds of people marched to the Few Gardens housing complex. The sadness in the crowd felt like we had discovered more than we could bare.

Shaquana Atwater was accidently shot and killed. The bullet was meant for someone else. It was a drive-by shooting and the person who pulled the trigger failed to see the baby playing on the porch.
Pictures of the two-year-old in the newspaper and on television made it hard to fight back the tears. We walked to the place where it happened.

The week prior to the march, members of the community packed the room where the Board of Durham County Commissioners meet to demanded more police presence. They wanted to build a collaborative effort to end the cycle of death in their community.

This is the context of the crime bill.  The push for its approval came from people living in communities like Durham’s North East Central Durham. At the time, I served as pastor of the Orange Grove Missionary Baptist Church and helped facilitate the North East Central Durham Partners Against Crime Project.

It helps placing opinions within a historical context. For me it’s the same as reading the Bible. I can go with a literal interpretation, or I can consider the culture and context to gain a better understanding regarding the intent of those behind the construction of the original document.

This is the disconnect created when people evaluate the crime bill. Retrospect helps us understand how and why it shouldn’t have been signed into law.  What people miss is the massive pressure placed on lawmakers during the rise of crack cocaine.

"You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter," Bill Clinton told Black Lives Matter protestors at a rally where he was campaigning for his wife.

Protestors shouted "black youth are not super predators," taking issue with a phrase Hillary Clinton used in a 1996 speech about violent crime committed by young people.

Hilary Clinton’s 1996 speech reflected the pain of many back then. It reflected how those living in and working in those communities felt. It’s the language many used to express their rage after the death of innocent bystanders. It’s how we talked that day when we marched to Few Gardens to draw attention to the need for more police protection.

It’s what I said when I spoke that day. I talked about outsiders coming into the community and creating what felt like a war zone.  I talked about people being afraid to walk in their own neighborhoods because of drugs and violent crime.

Mistakes were made back then.

Members of the community pressured the police to take a more aggressive approach to law enforcement.  They demanded random stop points and increased presence.  Residents of the predominately black North East Central Durham community wanted to arrest and punish the men and women they saw as predators. They used that language to describe their experience back then.

This was the language used to describe youth who embraced gang culture in Durham. The documentary “Welcome to Durham” exposed how gangs were a growing fear. In Durham, people like Otis Lyons, founder of Campaign 4 Change, use their personal stories to help youth avoid gang activity.

“I do it basically, to save lives. You know I was a gang banga too,” Lyons, who goes by the name Vegas Don, told Christopher “Play” Martin of Brand Newz.  “You know I sold drugs, so I know that ain’t the route to go, so I’m just trying to save as many lives as I can.”
Youth crime and gangs play a large role in how we process conversations regarding mass incarceration. It's a reality that can't be dismissed.

There were 35 murders in Durham, NC in 1994. A 2004 study from the Governor's Crime Commission documented more than 8,500 gang members and 387 gangs in North Carolina.

Lawmakers, under pressure from citizens, sought ways to strengthen anti-gang legislation. A bill calling for stiffer penalties enforced under the crime bill did little to curtail increases in youth crime.  
"When your social fabric is one where the community doesn't believe in the school system, doesn't believe in county government, doesn't believe in the things that are important, it opens up the door for persons to look at something else to believe in," said Donnie Phillips, a retired juvenile justice officer in Durham, during a community forum at the Hayti Heritage Center in 2008.

One death followed by another.  One funeral, with people crying because death came too soon, followed by another. The stabbing of Kenan Odom, 22, came just six weeks after his cousin Kordero Odum, 19, was shot dead, amplifying the grief of that family.

Odum had been out on bail on a number of charges, including murder charges for his involvement in two separate shooting deaths in 2005. Xavier Moore, 22 was suspected of killing Odum. He was shot outside a Miami Boulevard Wendy’s restaurant in 2005.

Odum was arrested for being one of the four men present when 18 year-old Sesaley Hunter was shot in the head. In April of that same year, he was charged again with being one of the four present when 17 year-old Kashaun Patterson was shot to death.

I still remember the death of Skye Lee, an 18-year old student at Northern High School, killed while her 10-month old child was nearby. Cory Anthony Jiggets, 19, was charged in connection with the slaying. Jiggets is the father of Skye’s child.

Over the years, I’ve attended close to 100 funerals of young people killed. I waited and prayed with the family after Tia Carraway left for a lunch break and never returned. She was found two days later in a wooded area with a bullet in the back of her head.

What do you call young people who commit murders? What do you say to families after they receive the bad news?

Is Bill Clinton right? Are we defending the people who take the lives of other people when we focus too much on the language of rage outside the context of those old statements? I seriously doubt that he possess the moral compass to help us filter through this issues.

More critical than Bill and Hilary's involvement in passing the crime Bill is the black communities participation in moving the Bill forward. Understanding the context in which the bill was passed aides in understanding the manipulation that assured the bills success. Rather than point fingers at the Clinton administration, it becomes more productive to ask what it takes to prevent bills like this being passed again.

This is the meaning of black empowerment.

I stood before the masses and prayed at Few Gardens. I can’t remember the prayer. I do remember the emotions. There was a bunch of God fix it entangled with please show us the way. We didn’t know what to do other than to collaborate with a community under siege.

In 1994, we began to feel the burden related to the rise of crack cocaine in black communities.  We watched as boys transformed into criminals and took weapons to protect their territory.  Mistakes were made back then. Now we can learn from those mistakes

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