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George Curry

Police Shooting Victims Lives 'Worth' Less than a Ham Sandwich

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(NNPA) In Tom Wolfe’s best-selling The Bonfire of the Vanities, New York State Chief Judge Sol Wachtler famously said “a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich, if that’s what you wanted.”

Given the recent failure of grand juries to indict Darren Wilson, a White police officer in Ferguson, Mo., for killing Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African American, and a similar course followed by a New York City grand jury in connection with the choke-hold death of Eric Gardner in Staten Island, the criminal injustice system has essentially said Black lives are worth less than the value of a ham sandwich.

At issue is a grand jury system in the United States that even Arnold Burns, deputy attorney general in the Reagan administration, called a “foolish anachronism.”

Essentially, it is a one-sided proceeding controlled by prosecutors that delivers indictments 99 percent of the time – unless an unarmed Black person is killed by a White police officer, as was the case in Ferguson and New York City.

Unlike a trial, grand jury proceedings are secret. Attorneys for the victims are not allowed to attend. Witnesses are not cross-examined to gauge their veracity. Even evidence that might cast doubt on a person’s innocence is not required to be placed before the grand jury.

The United States is one of the few nations that still use the grand jury system, which is rooted in British colonial law. But Britain discontinued the use of grand juries more than 80 years ago. Traditionally, the grand jury system has been used by the federal government and some states in capital murder cases or major felonies.

In addition to protection against self-incrimination, the Fifth Amendment states, “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger…”

For prosecutors, the grand jury serves as a rubber stamp.

According to the Legal Times, “Justice Department statistics recently obtained by Legal Times, which reveal that 99.9 percent of the defendants called before federal grand juries are indicted, buttress the belief –  and concern – that prosecutors today almost always get what they want from a system originally set up to protect citizens from governmental overreaching.”

It also found, “From fiscal years 1994 through 1998, federal prosecutors secured 122,879 indictments, according to DOJ records. During the same period, prosecutors failed to get indictments in only 83 cases.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled though a grand jury is the sole charging instrument for the federal government in serious cases, defined as imprisonment of more than a year, that requirement does not apply to states. In Hurado v. California, a case decided in 1884, the court ruled that states are not constitutionally obliged to use a grand jury to charge a person in a crime.

Consequently, only 19 states require that all felonies be prosecuted through grand jury indictments, 23 reserve it for capital offenses and 30 make it optional, according to a study by Gerald D. Robin, a professor emeritus at the University of New Haven in Connecticut.

Just as Britain did, it is time to abolish the grand jury system. At the state level, we have demonstrated that’s not the only way to initiate criminal charges. This should be an ideal issue around which liberals concerned about civil liberties and conservatives concerned about an overreaching federal government should be able to coalesce around. The procedure is fundamentally flawed.

Short of total abolishment, there should be major changes made to the way grand juries operate.

In 1997, California Gov. Pete Wilson, a conservative, signed into law a bill requiring prosecutors to inform grand juries of any evidence that could be considered exculpatory or likely to prove the innocence of the accused. Several states have allowed a witness’ lawyer to accompany a client into grand jury proceedings and provide counsel before a witness answers a question.

Reforming the grand jury system will have a greater influence on developing a fair criminal justice system than requiring police officers to wear body cameras. Because if those serving as grand jurors refuse to believe their eyes, as they did in the case of Eric Gardner, all the body cameras in the world won’t help.

And the problem may be worse than we think.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that hundreds of police killings went unreported from 2007 and 2012.. It said, “A Wall Street Journal analysis of the latest data from 105 of the country’s largest police agencies found more than 550 police killings during those years were missing from the national tally or, in a few dozen cases, not attributed to the agency involved. As a result: It is nearly impossible to determine how many people are killed by the police each year.”

Reforming the grand jury system will make it easier to prosecute cops who kill unarmed people who pose no threat to their safety.

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.

Time for Black Democrats to Switch

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(NNPA) The midterm elections are over, the final numbers are in and they don’t look pretty if you’re a progressive. So, I am going to propose something our national African American leaders should have suggested a long time ago: It’s time for us to switch. No, not to the Republican Party. That  would be tantamount to drinking Jim Jones Kool-Aid (Young people, Google “Guyana Massacre”). It’s time to switch our emphasis from politics to economics.

I remember Al Sharpton, speaking at the 2004 Democratic convention, saying Blacks had decided to ride the (Democratic) donkey as far as it would take us. Well, Al, that donkey has taken us as far as we can go in politics, even into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Now, it’s time to park that old, tired pack animal on a farm and try a new mode of transportation.

Even when we have given it our best, politics have never delivered the expected results. I am old enough to remember how exuberant we were with the election of the first wave of Black big city mayors: Carl Stokes in Cleveland, Richard Hatcher in Gary, Ind., Ken Gibson in Newark and later, Tom Bradley in Los Angeles, Andrew Young in Atlanta and David Dinkins in New York. We saw Doug Wilder elected governor of Virginia, the cradle of the Confederacy. The outgoing governor of Massachusetts is another African American, Deval Patrick. In January, we will have not one, but two Blacks in the U.S. Senate (Cory Booker and Tim Scott), the largest African American contingent ever in the upper chamber.

And the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), which bills itself as the conscience of Congress, has behaved as though it was unconscious the last six years, too afraid to even critique President Obama for fear of facing a backlash back in their home districts. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, stated: “Well, I’m supposed to say he [Obama] doesn’t get a pass, but I’m not going to say that. Look, as the chair of the Black Caucus I’ve got to tell you, we are always hesitant to criticize the president. With 14 percent [black] unemployment,  if we had a white president we’d be marching around the White House.”

The undisputable truth is that Obama needed pressure from Blacks and progressives to make him a better president. When he offered his version of Ronald Reagan’s trickle down economic theory – if you take care of America as a whole, it will trickle down to what Jesse Jackson calls boats stuck at the bottom. How has that worked out for Black America?

And instead of being grateful for the silence of the lambs, Obama has an inexplicable need to criticize his supporters even more than his opponents. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) can shout “you lie” during a State of the Union speech and ice cool Obama could essentially ignore the public slight. But appearing at a 2011 CBC dinner, the president urged his audience to “Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on. We’ve got work to do.”

Even before his party’s butt kicking last week, President Obama was doing what he always does – blame his most ardent supporters. On April 10, less than seven months before the midterm elections, the Washington Post gave this account:

“President Obama said at a fundraiser Wednesday night that Democrats suffer in midterm elections in large part because black and Latino voters –  among other groups – don’t turn out to vote.

“’Our voters are younger, more unmarried women, more African-American and Latino voters,’ Obama said at an event in Houston. ‘They get excited about general elections; they don’t get as excited about midterm elections.’

“Obama added: ‘…we have this congenital disease, which is in midterm elections we don’t vote at the same rates.’”

Obama is correct in saying African American and Latino voters don’t turn out for midterm elections at the rate they do for general elections. But that’s true of all voters, not just people of color. Yet, Obama chose to place the blame on the shoulders of people most loyal to him and his party.

While there have been some meager improvements since the economic meltdown Obama inherited, Blacks still face staggering unemployment and severe income and wealth inequality.

As the National Urban League stated in its 2012 State of Black America report, “…  almost all the economic gains that blacks have made in the last 30 years have been lost in the Great Recession that started in December 2007 and in the anemic recovery that has followed since June, 2009.”

Blacks are on the verge of spending  $1.3 trillion a year, according to a Nielsen’s study. It’s time to shift our attention to economic development and empowerment. I am not saying we should abandon politics – we shouldn’t – but it should no longer be our primary focus. Let’s get off of that donkey.

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook

Watching the Elections from Abroad

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(NNPA) JERUSALEM — On Election Night, I usually stay awake as long as my eyelids are willing to cooperate. But this year was different. Instead of alternating between watching CNN and tracking results on the Internet, I was in the Holy Land, nearly 6,000 miles from my office in Washington, D.C.

With Daylight Savings Time going into effect last Sunday, I was in a time zone Tuesday seven hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. That meant that instead of hearing the TV network projections trickle in as polls closed in different regions of the U.S., I had to go to bed not knowing if Democrats had lost control of the Senate, as predicted, and how well African Americans had turned out in the pivotal states of North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana and Arkansas.

I fell asleep in my hotel room confident of two things: First, no matter how strong Blacks went to the polls in this off-year election, when voting historically favors the party out of the White House, Democrats were unlikely to regain control of the House of Representatives. Second, if Republicans managed to wrestle control from Democrats in the Senate, Democrats would blame the low turnout among African Americans.

Before departing Washington, I already saw this scenario unfolding. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post, the two most politically influential newspapers in the nation, had published stories about the importance of the Black vote in Tuesday’s midterm election and that without a heavy Black turnout, the prospect of Democrats retaining the upper chamber were doomed.

Missing in the analysis was how Democrats had shot themselves in the foot. It is important to understand that most White voters don’t support Democrats. The last three Democrats elected president – Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – won each time with a minority of the White vote. Considering there are more White voters in the U.S. than Blacks, perhaps a more appropriate question is: Why are White voters not turning out for Democrats? All that weight should not fall on the shoulders of Black voters.

A second point to remember is that even with Black voters being key to Democratic success, Democratic strategists have not, as the old lady making church announcements puts it, governed themselves accordingly. Even in battleground states, they didn’t purchase ads in most Black newspapers, if they bought any ads at all, until the waning days of the campaign. Last-minute White House efforts were largely directed at radio programs hosted by comedians and DJs, as if they could mobilize Black voters all by themselves with shallow drive-by interviews.

Although I was on foreign soil on Election Night, I did my civic duty by voting before I left. That, too, was different. I usually enjoy the energy of voting on Election Day, seeing who turns out and watching as children enter the voting booth with a parent. Voting early this year had its own satisfying sensation. There was the sheer joy of knowing I had made my voice heard, even though I wouldn’t be home on Tuesday.

My attention for the past two weeks has been split between the midterm elections in the U.S. and growing tension between Israel and Palestine. Though I have been in the Middle East for that period, at times I had to double-check to make sure I wasn’t reliving my childhood in segregated Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, reacting to pressure to settlers on land formerly occupied by Palestinians, has proposed barring Palestinians who live in the West Bank, but commute to work in Israel from riding the same buses as Jewish riders. The proposal to operate segregated buses like the ones I grew up with in Alabama is facing a strong pushback from other Israeli leaders and supporters of Israel in the U.S.

Equally disturbing, a delegation of African Americans visiting the village of Bil’in Saturday afternoon was looking at the long, concrete wall encircling a large settlement on previously occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank when one of our hosts noticed a jeep inside the housing compound headed in our direction. No one worried because we were on the outside of the settlement, which is about seven miles west of the Ramallah, and we were not breaking any laws. Still, moments later, several canisters of tear gas were fired just yards from us, forcing us to flee. Most of us were coughing and feeling a burning sensation in our eyes as we quickly fled. It was but a small sample of what Palestinians experience in their everyday life.

I will be returning home this weekend after a fascinating two-week trip. I will write a series of stories based on visit upon my return. And like all trips abroad, I will be following news out of the Middle East more closely than before. That is always one of the lasting benefits of traveling to other parts of the world.

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.

The Justice Department After Holder

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(NNPA) Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. hasn’t left the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building yet, but civil rights activists are worried about whether a strong advocate in Holder’s mold will succeed him.

Holder recently submitted his resignation after nearly six years on the job, making him the fourth-longest serving U.S. attorney general in history.

The news of Holder’s resignation was so significant that civil rights leaders Al Sharpton of the National Action Network, National Urban League CEO Marc H. Morial, NAACP President Cornell William Brooks and others, upon reading about Holder’s impending departure on an iPad that was being circulated, interrupted a press conference with the parents of slain Ferguson, Mo. youth Michael Brown and the mother of New York chokehold victim Eric Gardner, to praise Holder.

Sharpton said, “The civil rights community has lost, in effect, the most effective civil rights attorney general in the history of this country.”

In a statement issued later, former NAACP Board Chair Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, said: “There has been no greater ally in the fight for justice, civil rights, equal rights, and voting rights than Attorney General Holder.”

Several high-profile decisions will greet Holder’s successor, including whether to file federal civil rights suits in the cases of:

  • Off-duty security guard George Zimmerman in connection with his killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, in Sanford, Fla. In a state trial two years ago, Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter;
  • Staten Island, N.Y. Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo choked Eric Gardner, 43, to death on July 17, as the victim said, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” Garner, who was unarmed, was under suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. No state charges were filed against the officer. The choking and the failure of paramedics to administer CPR was captured on cellphone video and.
  • Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, 18, to death on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo. In a brief confrontation, Wilson had asked Brown, who was unarmed, to stop walking in the street. Brown had his hands in the air at the time he was shot at least six times by Wilson, according to witnesses.

Although it has not been announced, some news reports say that the Justice Department has decided to not pursue civil rights charges against Zimmerman.

Though there is always much excitement surrounding announcements that the Justice Department is considering filing civil rights suits, it is not a simple matter of taking a suspected wrongdoer to trial.

In order to be successful under federal hate crime laws, prosecutors must show that Officer Daniel Pantaleo, in the case of Eric Gardner, and Officer Darren Wilson, in the case of Michael Brown, intentionally killed the victims because they were African American. That is a high standard that is tough to meet, regardless of who is attorney general.

In addition to watching how Holder’s successor address high-profile police misconduct cases, eyes will also be on other key areas such as voting rights.

When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Holder made it clear that states would not have a green light to reinstate obstacles that make it more difficult for people of color to vote. He sued Texas and North Carolina to underscore that point.

The November mid-term elections will be extremely important because it will be the first time in nearly 50 years that 15 states with a history of racial discrimination, most of them in the South, will be conducting elections without the Voting Rights Act requirement that they pre-clear any major voting changes with the Justice Department or a federal judge.

In addition, the next attorney general will be evaluated on whether he or she is aggressive in seeking criminal justice reform.

Earlier this year, Holder said, “Our criminal justice system works only when all Americans are treated equally under the law. That’s why, in 2010, Congress passed the landmark Fair Sentencing Act, marking the culmination of persistent efforts – with the leadership of President Obama – to reduce unjust disparities in sentencing for similar offenses involving different types of drugs.”

He also said, “Today, I’m urging Congress to pass common-sense reforms like the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced by Senators Dick Durbin and Mike Lee – which would give judges more discretion in determining appropriate sentences for people convicted of certain federal drug crimes.

“This bill would also provide a new mechanism for some individuals – who were sentenced under outdated laws and guidelines – to petition judges for sentencing reductions that are consistent with the Fair Sentencing Act.”

Holder did more than resuscitate a civil rights division that had been highly politicized and packed with lawyers with little or no civil rights experience. He began the long process of restoring faith in the criminal justice system. His successor should be equally committed. If not, instead of reflecting justice, our prisons and jails will be filled with, in the words of comedian Richard Pryor: Just-us.

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.

Eric Holder's Legacy: No Coward on Race

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(NNPA) After being confirmed as the nation’s first African American U.S. attorney general, Eric H. Holder, Jr. wasted little time putting everyone on notice that he would not tip-toe around the volatile subject of race.

“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards,” Holder declared in a speech at the Justice Department.

There was the predictable uproar on the right and President Obama, while not repudiating his new appointee, told the New York Times, “I think it’s fair to say that if I had been advising my attorney general, we would have used different language.”

And that’s precisely the point. Holder was courageous in directly taking on the issue of race while Obama, in the words of Georgetown University Professor Michael Eric Dyson, “runs from race like a Black man runs from a cop.”

Holder’s deeds, not his words, are what made him such an exceptional attorney general.

He fought for criminal-justice reform, saying the overrepresentation of Blacks in the criminal justice system “isn’t just unacceptable; it’s shameful.” He said, “Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.”

He favored a 2010 law that eliminated the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine. And he led a successful effort to reduce prison sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenders.

Arguably his most lasting imprint was in the area of voting rights. When the Supreme Court struck down a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Holder said the ruling could not be used for the wholesale disenfranchisement of people of color. He sued Texas over its voter ID law and challenged North Carolina in court over its law to restrict early voting and same-day registration.

Holder further revitalized a sector of the Democratic Party by supporting same-sex marriage and his refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, which holds that marriage is strictly between a woman and a man.

There were some disappointments as well.

He supported the FBI’s right to track U.S. citizens without obtaining a warrant. He also approved of the National Security Agency’s authority to collect millions of phone records of Americans not accused of any crime

In his zeal to plug national security leaks, the Justice Department obtained the phone records of journalists performing their jobs. Last year, Holder backtracked, promising that the Justice Department “will not prosecute any reporter doing his or her job.”

Republicans highlighted the failure of Operation Fast and Furious, an Arizona-based Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) project to track weapons purchased by Mexican drug cartels. Not only did ATF fail to account for more than 1,000 firearms that had been purchased by straw buyers, two of the missing weapons were linked to the killing of Brian Terry, a U.S. Border Patrol agent.

When Holder, citing executive privilege, refused to turn over certain Fast and Furious records to Congress, the House held him in contempt, the first for a sitting cabinet member.

Both conservatives and liberals criticized Holder for his failure to prosecute individuals connected to the Wall Street financial crisis in 2008. While some firms deemed “too big to fail” were subjected to record fines, no Wall Street executives were prosecuted. They were derisively labeled “too big to jail.Most African Americans will remember the bold stances and actions Holder took following killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Florida and the Aug. 9 killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, Jr. by Darren Wilson, a White police officer, in Ferguson, Mo. Brown was shot at least six times.

Holder criticized Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, telling NAACP delegates, “These laws try to fix something that was never broken.” Holder visited Ferguson, sharing his own personal experiences of being profiled by police. Following his visit to Ferguson, Holder ordered a federal civil rights investigation of the predominantly White police department. He said the investigation would determine whether Ferguson officers had “engaged in a pattern or practice of violations of the U.S. Constitution or federal law.”

In a speech earlier this month at New York University, Holder said that as a former U.S. attorney and the brother of a longtime police officer, he has nothing but respect for police officers. But he said he is also an African American man “who has been stopped and searched by police in situations where such action was not warranted.” Consequently, he said, “I also carry with me the mistrust that some citizens harbor for those who wear the badge.”

Under Holder, the Justice Department has initiated twice as many police reviews for possible constitutional violations than any other attorney general. At least 34 other departments are under federal investigation for possible civil rights violations.

Conservatives have pilloried Holder for being so aggressive on civil rights. But he has not backed down for one simple reason – he is no coward.

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.

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