Why Blacks are under-represented at peace rallies
Supreme Court ponders another capital case
Pardon sought for executed woman





Delma Banks was just 10 minutes from execution by lethal injection when Texas prison officials told his family and lawyer, "A stay has been granted. You're free to go." Banks was temporarily spared by the U.S. Supreme Court, while the Justices decide whether to hear arguments that he was railroaded to death row 23 years ago, convicted by an all-white jury in the killing of a white youth based on testimony that has since been recanted.

Around the same time in Cuthbert, Georgia, another family gathered to request a posthumous pardon for Lena Baker, a Black woman put to death in the electric chair in 1944. The young mother of three shot a white man with whom she had apparently been sexually involved. She claimed to have acted in self-defense. Her trial before 12 white men took one day. For the next five decades, Lena Baker's body lay in an unmarked grave, her family scattered.

Lena Baker and Delma Banks - one long dead and the other a few breaths away from becoming the 300th Texas inmate to be executed since resumption of the death penalty in 1977 - are reminders to every Black man and woman that America cannot manage to keep even the first word of its promise: "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."

Texarkana prosecutors had no witnesses to the murder of Delma Bank's 16-year-old fast food restaurant co-worker, nor evidence that he was even in town at the time. Banks proved that he was in Dallas, 180 miles away, four hours after the killing, and claimed that he'd been there all night. The prosecution couldn't come up with a motive, either. Banks just shot the white teenager, with whom he had been friendly, "for the hell of it," they said. Two career criminals, one a paid informer, the other facing a third felony conviction on arson charges, collaborated with the prosecution to connect Banks to a gun that may have been the murder weapon. Both now admit they lied.

What the prosecutors in 1944 Georgia and 1980 Texas did have were all-white juries. And what Ms. Baker and Mr. Banks most emphatically lacked was effective counsel.

Banks' Texarkana attorney "provided an indifferent defense" and "did not challenge the prosecution's removal of blacks from the jury pool or scrutinize witnesses," reported the New York Times.

Ms. Baker's Cuthbert, Georgia lawyer didn't call a single witness. "What I done, I did in self-defense," said the doomed woman. "I have nothing against anyone. I am ready to meet my God." No one else spoke on her behalf, not even a character witness.

Fatal attraction

Prison and Jail Project director John Cole Vodika advocates for prisoners and their families in southwest Georgia. Vodika told the Associated Press:

She should never have been tried for murder. It was an obvious injustice. That's what the system did with African-Americans who dared resist white men's authority.

She was a victim of racism, white man's domination over African-American women. In an effort to cover up what really happened, the county moved to treat it as capital murder. It sure appears they wanted to get rid of her quickly and to limit or eliminate anything happening that would further embarrass the family of the deceased.

Ms. Baker and the white man often went on trips together. We don't have to guess whose idea that was. He was known to show up at her house and make loud demands that she leave with him. The man's obsession was apparently common knowledge. This was quite enough reason for the white people of Cuthbert to murder a battered and coerced Black woman and to drive most of her family out of the state of Georgia.

Mr. Bank's current counsel, George Kendall of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, has plenty of opportunities for deathwatch duty in Texas. Eight women and 439 men await lethal injection in the state, which has accounted for one-third of the nation's executions over the past 26 years.

However, Banks also has big, establishment legal guns on his side. A team of former federal prosecutors and judges led by ex-FBI Chief William Sessions took a special interest in Bank's case, considering it a clear example of capital punishment run amuck. Session's blue-ribbon squad convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to consider a range of prosecutorial abuses of Bank's right to a fair trial.

The NAACP's Kendall said the High Court's decision to stay the execution indicated "serious debate that could not be resolved" among the nine justices. Texas Defender Service executive director Jim Marcus believes the justices are "clearly troubled by one or more aspects of this case."

To be sure, one Supreme Court Justice is very "troubled." Clarence Thomas has gone mad. Last month, when confronted with mountainous documentation of systematic exclusion of Blacks from Dallas juries, Thomas stood alone in rejecting a condemned Black man's plea for a new trial. (See "All About Clarence: Self-loathing on the High Court," March 6.) Even hangman Justice Antonin Scalia blanched at the raw racism that had ensured a death verdict for Thomas Miller-El. Yet, where eight white colleagues saw cause for doubt, Clarence Thomas discerned only ''circumstantial evidence and speculation'' of prosecutorial wrongdoing. There was no "clear and convincing evidence that any peremptory strikes of black veniremen [jurors] were exercised because of race.''

Clarence Thomas acts as if he were white in 1940s Cuthbert, Georgia, a place and time that his mentor Scalia would rather pretend never existed. Unless the rest of the Brethren find an exorcist to de-demonize their warped and suffering colleague, Thomas is likely to once again erupt in frothing, ill-constructed dissent, an intellectual embarrassment to the death faction. Thomas' too-obvious bloodlust spoils the decorum of death, undermining the argument for capital punishment.

No Justices were noted to have objected to Delma Banks' reprieve, this week. The stay of execution remains in effect until the court decides whether or not to review his case. If the answer is no, Banks will face the needle for the last time. If review is granted, all eyes will be fixed on Sir Clarence of Pin Point, Lord High Executioner of Black People.

Black peace activism questioned

Why don't larger numbers of African Americans march and rally against Bush's war? Whites are constantly posing the question, most often in tones that indicate sincere puzzlement. Although most white Americans appear to know nothing at all about anyone except themselves, the thinking fraction is aware that Blacks are the most consistent national opposition to U.S. military adventure. For the past four decades, Black elected officials and mass organizations have expressly linked issues of domestic social justice and peaceful international relations. Polling evidence is conclusive over two generations: Anti-war politics is mainstream Black politics. That has never been true of white America, or consistently true for any other American ethnicity.

So, why is it that African American representation in anti-war crowds is less than their proportion of the general population? The answers are as simple - and as complicated - as for any other matter of race relations in America. Anti-war activities are organized by people. They are social activities, connected to networks of people speaking through their own frames of reference, bringing to the activity all of the baggage of their segregated lives. In a racist society, all politics must be evaluated in the context of race relations.

White people are the historical culprits in this matter of American racism. It is, therefore, appropriate that dedicated white people have done some of the most serious, nuts and bolts work in tackling the racial dilemmas that dog progressive organizers. If white supremacy is a (the?) general problem in America (the world?), it will also loom as a (the?) major contradiction in creating mass, multi-racial movements, including movements that purport to be anti-racist.

If the problem could be wished or prayed away, Black people would have wished and prayed themselves free long ago.

In an Open Letter To Activists Concerning Racism In The Anti-War Movement, circulated last month, a multi-ethnic group of New York movement veterans argued that:

Most white activists don't see how "whiteness" privileges them and perpetuates white supremacist social relations in movement work. White activists have a responsibility to struggle against white supremacy, a struggle that includes: 1) Sharing leadership with, and being willing to follow the lead of, people and organizations of color; 2) maintaining an attitude of collectivity and not dominating discussion; 3) challenging racist language and actions (especially within movement spaces), and 4) prioritizing the issues, experiences and struggles of people of color.

Much of value has been accomplished through the Challenging White Supremacy Workshops. We also recommend a February Znet article titled, "Anti-War Questions and Answers."

Some of the most important anti-war efforts - the city council resolutions opposing war - have taken place in cities where whites are a minority. In fact, of the 25 cities with population of over 100,000 that have passed anti-war resolutions, 15 have white minorities. Of these 15, 6 have an African American majority and 6 an African American plurality.

"Nevertheless," authors Michael Albert and Stephen R. Shalom caution, "it's probably still the case that current demonstrations are disproportionately white and middle class. But to a considerable extent this is a function of which sectors of society can most easily take the time and expense to travel to major anti-war events."

The insidious assumption

We should examine the assumptions that may lurk behind and within questions concerning Black participation in anti-war demonstrations. First, there is a general perception among whites and Blacks that white people dominate the anti-war movement. To the extent that this is true, why should it be assumed that African Americans will come when white people call, for any cause? Have white people responded to Black-led movements seeking broad social change in anything approaching whites' proportion of the population? Older whites are sometimes heard to complain about a lack of recognition of the many thousands of whites who took part in the 1963 March on Washington, for example. Yet whites were a fraction of the quarter-million strong crowd, while outnumbering African Americans in the general population eight to one. (Not to mention the resource gap.) Did whites believe that they were making some special contribution to the "Black" cause? Apparently, some did, and still do.

Whites' resources and privilege make it possible for even relatively weak sectors of white opinion to make a great deal of noise. White institutions pay attention to other whites. But minorities among whites cannot presume to set a detailed agenda for Black Americans, who share an extraordinarily coherent group worldview. African Americans cannot be summoned.

The intelligent question that Black America grapples with daily is, Why don't African Americans rally to Black-led causes more often and in greater numbers? This is a question that seems not to concern many "peace" activists, who prefer to ask their own questions, concerning the activities that are the focal points of their own lives.

There is a growing awareness that profound damage has been done to Black America's ability to mobilize itself for demonstrations or direct action. Young people drive activist politics. The overlapping, relentless assaults on urban America over the past three decades have fallen most heavily on Black youth. The cutting edge cultural cohort of the international youth market is, in political terms, a wounded force, far less available and less capable of organized, public confrontation with Power. And Power knows it.

In the most afflicted urban neighborhoods, huge numbers of young males and females are not present, due to incarceration. At any given time, a much larger group is under criminal justice supervision. More still live in fear of becoming too visible to authorities that treat every young Black as a probationer. At the micro level, in a typical circle of four male friends in their older teens, at least one will not risk exposing himself to police in a public demonstration. Consequently, the tight little group becomes useless for a variety of organizational purposes. In an important sense, it is outside of politics.

The usual suspects

Last week, San Francisco Bay area Hip Hop commentator Davey D reported on an Oakland demonstration that "marked one of the first times that you saw large numbers of Black and Latino youth from the hood come out and voice their opinion about the War." Police treated the 300 - 500 demonstrators like an oversized band of the usual suspects. Activist/journalist "JR" was roughed up and arrested.

He phoned into our Hard Knock Radio show from city jail and emphatically explained that many people were in fear of their lives when the officers started becoming aggressive. He pointed out that kids were being run over and shoved by the motorcycles and the police seemed bent on intimidating people. He also noted that most of the participants were not out in the streets attempting to get arrested and do some sort of civil disobedience. In fact it had been advised to a lot of the mostly Black and Latino crowd to not go out and try and get some sort of police record. That can only have negative effects in the age of Homeland Security and the Patriot Act. He also felt that there were enough Black folks caught up in the system and we don't need any more.

If you contrast what went down in Oakland at 1 o'clock in the afternoon with the anti-war demonstrations that took place in SF during rush hour you will see the picture. In the SF demonstration a contingent of mostly white youth took their antiwar protest to the streets and blocked a main intersection causing traffic to back up. Police on motorcycles did not roll through and brutalize the demonstrators.

On Saturday, March 15, thousands will converge on Washington for an Emergency March on the White House. Relatively few will come from inner cities, despite the large role played by Blacks in the ANSWER coalition.

Neither African Americans nor whites should draw shallow conclusions from the numbers. Americans live in very different worlds. In much of Black America, police state conditions have existed for some time, and the Patriot Act is just another reason for abuse.


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Issue Number 33
March 13, 2003

Other commentaries in this issue:

Cover Story
Racism & War - Perfect Together

The Unchristians... Onward Sharpton soldiers... Randall Kennedy exhumed



Commentaries in Issue 32 March 6, 2003:

All About Clarence:Self-loathing on the High Court

The Issues
Condoleezza vs Schwarzenegger for Senate... Africa’s "Right to Health"... Turks: "Stick it up your backside"

The disappearing 2004 election... Delousing the Democrats... TV’s "Meet the Prejudiced" and "Face the Fool"

Persistent Peril: Why African American babies have the highest infant mortality rate in the developed world By Ziba Kashef, ColorLines RaceWire

You can read any past issue of The Black Commentator in its entirety by going to the Past Issues page.