Freedom Rider: Sean Bell and Wesley Snipes
by BAR editor and senior columnist Margaret Kimberley
police have no expectation of punishment, even when they kill without cause."
The United States leads the
world in putting its citizens behind bars. The nation with just 5% of the world's
population has 25% of the world's prisoners. One out of every 99 adults in this
country is behind bars, and half
of those persons are black. Those figures are horrific, but the explanation
for them is not at all complicated. Racism is the reason that so many are
behind bars. If America were not so committed to continuing its culture of
white supremacy, those dreadful statistics would not exist.
Black people can always expect
to be punished, and to the harshest degree possible. We can expect punishment
whether guilty or not, whether the punishment fits the crime or even if no
crime has been committed at all.
Those facts are turned upside
down where police crime is concerned. The police have no expectation of
punishment, even when they kill without cause. Their victims are usually black,
and they are rarely if ever punished for indiscriminate murder.
Two cases recently in the news
illustrate that point. One man, Sean
Bell, died in a hail of police bullets for committing the crime of saying
farewell to his last night of bachelorhood. Bell was a New Yorker celebrating
with friends in the wee hours before his wedding, as young men usually do. Cops
surveilling the club he left believed, wrongly, that Bell and his friends were
armed. They fired 50 shots into his car, killing Bell and injuring his friends.
The Bell case had a terrible familiarity from the very
first day. The community is outraged, the Mayor and the police commissioner at
first claim the shooting is justified and then back pedal. There are
indictments but the police choose to be tried before judges instead of before
juries. As almost always happens with fatal police shootings, Bell's killers
judges are fully dedicated to maintaining the white justice status quo."
As always, the community
protested, and continues to protest the verdict. But in the end, Bell's killers
will never be brought to justice. If trigger happy cops know that judges will
view them more kindly than ordinary citizens will, is it any wonder that
America's prisons are bulging at the seams? A book by the late Judge Bruce
Wright was aptly entitled, "Black
Robes, White Justice." America's judges are fully dedicated to maintaining
the white justice status quo.
Two of the three cops indicted
in Bell's case are themselves black, but that fact makes little difference. The
system that insures greater scrutiny of black people and their communities will
mean greater likelihood of arrest, brutality or death, even when the police are
It may seem strange to compare
the fate of the late Sean Bell with that of actor Wesley Snipes. Snipes is still
alive after all, but he has fallen victim to the same black robe, white justice
philosophy that has deprived the Bell family of justice. The day before Bell's
killers got off scot-free, Snipes was sentenced to three years in jail for
misdemeanor tax evasion convictions.
"This case cries out for
the statutory maximum term of imprisonment, as well as a substantial fine,
because of the seriousness of defendant Snipes' crimes and because of the
singular opportunity this case presents to deter tax crime nationwide," so
Robert O'Neill. It is obviously absurd to think that anyone needs to be
deterred from repeating Snipes' experience. The real deterrence has nothing to
do with rendering unto Caesar on April 15th.
"How better to justify the prison nation and its racist
nature than to put a famous black person behind bars."
Jail time for a misdemeanor
conviction is not unusual for this prison nation. Neither is the need to make
examples of black people who run afoul of the law. A prison sentence is
unnecessary for Snipes, as well as for many of the thousands behind bars. How
better to justify the prison nation and its racist nature than to put a famous
black person behind bars for a crime that a jury determined was minor.
Snipes was once one of
Hollywood's biggest stars, commanding millions of dollars for every movie he
made. Such success is a double edged sword for black people. If they fall, they
are punished and punished severely. Former NFL quarterback Michael Vick was
doomed to be behind bars, so was Olympic athlete Marion Jones. The combination
of their fame and their black skin meant they were destined for the big house,
even though probation or lighter sentences were justified in their cases.
William Hodges admitted as much. "One of the main purposes which
drives selective prosecution in tax cases is deterrence. In some instances,
that means those of celebrity stand greater risk of prosecution. But there's
nothing unusual about it, nor is there anything unlawful about it. It's the way
the system works."
He might have added that prosecution is especially important
in a system determined to make examples of black people wherever possible. As
the judge said, it is the way the system works.
Kimberley's Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR. Ms. Kimberley lives in
New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at
Margaret.Kimberley(at)BlackAgandaReport.Com. Ms. Kimberley maintains an
edifying and frequently updated blog at freedomrider.blogspot.com.
More of her work is also available at her Black Agenda Report archive