The racist prosecution of six black youths in Jena, Louisiana was the subject of one of the most successful civil rights protests in years last week, focusing the national and international spotlight on an unfortunate but all too frequent misuse of the criminal justice system. Naturally, Milwaukee’s own race-baiting wing-nuts were right out front, attacking the leaders of the protests and blaming the victims.
Over on right-wing radio station WTMJ, supposedly legitimate public-policy egghead (so christened recently by Marquette University) Charlie Sykes was playing his usual smear-the-messengers-so-we-don’t-have-to-deal-with-the-issues game. Jim Rowan noticed that Sykes called two historic figures who, unlike Sykes, have actually done something positive with their lives – civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton – "race pimps" for daring to challenge the Jena outrage. Nothing new here – I caught Sykes calling Sharpton a pimp back during the Imus imbroglio and my post was widely ignored. So, I guess this is something that the mainstream outrage-spotters are willing to let go, if only to protect their spots on Sykes’ TV panels. Besides, at least Sykes was familiar with the subject of his comments, having pimped for the GOP for years.
Over on WISN, Mark Belling was in full I-don’t-care-if-you-call-me-a-racist mode, calling the Jena kids "thugs" (like he knows) and blaming the struggle for justice in Jena as the "pathetic" result of nostalgic longing by "idiots" who missed the ‘60s. In one of the more outlandishly stupid examples of wishful thinking in recent years, know-it-all Belling offered this: "By the mid-1970s, all the legal racism in America was pretty much done-away with." Wow, really? This completely insupportable claim ignores the treatment of crack cocaine (used by blacks) more severely than powder (favored by whites, who can afford it); the disproportionate use of the death penalty on black defendants; high percentage of blacks in prison; the fact that blacks are still far more likely than whites to get stopped just driving down the street, etc. The criminal justice system has been regularly used to accomplish what cannot be done by Jim Crow or Bull Conner wannabes, especially in racist backwaters like Jena.
Not satisfied to pretend well-established racial problems in the criminal justice system don’t exist, Belling decided – as he often does at the mere suggestion of African-American temerity – to add racist insult to injury. Belling suggested that, rather than marching for justice in Jena like a bunch of ingrates, blacks should turn on people in their own community. "Why not do something gutsy like march in front of the homes of some of these mothers who have eight kids by eight different fathers and aren’t paying attention to any of them," said the exaggerating, ignorant Belling. "...whose notion of a family is to simply pop out a bunch of kids and turn them to the streets and allow the gang members to raise them?" Why not, indeed? Thus the classic racist notion of poor black women "popping out" children is introduced into a discussion of justice in Jena. "Dealing with the pathologies of urban America is hard; Jena is easy," he said. Well, Jena isn’t that easy for him. He can’t deal with any subject involving black Americans without promoting racist canards that would only be welcome in the coffee shops of white Jena.
While taking friendly calls from places like Oshkosh, Brookfield and the South Side – "How can we look at members of the black community as equals?" wondered the chump from Oshkosh – Belling, obviously on a roll, wouldn’t (perhaps couldn’t) stop there. He also had the nerve to speak on behalf of Martin Luther King, Jr. MLK "would not have rallied behind a bunch of guilty kids", claims Belling, forgetting that King himself was a frequent victim of the criminal justice system, "guilty" as he was of being uppity. "Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application," he famously wrote from the Birmingham jail. While his focus was on the civil rights denied in the South, King’s world view was not limited to that issue. He would have recognized the injustice in Jena – and, certainly, its relation to the deep South’s historic racism – just like he recognized the futility of the Vietnam war just before his death.
As if twisting the King legacy beyond recognition wasn’t enough, Belling couldn’t help but draw attention to King’s "problems in his personal life", just in case you were thinking of throwing some King back in his face. "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity," King said. Now, run tell that.
Paul Soglin had a brief moment of attention last week when he said on his blog that "the problem with Milwaukee is talk radio. So long as Charlie Sykes, Mark Belling and Jay Weber dominate the discussion on crime and poverty, there is little hope for Wisconsin's most important city to work its way out of its troubles." He’s right, of course, and the "discussion" of the issues presented by the Jena prosecutions are the perfect example. Sykes, Belling and their ilk are comedians, entertainers. They don’t give a damn about crime in the city, blathering on about it only to patronize their angry-white-man demographic by talking about how bad and irresponsible blacks and their leaders are.
In Jena, Louisiana, we see the legacy of historic racism, now filtered, however clumsily, through the heavy-handed use of the criminal justice system. Milwaukee’s legacy of racism also survives, no longer through the vehicles of segregated schools and Harold Breier, but now through loud-mouths on the radio, who continue to poison the environment with racist tripe. It’s not helpful, to say the least, but as long as they are offered forums at Marquette, columns in local newspapers and TV shows, it is those who facilitate their poison and advertise on their shows who really bear the responsibility for the lack of progress in a city that needs unity while Belling and Sykes promote division.