The conviction of Michael McGee at his federal trial last night has led to tiresome clucking by the usual suspects. Some of them, overwhelmed by seeing a story about black people and then another story about black people in one week, predictably joined the two and suggested that McGee supporters now "can go back to rioting for non-existent food stamps". This is what happens when racist know-nothings try to use two sad situations to beat up on a community reeling from entrenched material poverty and the moral poverty of self-appointed opinion-shapers who need to stand on the grave of their dreams for their own selfish ends.
From everything I’ve read about it, the McGee trial ended as it should have. It was fairly clear that he was using his position to pad his pockets, and was stupid enough to push so hard on the business owners involved that they got pissed enough to call the authorities. Thus did his personal financial issues overcome his obvious interest and occasional good work in the community. There wasn’t much my talented friend, McGee’s defense attorney Calvin Malone, could do about this. It sounded like another talented friend, prosecutor Joe Wall, played it straight down the middle and let the tapes speak for themselves. With all that ammunition, it would have been fruitless to put McGee on the stand to try to explain all this. He had no explanation and Wall would have eaten him alive.
But McGee’s defenders never made predictions about how the case would end – their concerns, including mine, was how the case began. Unlike other white-collar cases involving government corruption, McGee was swept up off the streets on Memorial Day weekend and kept in stir for the entire year before his trial. The process was different than other aldermen and alderwomen who got in trouble, and the differences could only be explained by McGee’s race and his aggressive stance on issues facing the community. He became (and, to a lesser extent, remains) a martyr and a victim only because of this unwarranted treatment, giving him and his supporters a rallying point when he would otherwise have little as the facts became known. The government’s failure to recognize this – phone calls made from the jail notwithstanding – was their biggest mistake in the process, creating unnecessary controversy in an otherwise solid case against him.
Other than that, though, there is nothing to complain about in his conviction. Malone’s best shot was casting aspersions on star witness Jack Adel, but Adel didn’t put words in McGee’s foolish mouth. An alderman using power over liquor licenses to shake down business owners to the extent that McGee did (and he was apparently planning to take it city-wide after he got on the licensing committee late in his last term) is as bad as it’s ever gotten in this town.
But, in the end, McGee’s crimes are isolated and unique to him. The conviction says nothing about corruption in City Hall, conditions in the inner city or anything other than McGee himself. McGee ends up as a victim of nothing but his own greed and arrogance. The rest of us have already moved on; not that those who thrive on generating racial tension won't continue to try to stir the poisonous pot.