Concerning Advocacy and Criminality

malcolm xWhy do campaigning organisations like the NAACP defend plain thugs but ignore genuine radicals?

“Thank you, NAACP!” Demophilos says from across the table at Starbucks, smiling. “The governor of Mississippi pardoned the Scott sisters.” When he sees your expression, his eyebrows arch questioningly.

“I’m uncomfortable with black groups campaigning for common thugs,” you begin slowly, “when there are so many completely innocent people rotting in prison, to say nothing of political prisoners. But people like Kemba Smith, who carried drugs and guns for her boyfriend – they paid or are paying for real crimes, not for stealing bread.”

“Are they paying, or are we?” Demophilos says, with fire. “In urban America, besides the burned-out husks of buildings that were never rebuilt after the riots of the sixties, stand only taxpayer-built sports stadiums – and jails. More and more of them private. Corporations profit; we pay.” Demophilos sits back in his seat, now seemingly exhausted.

Jamie and Gladys Scott

“You don’t have to convince me,” you say, defensively. “Listen, I still remember where I was when Geronimo Pratt was freed. I was on College Avenue in Berkeley outside my local bank. I looked at the headlines of the newspaper in a kiosk and started to dance.

“The bank’s security guard, an African-American woman in her 40s, asked me what I was excited about.

“‘Geronimo Pratt is free,’ I said, out of breath. As you know, Pratt’s conviction had been overturned after he spent 27 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, more time than Nelson Mandela.

“‘How much time did he spend in jail?’ the woman asked me. ‘A year?’

“My rush ended. I realised that, though we were only miles away from where the Black Panther party had burst into life, this black woman had no idea who Geronimo Pratt was.

“But she knew who OJ Simpson was, and probably cheered, later, when Kobe Bryant was found not guilty.”

Your small coffees arrive. “That’ll be $10.95,” says the barista.

When she leaves, you say, “The NAACP has finite resources, and the public has a finite amount of empathy. So, why is this being wasted? In 2005, when Crips founder and multiple-murderer Tookie Williams was facing a death sentence, the NAACP staged ‘die ins’ to protest the execution.”

Kemba Smith

Kemba Smith

“Stop,” Demophilos pleads. “The NAACP is not ‘celebrating criminality’ by calling for the release of blacks who received harsh sentences. It’s fighting injustice.”

“And an injustice anywhere, blah blah blah.” You shrug. “Not all injustice is created equal. The reason black leaders and followers champion the thug and not the hero is that they realise it is dangerous to support political prisoners. They understand what happens if you say, ‘I am Spartacus.’

You put your hand up to keep Demophilos from interrupting.

“Look, I know American prisons and capital punishment are racist. H Rap Brown, former SNCC leader, faced the prospect of a death sentence. Assata Shakur faces prison if ever the US should extradite her from Cuba – and the Congressional Black Caucus supports her extradition. These are just the famous cases.

“But you can search all you want and you will not find the NAACP strongly advocating for them; its officers barely mention them. The African-American media treats Mumia Abu-Jamal like Voldemort: ‘He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’.” Demophilos chortles. You continue, “In black America, you can poison black children, you can beat and rob women, and be excused; the only unforgivable crime is to be a black radical.

“When the NAACP defends crack cocaine users, potheads, and criminals like Michael Vick, when it calls every black man who steals a television set a victim of a ‘new Jim Crow‘, it denigrates the heroes of old, whom white Americans jailed for their political convictions. It tricks today’s youth into thinking that Tookie Williams is the heir of Robert Williams. The subtitle of Malcolm X’s autobiography was not Get Rich or Die Tryin’.”

Jonathan David Farley“But Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, George Jackson and Malcolm X did go to jail for petty crimes,” Demophilos says, triumph in his eyes.

“No,” you answer, “Malcolm Little went to jail. Malcolm X came out.”

Demophilos sneers. “So you would save Barabbas, and not Jesus.”

“The Scott sisters are neither prophets nor revolutionaries,” you reply plaintively. “That is why they are free.”

Jonathan Farley

Republished from The Guardian with the author’s permission.

About Jonathan David Farley

In 2005, Seed Magazine named Dr. Jonathan David Farley one of “15 people who have shaped the global conversation about science”. He is the 2004 recipient of the Harvard Foundation’s Distinguished Scientist of the Year Award, a medal presented on behalf of the president of Harvard University in recognition of “outstanding achievements and contributions in the field of mathematics.” He obtained his doctorate in mathematics from Oxford University in 1995, after winning Oxford’s highest mathematics awards in 1994. Jonathan Farley graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University in 1991 with the second-highest grade point average in his graduating class.

Dr. Farley’s mathematical work has been profiled in The Chronicle of Higher Education, in Science News Online, in The Economist Magazine, in USA Today, on Fox News Television, and on Air America Radio. In 2001, Ebony Magazine named Dr. Farley a “Leader of the Future.” He has also been profiled in Jet Magazine, in Upscale Magazine, and on the cover of the NAACP’s Crisis Magazine.

Dr. Farley has been an invited guest on BBC World News Television, BBC Radio, and U.S. National Public Radio. On November 18, 2001, Dr. Farley was an invited speaker at the “Stop the War” demonstration in London, which drew 100,000 people. His essay, “My Fellow Americans: Looking Black on Red Tuesday,” appeared in Beyond September 11: An Anthology of Dissent, which also featured essays by Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky. Dr. Farley has written for Time Magazine, The New York Times, The Guardian newspaper, Essence Magazine, and the hip hop magazine The Source.

The City of Cambridge, Massachusetts (home to both Harvard University and MIT) officially declared March 19, 2004 to be “Dr. Jonathan David Farley Day”.

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