Why 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.
"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.
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."
"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'."
"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."
Republished from The Guardian with the author's permission.