One family’s “American Violet” experience

AmericanViolet

When I saw "American Violet" recently, it really hit close to home. For days afterwards, I kept flashing back to my family's own encounters with the law.

"American Violet" is a stunningly powerful film. It is based on the true story of Dee Roberts' heroic battle to beat the drug charges for which she's falsely accused.

The 24-year-old African American single mother of four is compelled to take on the whole judicial and law enforcement establishment in a small town in Texas if she has any hope of winning.

Set in the midst of the 2000 presidential elections, the film, released last year and now in video/DVD, tells a story that continues to be played out 10 years later in the African American communities of our nation.

You will have to see the movie if you want to find out whether she and, through her case, the African American community, wins.

For myself, the movie kept bringing me back to several incidents involving family members and close friends over recent years.

***

A few days before I saw the film, I went to the front door to find a policeman asking my 17-year-old grandson and then me whether either one of us had seen or heard a suspect who minutes before had robbed a neighbor across the street. We had not. No sooner had we closed the door than my grandson turned to me and said, "I thought he was coming for me."

A strange thing, you might think, for a teenager, a good student never in trouble with the law, to remark. He happens to be African American.

And, he had good reason to fear the policeman. A few months ago, on his way to see a friend down the block from our home, he was stopped by two cops who were looking for someone suspected of robbing a passerby.

After questioning him, they frisked and handcuffed him. As they started walking him into the police van, a middle-aged African American neighbor shouted at the top of her lungs, "What are you doing with my nephew?"

My grandson, who is not the neighbor's nephew by blood, was subsequently released.

***

Unprovoked, the cops had been harassing the young African Americans who on occasion would gather by our house to socialize.

One Friday afternoon, our smart-ass nephew, also African American and a teenager at the time, flipped a finger at the cop in the car coming down the block, after which he dashed across the street and into the house, closing the front door behind him.

Moments later, the cop broke the door open, nicking my grandson on the forehead and rushed recklessly into the kitchen with his gun drawn as my wife was giving shape to the meatloaf she was about to put in the oven. (Thank God she wasn't holding a knife at the time.) He violently threw our nephew against the kitchen wall, handcuffed him and took him away.

After a weekend in jail, our nephew was released without charges ever being filed.

The following week, we showed up in force, over 75 neighbors and other friends, to give testimony before the City Council.

We were a remarkably diverse crowd, reflecting the changing makeup of the neighborhood occasioned by gentrification: from the blond, blue eyed toddler in his father's arm to the chestnut-complexioned grandmother with the powerful oratory.

Afterward, as we were walking out, we were met by the new African American police chief. He took my wife's account of the incident and promised to pursue the matter expeditiously.

Thereafter the cops stopped harassing the young folk on the block.

But, our pleas for disciplinary action against the lawbreaking cop before the police internal affairs unit and the civilian police review commission went unheeded.

Much as we tried, no attorney would agree to take the case pro bono because no one had been killed or seriously injured.

Twisted logic, we thought.

Incidents of police disregard for the safety and security of families in their own homes are not uncommon in the Black community and other communities of color.

We thought it'd be better to fight to win legal precedent in these types of cases before they turn into tragedy. But, perhaps the attorneys' reaction was conditioned by the constraints of the legal and social environment in which they must function.

***

A couple of years back a member of our extended family, an African American, came home with a radiant smile after landing a job following months of searching. The next day, which was to have been her first day at work, she came home earlier than expected with tears in her eyes. It turned out that immediately after she entered the employer's premises, a supervisor informed her, "I'm sorry, but we will not be needing you after all."

Left unsaid: someone somewhere in the corporation's chain of command had a change of heart when he/she spotted a checkmark in the "yes" box of the job application where it asks, "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?"

***

The 20-year-old African American son of a good friend became part of our extended family after he regularly stayed overnight during school holidays while he was growing up - another one of our nephews.

Last year he was charged with attempted murder of a policeman. The bullet pierced the back of the car but did not injure the cop. The young man was tried in the media before the judge imposed a gag order at the defense attorney's request.

Later the DA added charges of armed robbery and being a member of a gang. The prosecution had a weak case but if it had gone to trial, the young man would have faced a jury picked from one of the most affluent counties in the country, overwhelmingly white.

Our nephew faced life in prison for the attempted murder of the cop and the additional charges. The DA offered a plea bargain. Go with the robbery and gang charges and do 25 years in prison, 19-½ with good behavior.

What would I have done?

He took the deal.

I found it tragically ironic that, once the defendant took the plea bargain, the DA dropped the charge of attempted murder of a police officer, for which our nephew was first arrested.

***

Countless experiences like the ones I've related above and worse cry out for fundamental reforms in our judicial and law enforcement system.

If workers and their children, especially people of color and immigrants, are the principal targets of these crimes, African Americans are the bullseye.

Consider the following:

The U.S. prison population, the largest of any nation in the world, surpasses 2 million. Nearly half are African Americans, although they constitute only 13 percent of the total population.

More than 10 percent of African American young men between the ages of 25 and 29 are incarcerated, by far the largest racial or ethnic group.

Today, more African American men are in jail than in college.

When these figures are put together with similarly disproportionate indicators in the job market, housing, health care, education and other fronts - made worse by the current economic crisis - the conditions that whole sections of the African American community must endure border on genocide.

They are an indictment against the right-wing ruling class circles that strive to perpetuate the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow in modern capitalist terms.

It's one more reason why it becomes paramount to amass the class and social forces that will deliver a crushing blow to the far right in the November elections and open the door to reforms on all fronts, including the "justice" system.

Photo: Alfre Woodard, left, and Nicole Beharie, in a scene from "American Violet." http://www.flickr.com/photos/effenk/ / CC BY-SA 2.0

 

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  • Excellent article, Juan! Thank you for sharing these stories of your family and its run-ins with the police. As an activist, I have had dozens of negative experiences with the police. But, as a white person I have come away from them with relatively little harm (a few short stints in crowded jail cells). I will definitely check out the film, too.

    Posted by Todd Tollefson, 02/15/2010 1:22pm (4 years ago)

  • Thank you brother Lopez for your very good article which delivers an important message concerning the racist repression that is blatantly practiced in our country. And also thank you for making the connection between these practices and the fascistic policies of the ultra-right dominated Republican Party. During the last 30 years of Republican political domination our prisons have been privatized and the prison population has grown over 800%! As you so correctly put it this is all the more reason why we must defeat the ultra right in upcoming elections.

    Posted by Frank Chapman, 02/09/2010 12:12pm (4 years ago)

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