Roundtable: Hastings Passed Over, Calif. Hate Crime

Guests: John McWhorter from senior fellow in public policy at the Manhattan Institute, E.R. Shipp, Hofstra University Journalism Professor; and Jeff Obafemi Carr, who hosts the radio show Freestyle. Topics include: Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) is rejected as chair of the House Intelligence Committee; a hate crime against whites divides a California city.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

On today's Roundtable, a CBC member loses out for a top seat in Congress and Atlanta police want to review their no-knock policy.

Joining us from our New York bureau is E.R. Shipp, professor in journalism at Hofstra University School of Communication. She's also with John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute senior fellow in public policy. And in Nashville, Tennessee, at Spotland Productions, Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the radio show “Freestyle.”

So, all right everybody. I just have to say this is my favorite political phrase of the year; which is almost over, so it may be my favorite phrase for the whole year. Sorry haters, God is not finished with me yet. That is Alcee Hastings in a statement. He got turned down, passed over by Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi for the chairmanship of the Intelligence Committee.

Now he is the number two Democrat on the panel. He was campaigning with the support of the Congressional Black Caucus, but he has had some ethics issues in the past. So, Jeff, I have to ask you - I mean come on, sorry haters, God is not finish with me yet, that is a great statement. God may not be finished with him.

Mr. JEFF OBAFEMI CARR (Host, “Freestyle”): I don't get it.

Professor E.R. SHIPP (Journalism, Hofstra University): What does it mean?

Mr. CARR: Well, it's a variation. Let me bring up the - well, it's a variation on the modern colloquialism player hater. They're people that came out of -people who are jealous of other people, and so there's a whole notion of don't hate the player, hate the game. But I thought it was an interesting use of it and I thought it was kind of hip. And like you said, that's the best political statement I've heard in a long time.

CHIDEYA: It's a rap star statement, you know?

Mr. CARR: It's a rap star statement. He's got it, man. He's hip. So, yeah, he's telling the people who are his detractors to don't worry, God is not through with me and I think that a couple of…

CHIDEYA: But is Nancy Pelosi through with him, I guess?

Mr. CARR: Yeah. You know, what? I don't know if she's through with him. She'd made a statement pretty much that she's through with him, I think. And made a statement on behalf of the party. And a couple of issues peaked through the surface here. One, the Democrats of course have finally wrested control of the legislature, that they want absolutely no missteps or even potential missteps here.

Representative Hastings in some people's opinion has a background that is less than ideal when we talk about the issue of his impeachment. Although we know that's still back and forth in terms of exactly whether he was right or wrong. And we know about the witness that falsely testified against him, et cetera.

But he's had a rebirth of sorts. But the Democrats got elected, many feel, because the self-named values party-based GOP has a series of big missteps leading up to the recent elections. They don't want to risk that leverage. And if that means that Hastings is a sacrificial lamb, then that's going to be - that's what it means. The second point is one of perception. To use another phrase, it's hard out there for black elected officials.

Prof. SHIPP: You could have used another word.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARR: So the political debate on race in recent years has rested squarely on the argument that the Democratic Party has taken the black voter, the black support of the black party member, even for granted, and incidents like these can serve to reinforce that notion. If you can't get respect of the senior official in your own party, how can that party say that it's open, diverse and fair?

Mr. JOHN MCWHORTER (Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute): There needs to be an added perspective to this one, which is that in terms of the impeachment of Hastings, none other than John Conyers Jr. was very much at the helm and put his sanction on it, which shows that it's not such an open and shut case that Alcee Hastings was framed.

And more to the point, you can talk about how tired for a black man, it's a like a jungle out there and all of that stuff. But it's also true that if you are a black person, that doesn't mean that you are immune from just pure politics.

And Pelosi already lost out in wanting to have Murtha in instead of Hoyer. And so here we are, she can't afford another loss, and the fact that Alcee Hastings is black is less important than the fact that he did have these stains on his record. And just because he is black doesn't mean that the stains were not true.

CHIDEYA: Well, E.R., does - is this still going to put…

Mr. CARR: The stains are the deeper.

CHIDEYA: Is this still going to put Nancy Pelosi in a position where she jumps off her leadership with an unhappy Congressional Black Caucus?

Prof. SHIPP: Well, the Congressional Black Caucus should have been more sophisticated in these negotiations behind scene, perhaps. If they knew that Alcee Hastings was perhaps the presumed head of the Intelligence Committee and they knew some of the difficulties he'd had, they could have worked something out if they want this to be a Congressional Black Caucus-controlled seat. They didn't do that.

CHIDEYA: You mean, work something out by putting another name up for contention?

Prof. SHIPP: Put another name up. Do some, you know, wheeling and dealing. They know how to do it when it comes to, you know, adding unnecessary programs in districts. Politicians know how to do that. They should have been able to do this in their caucus to work this out. They've known what Hastings' issues have been for a long time, so it's not a surprise.

Maybe he does need to go and become a rapper, you know, maybe he can reach more people that way. But seriously, though, I think that this should not be looked at as a black people being slapped in the face kind of issue.

Mr. CARR: Thank you, E.R.

Prof. SHIPP: This is…

Mr. CARR: Well, I agree. But notice I said perception. There is a perception that black people get slighted in the party, and this could add to that perception. But I agree that when you're dealing in politics, you have to make sure that your entire slate is clean, and that is an overarching issue here with that impeachment.

CHIDEYA: All right. Let's move on to no-knock searches. Atlanta's police chief announced his department will review its controversial no-knock policy after an elderly woman was shot to death by plainclothes officers. Now, she was killed on Tuesday night after she shot three narcotics officers who entered her home unannounced to serve a warrant. This was in the past, not yesterday.

Then the police chief said they found some marijuana inside Johnston's home after the shooting but not a large amount. The question here is, really, how do you deal with a situation where when you're doing something like a narcotics investigation, you may not want to say hello, it's the police. And at the same time you want to avoid tragedies like this.

Let's listen to a family friend, Reverend Markel Hutchins.

Reverend MARKEL HUTCHINS (Family Friend of Kathryn Johnston): At best, this was poor judgment on behalf of the police officers involved. At worst, it's an ungracious and gross violation of Ms. Johnston's civil and human rights.

CHIDEYA: So, John, I'll start with you. How do you balance the policing needs with these questions of civil and human rights and the fatality?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Farai, that one is so difficult. I mean obviously there needs to sometimes be no-knock policies, that can't be denied. I'm not sure what anybody means by review. There are times when you see a case like this one, and I don't know, maybe I'm missing something, but I see a truly tragic accident that was partly conditioned by the fact that that woman lived in a dangerous neighborhood.

Clearly, dangerous enough that she had and was actually ready to use a revolver when somebody was trying to come into her door. And to me, it's just - it's a larger issue. It's very simple. We have an absolutely absurd war on drugs. Why were they breaking in? You know, it's almost as if, you know, if a Martian came down and looked, it was as if they were breaking in because there were people selling Jack Daniels there. There was a narcotic, something that you use to alter your brain chemistry.

I think that the war on drugs is the issue there, not the notion of reviewing a no-knock policy in a dangerous neighborhood that's well known for being somewhere where people buy and sell a lot of drugs. It was a horrible accident.

Prof. SHIPP: But it seems like to me, though, that the police did not do sufficient surveillance beforehand or gather intelligence beforehand. Apparently, they relied upon an informant who we now know from reports to have been quite unreliable.

So he may have been deflecting attention from the real drug den and pointed out this woman's house. This woman, by the way, I don't think the setup of the story has sufficiently said who she was and what was going on. She was, like, either 88 or 92. We're talking about an elderly woman.

CHIDEYA: Yeah.

Prof. SHIPP: It was late at night, the cops broke the burglar bars off her house and busted through the door and all of this. And, heck, if I had a gun, I might have fired away, too. I have these humongous…

Mr. CARR: What?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SHIPP: No. Let me finish.

Mr. CARR: Oh, wow.

Prof. SHIPP: I have this humongous flashlight, and everybody knows that it could easily become a weapon if somebody breaks in on me. But - so that was like it's understood that she would have tried to protect herself. But what is not understood is why the police in the first place thought her house was a center of drug activity. And as they found out, it was not.

And also, this whole business of the department looking into this is silly. These kinds of things have happened all over the country and these cops go to all kinds of conventions, so somewhere along the way they should have learned about no-knock warrant policies and the dangers of them.

CHIDEYA: Jeff, you know, John called this a mistake. Is this a mistake or is this bad policy?

Mr. CARR: I think the mistake is bad policy, and John said that we have a war on drugs that is definitely weak to say the least. I wouldn't put those - use those exact words that he used, but it's laughable to say the least. We've discussed even on this show the no-knock issue before quite a while back. And it's obviously not going to go away anytime soon. This hurts me because of the context.

When it's all said and done, an elderly woman is cold on a slab because of this tip from informants that may or may not be credible. And here's where this law is troubling because many tips in this kind of environment are received from cats who are fellow criminals. How do you judge that? Knock-and-announce laws particularly are supposed to protect citizen's rights.

These people were in regular clothing. They knocked on the door. Who's to say what would happen if the same thing happened to any of us, especially in a neighborhood that's a little rough around the edges at times and in a time where people do home invasions.

So I think that part of this review is not only an Atlanta review but it's a national review on what knock-and-announce laws were supposed to do and how far we've gotten away from that over what is essentially nothing that was credible. And a woman's life is lost as a result.

CHIDEYA: There's actually a death-row case in the South, I believe Mississippi, where a gentleman was also wrongly targeted and he shot and killed a police officer. And so now he's on death row because he thought that the people invading his house were criminals, and in fact they were police on a mission that was not the right house.

Mr. MCWHORTER: Right.

CHIDEYA: So this definitely has huge implications. John, I want to just ask you more about your perspective on the war on drugs. What exactly do you mean that it's a problem - the problem is the war on drugs?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Oh, it's very simple. If we did not have this idea that people need to be hauled into jail and sent for long periods of time because of selling or buying these substances, then can you imagine what would happen to a lot of our tottering black communities for example if this whole issue was just not the point? If these things did not cost so much money, if you could not make that kind of living based on trafficking in these things because they were sold by the government in certain quantities. This is not the time to talk about the details of this kind of thing.

But the notion that we have this particular war on drugs and people going to jail and being shot and being subject of these accidents because of this particular war, which would look kind of peculiar to somebody a hundred years ago and will look peculiar a hundred years after this, is the same. Yeah.

Prof. SHIPP: It looks peculiar right now, because the war on drugs is so inconsistent.

Mr. MCWHORTER: And it doesn't work.

Prof. SHIPP: In some places such as in Manhattan, we have a district attorney who's basically announced more than a decade ago that he wouldn't really be going out of his way to prosecute anybody on charges of having a few bits of marijuana. In other places, that will get you life in prison. So we don't even have a consistent policy on how to cope with drugs and which drugs we need to focus on. Why is alcohol legal and a few grams of marijuana not legal, even if it's for medicinal purposes? So we need to first figure out what our goals are.

CHIDEYA: All right, well this sounds like a much larger discussion, one that we should get into.

Mr. CARR: Oh, yeah, indeed.

CHIDEYA: We have time for one last topic, which is there was a hate crime recently in Long Beach, California. A lot of times when you hear hate crime, you think white on black or white on minority. But this was eight black teenagers, most girls. On Halloween night, they allegedly threw pumpkins at a group of women, yelled insults, and then hit them with a skateboard. And some of them had some serious injuries from that.

The question here, among others, I think is some people say black folks cannot be racist because the root of the issue is power. So what do you make of this crime where you've got 12- to 17-year-olds and, you know, black people attacking whites? Is this a traditional hate crime? Should it be prosecuted as such? People in the community are kind of divided about that. E.R.

Prof. SHIPP: It is a hate crime. They hated those women when they were pummeling them with pumpkins and skateboard. So you can't get around that. This whole issue of whether black people can be racist is one that can again be a whole subject. But I don't say that black people are absolved from the possibility of creating and fostering hate crimes. This is what these girls seem to have been doing in California. They should be punished to the extent that the law allows teenagers to be punished. It may mean community service or something like that as opposed to jail. But what they did obviously came from a sense of hate.

CHIDEYA: John, sometimes folks have said, you know, some critics of hate crime legislation have said, well why have hate crime legislation? If it's a crime, it's a crime, prosecute them for assault. Prosecute someone for murder. But I think that hate crime legislation came about because in some cases juries did not return verdicts that were seen as reflecting the nature of the crime. How do you come down on hate crime legislation?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Well, I think in a case like this makes it clear just based on how I think anybody would feel looking at the case. What is called a matter of fighting hate crimes is really about something more specific, which is protecting people with less power from those with more in a traditional historical sense. And so we see an unusually clear-cut case like this and we somehow think, well, that's not really the kind of hate crime we meant.

And I agree. I mean I have personally felt - I don't know whom I'm agreeing with that the whole notion of hate crime as it's been constructed is not something that's often very helpful. The idea often seems to be that people are prosecuted because they don't like in particular black people rather than because they've done something really horrible to another person.

But these girls, especially in 2006, I don't know. I don't know where you draw the line. If it were 1966 and they had this kind of animus against white people in a different America, there are certain ways that we could see things. But in 2006, that one is as repulsive as if it were white kids doing it to black ones.

My feeling for those girls is not a kind one, and they should be punished and racism gives them no excuse.

CHIDEYA: Jeff, briefly, where does class come into this? It was black teens in an upscale white neighborhood. Do you think that they - that class was part of their self-justification?

Mr. CARR: I don't think it was at all. And I think that - and I agree with what both E.R. and John have said, because I think it's really sad that this is the context that we speak of this in. But I also have to say that class has less to do with it than culture. And when I say culture, I don't mean black culture, African-American culture, urban culture; I mean American culture now in the teen environment.

Our youth, as much as I love them, can sometimes get a little out of control. And forgive my lapse into the more folksy mindset, but the notion of fighting has changed generationally. Now there's this whole WWE Smackdown, tear the club up - we're going to gang these people.

I was just talking with a group of youth, of mixed youth, and they were saying, yeah that guy came over me and we ganged him. There's this notion of everybody jump on one person and that's the popular way to fight. I think that culturally that is what is happening here outside of just the race issue.

CHIDEYA: All right.

Mr. CARR: So I think we have to do something about the way we approach how people interact with each other when violence is there.

CHIDEYA: All right, well that's Jeff Obafemi Carr of the radio show “Freestyle.” We've had E.R. Shipp, professor at Hofstra University School of Communication, and John McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute. Thank you all.

Mr. CARR: Thank you, Farai.

Mr. MCWHORTER: Thank you.

Prof. SHIPP: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Next on NEWS & NOTES, forget trimming the turkey, NEWS & NOTES nutritionist Rovenia Brock wants to help us stay trim during the holidays. And Brian McKnight on his new CD “Ten,” and what he does when he isn't making his records.

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