Leonard Pitts: Time for end to all of slavery’s permutations
By Leonard Pitts
Last week, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld Willie Nash’s sentence: 12 years for possession.
Of a cellphone.
Read it twice, if you want. It won’t make any more sense the second time around.
Nash, it should go without saying, is African American. And his victimization by Mississippi “justice” lends a certain pungent perspective to an event that occurred simultaneously.
Meaning the wide-screen release of “Just Mercy,” the film adaptation of attorney Bryan Stevenson’s book by the same name. In it, Stevenson fights to free Walter McMillian, an African-American man who spent six years on Alabama’s Death Row for the murder of a young white woman, convicted solely on the coerced testimony of a white jailhouse snitch whose story was far-fetched to the point of being comical. Never mind that well over a dozen black witnesses placed McMillian miles away at the time of the crime.
If your temptation is to say that that was awful, but it happened 30 years ago and things have changed since then, well, tell it to Willie Nash. He’s a husband and father who, while confined to the Newton County Jail on a misdemeanor, passed his smartphone to a guard asking for “some juice,” i.e., a charge. The guard confiscated the device. It turned out that Nash, obviously unbeknownst to him, was not allowed to have it in jail. Whoever searched him had apparently missed it.
For this, in 2018, Nash was sentenced to 12 years. Now the Mississippi Supremes, while conceding the sentence is “obviously harsh,” claim it is “not grossly disproportionate.” For what it’s worth, that bizarre ruling came just days after federal prosecutors recommended former national security adviser Michael Flynn get six months (they had previously asked for probation) for lying to the FBI in a federal investigation.
So … six months for lying to the feds. Twelve years for having a cellphone. Of course, Flynn, it should go without saying, is not black. As numerous studies attest, American “justice” treats black people more harshly. Richard Pryor famously said that courts give black folks time “like it’s lunch … You go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find: just us.”
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Slavery By Another Name,” Douglas Blackmon recounts how, after the Civil War, law enforcement was pressed into service as a surrogate for slavery, which had theoretically ended. Black men were systematically arrested on ludicrous, trumped-up charges, then leased to de facto “owners” who forced them to work under conditions worse than slavery. For black people, the justice system came to be — and remains — less about justice than about the control of a despised population.
So Willie Nash is no aberration. No, he is the latest victim of a “just us” system that promiscuously discards black life, a three-card-monte-thumb-on-the-scale-ace-up-the-sleeve shell game of a system where justice evades and eludes, but the chance of going away for years for nothing lies ever in wait like explosives in a minefield.
It wears you out living in a minefield. Twelve years? For a cellphone? Seriously?
If that seems insane to you, there are petitions seeking a pardon or clemency for Nash at Change.org for you to sign. For those who prefer the more direct approach, the phone number for incoming Gov. Tate Reeves is: 601-359-3150.
Tell them what Fannie Lou Hamer said about getting sick and tired of being sick and tired.
Tell them to send Willie Nash home to his family.
And tell them it’s past time for slavery, in all its permutations, to end.
Let my people go.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.