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    A Double Standard for the Oppressed?

    By Randall Kennedy

    October 30, 2021
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    This article is part of “The Beginning of Understanding,” a symposium in response to Ashley Lucas’s report “The End of Rage” in Plough’s Autumn 2021 issue.

    I am glad that I read “The End of Rage” though the experience was, overall, quite punishing.

    That the administration of criminal law in America is riddled with racism and cruelty is, alas, a cliché.

    “The End of Rage” offers vivid particularity: avoidable killings by police; the beating of prisoners; the involuntary drugging of inmates; the consignment of prisoners to long stretches of solitary confinement that amount to torture. These are ghastly actions taken by putative guardians of law and order – the sort of people whom you and I empower, the sort of officials who theoretically represent you and me. Ashley Lucas bears witness to atrocities that are all too common. Her depiction of misconduct by police and other law enforcement personnel is a portrayal of a familiar scandal that demands redress.

    “The End of Rage” also offers a gripping profile of Russell Maroon Shoatz, a Philadelphian who decides to go to war against governmental authority on account of its brutalization of Blacks and, in his view, its imperviousness to meaningful reform through conventional means – petition, protest, electoral protest. He joins with others drawn to “armed struggle,” concocts plans in groups such as the Black Unity Council, the Black Liberation Army, and the Black Panther Party, and proceeds to participate in the shooting of policemen (though his role in these assaults that claimed a life in one instance and caused serious injury in another is never precisely delineated).

    Lucas is obviously sympathetic to Shoatz and feels that he has been victimized by terrible injustices. He has. But he has also been a blameworthy victimizer. Lucas makes that clear in her description of his interactions with women in his life, women whom he betrays and occasionally abandons even as they scuffle to make ends meet on behalf of themselves and children they have conceived with Shoatz. Lucas is less clear in her assessment of Shoatz’s politics, including the deployment of violence that he frames as political. Here I think that Lucas is insufficiently exacting. She notes that “he viewed himself not as a criminal but as a political prisoner like the imprisoned militants of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress in apartheid South Africa.” But how does she view him? Does she see him as a criminal with respect to at least some of the things that he did? What about the shooting of the police officers? Or what about Shoatz tying a couple and their young son to a tree after stealing their car during one of his prison breakouts? Or what about his shooting of a random person during another attempted escape from prison?

    Lucas writes in her essay that “The revolutionaries of the 1960s and 1970s [used] tactics that were neither blameless nor effective.” I would like for her to elaborate more upon that observation. Two points are pertinent. One is that the oppressed, the despised, the wretched of the earth are, as human beings, wholly susceptible to the vices that ensnare other, socially dominant human beings. Poor Black people can also be cruel, oppressive, selfish, vain, racist etc. That is why we ought to be attentive to the moral hygiene of everyone wherever they are situated on the social landscape. Second, the need to be more rigorous with our moral evaluations is especially pressing now. There has arisen in some quarters a destructive sentimentality that displays itself in excusals or even justifications of criminality when undertaken by marginalized people. Hence the insistence that deplorable “rioting” is actually laudable “rebellion.”

    Lucas ends on a strong note worth repeating and remembering: “The argument for human decency toward incarcerated people should not depend upon their innocence or guilt.” Even if one assumes the absolute worst about Russell Shoatz, nothing justifies organized society in punishing him excessively. Amen.

    Contributed By Randall Kennedy

    Randall Kennedy is the author of Say It Loud!: On Race, Law, History and Culture. He is the Michael R. Klein Professor at Harvard Law School, where he teaches courses on contracts, criminal law, and the regulation of race relations.

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