'The Law Has Made Him Equal, but Man Has Not'

When the arc of justice bends ever so slightly in the right direction, those with power position themselves as victims, struggling to keep up with the politically correct zealotry of the 'advocates'.

By Maureen Wilson
Published December 07, 2017

Detroit, 1925: Same as it Ever Was

A couple of years back we took the kids to see a play in Buffalo about the civil rights movement. It was a fictional account of black urban America in the 1960s that drew heavily on one family's real life experience in Detroit. The story of the Sweet family, which predated the era by several decades, was woven throughout the play's narrative.

In 1925, Dr. Ossian Sweet and his wife, along with their new baby girl, bought a house in a middle class Detroit neighbourhood. They were black. The neighbourhood was white. The neighbours didn't like it.

Detroit was a deeply racially segregated city. And so it remains. Today, Detroit is the most racially segregated city in the United States. (Darden, J.T., 2004; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2002) This, despite decades of legal challenges and changes to laws aimed at addressing America's original sin.

Detroit became an industrial powerhouse and the place where southern blacks went in search of freedom and opportunity. In 1910, 5700 blacks were living in Detroit. Just fifteen years later that figure jumped to 81,000. (Boyle, Arc of Justice) As a consequence "territory, housing and homeownership became the key racial battlegrounds." (Newman, A. 2014 Metro politique; Sugrue, T.J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit)

In 1925, the rich were getting richer, the stock market was soaring and mergers helped the J.P. Morgans of the world consolidate their holdings. Working class whites in the city were becoming increasingly worried about their own economic security and grew angry with the influx of immigrants and blacks.

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) expanded from the south to the north in the early 1920s and by 1924 it had already secured a membership of 35,000 Detroit residents. In 1924, nativist scientists appeared before Congressional committees warning of the dilution of America's racial purity and called for strict immigration controls. Congress responded with the National Origins Act, effectively ending America's great era of immigration.

Plus ca change.

All Together Now: Keep the Blacks Out

With all the help that City Hall could muster, white residents formed "home associations" and used legal tools, like covenants, to keep blacks out of all-white neighbourhoods.

The real estate industry followed suit with unwritten directives not to sell houses in white neighbourhoods to black clients.

Slum landlords took advantage of the apartheid conditions and raised rents on a landlocked and growing population confined to the black ghetto.

The term "redlining" came out of this era - the drawing of a red line on a city map to mark where financial lending institutions would not invest and grant mortgages despite an applicant's qualifications. They would not grant mortgages, nor would they lend money for startup businesses in black areas.

Fifty-five black people were shot by Detroit police in the first half of 1925 alone. In July 1925, ten thousand white-robed clansmen gathered in a field in Detroit's west side around a bright burning cross. In the summer of 1925, on five recorded occasions, white mobs attacked black families who tried to move into homes in all-white neighbourhoods.

The Sweets

The Sweets - physician Dr. Ossian, wife Gladys and their daughter Iva - moved into their new bungalow on Garland Street on September 8, 1925. As darkness fell, a crowd of white residents showed up. Stones were thrown at the Sweet's home. Nothing more came to pass.

Ossian H. Sweet House (Image Credit: Andrew Jameson/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Ossian H. Sweet House (Image Credit: Andrew Jameson/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

On September 9, a patrol officer warned the Sweets that an evening attack was being organized by some of the neighbours and the expected crowd was to be huge. He was right.

As darkness fell on the eve of September 9, a mob of white men, women and children showed up, close to a thousand strong. Rocks were hurled at the house. Windows were broken. Voices were raised. Ugly words were shouted.

Dr. Sweet, his wife, his brothers and friends took cover. The household was armed. Shots were fired from the Sweet home into the mob, resulting in the death of one white man and a second injured. Police had been present but only stepped in after the shooting. All eleven occupants in the Sweet house were charged with first degree murder.

Enter Clarence Darrow and what some historians consider one of the most significant civil rights cases in American history. Seventy white witnesses were called by the State but a mistrial was declared after the all-white jury was unable to reach a verdict.

State Prosecutor Robert Toms did not back down and moved ahead with a second trial. This time it was against one individual, Henry Sweet, Ossian Sweet's youngest brother.

The Hamilton Police Service

Despite seeing the play in Buffalo, I had forgotten about the Sweets and Darrow until a very smart and wise friend reminded me of the story last month while we were both attending an inquiry brought on by the Ontario Independent Police Review and the Hamilton Chief of Police in downtown Hamilton.

A Hamilton police officer has been charged with discreditable conduct following an independent investigation. The review found that the police officer sullied the reputation of the Hamilton Police Service by engaging in an "arbitrary and unjustified street check" of a Hamilton resident. The Hamilton resident is a black man.

Legal counsel for the Hamilton police officer began his closing summation by stating the following: the case is not about colour, but conduct. He went further. He argued that the black man's conduct should be on trial, not the police officer's.

Ninety-two years earlier, Michigan's state prosecutor Robert Tom made the same claim about the Sweets, stating that the case was not about racial prejudice. Tom argued that the Sweets and their lawyer, Clarence Darrow, were using race and a "fear complex theory" to prop up their defence.

The state prosecutor also alleged that the Sweets were not victims. They were not victims because they were not fearful. The Sweets, he argued, were advocates. Their actions were politically motivated.

In downtown Hamilton, the police officer's lawyer also stated that the black man was using race to prop us his case. He went further: "(H)e's not a victim. He's an advocate."

Like the Michigan state prosecutor almost one hundred years before him, legal counsel for the Hamilton police officer suggested that the black man was engaged in a fear complex theory. He argued that the black man was not fearful when the Hamilton police officer held up traffic and asked him questions. "How can you be intimidated if you refuse to acquiesce or be deferential? Is there even a hint of fear? "

The lawyer identified the real victim as the Hamilton Police Service. The lawyer argued that the black man's actions were politically motivated. "His plan (the black man) was to wage a campaign against the police."

Plus ca change.

Separate and Not Equal

Typically, people are told to write about something they are familiar with. I have no experience with carding, also called street checks. I have never been stopped by the police and asked questions about why I was where I was.

The Hamilton police officer stated that he was motivated by concern for the black man's well-being, since he was standing in an area saturated with people living with mental health challenges. Hence, the defence used the term "well-being check" to describe the nature of the police stop and questioning.

I once resided in an area saturated by mental health patients. Yet I was never stopped to ask if I was okay on the grounds that perhaps I was one of them, even when I wore a sweatshirt with a hoodie and not a suit blazer.

None of my family members have every been stopped in a street check, nor have any of my friends, most of whom are white.

My complete lack of exposure is, perhaps, the very reason for writing about this matter. Because this is about more than street checks.

In his closing statement in the Sweet trial, State Prosecutor Robert Tom told the jury, "It isn't your business to settle [the race problem]." Instead, he said, "this courtroom is just a tiny speck in the world" and there "are other worlds to consider."

I wonder what worlds he imagined.

Today's Worlds: Same as it Ever Was

Was Tom thinking of the political world?

Calgary's first Muslim Mayor was the target of 36 threats in 2015 that were serious enough to warrant police investigations. In 2016, this number rose to 65. And when Naheed Nenshi finally addressed the threats publicly, he was accused of playing the race card. (Klaszus, The Walrus, October, 2017)

In his new book Everybody Lies, data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz found that Google searches for racist slurs, jokes and insults surge on Martin Luther King Day. Such searches broke records after American President Barack Obama was first elected in 2008.

Or was Tom thinking of the world of health services?

In this world, the quality of health care experienced by Indigenous peoples living in Canada (Wellesley Institute, 2015) differs from white people. In the United States, the Institute of Medicine (IOM, 2002) highlighted the racial and ethnic disparities in health care. Both landmark studies referenced unconscious and conscious bias as contributing factors in determining the quality of service provided.

Perhaps it's the world of the missing.

In this world, hundreds and hundreds of Indigenous women can go missing and murdered over the course of many years without the apparent concern of a nation, the Prime Minister and the law enforcement community.

Meanwhile, national and regional news outlets didn't miss a beat reporting on Cooper, the labradoodle pup, who was put on the wrong flight by Westjet in Hamilton. A grateful nation rejoiced when Cooper was found alive and reunited with his family.

Is it the world of policing and incarceration?

Aboriginal women living in Edmonton are ten times more likely to be subjected to street checks than white women in the city. (CBC collected FOI reports from the Edmonton Police Service, June 2017)

For the first ten months of 2016, the Halifax RCMP found that 41 percent of street checks in Halifax were conducted on African-Nova Scotians.

If you're an Indigenous person living in Saskatchewan, you are 33 times more likely to land in jail, causing some criminologists to refer to Canada's correctional facilities as the new residential schools. Prison guards are the fastest growing public sector profession on the Prairies. (Macdonald, Maclean's, 2016).

The overall incarceration rate of Canada's Indigenous community is ten times higher than its non-Indigenous population. This figure surpasses the imprisonment rate of blacks in South Africa during the height of apartheid. (Macdonald, Maclean's, 2016)

And in Hamilton, law professor David Tanovich revealed that while only three percent of the city's population is black, 11 to 14 percent of street checks are done on black residents.

The Arc of Justice

At the very end of his summation, legal counsel for the Hamilton police officer sounded the ultimate dog whistle. This particular whistle is blown when those with something to lose are confronted by those with nothing to lose in their calls for justice.

"When does it end?" he cried. "How far does this go? Where do we mark the line? We can't collectively lose our minds! We just have to apply common sense."

Ah, now this is something I have experience with. Every woman does.

Women of my vintage remember these kinds of phrases: "Can I say your dress looks nice, I mean, I know that could be grounds for a federal offence these days."

Or this one: "You smell so nice, but I cannot say that anymore these days, can I? I can't seem to say anything at all."

That's what happens when the arc of justice bends ever so slightly in the right direction. Those with power position themselves as victims, struggling to keep up with the politically correct zealotry of the "advocates".

And each time the arc bends just a little more in the right direction, those with the most to lose up the ante of their victimhood while underscoring the unreasonableness of those seeking justice.

Poor besieged privileged white male editor-in-chief of Breitbart News Alex Marlow is so terribly confused in this era of #metoo. "Rape used to mean something. We used to all know what it meant. And now we don't know what it means. And then we don't know what's credible and what's not."

Imagine the confusion of the powerful when women of colour start making inroads in their calls for justice.

The backlash will trickle down from the extremist Breitbart corners to the more moderate domains soon enough. Women, prepare yourselves. The arc of the moral universe is slow and not always consistent in the direction it bends at certain times.

The Answer to Darrow's Question

Defence attorney Clarence Darrow secured the release of Henry Sweet with a not-guilty verdict. He did so, in part, because he addressed the racial prejudice of a people head on. Detroit and a nation were shocked.

But even with this landmark victory, the arc was slow to bend. The U.S. Supreme Court failed to rule against racial segregation later that same year. It wasn't until 1968 that the U.S. Congress moved against residential segregation by outlawing racial discrimination in the sale and financing of homes. (Worth, R.F. NYT, 2004)

In his closing summation in 1925, defence lawyer for the Sweets, Clarence Darrow, said the following:

I believe the life of the Negro race has been a life of tragedy, of injustice, of oppression. The law has made him equal, but man has not. And, after all, the last analysis is: what has man done? - and not what has the law done? (The Clarence Darrow Digital Collection, University of Minnesota Law Library)

Unlike Detroit, no one got shot and no one died in Hamilton. This was a street check, not an attempted lynching. But the eyes of justice must be blind at all times, at every corner, in all kinds of weather, with every citizen - regardless of their colour, their ethnicity, their gender and their station.

There will be neighbours among us who will continue to bear the brunt and risks of challenging the bias that infuses and inflicts all of our worlds. Success is never assured but leadership and character is always revealed. It's past time for this burden to be shared.

It is the will and the way of everyday people who will determine how quickly the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice in boardrooms, classrooms, city halls and elected assemblies, in housing, health care and all corners of our world, so that in answer to Darrow's question - What has man done? - we can finally say: we have acted.

Maureen Wilson is the Councillor for Ward 1 in Hamilton.


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