By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
For the city of Ferguson, Mo., it wasn’t the shooting of Michael Brown that caused widespread rioting and looting and brought scrutiny from the Department of Justice; Brown’s death Ferguson, Mo., it wasn’t the shooting of Michael – later ruled a justifiable shooting – was simply the spark that set the city ablaze.
A report from the DOJ found that systemic Law Enforcement mistreatment of minorities, coupled with municipal policies that violated the rights of the city’s poorest citizens and a failing school system that left most young people with little hope of ever advancing from poverty, combined to drive an angry wedge between two sides of the town. And as that chasm grew over several years, Ferguson was left sitting in a pool of gas, just waiting on a spark.
In quiet conversations over the past several weeks, State Law Enforcement officials have expressed concerns that Montgomery could be a sort of pre-riot Ferguson – a town divided along racial lines, just waiting on an incident to push it over the edge.
“I really am concerned that we have a problem there in Montgomery and it’s something that we need to get a handle on quickly,” a State Law Enforcement official told me recently. “You have a lot of the same sort of elements at play there that have caused problems in other cities. I don’t like the way this is escalating.”
A source told APR that new Attorney General Steve Marshall is exploring outreach opportunities with community leaders and city officials within the Capitol City. Among all the things the new AG was briefed on after taking the job, the source said, the State of Montgomery was considered one of the most important.
The fragile state of the city was on display over the past two weeks, following a school shooting at a local high school.
Everyone essentially agrees on what happened: 16-year-old Quinterrious Norman fired a handgun twice just off the Robert E. Lee High School grounds. One bullet struck a car, going through the back glass. The other struck a 16-year-old girl in the neck.
The victim, Tessa Desmet, was in critical condition but is expected to survive, and a full recovery is a real possibility. Norman was promptly arrested.
But to understand the continuation of this story, there are just two facts that matter: Desmet is white. Norman is black.
On social media and in various in-person, group meetings, race has been the dividing the line over nuanced and complicated issues. Most notably: the treatment of Norman by Montgomery’s court system.
The 16-year-old Norman was charged as an adult, because he stole the weapon he used to commit the crime. In addition, Montgomery District Court Troy Massey, who is black, denied Norman bond – an odd ruling for what was essentially a crime of recklessness.
Almost immediately, Massey drew heat from civil rights activist groups and local members of the Black Lives Matter movement. It was so much heat that a day after his decision to revoke Norman’s bond, Massey responded to the criticism with a Facebook post that was critical of a specific activist.
In a subsequent post, Massey linked to a local newspaper story on the shooting, and in another, he thanked friends for their support during the trying time.
Backlash to the point that it pushes a judge – one that isn’t eligible for re-election – to respond in such a way isn’t normal. But for Montgomery, at this point, it’s expected.
To understand the current situation, you first have to understand the unique problems that plague this town.
First and foremost, Montgomery is divided, even in 2017, by race. There are, essentially, two towns within one – the white community that attends mostly private schools and lives within select communities on the city’s east side; and the black community that attends public schools and resides in the city’s north and west sides.
Those two sides of town rarely interact – ever.
It is not particularly uncommon for a wealthy white kid in Montgomery to have no meaningful interaction with black person for the first 18 years of his or her life. And those who do mostly interact with private school black kids.
There is almost no personal connection between the wealthy in Montgomery, who are mostly white, and the poor, who are mostly black.
That separation doesn’t end after high school. The Montgomery Country Club, where the mayor and several city leaders are members, remains one of the most segregated clubs in America, despite allowing in its first black member a few years ago. (That black member has since left and threatened a lawsuit over the treatment he received from club members.)*
The social problems that result from such separation are easy to find, starting with those segregated schools. Montgomery’s mostly-black public schools are failing and in the midst of a state takeover. The public schools are also massively underfunded and there hasn’t been a tax hike in decades.
A couple of years ago, the city was slapped by a federal judge for a very Ferguson-like scheme to pay the city’s bills by arresting and jailing people – primarily minorities – who couldn’t pay their traffic fines. Montgomery, at the time, took in nearly twice as much in municipal fines as Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile combined.
Longtime black Montgomery residents will tell you that the issue wasn’t exactly a secret within the city’s black community, where there has long been a distrust of police. And in Montgomery, that distrust is earned – through decades of lynchings, beatings, shootings and murders that police in Montgomery either participated in or turned a blind eye to.
Other problems between the cops and minority citizens have widened the chasm. There were the shootings of Bernard Whitehurst (1975) and Bobby Joe Sales (1983), in which Montgomery police attempted embarrassing cover-ups.
In February 2016, a Montgomery officer shot and killed an unarmed black man, Greg Gunn, just steps from Gunn’s front door. Gunn had broken no laws and wasn’t a suspect in any crime.
While the officer who shot Gunn has since been arrested for murder, the city’s response – like in the Whitehurst and Sales shootings – was one that was less than compassionate for the victim. Mayor Todd Strange has elected to keep the officer, A.C. Smith, on the police department’s payroll – despite a city regulation that allows for Smith to be fired if indicted for a felony.
Strange also made the tone-deaf decision to hire suspended judge Lester Hayes to a city position just days after Hayes was suspended by the Judicial Inquiry Commission for his role in the city’s scheme to lock up indigent defendants. The JIC eventually ruled that Hayes couldn’t hold the job, but the damage was done.
With each of these decisions, the mayor – and the city leaders who support him – have pushed a wedge between city hall and the black community. That community has started to take notice, and the anger and unhappiness has been evident.
Those feelings played a large role in the upheaval following the Norman shooting.
The curious decision to revoke bond – even made by a black judge – was evidence again of the system treating a young, black man differently, unfairly. After all, the nephew of another judge had recently been arrested for shooting into Maxwell Air Force Base and making threats directed at the local police. He received bond, and his crimes weren’t exactly equitable to Norman’s, their treatment by the court was night and day.
Making matters worse, Norman caught the attention of local activist Karen Jones – the same woman Massey criticized in his Facebook post – several years ago, when pictures and videos of a then-13-year-old Norman being bullied by other students started to show up online. That bullying continued until at least a few weeks ago, when the most recent video of Norman being beaten by two students was posted on YouTube.
The background only added to the anger for Jones and others. And Facebook posts began to circulate asking that people attend planning meetings and prepare for protests.
Within a few days, Massey ordered a mental evaluation of Norman. And last Thursday, he reinstated Norman’s bond, setting it at $195,000.
The turmoil has not gone unnoticed.
The sentiment among many white Montgomery residents – particularly those who leave comments on news stories and on social media – is anger. They can’t believe that the sympathy has been shifted from the victim of the shooting to the shooter.
The two sides have been involved in a social media war. Threats have been made – some so serious that the police have gotten involved. The group backing Desmet has promised counter-protests.
And with every hateful word, every racial slur, every refusal from all involved to listen to each other, Montgomery moves closer to dropping the match.
* The Montgomery Country Club currently has a small number of black members. Membership figures aren’t publicly available but several club members expressed concern that this story could mislead readers into believing that MCC had no black members. A recent lawsuit filed by a former club employee placed the number of black members at less than five.