When Jorge Ruiz was sentenced in an Autauga County courtroom in early August to 99 years in prison for the accidental death of a Deatsville nurse, it marked the end of one of the more shameful stretches of injustices in Alabama legal history.
Ruiz, a Mexican national who was in the country on a proper and legal work visa, was steamrolled by a county district attorney’s office looking to appease an angry public, was jailed against normal procedures without bond, was falsely labeled as both a drunk driver and an “illegal immigrant” by local newspapers (which still haven’t corrected the erroneous stories) and had his family bilked out of thousands of dollars by attorneys and a bail bondsman.
That’s the price, it seems, for making a mistake while being Hispanic in Alabama.
But maybe one that’s too steep for the trial judge, Circuit Court Judge Bill Lewis, who appears to have second thoughts about his 99-year sentence and seems to be maneuvering for one of the weirdest do-overs in legal history.
But first things first.
There is no question that Ruiz made a mistake — a bad one. The 19-year-old was coming through Alabama on his way back to his native Mexico. Ruiz was traveling home to be with family after the unexpected death of his mother, and he stopped in Alabama to visit family members who lived near Prattville.
During the brief stay, he went to a party with family and friends near Birmingham. After working a full day, Ruiz drove to Birmingham, stayed up most of the night at the party and was returning to Prattville early the next morning, driving on no sleep. He had consumed alcohol at the party, but several hours earlier. His family members, who spoke to APR, said that Ruiz consumed a “small amount” of alcohol but that he purposely waited a period of time to avoid driving while intoxicated.
He did drive while sleepy. And on Highway 31, just after exiting the interstate, Ruiz apparently nodded off. His truck drifted across the centerline and collided — without ever slowing down — with the car driven by Marlena Hayes, a 29-year-old nurse who was leaving her shift at the hospital. The impact killed Hayes.
It was an accidental death caused by the misjudgment of a teenager. One that deserved punishment by the legal system.
The Over Charge
In most cases, such an accident — particularly one in which the victim wasn’t wearing a seatbelt — is deemed manslaughter (it is often termed “vehicular manslaughter” in other states, but Alabama lacks that designation), and the driver receives somewhere between probation and a few years of jail time. For example, the 16-year-old who killed Auburn radio announcer Rob Bramblett and his wife after falling asleep was charged with manslaughter, and sources close to that case indicate the Lee County DA is seeking a sentence in the neighborhood of 10 years, suspended, with up to one year in some form of a detention facility.
Earlier this year, a truck driver in Arizona who fell asleep at the wheel and killed 13 people on a tour bus received a four-year sentence for vehicular manslaughter.
But Autauga County DA Randall Houston, facing a wave of outrage from locals who were upset by Hayes’ death at the hands of a “illegal immigrant” who was “driving drunk” — claims sparked by erroneous news reports in the Clanton Advertiser and Montgomery Advertiser and on TV websites — charged Ruiz with reckless murder. The DA’s office would later recommend a sentence of 50 years.
“There is no grounds for reckless murder in this case,” said an attorney who is now involved in the case and spoke about it on condition of anonymity to avoid possible punitive action against Ruiz. “With the facts in evidence, Ruiz would have had to turn the wheel and drive purposely on the wrong side of the highway into oncoming traffic to meet that standard.”
Even if Ruiz had been driving while intoxicated, he would have received a lesser charge and a lighter sentence. He wasn’t intoxicated, though, which a toxicology report proved. But that didn’t stop authorities from using it against him, while also using that the fact that he wasn’t driving while intoxicated to up his sentence.
According to Ruiz’s first attorney, Stephen NeSmith, in Ruiz’s initial appearance before a District Court judge in Autauga County, the DA’s office told the judge that Ruiz should be denied bond because Ruiz’s blood alcohol level at the time of the crash exceeded .020, the legal limit for a minor.
But that wasn’t true.
Ruiz wasn’t arrested at the scene of the accident. Instead, he was transported to the hospital and wasn’t accompanied by a state trooper. A trooper later arrived at the hospital and asked permission to take a sample of Ruiz’s blood, which Ruiz granted. Ruiz was not arrested at the hospital and was allowed to leave. A trooper went to his residence several hours later and arrested him.
The toxicology report from that blood sample showed that Ruiz’s BAC was just .016 — well under the legal limit for adults (.08) and below the limit for minors. It was also below the threshold at which doctors believe alcohol consumption begins to impair motor function.
Still, Ruiz was denied bond because of the representation made to the court by the DA’s office, according to NeSmith.
“I can’t recall if it was the assistant DA who stated it or if that information came from a witness, the trooper in the case, but that was the only excuse for not granting bond initially,” NeSmith said. “Later, I believe, Ruiz’s attorney was able to get a copy of the toxicology report, but I did not have one at that point.”
Hinting that Ruiz was driving drunk wasn’t exactly above the attorneys in the DA’s office who worked the case. The day of the sentencing of Ruiz, assistant DA C.J. Robinson wrote on his Facebook page thanking Lewis for his sentence. Robinson also linked to a newspaper story about the sentencing and wrote, “to everyone who thinks about drinking alcohol and driving please read this article … and hand someone else the keys next time.”
This was the same DA’s office that allowed a trooper to testify that Ruiz looked and acted intoxicated after the crash, despite knowing that the trooper didn’t perform a field sobriety test and that the toxicology report in evidence showed Ruiz’s BAC was .016.
APR submitted detailed questions to the Autauga County DA’s office about every claim made by Ruiz’s family, attorneys and information from a variety of sources about the case. The DA’s office failed to respond in more than four days. An assistant to Houston confirmed receipt of the questions but no response was received.
The Bilking of the Ruiz Family
The DA’s office would not be the only attorneys to behave questionably, in the opinion of the Ruiz family. Ruiz’s father paid NeSmith $2,500 — a fact the attorney confirmed — and the Mexican Consulate in Atlanta paid another attorney $5,000. NeSmith worked only through the initial appearance and the second attorney worked a total of 11 days.
“Neither one did much,” said a member of Ruiz’s family, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear that the family could suffer retaliation. “We put our trust and money in them — we don’t have much money — and they left us with nothing.”
For his part, NeSmith contends that he worked for the $2,500 he received. When asked what he did for the money, in addition to making the initial appearance with Ruiz, he cited several phone calls to the assistant DA and meeting twice with Ruiz at the jail.
Ruiz’s second attorney, Brent Helms — who also recently represented a dead fetus in a controversial abortion case in Huntsville — worked to try and get Ruiz out on bond after obtaining a copy of the toxicology report that showed Ruiz wasn’t intoxicated.
Helms was initially successful and Judge Lewis granted a $50,000 bond. Ruiz’s father immediately contracted with a bail bonds company, Affordable Bail Bonds, to get Ruiz out of jail, putting down the standard 10 percent ($5,000).
Affordable Bail Bonds owner Lakisha Kelley said she went to Autauga County Jail and provided a check to cover the bond. But before releasing Ruiz, Autauga County Jail officers contacted the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) and reported that Ruiz didn’t have a social security number or a valid work visa.
A request for comment on the Ruiz situation did not receive a response from Autauga Jail officials.
ICE issued an “immigration detainer” request to Autauga County to hold Ruiz in custody. ICE agents took custody of Ruiz a day later, according to records and information provided by the Ruiz family, and the Autauga County DA’s office would later tell Judge Lewis that the agency had transported Ruiz to Louisiana for deportation because his visa had expired.
In light of that situation, the DA’s office asked Lewis to revoke Ruiz’s bond, forcing him back to Autauga County and to hold him without bond because his immigration status made him a flight risk. As Helms would later note in a motion filed in the case, the DA’s sole reason for revoking his bond was the ICE detainment.
However, those were mostly lies, according to the Ruiz family and two sources with specific knowledge of Ruiz’s immigration status and his time in ICE custody. Ruiz’s family members said Ruiz told them that he was never transported to Louisiana, but instead was sent to Montgomery to another jail facility, where he spent a few hours.
Two sources confirmed to APR that Ruiz never went to Louisiana or left the state of Alabama. They could not be certain that he was held in Montgomery, but they said he was returned to Autauga County within 24 hours of leaving that facility.
Again, Autauga County DA Randall Houston did not answer specific questions about this incident.
But the apparent ruse worked. Lewis withdrew Ruiz’s bond and ordered him held in the Autauga County Jail until trial. ICE officials — not exactly known for their cooperation with local law enforcement — had Ruiz back in Prattville within hours, where he remained for six months.
To add insult to the entire ordeal, Kelley, the bail bondsman, refused to return the money paid by Ruiz’s father, despite the fact that Ruiz never left law enforcement custody and his bond had been revoked.
When APR asked Kelley why she refused to return the money, she said that she met her requirement under the law and that it “happens all the time.”
“When I issue the check, that’s my requirement,” Kelley said. “Happens to people all the time. We pay the bond, the jail calls around and checks for warrants in other places and they turn whoever over to the other department. They don’t get their money back neither. That’s how it works.”
An Unjust Sentence
For the Ruiz family, it was just one more injustice in a growing string, and the worst was yet to come.
On August 14, after a trial in front of one black and 11 white jurors, Ruiz was sentenced by Lewis to 99 years in prison for the reckless murder of Hayes. It was, to say the least, a shock to his family and most observers in the courtroom.
Before issuing the sentence, Lewis went on a bit of a tirade, appearing to grandstand for the family members and friends of the victim who were in the courtroom. Lewis told Ruiz that he had exhibited no remorse, despite the fact that just minutes earlier, Ruiz, who speaks little English and required an interpreter to understand what was happening during the trial, had tearfully apologized to Hayes’ family and to the court.
Lewis’ tirade was also partially sparked by Ruiz’s refusal to accept a plea deal from the DA’s office. However, that wasn’t exactly Ruiz’s call. His trial attorney, Richard Lively, who was appointed by the court, told Lewis prior to sentencing that he had advised Ruiz not to take the deals offered by the DA’s office, because Lively felt the reckless murder charge was unfounded and improper.
And now, in a remarkable turn of events, it seems Lewis is using Lively’s remarks to launch an appeal on behalf of Ruiz on the grounds of ineffective counsel.
In an order filed two weeks ago, Lewis removed Lively from the case, appointed a new attorney, and offered a lengthy explanation that noted no appeals had been filed (Lively said he was working on the appeal and still had a few days left). The order also included quotes from the trial transcript in which Lively told Lewis that he advised Ruiz not to take a plea deal.
The order also, oddly, includes a defense to the theory that Ruiz was asleep. Lewis said that while Lively made that argument to the court, it was never presented to a jury. That theory was also presented in an APR opinion piece that was published a couple of days after Lewis’ 99-year sentence.
A few days after Lively was removed, Ruiz’s new attorney, Carlton Taylor, filed several motions, including one asking for a new trial on the grounds of ineffective counsel. The next day, Lewis issued a new order telling the DA’s office to submit a brief addressing the motion for a new trial and set an evidentiary hearing for Oct. 30.
Such things are not normal practice.
And so, things are a mess, because the legal system in Autauga County failed to dispense justice blindly. Instead, the system bent to over-punish someone because the mob demanded it.
Jorge Ruiz deserved to be punished for what he did. But what happened to him at the hands of men and women who are supposed to uphold the law and administer justice was a bigger crime.
Opinion | What happened in Huntsville Wednesday night was disgraceful
Law enforcement officers in Huntsville assaulted dozens of people Wednesday night following a peaceful protest and march.
This is the accurate description of what took place in Huntsville.
I don’t care what you heard on “the news” or what you read on Facebook or Twitter. That’s what happened.
Following a peaceful protest downtown — for which the NAACP obtained a permit, because it planned to block traffic — dozens of protesters, gathered to speak out about police brutality of black citizens in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, began to march around the downtown area.
This is their right. It is guaranteed by the U.S. constitution.
Contrary to popular belief, and according to legal guidance posted by the American Civil Liberties Union, you do NOT need a permit to peacefully assemble. In fact, it is against the law for anyone — or any law enforcement agency — to prevent you from peacefully assembling in response to a breaking news event.
And yet, that’s exactly what happened in Huntsville.
Huntsville Police, the Madison County Sheriff’s Department and — for some reason that no one could immediately explain — the Alabama State Troopers began firing tear gas and rubber bullets at people who were peacefully marching.
In attempting to explain why such actions occurred, Lt. Michael Johnson of HPD essentially admitted that officers acted improperly.
He told TV station WHNT-19 that officers attempted to clear the area by telling the lawfully gathered crowd to disperse. When the crowd instead decided to exercise its right to assemble, Johnson said, officers began using force, including firing the rubber bullets at innocent men, women and children and spraying the crowd with pepper spray and tear gas.
(Just a quick little FYI: Tear gas has been deemed a chemical agent and the Geneva Convention specifically bans its use in war. But it’s still legal for police departments to toss into peaceful crowds.)
Johnson said officers used force because they weren’t “going to roll the dice” and take a chance that the crowd could become hostile.
Which — and while I’m no attorney, I feel comfortable going out on this limb — is not how the law works. You can’t impose force because you believe someone might break the law. Particularly when there is no evidence of that.
And how do we know there is no evidence of it?
Because Johnson just kept on talking during that interview, an interview led by WHNT’s Jerry Hayes, who was — and I’ll put this kindly — very police-friendly. As Hayes praised the police response and told everyone that the cops really had no choice but to clear the area by gassing children, Johnson explained just how well it had all gone.
No officers were injured, Johnson said. No property was damaged, he said. They even had single-digit arrests/detainments, he said.
So, again, law enforcement fired rubber bullets at peacefully assembled men, women and children who didn’t damage property, didn’t assault police officers and had every right to march on and alongside a public street.
It’s not hard to understand why people are marching against police abuse.
Democratic state Rep. Anthony Daniels, who represents the Huntsville area and who spoke earlier in the evening at the NAACP-organized event, compared the actions and the optics of the police attacking citizens to “Bloody Sunday” in Selma. On that day in 1965, Alabama State Troopers attacked a group of peaceful marchers because the marchers refused to disperse, and instead continued their march out of Selma towards Montgomery.
“I want someone to explain to me what the state troopers were doing at a peaceful event,” Daniels said. “What happened was a disgrace. That was a peaceful protest. Those people were following the laws and were not out of line.”
The same cannot be said for the officers.
There are a number of videos of cops from various agencies firing tear gas canisters at people who are posing no threat, and in most cases are backing away from the officers, and randomly spraying down groups of people with pepper spray for no discernable reason. In one video that was viewed several hundred thousand times by late Wednesday evening, an HPD officer exits his patrol car, pepper spray in hand, and just starts strolling along, periodically dousing terrified people with the spray.
It was disgraceful. It was ignorant. It was, most of all, simply wrong.
There has been a lot of condemnation over the last few days of violent protests and criminal acts. And rightfully so. While many people understand and can empathize with the anger that lies beneath these protests, the majority doesn’t want to watch cities burn.
I hope the same people who condemned those acts will also speak out against the violence committed by law enforcement in Huntsville on Wednesday.
Opinion | Being silent is being complicit
A moment in time: I was a young journalist, just hired by The Birmingham News. I was standing on the street outside the old Birmingham News building. I had my coat and tie on. A man came up and stood beside me, also in a coat and tie, as we waited for the light to change so we could cross the street. An Alabama State Trooper car driven by a black officer passed by. The white man next to me leaned over and said, out loud: “I’ll never get used to seeing a n—– drive a state trooper car.” I looked at the man, startled, then quickly walked across the street.
I did not say anything to him. And I have regretted that inaction ever since. He assumed because I am white, like him, that I was also a racist. I vowed that day never to be quiet again.
The person who triggered me most, though, was my father. He used the n-word often, even as much of his older life was spent being taken care of by African-American workers at the nursing homes he lived in. Anytime I or my wife came around, he’d drop the word, and I’d tell him to knock it off. He never knocked it off.
In one of our last face-to-face conversations, in the fall of 2008, my father told me I could not vote for that n—— for president. I told him he couldn’t tell me who I could vote for, and I turned and left his apartment. He did apologize the next day, not for calling Barack Obama that word, but for thinking he could tell his 52-year-old son who to vote for. I did not forgive him, nor did I see him again. He died the next year.
The Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd by pressing his knee on the unarmed man’s neck for nearly nine minutes had the cold eyes of my father.
“I can’t breathe!” Police officer Derek Chauvin and the other three police officers with him did not care.
Six police officers in Atlanta are being charged for brutalizing two Georgia college students. Many peaceful protesters have been beaten by police or shot with rubber bullets as they exercise their constitutional right. And more and more often, journalists are being attacked by police as they cover demonstrations all over the nation.
Words have power, and Donald Trump’s words have incited brutality against journalists and others.
Certainly most police officers, and I know a few, are wonderful public servants. But there is systemic racism imbedded in many police departments, and there is little question that our black and brown citizens are more often targeted because of the color of their skin. Police are much more militarized these days, too, using weapons of war against their own people.
My heart beats a little faster when I see blue lights in my rearview mirror. I cannot imagine the terror that grips my black and brown friends when it happens to them.
I love teaching at UAB because of its diversity. One important aspect I’ve noted, at demonstrations here in Birmingham and elsewhere, is how diverse the crowds are. It’s not a black thing. It’s a human thing.
But this is a black thing: I ask my African-American students each semester whether they have been stopped for driving while black. Easily 90 percent say they have. And they also have had “the talk” with their parents. You know, how to act if you’re stopped by a police officer. “Show your hands. Be respectful. Yes, sir. Yes, sir.”
This exists in America, and it is profoundly sad.
While 77 percent of white Americans say they trust the police, according to a poll from Axios-Ipsos, only 36 percent of black Americans do.
There is a reason for that: Black people are being killed and terrorized by mostly white cops across the land. Even here, in a big mall, on a Thanksgiving night.
“I can’t breathe.”
The “leader” of our nation normalizes racism for many by his own example.
For the rest of us, though, we must reject racism wherever we find it in all of its forms. We must speak up, and march, and never let a person standing next to you on the street get away with it.
We cannot remain silent, or that knee will never be off our necks.
Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]
Opinion | With liberty and justice for all
As peaceful protests over the last week have been marred by violence and looting, the nation should be asking what kind of country we are and what we are to become?
Are we to be the shining city on a hill or a lord of the flies kingdom of warring factions?
Most of the protesters who have taken to the streets across the nation are only asking for those things promised in The Declaration of Independence and quoted in the nation’s Pledge of Allegiance.
They want the promise of “all men are created equal,” with “liberty and justice for all,” to be fulfilled.
Amidst the chaos, we hear calls for “law and order” and chants of “No justice, no peace.”
A nation can have law and order without justice, but when justice is denied or meted out unequally, people will only remain silent or peaceful for so long.
Law, justice, and peace should flow from the same fountain but rarely ever do in equal measure.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi before him, showed the world the power of nonviolent resistance. From the Salt March, which took place from March to April 1930, in India, to the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965, a small band of individuals has shown that peaceful protests can overcome even institutional wrongs.
But laws passed in the 1960s, while changing what was legal, didn’t answer inequities or alter everyone’s hearts and minds.
Even today, the dog whistles of racism and bullhorns of hate compete against calls for change.
Only when bigotry is shown in bright relief against the suffering of a nation’s citizens, do the powerful lose their stranglehold.
The murder of George Floyd is further evidence of a long-festering problem, and the ensuing rage is simply the manifestation of years of systematic mistreatment of black citizens. The laws may have changed in the 1960s, but the mindset of those who fought against that progress has been reborn.
As a nation, we cannot stand with a Bible in one hand and a club in the other and claim equal protection under the law.
Perhaps opening the Scriptures and letting the voice of Jesus speak, rather than holding his words as a prop, would be a good first step. Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Are these not the values we should hold dear?
I do not condone violence or property destruction, but I do understand the grievances that lead to both. We, as a state, and nation, can’t address the one without offering to answer the other.
President Trump’s failed attorney general Jeff Sessions has appointed himself as the spokesman for law and order. In a recent press release, Sessions said, “All over the country we have seen the results of ‘politically correct’ and completely ineffective leadership.”
Sessions blames, “Antifa, far-left radicals, and criminal thugs,” and many agree with him.
During George Wallace’s political rally at Madison Square Garden in 1968, he blamed anarchists, activists, militants, revolutionaries and communists for the nation’s ills.
Wallace also said, “The Supreme Court of our country has hand-cuffed the police, and tonight if you walk out of this building and are knocked in the head, the person who knocks you in the head is out of jail before you get in the hospital, and on Monday morning, they’ll try a policeman about it.”
Today, Wallace, like Sessions, would say that political correctness was the problem, not a culture that targets certain citizens.
Wallace expressed his disdain for demonstrators who tried to block President Lyndon B. Johnson’s limousine saying, “I tell you when November comes, the first time they lie down in front of my limousine, it’ll be the last one they ever lay down in front of; their day is over.”
On Facebook, some Alabamians have suggested protesters be shot in the head if they resist arrest. And so it goes that the ugliness of human nature stands ready to repeat the sins of the past over and over again.
In an Op-Ed, Alabama State University President Quinton T. Ross, Jr., invoked the past in a very different way.
“Our nonviolent stand proved successful in the past, and I believe it could be the catalyst for real and impactful change. Let peace be at the core of all of our actions,” wrote Ross.
“While it seems as though remaining calm in the midst of a racist storm is a signal to be disrespected, disregarded and endangered, remember the lives that were lost to get us to this day. Remember the examples of those who were brutally beaten and rose up from that brutality to walk the halls of Congress, to become mayors, governors, state legislators and community leaders.”
Our nation was born out of public defiance in the face of political oppression. Our nation was to be a port for those seeking hope and justice in a world of tyrants.
President Ronald Reagan called the United States “the shining city upon a hill.”
“In my mind, it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace,” said Reagan in his 1989 Farewell Address to the Nation. He further said he saw the nation as, “A city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”
Reagan saw a nation where everyone was allowed to live with peace and prosperity. A place where all were equal, deserved freedom and justice. Is that not what we all want, including the protesters?
America has always been a land of promise, and many times, promises are not kept.
But today, our nation may very well be at a turning point.
Will the moral imperative of fairness break over the dam’s edge, or will some just add more sandbags to the top?
Will we decide liberty and justice for all are more than words we repeat by rote, and that everyone deserves the promise of America?
That is the question before us, and now what we choose will show who we are and what we will become.
Opinion | Racism has broken America. We can fix it
The happiest day of my life was March 9, 2018 — the day my daughter was born.
People who know my wife and me, or who follow either of us on social media, can likely tell that we’re crazy, helicopter parents who think our little Andi Lou is perfect. Because, well, she is.
We also worry — A LOT. About everything. As we try to keep this little live wire safe and happy. It’s like a never-ending stream of what-ifs and what-abouts and should-we’s.
Honestly, it’s exhausting. And there are times when I think it’s overwhelming.
And then someone like Devin Adams gives me a glimpse into a world that I know nothing about. A world that I will never walk in. A world that will forever remain foreign to me.
That’s the world navigated by the parent of a black child.
Adams, a senior on the Auburn University football team, on Tuesday tweeted about using his football gear to stay safe in everyday life. Not the pads and helmet, but the jersey and other clothing that identifies him to cops as an Auburn football player.
“I’ve been asked so many times why I wear Auburn gear all the time…,” Adams tweeted. “then they hit you with ‘YoU MuSt wAnT pPl tO kNoW YoU PlAy FOoTbAlL oR SoMEthINg’…. Lol not even knowing sometimes it’s a protection mechanism to just make it home safe.”
Other black players responded that they do the same thing.
Think about that.
You can dismiss it as an exaggeration if you like — and maybe in some cases, it could be — but this is how a young, college educated guy in one of the safer cities in America feels every single day.
He fears for his life to the point that he has altered what he wears every day to make OTHER PEOPLE more comfortable with him. To make cops not automatically assume he’s a criminal. To lessen the likelihood of a deadly encounter.
Now, imagine sending your child out into that world every day. Imagine how Adams’ parents must feel — both knowing that he carries that fear and that the danger he faces is very real.
Look, we can throw rocks back and forth at each other forever, and place blame on this person or that group, but at the end of the day, we know this is wrong. That young men feel this scared on a daily basis in our country, in our states, in our communities is simply wrong.
And it is something that every single one of us should want to correct.
We certainly want that safety for our white kids. We’ve moved mountains and rewrote laws to make sure they’re safe and protected. We’ve built new cities and schools. We’ve put fences and regulations up around our neighborhoods.
But along the way, we vilified black citizens in the process.
For far too long (and even today in some spots), especially in the South, a “safe neighborhood” meant a neighborhood without black families in it. A “safe school” meant a school without many black students enrolled. Keeping your community safe meant isolating the black citizens to one specific area, dubbing it “n– town,” and telling your children to steer clear of it.
These things are what led us to today. To the fires and the protests. To the anger and anguish. And to Devin Adams’ heartbreaking fear.
We have to do better.
And yeah, I know that’s a common sentence these days. One that’s tossed around without much thought. But I actually mean it. And I have an idea of how to make it happen.
Affect those around you.
Racism grows and spreads because it is not challenged. Racism flourishes out of fear — usually of the unknown.
Don’t allow that with the people you can affect. Don’t stay quiet when friends and family members say ignorant things or pass along ignorant, clearly wrong information. After all, if they’re bold enough to say something stupid out loud, why shouldn’t we be bold enough to say something right?
But most importantly: Teach your children — and anyone else who will listen to you — that the color of a person’s skin is as meaningless as the color of their shoes, and that skin color should never, ever be a barrier to friendship and love.
Racism is learned. And it’s just as easy to teach kindness and inclusion.
My daughter will never hear her parents use racist rhetoric or see us discriminate against anyone. She will play with kids of all races, and it will be as normal as a summer bike ride. She will watch animated shows with black and brown characters and will never know that there was a time when such a thing was incredibly odd. She will one day learn that she is named after a Civil Rights heroine, and she’ll learn that real history too.
These are not grand gestures. They’re literally the least we can do.
But I have to believe that if all of us focus on being decent people and changing and molding those we can, it will matter eventually. At least enough that Devin Adams’ children won’t have to wear football gear to feel safe in their own communities.
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