Mr. Mayor, please reverse course!

February 28, 2018

 

 

 

I've had great hope in Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba because he leads. He acts. He's decisive. He fixes potholes and goes after grants and listens to others. He hires good people and lets them do their job. 

 

I often find myself applauding his youthful wisdom and spirit. Veteran Jackson leaders whom I admire see great promise in him on many counts.

 

But on some counts, he plays the sociologist, the therapist or even (dare I say it?) the monarch, none of which are his elected roles. 

 

Lumumba's new executive order to stop his police force from giving the media mugshots of those fatally shot by officers is a dangerous move.

 

Mr. Mayor, please reverse course.

 

Explained the mayor Monday in a Clarion Ledger article, "A mugshot is just one snapshot in time and cannot be presumed to represent the sum total of any individual's existence."

 

Tell me about it. A mugshot of me today is different from one taken five years ago--as in my hair is sparser and grayer, and my face, ahmmm, is fuller! I'd like to think it doesn't totally sum up my existence. 

 

But photos do preserve a person's image for just one sliver of a moment in time and that's a powerful thing. Photos have prevented wars, changed peoples' minds, and called folks to action. They have exposed and enlightened. They've angered and embarrassed.

 

But Lumumba's edict reflects more than a failure to understand photography.

 

His new "command"--and that is what it feels like--is bad on other counts. It keeps vital information from the public. His move is rooted in a flawed notion that says avoiding any shame at all cost is more important than facing and dealing with facts. And it strikes at the heart of freedom of the press. 

 

According to The Clarion Ledger's Tuesday article, the mayor said that "the images have a negative impact on communities and widen the 'historical divide' between police and the community." 

 

Really?

 

What communities are those? Either The Clarion Ledger didn't report them, or the mayor didn't say. Do you want us to guess? Is that a positive notion? Where are the boundaries of these communities? Whom do these communities include--or exclude?

 

I know the mayor is well-intentioned. I even sense he's brave. But he's missed on his approach to enacting this rule and on the essence of the rule itself. 

 

Today's Clarion Ledger states that the Mississippi Ethics Commission says police forces can withhold or not withhold mugshots ONLY IF a case is under investigation. But what "under investigation" means is not clear and seems to be handled on a  "case by case" basis by police forces.

 

One Jackson attorney who specializes in First Amendment issues--Leonard Van Slyke--disagrees with the idea of "withholding mugshots under the guise of an investigation," states The Clarion Ledger report.

 

As for me, I have three concerns.

 

First, the mayor needs to explain this historical divide. Sure, we all have varying degrees of knowledge about it, but if he's going to take such a drastic willy nilly move, he should explain his understanding of it to all of the city's citizens. Give a speech on it. Lay out all cards. A few national magazines say he has a socialist agenda. So do some locals. Who's to say? But don't be cryptic. Speaking in a constructive way might actually help. Of course, it will just anger some. But if the mayor is going to cite this concern for a "community" for taking such drastic action as to curtail First Amendment rights, he needs to offer a more complete rationale.

 

Let me be the first to say that most white folks in the Jackson area don't come close to understanding the pain, fear and distrust so many in neighboring black communities deal with, nor do we grasp some of the emotions and feelings they may hold. They see and experience things we haven't and won't--period.

 

For Jackson's whites to gain a necessary understanding that will lead to healing, it will require more than reading books or articles or shooting the bull at Starbucks. It will require entering into an affected community and experiencing the pain and fear that lingers there daily. And then multiplying that times three, four or five generations of the same or worse experiences. That will generate some real empathy, but we aren't likely to go there if we don't have to. 

 

Second, we can't be force to decide which photos to release and which not to release based on our feelings or fear of how others might feel. Too much is at stake too often. Based on feelings, would the mayor have opposed police in June of 1964 giving the media photos of the now-famous mugshots of civil rights martyrs Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, who were murdered in Neshoba County with complicit police support?

 

Can we pick or choose when to run a photo of a murdered man or woman in our town?

 

What if the man is a crazed school shooter? Does the mayor oppose showing that monster's photo after an officer shoots him? 

 

Moreover, I don't think any of us feel very positive when we see the horrid photos of black Mississippians hanging from trees as white sheriffs looked on. But such photos are now in our new civil rights museum. If we were worried about photos of such police killings having a negative impact, they wouldn't be there because the photos are horrifying and humiliating.

 

Now do such photos make us sick? Do they make us feel shame? Do they stir all kinds of different emotions based on who is viewing them? Yes? Do they even propagate stereotypes? Yes.

 

But feelings can't be the litmus test of how we decide which photos are available to the press and public and which aren't. In one sense, history and a free press are at stake. It's just sloppy precedent.

 

Third, telling the media that police can't give them vital information for readers and citizens is a frightening strike at our treasured freedom of the press. A key component of American society is to know as much of the truth as is possible.

 

Van Slyke told The Clarion Ledger, "While (Lumumba's) motives may be pure, and he doesn't want to further divide the community, I fail to see how not allowing the public to know what's happening isn't just as divisive. In my view, it's just the opposite."

 

Well stated. When information is cut off from citizens, and by government edict at that, we all tread deeper into dangerous waters. We are left wondering, "What will be the next mayoral edict?"

 

I urge our mainstream media to publicly and reasonably question the mayor's move. If they do not, then it's hard to believe that they don't agree at least a bit with him. 

 

A doting, compromising media on this issue is, indeed, possible. I know from personal experience. 

 

When I returned to Mississippi from working for three Chicago media outlets, my wife, two children and I first lived in a house in the country in Jefferson County. A newspaper enlisted me to cover breaking news from Natchez up to Port Gibson.

 

One day three criminals escaped a local prison. The paper called and I hit the beat, gathering the news via interviews and on-site reporting. I filed my story, using the tried-and-true formula of leading with the Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How.

 

In the article's second sentence, I reported a key description of the "Who" regarding the race of the fleeing dangerous prisoners. They were black. That simply was a fact. I also reported that they were men. Another important fact.

 

For their personal safety, the paper's readers needed to know as much about what these escapees looked like as possible. What if someone showed up in a reader's yard or place of business? They needed to know how to determine if the person might be a dangerous escapee. Heck, how could they even know whether to call police and report the sighting of an escapee? How tall were they? How thin or hefty? Did they have any identifying marks? Every piece of information possible should be summoned.

 

I filed my breaking article and waited for an edited version to be returned for my review before it hit the presses. When I read the edit, the race of the three escapees had been removed.

 

I was floored. It must be a mistake, I thought. I called my editor, who proceeded to tell me that the paper's policy was to not include in any way--even in its copy--the race of criminals.

 

A day later, I was on the phone with a bigger dog at the paper. That person said that including the race of escapees might unfairly stigmatize an entire group of people. There was more concern for the convicts than the paper's readers. From what I can tell, that policy is no longer in place at the paper, thankfully. 

 

I'm passionate about striving for understanding and progress among our races in Mississippi. That has gotten me in a stew a time or two. I greatly value my African-American friends. I pray God will heal our divides. Unlike some, I see hope!

 

However, no one should favor a kingly mayoral edict generally forcing media and police to conceal vital information regarding any criminal, much less the victim of a shooting; after all, the victim may very well be innocent--or a martyr at that.

 

Who knows, the next government edict may be to outlaw photos or articles of those arrested for allegedly committing crime; after all, that allegations haven't been proven yet. On and on.

 

I hope the mayor will reconsider. I celebrate his talent and the role model he is.  The mayor told The Nation magazine in November of last year, “Most people don’t see the value in what you’re trying to build until you build it. ... Once you build it, then people see the value in it.”

 

"Value" can be positive or negative. And in the case of endangering First Amendment rights, that value is rarely, if ever, good.

 

Let's pray with open eyes and hearts. After all, we all make mistakes, including our mayor.

 

PHOTO BY JOSEPH JOHNSON

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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MississippiMatters is a news blog of cooperative writers, videographers and podcasters published by  The Well Writers Guild, a 501c3 devoted to mentoring Mississippi writers and to addressing uncovered or under-covered topics.  MississippiMatters focuses on offering creative "takes" on our state's culture, ideas, events and more.