The Book Every American Needs to Read: 'Open Season: Legalized Genocide of Colored People'
Award-winning lawyer Ben Crump's Open Season irrefutably documents how America's treatment of Black Americans and other minorities is indistinguishable from genocide.
Open Season" Legalized Genocide of Colored People
Amistad Press / HarperCollins
It's not the first time white America has been charged with genocide, but rarely has the case been made so clearly and succinctly. Award-winning lawyer Ben Crump's Open Season: Legalized Genocide of Colored People is a harrowing read, but readers who feel overwhelmed by the barrage of documented injustice and cases of white police officers literally getting away with murder – over and over again – will hopefully bear in mind that reading about it is surely less harrowing than what living it must be like for many Black Americans.
Crump uses the term "colored people" to make a critical point: African Americans are the ones disproportionately targeted by mainstream white America's genocidal struggle against all who are not like them, but they are not the only ones. "By 'colored person' I mean Black and brown people and people who are colored by their sexual preference, religious beliefs, or gender. In short, I define a person of color as anyone who is a nonwhite male," Crump writes. "I will show what I have learned as a civil rights attorney – that the justice system has been designed to protect white, wealthy men, and the rest of us are on our own."
Crump's definition, then, is able to encompass queer and trans people who face murderous violence on a regular basis in the US (his examples include trans women of colour jailed for defending themselves against murderous white cis men); Muslims who are targeted for their faith; women who are routinely sent to jail for decades for defending themselves against violent men (under laws which just as routinely exonerate white men who kill Black men and claim self-defense).
Thanks to the work of Black Lives Matter and similar movements, there are few readers who will not be familiar with some of the many cases of Black men, women, and children murdered in cold blood by white police officers in recent years. Yet Crump's brief survey of this bloodied landscape reveals numerous cases that escaped wider scrutiny. They are tragic and heart-breaking, but they have in common the fact that white police officers are able to murder Black folk with impunity and get away with it. Crump analyses several of these cases (he personally worked on many of them) and reveals the subtle legal and prosecutorial twists, coupled with racist bias, that allow white men to get away with murder. Ultimately it boils down to this: a double standard which is routinely applied so as to secure the acquittal (or jokingly light sentences) for white men; and ruthless punishment for everyone else.
He explores the spread of Stand Your Ground laws in the United States, and the so-called 'Castle Doctrine' defense, both of which have been used to acquit white men who gun down innocent and unarmed Black folk in cold blood. This is often done with no other rationale than the Black man made them feel nervous; an excuse which in any civilized country would lead to murder charges. These laws are the result in large part of heavy lobbying by the NRA and the gun lobby, in order to boost their profits by selling more guns.
Yet Black folk are rarely able to avail of the same Stand Your Ground defense which acquits all those white killers. One of the many cases Crump presents is that of Isaac Singletary, an 80-year old retiree who was accosted and harassed by drug dealers on his lawn. When they refused to leave, he retrieved a gun from his house and ordered them off his property, whereupon they pulled guns and opened fire on him. He fled into his house; they chased him and gunned him down in his backyard.
The 'drug dealers' turned out to be undercover police officers conducting a sting operation to sell drugs to addicts. They never once identified themselves to him, gave stories that were contradicted by witnesses to the murder, and they got off scot free.
It's one of many horrifying stories. Reasons why police officers murder Black victims undoubtedly vary. There are some who may honestly feel fear for their lives; not because it is reasonable to be afraid but because their racist biases and the fear inculcated in them by a racist society drive them to gun down Black people out of knee-jerk nervousness. But there are just as many, or more, cases that don't even have that thin veneer of explanatory guilt.
Crump chronicles the growing number of cases of what he refers to as "Houdini Suicides" – cases of Black boys who are arrested for minor infractions (e.g., possession of small amounts of marijuana), who are handcuffed and bundled into the backs of police cars. They are dead by the time they arrive at police stations, and the accompanying officers provide incredulous sounding stories of how the handcuffed boys managed to somehow release themselves and seize a gun, at which point the officers shot them. There being no other witnesses besides the officers, the cases have all been ruled suicides.
In other cases, the brutality of the white officers is in such clear evidence that the courts refuse to publicly release it for fear of civil unrest. One such case was the heartbreaking story of Alesia Thomas. She delivered her children to a local police station and left them there under "safe harbor laws", admitting that she had an addiction problem and was unable to safely care for them; she hoped they would be put under her grandmother's care.
Despite the fact she did what the law recommends for her children's safety, later that day police officers went to her house, arrested her for child endangerment, put her in the back of a police car and beat her to death. The footage of her murder, which Crump saw due to his involvement in the case, was barred from public release due to the court's fear it would spark civil unrest.
When white men gun down innocent Black men in cold blood, it's not unusual for them to be treated as heroes. Crump cites the case of Joe Horn, who was paraded around at Tea Party rallies and feted by conservative talk show host Glenn Beck after murdering two Black men he saw breaking into a neighbour's house. No lives were at risk in the break-in and defense of property is not supposed to be considered a justification under stand-your-ground and 'castle' defenses.
Juxtaposed against this flood of murdered unarmed Black men are the many cases of white killers – mass murderers, terrorists, white men who gunned down Black families and children in churches – who are routinely taken alive and with minimal use of force by police. In the case of Dylann Storm Roof, who opened fire in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, North Carolina in 2015, killing nine people and wounding several others, police officers even took him to get dinner at Burger King after arresting him, because he said he was hungry. Yet innocent Black men requesting police help for car trouble are more likely to be gunned down than offered such solicitous assistance.
The fact of the matter, as Crump compellingly demonstrates, is these cases are not exceptions in America; they are the norm. They have a deep systemic root; ever since the US Civil War, American legislators have gone to immense lengths to impose laws that retrench white power at the expense of African Americans and other minorities. Since the abolition of slavery, white Americans have sought methods to continue the enslavement – literal or economic – of Black Americans and to continue profiting off their exploitation (White, 2015). Wherever civil rights legislation has been won, American courts quickly move to issue rulings that render the effect of that legislation moot.
Crump is deeply critical of American courts; given that many judges are appointed rather than elected, he observes, they actually have "the opportunity to focus on the high-minded ideals that America embodies. The judges can't create legislation or overturn precedents arbitrarily, but they can be fearless in their interpretation of the Constitution." Yet they are not. Instead, "the majority of the United States Supreme Court rulings over the years regarding race have been decided based on what is most detrimental to Black and brown people, not precedence."
Crump offers compelling evidence to back up his case. Precedence tends to be used when it favours white men; when precedent does not work in white men's favour, it is routinely set aside for new interpretations that do. In a similar fashion, the early efforts of some individual states to enact laws that would protect African Americans were ruled invalid by federal courts, which gave precedence to federal law over state law. Those same federal courts would later – under progressive federal administrations -- swing the other way in cases where respecting states' rights would prove more advantageous for white men.
Crump's study is a comprehensive one; after discussing individual cases which exemplify forms of legalized genocide against colored people, the later half of the book provides a broad scan of systemic forms of racism and genocide. Given that US law still permits the enslavement of criminals and prisoners, laws have been carefully crafted so as to target and criminalize Black Americans and other minorities.
Drug laws are an excellent example of this; drugs predominantly used by Black Americans bring much more severe penalties than the drugs of choice for more affluent white users. In recent years, America's response to the opioid epidemic – most prevalent among white Americans -- has been one of compassion for addicts, with federal funds poured into treatment and education. Why was crack cocaine addiction been treated so differently? Its victims – mostly Black -- were treated as criminals and locked away for life.
But it's not just drug laws. Municipal regulations impose hefty fines and jail sentences on those who cannot pay, for things as simple as parking or vehicular infractions; the ones who most often wind up unable to pay and thus criminalized for life are Black Americans.
Laws are made by elected politicians, and so Black Americans have also been systematically excluded from voting. 'Jim Crow' laws – imposing unreasonable requirements on voter eligibility, designed specifically to exclude Black voters – were a feature of the post-Civil War American South, where white politicians struggled to prevent newly freed slaves from exercising their new-found civic and political rights. But such laws have surged back into prominence in recent years, driven by Republican politicians, and often accompanied by police targeting and harassment directed against advocates who try to help poor and Black voters exercise their rights.
America's education system also remains rife with unofficial forms of segregation, and Black children find themselves not only deprived of equal opportunity but also criminalized by the growing securitization of schools and the decline of public education. Financial institutions also routinely exploit Black citizens through a variety of means. This is demonstrated perhaps most tellingly by their exploitation in the various loan and mortgage schemes revealed in the 2008 subprime mortgage scandal and the subsequent recession.
Environmental racism is a reality as well, impacting the health and future prospects of the minorities and Black Americans who are most likely to live near polluted and toxic environments. Despite efforts to hold companies to account for their crimes, and to make them publicly acknowledge the ways in which they knowingly exploit poor and Black communities in the process of profiting from pollution and environmental degradation, the same legal system which treats Black Americans so ruthlessly and mercilessly for minor infractions also offers countless loopholes for the white-run companies that ruin Black lives through environmental racism.
It's symptomatic of a broader double standard. Black Americans are sent to jail (thus disrupting family and community often to irreparable degree) for the most minor of infractions: an abusive partner being found in possession of an illegal substance; an expired parking permit or the inability to pay a parking fine. Yet white corporate executives who knowingly commit financial crime on a national scale, ruining countless thousands of lives in the process, almost never face even a day in jail.
The double standard of American society emerges in countless ways. Even officers of the legal system fall prey to it. Marilyn Mosby, one of a small number of Black prosecutors in the US, sought to charge six police officers with the death of 24-year-old Black man Freddie Gray. Despite compelling evidence, the judge found them not guilty, and the officers promptly sued Mosby for charging them. A judge allowed the suit to proceed, even though the Supreme Court had previously ruled -- in the case of a white district attorney -- that district attorneys could not be sued, even when it was proven their offices had withheld critical evidence that would have exonerated Black suspects. There are, it seems, no limits to the double standard which is repeatedly applied in America's institutions to benefit white people and hurt Black people.
Open Season is a grim read, but an essential one. Crump closes with a series of suggestions readers can make in their personal lives to commit to building a better and more just world. Crump, one of America's foremost legal advocates, expresses tremendous faith in the potential for the US Constitution and the American system to provide the basis for a just and equal America, but only if white people are willing to commit to change. First among these personal action steps is admitting that there is a problem. White readers wishing to educate themselves as to the scale of the problem would do well to read Crump's harrowing yet superb study.
"As Americans, we must come together to destroy racism or racism will destroy America," he writes. "We must never forget that truth can be transformed into power…We must speak truth to power."
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