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A Divided America – OpEd

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The Rittenhouse ‘not guilty’ verdict once again showed how divided America is today. Justice is not, or so it seems, color-blind in this land of Abraham Lincoln. The five felony counts against Kyle Rittenhouse stemmed from the 2020 shootings that left Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber dead, and seriously wounding Gaige Grosskreutz during chaotic protests against racial injustice in Kenosha, Wisconsin. 

Rittenhouse was 17 when he traveled to Kenosha from Illinois amid disturbances in the city and carried an AR-style semiautomatic rifle on the streets of Kenosha and opened fire on demonstrators after a white police officer shot Jacob Blake, who is Black, in the back. Anthony Huber was shot in the chest trying to disarm Rittenhouse and stop his shooting spree.

In Kenosha, shouting matches flared on the courthouse steps between supporters of opposing sides, exemplifying a divided America. About 200 protesters in Portland, Oregon, broke windows and threw objects at police on Friday night as reaction poured in after the verdict was read. 

Many experts argue that the verdict could have been different with a different jury and/or a different judge. All but one of the jurors were white.

Rep. Cori Bush, Democrat from the state of Missouri, said in a tweet that the outcome of the trial was itself an indictment of the U.S. judicial system. “The judge. The jury. The defendant. It’s white supremacy in action. This system isn’t built to hold white supremacists accountable,” she wrote. “It’s why Black and brown folks are brutalized and put in cages while white supremacist murderers walk free. I’m hurt. I’m angry. I’m heartbroken.”

NAACP president Derrick Johnson said, “The verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse case is a travesty and fails to deliver justice on behalf of those who lost their lives as they peacefully assembled to protest against police brutality and violence. Rittenhouse’s decision to go to Kenosha and provoke protestors was unwarranted. Moreover, the outcome of this case sets a dangerous precedent. We have seen this same outcome time and time again; a justice system that presents different outcomes based on the race of the accused. This verdict is a reminder of the treacherous role that white supremacy and privilege play within our justice system. In the midst of this disappointing verdict, we must continue to work to ensure that those who seek to harm progress do not find refuge for their illicit acts in a system meant to protect victims.”

Bernice King, youngest child of the late Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, tweeted, “We are traumatized.” “A White teen showed up, at a protest of police brutality against Black people, with an assault rifle and was allowed by police to freely roam an already volatile space,” King continued. “This Not Guilty verdict represents a myriad of injustices.”

Hollywood actress Mia Farrow tweeted, “So anyone can come to a protest, just march down the middle of the street with a massive gun — and kill people?

“We come together to mourn the lives lost to the same racist system that devalues Black lives and devalued the lives of Anthony and JoJo. #ReimagineKenosha,” actor Mark Ruffalo said in a series of tweets, mentioning the first names of the two men who were killed in August 2020 by Kyle.

“After all we have seen and heard about these weapons of war, these killing machines, there is no doubt that people who faced this young man were more afraid of him than he was of them. He was the one with a weapon of war, loaded and ready to be used on people,” Ruffalo continued. “Justice weeps bitterly today. We are coming together to heal the scars left by the wounds of this grief. We will care for each other and remember why we continue to march.”

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of NY strongly condemned the Rittenhouse acquittal, writing on Twitter: “What we are witnessing is a system functioning as designed and protecting those it was designed for.” “My heart still breaks for the communities and families whose grief now compounds, and the countless others who will be denied and deprived in similar scenes across the country,” she wrote.

The governor of Illinois, JB Pritzker, also weighed in, saying: “Carrying a loaded gun into a community 20 miles from your home and shooting unarmed citizens is fundamentally wrong.” “Twenty-six-year-old Anthony Huber and 36-year-old Joseph Rosenbaum, a father, had their whole lives ahead of them. They deserve to be alive today. They deserve justice,” Pritzker wrote in a statement. “We must do better than this.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said,“This verdict is disgusting and it sends a horrible message to this country. Where is the justice in this? We can’t let this go. We need stronger laws to stop violent extremism from within our own nation. Now is the time.”

Some Democratic lawmakers like the Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar have described Kyle Rittenhouse a domestic terrorist. Obviously, the ‘not guilty’ verdict on Friday has exonerated him from any guilt of murdering unarmed protesters. 

In a highly polarized and divided America, Kyle Rittenhouse has become a cause célèbre for many conservatives, who have raised money for his legal team. Former president Donald Trump promptly congratulated Rittenhouse.

Republican Representative Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina tweeted out, “NOT GUILTY” and offered Rittenhouse a congressional internship. “You have a right to defend yourself. Be armed, be dangerous, and be moral,” said Cawthorn on Instagram following the decision.

Former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, an ISCON fundamentalist and admirer of India’s Modi and Hindutva, summed up her thoughts, tweeting, “The jury got it right — finding Rittenhouse not guilty on all charges. The fact that charges were brought before any serious investigation is evidence that the government was motivated by politics, which itself should be considered criminal.”

“I’m laughing! I’m relieved! I’m almost in tears,”  rightwing political commentator, provocateur, author and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza tweeted.

Surely, the reactions to the verdict have once again unmasked the great fissure within the American society. How this verdict will impact the one in Georgia in the coming days involving the murder trial of  Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old Black jogger, a star football player known for his speed, after being chased through a Georgia neighborhood by three armed white males is anyone’s guess! 

A grand jury indicted Gregory and Travis McMichael and William Bryan on nine criminal counts in Georgia state court, including felony murder, aggravated assault and false imprisonment. The June 2020 indictment accuses the men of using their pickup trucks to chase and assault Arbery before killing him with a 12-gauge shotgun.

Race is a central issue in the case involving the murder of Arbery. No one was charged in Arbery’s death until more than two months afterward, when the video of the shooting leaked online. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case from local police after a national outcry and soon arrested all three men on charges of murder and other crimes.

Attorney Benjamin Crump, who represents Ahmaud Arbery’s family, said security videos and text messages show that an “organized mob” had a “premeditated plan” to capture Arbery.

In Glynn County, where the Arbery trial is being held, black people account for nearly 27% of the of the population of 85,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. However, one Black juror and 11 whites will decide the fate of the men who chased and killed Arbery. 

Defense attorneys say the McMichaels and Bryan committed no crimes. They say Arbery had been recorded by security cameras inside a nearby house and they suspected him of stealing. Greg McMichael told police his son opened fire in self-defense after Arbery attacked with his fists and grappled for Travis McMichael’s shotgun.

Investigators have said Arbery was unarmed and there’s no evidence he had stolen anything.

The defense team is arguing that the three men acted out of self-defense and within the legal grounds of making a “citizen’s arrest.” “They got in the truck to pursue Mr. Arbery for the purpose of detaining him long enough for the police to arrive to take over and investigate whether in fact he had committed any crimes,” said defense attorney Franklin Hogue. “That turned from a citizen’s arrest into self-defense.” (Note: One year after the killing, Georgia lawmakers repealed the state’s “citizen’s arrest” law, which dated back to the Civil War.)

An attorney for one of the defendants also made requests to have the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson removed from the courtroom after they had separately attended court proceedings with Arbery’s parents. Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley repeatedly declined to ask Jackson to leave and denied the request for a mistrial. 

The judge conceded that “intentional discrimination” by defense attorneys appeared to have shaped jury selection but said his authority to intervene was limited under Georgia law. 

Not all is lost though in matters of race in the land of Lincoln. 

Last week, two men convicted of the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X – perhaps the most powerful voice in the fight against racism in the nation – were exonerated after more than half a century. A 22-month investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s Office and lawyers for the men — Muhammad A. Aziz and the late Khalil Islam — found that evidence of their innocence, including FBI documents, was withheld at trial.

Vance apologized for the failure of law enforcement and said, “This points to the truth that law enforcement over history has often failed to live up to its responsibilities.”

Aziz, 83, was released from prison in 1985; Islam was released in 1987 and died in 2009.

Malcolm X continues to remain a symbol of inspiration for Black men and others. The late African-American actor Ossie Davis eulogized him as “our own black shining prince.” Malcolm X (Malik Shabazz) was gunned down by assailant when he took the stage at the Audubon Ballroom in New York on February 21, 1965. His wife, Betty Shabazz, and four children were in the crowd.

“The assassination of Malcolm X was a historic event that demanded a scrupulous investigation and prosecution but, instead, produced one of the most blatant miscarriages of justice that I have ever seen,” said attorney Barry Scheck, a co-founder of the Innocence Project.

Vance and his office deserve our thanks for correcting a historical injustice. In a statement, the Innocence Project and lawyers for Aziz and Islam said, “Officially correcting the false historical narrative around one of the most significant events in 20th century U.S. history allows us to learn from and prevent future miscarriages of justice.”

I hope we don’t see a repeat of the miscarriage of justice with the Ahmaud Arbery case. 

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Dr. Habib Siddiqui

Dr. Habib Siddiqui has a long history as a peaceful activist in an effort towards improving human rights and creating a just and equitable world. He has written extensively in the arena of humanity, global politics, social conscience and human rights since 1980, many of which have appeared in newspapers, magazines, journals and the Internet. He has tirelessly championed the cause of the disadvantaged, the poor and the forgotten here in Americas and abroad. Commenting on his articles, others have said, "His meticulously researched essays and articles combined with real human dimensions on the plight of the displaced peoples of Rohingya in Myanmar, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo and Palestine, and American Muslims in the post-9/11 era have made him a singular important intellectual offering a sane voice with counterpoints to the shrill threats of the oppressors and the powerful. He offers a fresh and insightful perspective on a whole generation of a misunderstood and displaced people with little or no voice of their own." He has authored 11 books, five of which are now available through Amazon.com. His latest book - Devotional Stories is published by A.S. Noordeen, Malaysia.

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