25 September 2007...4:31 pm

Good People Go Blind

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The first night I met Alex, he had occasion to announce “I don’t believe in jails.” He looked at me, then, as though he’d thrown down something glittery and not entirely of this world and was waiting to see if I’d still believe in aliens.

I don’t remember responding, though, except to say “I’m glad this is going well.”

Jails have not been very much on my mind, lately. I have been reading some federal death penalty law; in light of that, incarceration is seen as a reprieve. The death penalty as it is currently applied can be seen as an outgrowth of post-Civil War lynchings. Lynchings were uncommon during slavery–it was of course not necessary, in those years, for white mobs to murder black men–but became increasingly prevalent after the 1877 failure of Reconstruction.

Through the social terror of lynching, many whites imagined they could preserve a pre-bellum social order. Jail was not enough, because in jail subjugation and torture become invisible; the spectacle of lynching and the power it gives the layman are key psychological components of the practice. In 1927, George W. Hays, once governor of Arkansas, explained:

White southerners perceived themselves to be in a constant state of crisis with respect to their former slaves. Experiments in penology were a luxury they could not afford.

I presume that calling for de juro penology was corresponding luxury that black southerners found equally unaffordable.

[Lige Daniels, age 16]

The last public hanging in the United States took place in 1936–my father was born twelve years later. In the summer of that year, masses of vacationers converged on Owensboro, Kentucky, to watch the murder of Rainey Bethea, who had been accused of rape. Ownsboro’s hotels were full, so campsites were erected; if each of the spectators had eaten one hot dog, the vendors would have sold between ten and twenty thousand. Before Bethea had been pronounced dead, parts of the hood that covered his face had been torn off as souvenirs.

Kentucky abolished public hangings two years after Bethea’s death. The number of lynchings had been falling in the South, but the number of executions remained relatively constant: in the 1920s the South as a region accounted for less than half of all executions in the country. By the late 1940s, it was responsible for 65% of them.

Mob violence and harassment is not behind us, although in 1931 the Southern Commission on the Study of Lynching reported that

A lynching makes a lot of otherwise good people go blind or loose their memories.

[Lint Shaw, charged with attempted assault]

A year ago in Jena, Louisiana, a black student got up during an assembly to ask if he was allowed to sit under a certain tree in the courtyard. Whoever answered the question might have been puzzled, or might have not been, but she said yes, of course, anyone can sit under any tree! The next day, there were nooses hanging from the tree, presumably tied by the same white students who usually ate their lunches there.Several uneasy and intermittently violent months passed, and last December there was a fight at a party. Six black kids were charged with attempted murder, and one of them is still in jail. In June, an all-white jury convicted Mychal Bell of second-degree battery. His sentence has been overturned, as he was illegally tried as an adult; on Monday, however, a judge refused to release him on bail.

Mob justice seems to remain an attractive proposition in this country. In the nearby town of Alexandria, two white kids have been arrested for dangling nooses off the back of their truck. Even David Duke is concerned about extralegal vengance:

the entire White population of the town is facing a media lynching by being labeled racists.

Last week, the names, addresses and phone numbers of five of the six accused Jena students were published on the web site of the American National Socialist Workers Party,

[Jesse Washington, age 17]

in case anyone wants to deliver justice.


  • so, forgive me the light-hearted response to this seriously important (and importantly serious) post but…

    i couldn’t help noticing the striking resonance of the past state of “penology” with current episodes of the same. “Experiments in penology,” we are told, are not a luxury you can afford when you’re in a “constant state of crisis with respect to [your] former slaves.”

    this sticky predicament somehow makes me think of war and phallic pride and those strange red-white-and-blue missile popsicles they sell these days. they’re called mega-missiles. i bought one in central park the other day. [link]

    in times of crisis, i suppose it’s always important to have penology under control.

  • this is what austin is talking about. it’s really what we should all be talking about:


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