Injustice Everywhere: The Trials of 2021 Expose Judicial Bias and the Persistence of White Supremacy
This week on democracy-ish, Danielle welcomes guest Wajahat Ali back for another discussion about how to dismantle white supremacy.
As of Friday morning, November 19, jurors in the trial of Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse are on their fourth day of deliberations. [Editorial note: News broke later Friday that the jury found Rittenhouse not guilty on all counts.]
On Monday, closing arguments are expected to begin in the Georgia trial of three men charged with killing Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery.
Is there any hope for real accountability in either case? What can these trials tell us about the persistence of white rage? And what can history teach us about the long arc of justice?
Last week, Danielle took a few days off to celebrate her birthday. That meant disconnecting from social media and cable news. Sometimes she just needs to “recharge and restore my spiritual, emotional and physical well being,” she says.
When she returned, things were even worse than usual, if that’s possible.
“I dipped my toe back into the cesspool of Twitter and pulled up the hashtag ‘Rittenhouse’ — people were saying that these victims had it coming … there was this overwhelming air of terrorism,” she says.
“Social media is often the cesspool of humanity,” says Wajahat Ali, who returned to the show this week to discuss two high-profile trials that crystallize the racial injustice — and the struggle for reckoning — we face in America today. “It brings out our collective id. It emboldens the worst of us.”
As Danielle and Waj recorded this episode, a jury was still deciding the fate of Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot and killed two men and injured another in August 2020 during a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Meanwhile, the men who murdered Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in February 2020 are on trial in Georgia.
“These three white men who hunted Ahmaud as he was out jogging in his own neighborhood, encircled him with their pickup trucks and gunned him down — their defense is that they were going to conduct a ‘citizen’s arrest,’” says Danielle. “Because that’s how empowered white men feel in this country.”
If 2020 exposed the fragility of our democracy and persistence of white supremacy, 2021 has taught us how slow and painful the journey toward any measure of justice will be.
A year after these senseless killings and the uprisings that followed, we’re watching the trials unfold — with as much hope as we can muster.
Episode Highlights –– America’s On Trial
‘The Black’ (er, red) flag
Kyle Rittenhouse was just 17 when he traveled from his hometown of Antioch, Illinois across state lines to Kenosha on August 25, 2020. Protests had been breaking out in the Wisconsin city for days in reaction to local police shooting a 29-year old Black man, Jacob Blake. Blake was paralyzed as a result of his injuries.
Rittenhouse pleaded not guilty to five felony counts of homicide and reckless endangerment. On Monday morning, Judge Bruce Schroeder dismissed a sixth charge, a misdemeanor related to possession of a dangerous weapon by a minor (which Rittenhouse was at the time of the shooting). The defense successfully argued that a loophole in state law allows minors to possess guns with barrels 16 inches or longer.
That’s just one of many dramatic moments in an explosive, emotional trial. The jury heard testimony from the injured victim, a conservative videographer and even the defendant himself. The judge is “like this comical cartoon character,” says Waj. “Just today, he referred to the only Black juror — I did not make this up — as ‘a Black.’”
Judge Schroeder: No victims in this murder trial
And that’s not the only odd thing about Judge Schroeder. Apparently, his ringtone is Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.,” the unofficial MAGA anthem. His decision to allow Rittenhouse to randomly pick his own jurors has raised more than a few eyebrows.
And as Danielle notes, Schroeder barred the prosecution from using the word “victim” to describe the protesters Rittenhouse killed and injured because he thought it was too political.
“It was fine to refer to them as arsonists or looters, but not victims who are no longer able to take the stand, as his third victim did,” says Danielle.
“In a strange way, it’s cathartic,” says Waj of the apparent bias in the courtroom.
“Now the rest of America is clearly seeing the absurd double standards.”
A ‘modern-day lynching’ in Georgia
More than 1000 miles away from Kenosha, another lone Black person sits on a jury in Brunswick, Georgia, assessing the evidence against three white men who killed 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery while he was out for a jog in a suburb near his home.
65-year-old Gregory McMichael, his 35-year-old son Travis and their neighbor William Bryan, 52, each face nine charges, including murder and aggravated assault. They have pleaded not guilty to all of them, claiming that they suspected Arbery of committing break-ins in the area.
But Waj points out that “one of the killers, as he stood over the dead body of Arbery — which was a modern-day lynching — called him an f-ing n-word. Just to let you know how he really felt.”
Plus, Waj notes that we would’ve never known what these men did to Arbery if it were not for the video that was released months later and blew up on social media.
Neither he or Danielle have much hope that justice will be served for Arbery or the victims of Kyle Rittenhouse.
The last time Danielle had faith in our justice system was during the trial of George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin in 2012 and was later acquitted of all charges.
“I believed in my heart of hearts that there was no way that this white Latino man was going to get away with knowingly hunting down this teenage boy,” she says.
Frontier justice lives on in the ’burbs
Danielle remembers listening to the 911 operator who told Zimmerman to stop following Martin. She thought it was slam-dunk evidence that proved Zimmerman’s malevolence.
But as the trial wore on, it became clear that in both the courtroom and the public square, Martin was on trial. Fox News posted pictures of him throwing off rap lyrics, as 16-year-old boys do. They tried to turn this Space Camp graduate into some type of thug, as if he deserved to be murdered in broad daylight. I said, “There’s no way he’s going to walk. But he walked.”
Danielle asks Waj: “What did you think when you watched the Zimmerman trial? Because that is what birthed Black Lives Matter.”
“I thought he’d walk, to be honest,” he replies. “I hate being cynical. But this is the good old boy rule of America: You can exercise justice the frontier way, against the menace that is attacking your suburban community. I’m using the language of the McCloskeys, if you remember that pathetic, wealthy suburban couple in St. Louis who pointed guns at [protesters in] a peaceful BLM rally.”
The McCloskeys were charged with a misdemeanor for illegally brandishing firearms, but they were pardoned by the Republican governor of Missouri and then “given a plum spot at the RNC,” he adds. (Plus, they were spotted outside the Kenosha courthouse, supporting Kyle Rittenhouse.)
“They used the same language that’s been used in America since the 19th century: Essentially, the Blacks are attacking the suburbs and you have to protect yourselves. Now Mark McCloskey is running for Senate.”
Beware of fire-starting wolves (and ‘human nature’)
Vance tweeted last week that “we let the wolves set fire to their communities,” which was a barely veiled reference to Black BLM protesters.
“I didn’t know wolves could start fires,” Waj quips. “Awesome.”
Then Vance defended Rittenhouse, calling him a “baby boy” whose “human nature told him to defend what no one else was defending.”
But answering the call of “human nature” is only OK for white men and boys.
“The funny thing is, I’m filled with rage all the time at the injustices that I see across America. But God forbid that I were to act on them,” says Danielle. “God forbid if I were to go on television and have anything other than a gentle smile on my face. I’m the one that’s labeled as the angry Black woman and I’m the one that will end up on an FBI watch list.”
‘It’s good to be king’ — and even just to be a white guy
Meanwhile, the self-styled “QAnon Shaman” was just sentenced to 41 months in prison “for attempting to violently overthrow the government,” says Danielle. “These people were chanting ‘hang Mike Pence’ after they built a guillotine on the steps of the Capitol. There are people serving 41 months in prison for [possessing] marijuana, which is now a billion-dollar industry.”
That makes Waj think of the classic 1981 movie “History of the World,” in which Mel Brooks plays a French king.
“In one of the segments, he just does anything he wants,” Waj explains. “He grabs a woman’s ass, he slaps someone … and each time, he looks at the camera and says, It’s good to be the king.”
In the same way, “it’s good to be a white criminal. It’s good to be a white killer. It’s good to be a white man,” he adds.
It’s good to be Eddie Gallagher, too. He’s “the white Navy SEAL who brutally killed a 12-year old-boy, an ISIS captive,” Waj explains. “He knifed him. He was such a freaking violent sociopath that his own SEAL teammates testified against him.”
Now, Gallagher — who was convicted but pardoned by Trump — is a right-wing hero.
Are we regressing to the ’50s?
“If Rittenhouse and the Arbery killers go free, it’s open season,” says Waj.
“White rage and white grievance can be exercised. Stand your ground, take out your gun, shoot to kill. You will have no consequences. We’re going to go back to 1952 in the South, where if a Black kid gives you lip or allegedly whistles at you — and his name was Emmett Till — you can get the entire town to hunt him down, kill him, mutilate him, torture him, lynch him. And you will get off scot-free. That’s how America is great again for those folks.”
But if you need a reminder, critical race theory “is not a thing in K-12 [schools],” she says. “It is something taught at the graduate level, in law school. But the reality is this: I don’t think a majority of Americans, if you were to poll them, know who Emmett Till is. Because the goal has always always been to whitewash our history.”
This is who we are
We’ve never wanted to teach American children about the “violent and cruel acts” committed by mostly white men, Danielle notes, “because people say: This is not who we are.”
It’s a “mantra people love to tweet out” after people with privilege or power commit atrocities.
“Where the hell were you over 400 years of slavery, when we were breaking up enslaved African families and selling them? Where were you when that was happening to Native Americans? We don’t teach it with radical honesty. Instead we fill our history books with euphemisms, with the idea of American individualism and cowboys and patriotism. And we don’t tell the truth.”
This is not who we are is “naive and stupid” when “violence … is the foundation of this country’s cruelty,” says Danielle.
We need to examine white rage, “not as a way to make excuses for it, but as a way to identify a pattern of behavior. We consistently relive these stories, and they get worse and worse every decade.”
“That’s the power of story,” says Waj, who quotes the Jewish American poet Muriel Rukeyser: “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
And, as Waj adds, “Human beings are universal storytelling animals.”
‘Ungrounding’ the American Dream
Waj thinks the story of America is much more complex than what Republicans have been taught to believe, which is largely fiction.
But “once someone tells you your universal truths are manufactured, and a myth and fake, what does that do to you? It annoys you. It ungrounds you.”
That ungrounding is a powerful, scary thing for those who realize the real story paints them not as victims, but aggressors, and “that white supremacy is part and parcel of the American project, that the American dream was never realized by [some] people because of their skin tone or their national origin or their ovaries,” says Waj.
When people learn that “not everyone can come in and pull themselves up from their bootstraps, and there’s systemic inequality we have to confront … and they might be complicit,” he adds, “it’s like, no — that’s too much. You are completely shitting upon the American dream narrative.”
The true story of America: The erasure of Black protagonists
Danielle taught first and second grade before she pivoted to focus on education policy on Capitol Hill. She often told people that our public education system perpetuates white supremacy — and got quite a few eye-rolls in response.
But she argues that, in order to educate the next generations to be critical thinkers who can truly “examine the story of America,” we need to face the fact that certain people are upheld as heroes and others are ignored.
“Why will they know the story of Susan B. Anthony, but not the true story of Sojourner Truth?” she asks.
“It’s mind-blowing, because for every white person who is celebrated in our history as an innovator, as a liberator, as an abolitionist, there are legions of Black and Brown people who were purposefully erased from that narrative.”
Intimidation ‘cedes the ground’ to the grassroots
“Let’s look at where the battlegrounds are,” says Waj. “School boards. This is a very deliberate strategy by the right wing: Start it at the local level, make it a local grassroots issue, then a national issue and an international issue.”
They threaten and intimidate teachers so they “cede the ground” to more powerful people, like the Texas congressman who proposed a list of 850 books he and his caucus believe should be banned.
“Those books are overwhelmingly stories about Asians, Black folks, Brown folks, LGBTQ people and women,” he notes.
Waj points to a USA Today piece that asked: When should children learn about race?
“This is where Twitter is sometimes good,” he says. “Because it makes you realize you’re not alone. Look at the responses of all the Black, Brown and Asian folks, myself included. We’re like, age five — that’s when we are told our skin is like the color of poo. When I was in kindergarten, I was called the n-word. Age six is when someone made fun of my eyes.”
Scarcity leaves little room for equality … but there’s plenty for everyone
Waj’s “co-protagonist” concept “stretches the narrative and expands the vision of America, one that’s rooted in white supremacy and is kept alive through white rage,” he says. “White fragility is a constricting narrative, where no one else has a ‘B’ plotline or even a speaking role.”
Danielle says this is an example of what she calls the “scarcity model” — that by expanding the story, by opening the door, there won’t be sufficient space (or money, or whatever) for everyone.
“If you convince people that there is not enough, that we are not coming from a place of abundance, everything given to others is a loss for you. How is it that we can believe America is the land of the free, home of the brave … one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and yet we can’t expand the idea of what it means to have equity?”
“I’m all for diversity, equity and inclusion until it affects me,” Waj deadpans.
The 1619 Project vs. powerful propaganda
The backlash against the 1619 Project is a good example, says Waj. Nikole Hannah-Jones had the “brilliant idea” to mark the 400-year anniversary of the beginning of American slavery with a special issue for The New York Times Magazine. It became a podcast. Now it’s a bestselling book.
“She brought in Black voices to talk about the stories that are excised, the stories of the millions of Black slaves brought here against their will to help create this country, who were tortured. And now we have a greater understanding,” Waj notes. “But it was so threatening they’re trying to ban it.”
Reframing history from the perspective of those who are oppressed “fundamentally shatters’’ the “misunderstandings, myths, propaganda and talking points’’ powerful people have relied on for years,” he says.
Then they’re “forced to have uncomfortable conversations about race and white supremacy ... and not just that, they have to literally investigate their role in either perpetuating it or being against it.”
‘This is what we’re up against’
It must be “much more comforting” for white folks to cast themselves as victims and people of color as “villains … who whine and complain, who make everything racialized,” says Waj.
“The story of America is being threatened. The historical protagonists of America are coming to terms [with the fact] that they might also be the antagonists. It’s a reality they’re violently trying to rewrite as we speak.”
Any student of American history knows the timeline of progress isn’t linear.
“It’s two steps forward, one step back,” Waj says.
Now, CRT is the latest right-wing obsession. Diversity has become a dirty word, even though it just means “trying to make schools a safe space, where Black and Brown and white kids can learn about other cultures and feel they belong,” Waj adds. “That’s all it is. It’s something beautiful, but it has to be snuffed out.”
He thinks it demonstrates “how fragile white fragility is, and how even the slightest attempts by the rest of us to expand and stretch America will be met, literally, with a violent resistance of a Kyle Rittenhouse or an Eddie Gallagher or the three men who lynched Arbery.”
And now, the likes of Paul Gosar and other lawmakers who promote violence, even as they sit in the chambers of Congress.
“This is what we’re up against, guys,” says Waj.
“This is indeed what we are up against,” Danielle replies. “We will be back next week — if white supremacy doesn’t run amok and snuff us all out.”
Check out the frustration, rage and absurdity that was the 2020 election on democracy-ishas Danielle Moodie and her weekly guest host discuss the current political climate and our country from a Black perspective.