Just got back from a press conference at Mobile police HQ. Before I get into that, please allow this clarification and apology. In my original blog post yesterday, while blasting Al Sharpton and other national figures for their double-standard in not engaging in advocacy for beaten white people, I also in passing asked why Mayor Sam Jones had not spoken up. In retrospect, putting Jones in the company of Sharpton et al was unfair to Jones. My beef with Jones was not based on any race-related actions or inaction on his part, nor was it based on any apparent hypocrisy on his part. Instead, it was a leadership issue: I thought this was a situation where the mayor should have been out front, verbally "laying down the law" as it were, and that he should already have made a statement. I still think so. But to mention him in the same breath as Sharpton, in the context of Sharpton's racial double standards, was thoughtless on my part, and I apologize. I may have policy and stylistic differences with Mayor Jones, but he has very little history of anything approaching racial demagoguery.
Okay, 'nuff said on that. Moving on to the press conference: Forgive me if I sound cynical, but I came away far less impressed, if that's even possible, with the Mobile police statements than I had been before.
Several people, including the mayor and several top police officials (but not the chief), spoke. Without getting into the weeds with lots of specific quotes (for now) attributed to specific people, here was the gist of the message:
1) They actually believe that only three people were "involved" as "active participants" in the assault. The rest were "onlookers." They may end up therefore only arresting three people (although, under heated questioning, some by me, they said they of course won't rule out more arrests if their investigation warrants it).
2) They have "absolutely no reason to believe" that racial motives played a role in the assault. Yeah, really. Even when asked specifically to divorce the case from the purported reference to Trayvon Marton, and asked directly whether "deep-seated racial tension even just between two men" (the victim and the man arrested today) played a role, the lead investigator said "the evidence and the investigation that we've found just don't support that." Furthermore, officials repeated their contention that the Trayon Martin reference was mere hearsay from one witness -- even though at least three media sources have each reported at least three witnesses who said they heard it with their own ears.
3) The mayor has asked for and received a federal investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney just in case any federal violations were involved. All appropriate law enforcement outlets and agency, local/state/federal, are "fully involved and engaged."
Frankly, items one and two above do not appear to be remotely credible. This isn't to say they are wrong, but it certainly doesn't comport with what multiple media reports have found on both counts. As I reported earlier, it took me just five minutes on the scene to find several people who said they themselves heard the Trayvon Martin reference. Numerous news reports, citing numerous witnesses both named and unnamed, identified at least some sort of racial element to the attack (in addition to merely the racial identities of those involved). Numerous news reports have said there were some 20 people involved in the attack; even allowing that of course not all 20 can be proved to have landed blows on Mr. Owens, the fact is that cheering onlookers are by law accessories in most cases to crimes like these. After the press conference, the mayor told me there were at least some reports that some of the "mob" were at least verbally trying to dissuade the attackers -- to which the response is, fergoshsake, if that's the case and if the mayor is worried about the reputation of the community, why haven't they publicized the heck out of that assertion? It certainly would help fight the notion that so may people could have been so depraved as to participate in such a heinous crime, and thus make us feel better about humanity in general -- n'est-ce pas?
When officials come so close to categorical denials of "facts" reported by numerous, independent news outlets, all having done their own legwork rather than merely reporting hearsay, it is no wonder that people are skeptical about anything the officials support. Think of it this way: If you are talking to somebody standing in the pouring rain who insists that not a drop of moisture is in the air, you aren't likely to believe much else that he says. A similar dynamic is at play here: To deny multiple counts that almost everybody already assumes, on good evidence, to be true, is to harm one's credibility.
Now it must be said, as officials explained at length afterwards, that witnesses are far less likely, out of fear, to say the same things to police investigators who must take down their names and who may call on them to testify than they are to say, on condition of anonymity, to reporters in order to get the story out. They can easily be telling the truth to the reporters but not want to risk public testimony, for fear of backlash from associates of the very same neighbors against whom they are testifying. This isn't to say the fear is justified; but it is a common, and understandable, human reaction.
The problem here is that investigators simultaneously acknowledge this reality while stating nearly categorically not that they haven't personally been able to corroborate the media reports, but instead that they "have absolutely no reason to believe" the reports. The proper response would be to say they are troubled by the inconsistencies and really want to get to the bottom of them, and to reassure any witnesses that police will protect them if they tell what they saw. In other words, rather than accepting the witnesses close-mouthedness at face value, the investigators should make crystal clear that the media reports are being taken seriously and are not being dismissed as mere hearsay or rumors.
Look, let's make this clear: Nobody should suggest the Mobile police want to cover for bad guys or violent racists. But there is an obvious incentive for them to downplay sensational angles in public, in a misguided attempt to avoid unwanted national attention. The tendency is to not want to believe the sensational aspects (racism; massive-involvement mob violence) are true, and therefore to dismiss all too readily the reports to the contrary if those aren't the same reports you, the investigators, are receiving.
All of that said, Mayor Jones seems sincere in wanting to put perpetrators in jail. But if only three people ever get arrested for this crime, I doubt very seriously the public will believe justice has really been done.
This case still bears serious watching. Not that Eric Holder or Al Sharpton give a fig.
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