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Saturday, December 18, 2020 ∞ 10 pm EST ∞ LIVE
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“Playing the Numbers”
Tonight we feature the history of and discuss “the numbers” game.
The numbers were a sprawling, Black-run business for decades. In 1971, The NYTimes reported that an estimated “60 percent of the area’s economic life depends on cash flow from the numbers,” which employed an estimated 100,000 workers across the five boroughs. Numbers men also in many ways filled the void left by a formal economy indifferent to black residents’ needs: They bankrolled many small businesses, from bars to restaurants to corner groceries, and also saved many businesses from bankruptcy. These bankers helped get out the vote, buttressed black civil rights groups and contributed to Black political candidates’ campaigns.
In most of the history, you may read the criminal aspects of the numbers, rather than the everyday-ness — the communal, reciprocal and congratulatory qualities. Only one image captures the whimsically designed “tip sheets” used to help players choose a number to play. Most of us are familiar with Sonny Boy Dream book, Old Aunt Dinah’s Dream Book of Numbers, and Gypsy’s Witch Dream Book of Numbers, two of many simple yet illuminating publications used as bibles for numbers players. These encyclopedic books interpreted dreams by assigning three-digit numbers to different symbols, and nearly any image or experience that could appear in a dream. Each week, Sony Boy’s Numbers were published in the national Black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier. Many remember, specifically in the South, numbers being referred to as “boleeta”.
Although the numbers racket targeted working-class and poor communities, and were unregulated and untaxed by the local governments, there was little, if any, stigma among blacks to being involved with policy. Numbers bosses nevertheless sought respectability by investing gambling profits in legitimate businesses. During the 1930s, Black baseball attracted a great deal of this money.
The Numbers was originally a Black community game. Then the NY mafia wanted In. It is an intriguing part of our cultural and economic history.
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When COVID entered the federal medical prison in Carswell, Texas, it ballooned within weeks — of the 1,288 people tested, 504 were positive. In one housing unit of 300 women, only 26 women tested negative, including 56-year-old Sandra Shoulders.
Shoulders has severe diabetes, respiratory problems, and, since entering prison in 2015, chronic kidney disease, leaving her at only 30 percent kidney function. All of these make her more vulnerable to becoming debilitated, if not dying, from COVID.
Meanwhile, the prison’s practices discourage people from getting tested for COVID. “Even when inmates feel ill now, they are so scared of those conditions to speak up,” Shoulders explained. She described how those who tested positive were treated: “You are held in a room, and expected to wear the same set of clothes for 21+ days, without laundry facilities. Food is dropped by the door and physically kicked into the room by the guards.”
After Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Attorney General William Barr issued a memo to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the agency responsible for federal prisons, expanding the criteria under which to release people to home confinement to stem the spread of COVID. The expanded criteria prioritize people whose age or health makes them vulnerable to COVID, as well as those in low- and medium-security prisons, people whose reentry plans show that they are less likely to contract COVID if not incarcerated, and people with low risk-assessment (or PATTERN) scores.
In August, a prison case manager said that Shoulders qualified for home confinement on September 25. Elated, she began making plans to join her godsister in Chicago. She also planned to reconnect with her three children and her 16 grandchildren, some of whom she only knew through photos and video calls.
Three weeks later, prison administrators told Shoulders that the BOP’s Central Office had denied her release. She was not told why. “I had to call my family and give them this heartbreaking news,” Shoulders told Truthout. The news not only left her reeling, but sent Shoulders — who has bipolar disorder, an anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder — into what she calls a “serious mental health crisis and meltdown.”
GRANBURY, Texas — In late August, the constable in a small county outside Fort Worth logged on to his Facebook account and called for the execution of a mayor nearly 2,000 miles away.
“Ted Wheeler needs to be tried, convicted and executed posthaste,” John D. Shirley wrote on Aug. 31. “He has blood on his hands, and it’s time for justice.”
What precipitated Shirley’s outburst against the mayor of Portland, Ore., was the shooting death on Aug. 29 of a member of a right-wing group called Patriot Prayer by an antifa activist. The killing was a violent escalation of clashes that had roiled Portland in the weeks since George Floyd was suffocated to death by police. Shirley said “patriots” in “socialist-controlled cities” needed to protect themselves. As the presidential election approached, he warned of “open conflict.” Twitter suspended his account shortly after, but he continued to post about violent disputes on Facebook with crescendoing alarmism.
Since 2018, Shirley has been the constable of Hood County, a conservative, mostly white community outside of Fort Worth popular among retirees. As constable, Shirley is empowered to serve warrants and subpoenas and make arrests. It might seem odd that an elected member of law enforcement would incite violence against another democratically elected official in one of the nation’s largest cities. But Shirley was also a sworn member of Oath Keepers, which in recent months has been warning of a civil war.
Depending on whom you ask, Oath Keepers is either “the last line of defense against tyranny” or an extremist militia. They describe themselves as a nonpartisan association of tens of thousands of current and former military, police and first responders who pledge to defend the Constitution and refuse to obey orders they consider unconstitutional. The Southern Poverty Law Center on the other hand lists Oath Keepers as “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S. today” and has kept tabs on incidents involving members that may betray the idea that the group is just about defending the Constitution. In 2010, for example, a man in Tennessee driving a truck with an Oath Keepers logo was accused in a plot to arrest two dozen local officials.
By the time he was posting about Wheeler, Shirley had been an Oath Keeper for more than a decade, serving on the organization’s board of directors, as its national peace officer liaison, and as the Texas chapter president. But he isn’t the only elected official in Hood County affiliated with the group. One member, a newly elected justice of the peace, said in February that Oath Keepers was having a “surgence” there. Shirley has described an incoming county commissioner as an Oath Keeper.
I first learned about Oath Keepers in Hood County in March, when I received a message about the group’s growing presence there. Some residents have speculated that there are even more elected officials who are Oath Keepers, though no one else I spoke with said they belonged to the group and many denied knowing much about it at all.
Oath Keepers has made inroads across the country with thousands of law enforcement officers, soldiers and veterans. Still, it’s not common for elected officials to openly identify as members, said Sam Jackson, a University of Albany professor who wrote a new book about the organization. After all, Jackson said, this is a group that, in 2014, was prepared to shoot at police who weren’t on their side during the Bundy standoff, when hundreds of armed civilians confronted federal rangers trying to impound a Nevada rancher’s cattle that had been grazing on protected land.
Daniel Peters, a left-leaning gadfly who regularly challenges conservative county commissioners, told me that Shirley’s ominous postings made him afraid for his safety. Shirley, he said, “is very openly calling for violence toward people like me.”
Mendi Tackett, a Democrat who stays at home with her kids, said she thinks there’s a “healthy number of people here who are definitely in on the ideology.” It’s concerning that active law enforcement or military personnel could be involved with the organization, she told me, but she suspects that “some of these folks are more talk than they are actual action.”
Either way, what’s happening in Hood County may represent a shift for a group that was once seen as a governmental antagonist but is now establishing itself inside the halls of the elected officialdom. And it is setting up potentially dangerous conflicts between officials with different ideas of what constitutes legitimate government authority. Over the past 10 months, Shirley has promoted protests over orders to slow the spread of Covid-19 and cast doubt on a peaceful local demonstration against police brutality. And despite their avowed neutrality, the group’s attention of late has focused on defending one individual—Donald Trump—who himself has been accused of undermining the constitutional transfer of power by refusing to concede an election he lost resoundingly.
“Our POTUS will not go down without a fight,” Oath Keepers said in a recent email blast. “He WILL NOT concede. This election was stolen from We The People. We will prevail but we need your help! Or we lose our democracy.”
Oath Keepers was formed in 2009 after the election of Barack Obama. When the group’s founder, Stewart Rhodes, announced its debut, he wrote in a blog post that its primary mission would be “to prevent the destruction of American liberty by preventing a full-blown totalitarian dictatorship from coming to power.”
Ascertaining how widespread support is for that mission is subject to debate. In 2014, Rhodes said Oath Keepers had about 35,000 members who paid dues to the organization. This year, the Atlantic reported there were nearly 25,000 names on a membership list the magazine obtained.
But Hood County, named after the Confederate Army General John Bell Hood, could offer insight on a very local level of how the group has continued to grow in small but measurable ways across the country.
An early clue came this February at a candidate forum for local Republicans. Dub Gillum a retired state trooper who was running for justice of the peace in Hood County’s Precinct 4, said on Feb. 11 that Oath Keepers was experiencing “a resurgence—or surgence—in Hood County.”
When I reached out to Gillum he told me he did not remember saying that there was a “surgence” of Oath Keepers in Hood County. “Personally,” he said, “I do not see a ‘surgency’ of Oath Keepers in Hood County but rather a resurgence of patriotism.”
Gillum said he started following Oath Keepers on Facebook in 2010, when the social media platform suggested it to him as a group he might like. The Oath Keepers’ mission resonated with him. It felt like a reaffirmation of the oath he took when he became a state trooper in 1990. Oath Keepers was a networking resource for him when he was a trooper, he said, but he’s never attended any of the group’s events. He doesn’t consider himself “active” in the organization.
About a week later, on Feb. 20, Hood County News, the local newspaper, reported that Oath Keepers, “one of the nation’s largest anti-government militia groups,” was scheduled to hold a rally on Feb. 24 at the Harbor Lakes Golf Club in Granbury, the county seat named for another Confederate general that has twice won recognition as the “Best Historic Small Town in America.”
Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper and Yale Law School graduate who once worked for Texas Congressman Ron Paul, was supposed to lead the rally for “all Oath Keeper candidates running in the primary.” The event was also billed as a swearing-in for anyone who wanted to take the “Oath to the Constitution” for the first time.
But the next day, the paper reported that the meeting was canceled after the golf club backed out, saying the event was “misrepresented in the planning” and that the rally’s agenda was “unbeknownst to Harbor Lakes.”
Still, on Feb. 22, a post on the website Hood County Today written by Nathan Criswell, the county’s former Republican Party chair, declared “Oath Keepers emerge in Hood.” A local chapter would soon be operational in the county under John Shirley’s leadership, Criswell said.
On Feb. 25, an “insider’s perspective” of Oath Keepers written by the constable was published on the site. Shirley said he had first heard about Oath Keepers in 2008 and reached out to Rhodes before the group was even officially formed. Shirley “was immediately fascinated with the idea of peace officers and soldiers rededicating themselves to their oaths and to the Constitution,” he wrote.
He defended Oath Keepers as a “nonpartisan organization almost exclusively dedicated to teaching first responders and soldiers to respect their oaths, know what the Constitution says and how that knowledge applies to their jobs.” Descriptions of the group as a “right-wing,” “racist,” “anti-government” militia were “ad hominem attacks” lacking evidence, he said.
But some residents were alarmed by a scene that unfolded outside a local gym a couple months later. By then, the coronavirus pandemic had hobbled communities across the state and Governor Greg Abbott had ordered gyms, among other businesses, to shut down. Lift the Bar Fitness in Granbury followed that direction, at least for a while. By April, David Todd Hebert, who owns the gym with his wife, had grown impatient with what he considered an unconstitutional mandate from ”King Abbott.” They decided to reopen the gym even if it meant going to jail.
The gym announced on Facebook that members could finally come back even though Abbott’s executive order was still in effect. Someone commented that the police better “bring a lot of guns” if they were planning to stop them, Hood County News reported.
When Lift the Bar Fitness opened on April 28, about 10 Oath Keepers turned up “to make sure that we stayed open,” Hebert told me. They were friendly, he said, and they’d heard he was going to get arrested. They wanted to document any violations of his constitutional rights.
Hebert didn’t get arrested. In fact, he said, no officers showed up. But the story started to spread through the county. I heard that armed Oath Keepers prowled the parking lot and scared off city police officers who arrived to shut down the gym. In one telling, there was a near shootout between the cops and the Oath Keepers, Shirley and Stewart Rhodes among them.
“That didn’t happen,” said Matt Mills, the county attorney who also stopped by the gym that day and confirmed that both Shirley and Rhodes were there. But even if Granbury officers had arrested Hebert, it’s unlikely the case would have gone anywhere. Mills has refused to prosecute anyone who violates the governor’s orders, which he also considers unconstitutional.
Mills is not an Oath Keeper, he said, and he told me he didn’t know much about them. But the organization continued to extend itself to conservatives in the deeply red county, where Republicans hold every elected office.
On May 2, a group called Hood County Conservatives announced on Facebook that Scott London, a former New Mexico sheriff, would be “speaking about the New Organization (The Oath Keepers in Hood County)” at their upcoming meeting at the county courthouse.
Oath Keepers showed up to Black Lives Matter protests at the courthouse the following month. The events, held on June 6-7 in spite of some reported threats directed at one of the demonstration’s teenage organizers, were peaceful. But from their perch in the impressive limestone building that anchors the county’s charming downtown square, Shirley and two other constables asked Sheriff Roger Deeds whether the county had any riot shields, Deeds said.
It didn’t, perhaps because the county of about 60,000 people didn’t need them. But a couple weeks later the commissioners court accepted a donation of eight riot shields to be used by the sheriff’s office, Shirley and another constable, Chad Jordan. The agenda for the June 23 commissioners court meeting said the shields were donated by Scott London. Dub Gillum told me Oath Keepers had paid $1,000 for the “needed tactical equipment.”
Like several elected officials and most residents I spoke with in Hood County, Deeds, who once belonged to the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, and last year backed a successful effort to declare the county a “Second Amendment sanctuary,” was aware of Oath Keepers but said he wasn’t too familiar with the organization. He said he isn’t a member and doesn’t think any of his deputies are either, though some folks in town suspect otherwise. His office also has never coordinated with Oath Keepers, he said, but he doesn’t “believe they’re bad people by any means.”
David Fischer, the county’s Republican Party chair, told me he knows some people in Hood County are Oath Keepers but said it’s “not an issue in this county — we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t come up very much. … I’m aware there are Oath Keepers here, but that’s all I know.”
When I asked him about some of the things Shirley has said on social media—about leftists murdering people, and that Ted Wheeler should be executed—he laughed.
“Constable Shirley is kind of outspoken,” he said. “He’s an elected official so nobody can do anything to him.”
Shirley, who has described Hood County leaders as “RINOs & closet authoritarians,” doesn’t get along with the other officials and thinks the commissioners court is “out to get him,” Fischer said. The constable’s comments also aren’t representative of the Republican Party in Hood County, Fischer said — “not at all.” The GOP chair said Shirley hasn’t even interacted with the party since he was elected.
In September, around the time Shirley’s Twitter account was suspended, Twitter also banned the accounts of Stewart Rhodes and Oath Keepers under its violent extremism policy. Oath Keepers had tweeted that there would be “open warfare against the Marxist insurrectionists by election night, no matter what you do” and that “Civil War is here, right now.”
As Election Day neared, both Republicans and Democrats in Hood County feared violence was looming across the United States. Smoking a cigarette outside the county’s early voting site after casting a ballot for Trump in late October, J.W. Williams said he was bracing for another civil war. He was sure there would be conflict, and that leftists would start it.
“You want to defund the police?” he said. “Better not, because the police are the only things keeping us from doing what we want to do.”
Shirley, meanwhile, warned that antifa and Black Lives Matter activists would cause mayhem every election cycle unless Democrats were “stopped cold.” Hood County did its part, voting for Trump by about 64 percentage points and electing every other Republican on the ballot by comfortable margins.
By the end of the week, it was clear that despite the county’s efforts, Trump had lost, even if he refused to concede. The kind of unrest that Shirley had predicted didn’t materialize, but the president marshaled his supporters around a new cause — overturning what he called a rigged election.
There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud but an avalanche of misinformation about the election has fueled falsehoods about hundreds of thousands of trashed Trump ballots and election officials tampering with votes cast for him. Some Republicans have called on the president to accept the election results. Shirley is not among them.
Until Trump does concede, Shirley said, “we fight.”
The morning after the election, Shirley wrote on Facebook that his previous speculations that Americans were experiencing a psychological operation had been “putting it lightly.”
“We’re living in evil times, folks,” he said. “Buckle up.”
He started to use new hashtags: #StopTheSteal and then #StopTheCoup. He continued to claim that Trump had won the election.
“YOU CAN FEEL IT IN YOUR BONES,” he said on Nov. 7. “THIS WAS TAKEN FROM US ILLEGALLY. THE ONLY WAY WE LOSE IS IF WE DON’T FIGHT. LEAVE IT ALL ON THE FIELD. IT’S TIME TO SEPARATE THE WINTER SOLDIERS FROM THE SUNSHINE PATRIOTS.”
Shirley called Bill Gates the “master manipulator of the heist” and shared posts from Steve Bannon, who was permanently suspended from Twitter after suggesting FBI Director Christopher Wray and infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci should be beheaded.
The constable traveled to Washington for the so-called Million Maga March on Nov. 14, and later described wading through the rally to keep “his fellow countrymen safe.” When he posted a photo from the event, he boasted there was no violence.
“ANTIFA was too scared of Proud Boys and Oath Keepers,” he said. “They actually hid behind a police line at SCOTUS.”
Despite the overheated posts flying on social media, Hood County, outwardly at least, looks like a lot of small American towns. People’s kids play sports together and their parents watch amicably from the sidelines, even if they disagree about politics. Hebert, the gym owner who worked in law enforcement in Louisiana, said “it’s got some small-town politics but it’s not that kind of county, even as close as it is to Fort Worth.”
Chris Coffman, city manager of Granbury, said that while there was polarization on the extreme ends of the political spectrum, “by and large people love each other here. They get along with each other, help each other.”
In some ways, though, the community’s facade as a tourist town and one of the best places to retire feels misleading, said Adrienne Martin, chair of the Democratic Party. “There’s a lot of ugly stuff underneath the surface that nobody talks about, that nobody deals with.” Her husband grew up in Granbury and he doesn’t recognize it anymore, she said. “It used to be a little quaint small town. Now it’s Trumpville.”
Dozens of flags supporting the president snap in the wind across the county, and Trump campaign signs line the roads. Robert Vick, the Democratic state Senate candidate, told me that one of his campaign signs was shot up with bullet holes. He worried about Shirley’s rhetoric, and in what ways it could inspire people who read and believe it. He pointed to the alleged militia plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer as an example. Recent court filings claim that the men accused had drawn up a Plan B to take over the Michigan Capitol and stage a weeklong series of televised executions of public officials.
After I was alerted to Shirley’s posts earlier this year, I reached out to him for comment several times. He never responded to me directly but in October, he posted a letter addressed to POLITICO on his Facebook page.
“You attempt, in vain, to smear the Oath Keepers by trying to link constitution loving patriots to hate groups while in the same breath tell people ANTIFA isn’t violent and isn’t an organized terrorist group,” he said. “Shame on you. Your lies do nothing but further expose you for the frauds & conmen most Americans already know you are. Your sad attempt at pushing the loony left into a civil war will fail. Trump is going to win, and then we’ll see how our government will choose to deal with insurrectionists.”
Jack Wilson, an incoming county commissioner who was endorsed by Governor Abbott, also declined to talk when I reached him by phone. Wilson is a firearms instructor who has worked as a reserve sheriff’s deputy and attracted national attention when he shot and killed a gunman at a church on Dec. 29, 2019. At the time, Shirley tweeted his admiration, calling Wilson a hero.
“And more than that he’s an #OathKeeper,” Shirley said. “He’s served his nation and communities most of his life. Hood County is lucky to count him among our citizens.”
But on Nov. 24, Shirley announced on Facebook that he was stepping back from the organization.
“I’ve decided to retire from being an active member in Oath Keepers,” he said. “I’ve been part of that organization for 10 years and it’s time to let other younger patriots take up the mantel.”
He added that he was taking a “much needed break from social media,” and that he may be back at some point.
“I’m currently of the opinion that all social media was designed to be or has become weaponized,” he said.
I tried to ask Shirley about his decision to retire as an active member of Oath Keepers but he didn’t respond to my questions.
His account briefly appeared to be deactivated. But his silence lasted only about a week. Since then, he’s posted more than 30 times, a mix of claims about the election and debunked misinformation. He’s recently shared posts about 200,000 votes supposedly hijacked from Trump in Georgia and suitcases full of fraudulent ballots there. On Dec. 7, he shared an email from Scott London to Granbury City Council members and Hood County commissioners discouraging them from pursuing or enforcing any new coronavirus restrictions, and reminding them of their oaths to the Constitution.
“We are the #DigitalConstitutionalMilitia. Our weapons of war are FB posts, Tweets, YouTube Videos, TikTok,” Shirley said back in November. “It’s up to US to do OUR part of this existential battle for the soul of #America. Patriots… You have your orders.”
In the early morning hours of January 28, 2000, a Black police officer named Cornel Young Jr. —“Jai” to those who knew him—was off duty, dressed in plain clothes, and waiting on a steak sandwich from an all-night diner in a rough section of Providence, Rhode Island. A fight broke out at the front of the restaurant and quickly spilled outside. Someone brandished a gun. Young jumped into action, shouting “Police!” as he rushed through the diner and drew his weapon. Within seconds, he would be bleeding in the snow outside the restaurant, shot multiple times by two white, uniformed officers from his own department. Within hours, he would be dead.
Those are the basic facts, and the sadness of them transcends politics. If Black lives matter and blue lives matter, as they all most assuredly do, the killing of patrolman Cornel “Jai” Young was doubly tragic.
But the tragedy does not end there. As an attorney who has litigated civil rights cases, I can tell you that the tragedy of Jai Young’s story actually ends in a courtroom, some six years after his death, when the city of Providence slipped through a gaping chasm in federal civil rights law—one that has largely escaped scrutiny in the current national push for racial justice reform. It’s called the Monell Rule, and it’s why cities and police departments are rarely held accountable for the actions of police officers.
The story she tells is awash in irony. Jai had entered the police force to change it, and he died, Leisa believes, because of the very problems he wanted to fix. Growing up, Jai had not been immune to the racial profiling so often experienced by young Black males. But his father—from whom Leisa had long since been divorced—was a police officer, and through him Jai developed an interest in community-based police reforms. By joining the force, Jai hoped to change what he saw as a militaristic approach to policing, especially in low-income neighborhoods like the one where he eventually died.
Leisa tells me that one of the cops who shot her son had been his classmate at the police academy and might have recognized him if he had only paused an instant before shooting: “Out of uniform, in that neighborhood, Jai was just another target.”
When asked about the city’s handling of her son’s case, Leisa responds with exasperation—the type of chronic emotional fatigue known only to those unfortunate souls who have spent years fighting a more powerful and highly motivated enemy. You can’t fight city hall, they say. Most people know the phrase; Leisa Young has lived it.
From the very beginning, the city circled the wagons. Just two days after Jai’s death, the mayor of Providence declared in the local press that race had not been a factor in the shooting. In a televised interview, a high-ranking officer predicted the two shooters would be exonerated by the department’s internal investigation, which was just barely underway. Meanwhile, Leisa says, city officials worked privately to convince her that Jai was somehow at fault in his own death because he had been pointing his firearm sideways, “like a thug.” Recalling the accusation now, Leisa dismisses it with a laugh that is somehow charming and bitter at the same time: “Where would he have learned that? In thug school?”
The 2003 verdict has never been overturned, and in the eyes of the law, the violation of Jai Young’s civil rights is an unassailable fact. That verdict almost certainly would have ended the case if Leisa had been suing a trucking company over a traffic accident, or a chemical company over a cancer-causing pesticide. But hers was a civil rights lawsuit against a city government, and though she still does not understand what it means or why, she would spend the next two years trying to overcome something called the Monell Rule.
I first learned about the Monell Rule in 2013, shortly after I accepted my first civil rights case. I had been practicing business law in Texas for 15 years when a friend asked for my help in a case involving threats and extortion by a small-time city government. It was not my area of the law, so I immersed myself in legal research, and it wasn’t long before I encountered this little-known legal rule that, despite its obscurity, plays a massive role in virtually every federal civil rights lawsuit against a city or county government. One case led to another, and I have been fighting the Monell Rule ever since.
To understand it, one must go back briefly to the end of the Civil War, when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1871. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments had just been ratified, promising civil rights to emancipated slaves and other citizens. The 1871 law—also known as the Third Enforcement Act—was designed to provide a mechanism for enforcing these constitutional guarantees and it authorizes individual citizens to bring private lawsuits for civil rights violations committed by police and other persons cloaked in the authority of state or local governments. Today, among lawyers, this law is known simply as “Section 1983,” and it remains one of the most important civil rights statutes in the country.
In 1961, in a case called Monroe v. Pape, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that city governments were exempt under Section 1983. The Monroe case involved horrific allegations of racial abuse at the hands of 13 Chicago police officers who had allegedly broken into a Black couple’s apartment and forced them to stand naked in front of their children as they beat the father with a flashlight, degraded him with racial slurs and ransacked the apartment. The Supreme Court ruled that the officers could be sued under Section 1983, but the city of Chicago could not.
Unsurprisingly, the Monroe decision was met with heavy criticism, and the Supreme Court eventually reversed itself—sort of. In Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York, the high court ruled that cities are accountable under Section 1983, but only if the civil rights violation was caused by “official policy” of the city government. The court’s reasoning was based on a strained reading of the 1871 law, and has been often criticized ever since, but the rule established in Monell has nonetheless survived and evolved.
The Monell Rule is unique to civil rights litigation and exists nowhere else in the legal world. If, for example, an Amazon delivery driver were to negligently cause a traffic accident while on the job, Amazon would ordinarily be liable for the victim’s injuries; there would be no need for the victim to prove that Jeff Bezos or Amazon’s board of directors had caused the accident through their corporate policies or their “deliberate indifference” to the rights of potential accident victims. In the civil rights context, however, that is essentially what the Monell Rule requires. In simplest terms, the Monell Rule is a barrier to government accountability. It puts legal distance between city governments and their employees, allowing cities to avoid responsibility for the on-the- job conduct of their own police officers.
As a practical matter, the Monell Rule blocks the only pathway by which civil rights victims can hold police departments accountable. Victims of police violence have three basic avenues to justice: criminal prosecution of the individual officers involved; a civil lawsuit against the same officers; or a civil lawsuit against the municipality that employs them. The first two avenues have their own unique challenges, such as the high burden of proof in criminal cases, or the qualified immunity standard that protects individual police officers from liability in civil suits. But the first two avenues—even where successful—punish only the individual officers. It is only the third avenue that has the potential to impact municipal police departments as a whole, and the Monell Rule blocks that avenue like a barricade.
As a Black man, if I claim to love other Black men as I do, I must share in more than anger with my brothers. So when a mentee called me recently, and midway through the conversation began to weep, I gave him room as best I could.
The heaving was a deep bass, both physical and spiritual. He laid his burdens down. He felt, as I have sometimes felt about myself, that his role as familial glue was not holding and he was failing. He could not stitch back what he had let fall apart. He, like me, like so many Black men, has made an incredible and dynamic life for himself. Yet things seem to not be improving in the way and with the speed we want. Freedom feels like an illusion.
All my mentee needed was a good cry and a space to practice a new courage. All I needed was to realize that holding open a quiet space was enough. The silence was not heavy or forlorn, but full of who we were in that moment. That is the kind of support Black men deserve from each other.
It’s hard to find data to say how many Black men suffer stress and depression, because the canon of research on Black mental health is severely lacking. From experience, I know there is a steep cost to being vulnerable enough to admit how hurt cuts bone deep, and that you neither have the answers, nor know how to ask for help. So you bury yourself away. And you keep living with a grief that is quiet to many, but loud to those just like you. The data suggest that this is dangerous, especially for younger people. Suicide was the second leading cause of death among Black Americans ages 15 to 24, according to a 2017 analysis by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Meanwhile, research shows anxiety and depression among Black people has only increased since the killing of George Floyd.
So it was powerful when Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott spoke out after his eldest brother died by suicide in April. Prescott and his other brother, Tad, talked with ESPN’s Graham Bensinger about what happened with their sibling and about their own experiences with depression and anxiety. To see an NFL leader, a Black quarterback, speak unflinchingly about needing help? It felt like a triumph. Or at least opening a door to the reality. We speak of depression and anxiety as things we conquer, instead of things we have to manage.
But life is not a game. We do not always get the chances we want to respawn from our defeats, and we still carry psychic wounds. We end up waging wars inside ourselves, which we justify because of the things we secure while doing whatever we think we must. Most of us don’t heal, though, because in a Black man’s world, we can’t show compassion or admit our defeats hurt us — it is too often viewed as weakness.
To speak of pain is to acknowledge it, which is the kind of admission we are too often told is not for us. Few lies have been more successfully translated across cultures than the one that tells men we are only allowed specific types of expression.
What I wish, for myself and the other Black men I hold close, is that we would find each other when our shoulders slump, and hold open space for each other long enough to admit that our ability to bear pain is not the way we prove ourselves. We are born worthy. There is much that would harm us, but we can’t continue to conflate ignoring our ailments with strength. Until we admit this to ourselves we subvert our own freedom at a cost we can never afford, and everyone we claim to love will pay for it.
For generations, a norm for Black people has been to treat depression and anxiety as something to shake off. This is for reasons both historical and cultural; when both science and society conspire to craft a narrative of your being anything but human, the consequences echo across families and communities. We tell ourselves we’ll deal with it after we get through it, often because that’s all we’ve seen; to grin and bear it feels like the right thing to do. But not all things are meant to be suffered through.
This was never supposed to be our normal. A new normal will be to feel fully and not be overrun by our emotions. What will we become if we stop carrying emotions that aren’t good for us? Perhaps a culture in which we feel we can be soft and open, warm and strong, because we created it for ourselves.
Jonathan Jackson is an entrepreneur and writer currently living in New Hampshire. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.