Web-based activists, old-guard leadership not seeing eye to eye on Florida assaults
By Howard Witt
March 30, 2008
HOUSTON - The crime was unspeakably horrific.
A 35-year-old Haitian immigrant and her 12-year-old son were forced into their home at gunpoint in the bleak Dunbar Village housing project in West Palm Beach, Fla. The woman was beaten, raped and sodomized for hours, allegedly by a gang of African-American teenagers, then forced to abuse her son. Finally the attackers doused the victims with household chemicals-pouring them directly into the boy's eyes-and attempted to set the two on fire before fleeing.
Yet outside South Florida, the attack last June largely escaped notice, and it scarcely registered on the radar of national civil rights leaders because it involved the awkward topic of black-on-black crime.
Three weeks ago, however, Al Sharpton and local representatives of the NAACP held a news conference in West Palm Beach where they declared that four black teenagers arrested for the Dunbar Village attack are being treated unfairly because they remain incarcerated without bond, while five white teenagers recently accused of sexually assaulting two white girls in nearby Boca Raton were freed on bail.
Triggering dual outrage
"You cannot have one set of rules for acts that are wrong and horrific in Boca and another set in Dunbar Village," Sharpton said, as parents of some of the Dunbar defendants nodded behind him. "You must have equal protection under the law."
It was, for Sharpton and the NAACP, a familiar situation and a routine news conference: Contrasting the treatment of blacks and whites in the criminal justice system and calling for fairness.
But Sharpton's remarks-and his apparent call for the Dunbar Village suspects to be released on bail-triggered outrage on dozens of blogs devoted to civil rights, feminism and the interests of African-American crime victims. Now the Dunbar Village case is deepening a growing schism between traditional civil rights organizations and a new, Internet-driven generation of younger activists who take a more nuanced view of many issues.
"For Sharpton and the NAACP to come out and recklessly say we need to free these guys because some white guys over in Boca Raton are out on bail is just unconscionable," said Gina McCauley, an Austin, Texas, attorney and author of an influential African-American civil rights blog called What About Our Daughters?
"We've lost our way in the civil rights movement," McCauley added, "when in every case, no matter what an African-American is in custody for, we automatically start screaming about unfairness-even when they are in custody to protect the black community from them."
Color of Change, a Web-based civil rights group that counts nearly 400,000 members, criticized Sharpton for choosing the accused Dunbar Village assailants to champion.
"I question whether this is the case we want to be standing up for," said Mervyn Marcano, the group's spokesman. "At the end of the day, when we choose to fight for equal justice, we have to be aware of who's being affected. A lot of people think no one was speaking for the victims of this terrible crime."
For his part, Sharpton strongly denied in an interview with the Tribune last week that he was ignoring the plight of the Dunbar Village victims or insisting that their accused attackers should be freed on bond. He said his comments at the March 11 news conference had been misunderstood, and that he had visited Dunbar Village several times this year to show support for the residents and denounce the "hideous, deplorable" crime.
"My position is there ought to be one standard," Sharpton said. "The white kids in Boca Raton ought to be held just like the black kids in Dunbar Village. Why are they not doing the same with the white kids?"
Yet freedom for the four Dunbar Village defendants was the clear demand of the other participants at the news conference, where fliers were distributed proclaiming the teenagers to be "voiceless, vulnerable victims."
"We don't like what's going on. It's not right," said Ruby Walker, the mother of defendant Nathan Walker. "I don't think we should have to suffer."
Maude Ford Lee, president of the local West Palm Beach NAACP chapter who joined Sharpton at the news conference, said she hoped Sharpton's presence would help expose the "injustice" of the case.
"Our kids are incarcerated, they can't even get a bond, and it's unconscionable what is happening," Lee told reporters.
Lee declined to return several phone calls seeking further explanation of her comments. But NAACP officials at both the state and national level said their organizations had taken no position on whether the Dunbar suspects should be released on bond.
Sharpton's critics say it was wrong to equate the Dunbar Village and Boca Raton rape cases in the first place because the Dunbar assault was far more vicious. Among the awful details: The attackers forced the mother to perform oral sex on her 12-year-old son.
In the Boca Raton case, the five white teenagers are accused of sexually assaulting two middle-school students after the group of seven engaged in a night of drinking on Jan. 1. The Dunbar defendants, by contrast, face multiple felony counts for the torture and gang-rape that could send them to prison for life if convicted.
Prosecutors say they have DNA evidence implicating three of the suspects: Walker, 17; Avion Lawson, 14; and Tommy Poindexter, 18. A fourth suspect, Jakaris Taylor, 16, pleaded guilty in November to charges of burglary and armed sexual battery in exchange for a 20-year sentence and a requirement that he testify against the others.
The rift between the new generation of civil rights activists, organized via blogs, Web sites and e-mail lists, and their old-guard forebears such as Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and the NAACP, opened last September over the civil rights march through Jena, La., that drew more than 20,000 demonstrators.
Even though many of the marchers traveled to Jena in response to e-mail appeals and postings on scores of African-American blogs, Sharpton, Jackson and mainstream civil rights groups claimed credit for orchestrating the huge turnout.
Two months later, black civil rights bloggers were perplexed when Sharpton organized a march for justice in Washington without tapping their organizing abilities.
"I've concluded that we can expect no leadership on the issues that are of concern to African-Americans today from these traditional civil rights groups," McCauley said. "It's at least equally important to address black-on-black violence, and it's not being addressed at all."