News Hits was feeling oddly circumspect when the jury rendered its verdict last week in the whistleblower case two former cops brought against the city of Detroit and Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.
This column has long held that the mayor is a man whose word from the Navigator fiasco to his fictitious budgets simply can't be believed. So, to have a jury reinforce that opinion by delivering a verdict that essentially branded the mayor and others in his administration as liars well, it's nice to have your opinions get that kind of validation.
And we couldn't be happier for Harold Nelthrope and Gary Brown, who brought the suit. Their careers of two good cops were ruined by the mayor, and their families traumatized.
But there's something that we've been wrestling with since the jury composed of 10 white suburbanites and one black Detroiter found in favor of the two cops and awarded them a total of $6.9 million.
Was racism a factor in that decision? To not even consider it would be ludicrous. We need only look back to O.J. Simpson's murder trial acquittal and the radically different reaction of whites and blacks for one of the starker examples of how race affects perceptions of guilt and innocence.
And the existence of widespread racism in this region is beyond dispute. It's no stretch to say that for some, racism translates into a desire to see Detroit and its leaders fail, because that failure serves to reinforce ingrained bigotry.
So here's the question we're pondering: Is it possible for something to be both true and not true at the same time? Can you argue that a system that fails to address the need for racial balance on juries in a region where racism is a problem needs to be fixed, yet at the same time contend that a predominantly white, suburban jury arrived at the correct verdict in finding the black mayor of a predominantly black city guilty of wrongdoing?
To help us sort things out, we called WCHB (1200-AM) radio host Mildred Gaddis. Like us, she's long been a vocal critic of the mayor. She's also an African-American with a talk show on a station that has a predominantly black audience.
"I think any jury anywhere in the country would have ruled the same way this jury did," Gaddis told us.
The lawyers defending Kilpatrick and the city sure seemed to be caught in an untenable position. How do you believe the administration's claim that Brown was just "unappointed" from his deputy chief position and not actually fired when you have Brown choking back tears as he testifies: "When they call you on a Friday night, they take away your badge, your ID card, the keys to your car, your phone and send your belongings home in a box and then they say they didn't fire you they fired me."
Likewise, who in their right mind would believe Kilpatrick chief of staff Christine Beatty's tale that she decided Brown should be removed as head of the internal affairs unit based solely on the contents of an anonymous message that she immediately shredded before showing anyone else?
Cases like this one hinge on the credibility of those who testify. Brown and Nelthrope (both of whom are African-American) and the witnesses who supported them were credible; Kilpatrick and crew were not. It's as simple as that.
Still, because of a system that is deeply flawed, Kilpatrick was able to spread the message that he and the city fell victim to racist suburbanites. He didn't say so explicitly, but he came damn close. He went on talk radio and spoke about how this case was somehow about "all black men right now in the city of Detroit." He also talked about only caring to hear about the reasoning of the lone Detroit juror, because, the way Kilpatrick sees it, "my reputation rests with the city."
That's true if he's only concerned about getting enough votes to stay in office, but it's a ludicrous statement if you are talking about the overall well-being of the city and its importance to the entire region. Detroit needs the suburbs and the suburbs need Detroit if this region is to survive economically in the global marketplace. Regionalism is a concept that politicians of all stripes give much lip service to, but when you have the Kilpatrick camp trying to win re-election by running ads that depict the mayor under assault by a white lynch mob, and suburban leaders mounting campaigns that similarly degrade Detroit, platitudes about regional cooperation mean nothing.
The problem of juries not being racially mixed and representative is real. But for Kilpatrick to use that as a cover for his court loss is both scurrilous and harmful. Racial injustice does exist; but when the guilty use it as a cop-out, it undermines the credibility of the truly persecuted who make the same claim.
The $6.5 million awarded Brown and Nelthrope is only a pittance compared to the real damage Kilpatrick's actions have inflicted on this city. And his insistence on continuing this legal fight is going to do more than drain the city's coffers even further. What Gaddis describes as the mayor's ego-driven temper tantrum and desperate race-baiting only strengthens the cause of those who want to hate on Detroit.
"The way to quiet the racists is to succeed," says Gaddis.
By the week's end, Kilpatrick was hitting more conciliatory notes. But the damage had already been done.
Instead of elevating us all, Kilpatrick sucked us deeper into the racist mire that is a large part of the reason this region is struggling to survive.News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]