Barry's judge fails as well

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

November 06, 1990|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson got only half of it right when he socked it to D.C. Mayor Marion Barry last month.

Jackson gave Barry six months in prison and a $5,000 fine -- a fairly hefty penalty for a first conviction on a misdemeanor drug-possession charge. To add insult to injury, Barry also must reimburse the government an estimated $9,653 for his prison upkeep.

The judge explained that Barry deserved such a stiff sentence because he had betrayed his position as a role model to the city's youth.

"The prevalence of the public rumors of the defendant's frequent and conspicuous drug use . . . has given aid, comfort, and encouragement to the drug culture at large and contributed to the anguish that illegal drugs have inflicted on this city," said Jackson during Barry's Oct. 26 sentencing hearing.

"Having failed as the good example he might have been to the citizens of Washington, D.C. -- and in particular to the young who are so much more likely to respond to example than admonition," continued the judge sternly, "the defendant must now become an example of another kind."

Jackson was right when he said young people, particularly young black males, were watching the conduct and outcome of this trial closely. But Barry wasn't the only role model who failed them.

Judge Jackson failed them, too.

Nowadays, we do a lot of talking about the need for successful black men to serve as positive role models for black male children -- particularly for those youngsters who may not have successful men in their families or their neighborhoods; for those youngsters who are trembling on the brink between respectability and criminality; for those youngsters who are forced to turn to television, the movies and to older hoodlums on the street for cues on manhood.

I call these kids the Not Ready for Prime Time Killers and they need direction in the worst way.

Barry, the city's highest ranking black elected official, the most visible role model of them all, failed these kids big time.

But we forget that white men are role models, too. While black men must demonstrate that they can succeed in this society, white men in power must demonstrate that they can treat blacks fairly once they get there.

In fact, I believe the Not Ready for Prime Time Killers turn outlaw, in part, because they believe they are trapped in a white man's world.

In such a world, they believe, a strong black man cannot get a fair shake. When a black man dares to be strong in the legitimate world, the Not Ready for Prime Time Killers believe, white men in the system rise up to strike him down.

That is why it is so very, very important that when a black man such as Barry is accused of wrongdoing, the white men who pursue him behave with particularly meticulous fairness.

This is Judge Jackson's function as a role model: to demonstrate that the system can be compassionate and fair to everyone.

But we all know what happened instead: During the trial, prosecutors and commentators spent as much time complaining of Barry's arrogance as they did of his alleged crimes. (An unfortunate choice of words since it wasn't too long ago that arrogance in a black man was a crime punishable by death or dismemberment).

Meanwhile, congressmen made the ridiculous, and probably racist, assertion that Barry's plight proved people in the District did not deserve voting representation in Congress.

And finally, the trial judge not only showed the fallen mayor very little mercy at sentencing, but blasted the jury for not finding Barry guilty on other counts.

All of this intemperate behavior confirmed the Not Ready for Prime Time Killers' preconceived notion that the system had it in for Barry. It gave "aid, comfort, and encouragement" to the drug culture by seeming to demonstrate that a strong black man cannot make it in the legit world.

I'm not saying that Barry did not deserve to be punished. He did.

I just wish the people who pursued and punished him so feverishly had at least pretended to be compassionate. Cool. Fair -- by showing the kind of compassion they showed for convicted felons such as Michael Deaver and Oliver North.

I don't wish this for Barry's sake.

But, as always, the Not Ready for Prime Time Killers are watching closely and leaping to unfortunate conclusions about what the Barry case means for their own futures.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.