Thursday, August 03, 2006

Battle of Jackson, MS: Words, Rights & Crime Emergencies

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is getting much pub as of late while the summer heat index rises and tempers - mixed with poverty, lack of opportunity access and pure boredom - flare into crime waves. First: this isn't unusual and major urban centers dealing with sudden spikes in violent crime shouldn't act surprised when kids have little opportunity or access to enriching activities, families can't afford air conditioners and the heat underscores the desperation of circumstances.

Washington, D.C., only moments after passing its Crime Emergency bill, got immediate flack from the vaunted civil liberties group. Jackson, MS is also in the group's litigious scope. We'll focus on Jackson:

Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union lashed out against Jackson Mayor Frank Melton in a news conference this morning in front of City Hall, accusing the first-term mayor of racial profiling and trampling civil rights in his quest to rid the city of crime.

The claims drew an angry retort from the mayor, who described the organization as doing nothing to help young people or address black-on-black crime in the United States.“We have 26 people that have been killed here in Jackson this year,” Melton said. “I want to know what the ACLU wants to do besides criticize. Besides that, to hell with them.”

This last comment from Melton, responding to news of a co-sponsored local ACLU/NAACP "Know Your Rights" meeting we found especially troubling:

“I hope they don’t obstruct justice and give people false information, because if they do then we will be focusing on them and we’ll come after them,” he said.

Melton's originial position is understandable and, to a degree, justifiable. There is a need to examine "zero tolerance"; perhaps "zero tolerance" with some restraints. But, in the last statement, Melton begins to sound a bit like where Jackson and much of the South was only 40 years ago - which is disturbing coming from an African American mayor. You can't target advocacy groups in a democratic setting, and Melton should be sensitive to that argument. We see a need for caution and balance from both cities like Jackson and the ACLU. The ACLU may be a bit too aggressive and unmindful in its campaign against community and government response to crime waves. But, if the ACLU and others are not there to remind government of its obligation to maintain basic rights, who will? Cities like Jackson, with Mayors like Melton, are right to place greater focus and resources on aggressive crime-fighting strategies, but they are also flawed in consistently ignoring the root causes of those crimes.

Governments aren't preventing these episodes when they can. Frankly, as far as youth are concerned, jurisdictions should consider extending the school year or keeping kids engaged through mandatory enrollment in summer education and extra-curricular programs. Only middle-class families (barely) can afford to enroll their kids in summer camps and other programs, but it's unrealistic to expect the same from most working families struggling to make ends meet.

Oh - that's right - we forgot: the federal government seems more happy to fund short-sighted forays into oil-rich countries rather than make a significant and enduring investment in universal education. States and local jurisdications are no different as corruption and management malfeasance continues infecting school systems like viruses, while elected officials pay lip service to school reform as they dump money into "revitalization" projects.