Placing Blame Where It's Due
NEW York State Attorney General Robert Abrams last week brought an end to the case of Tawana Brawley, the 15-year old Black girl who claimed she was kidnapped and raped by six white men in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., and the results probably did not surprise anyone. Abrams announced that the grand jury for the case decided that there was not enough evidence to prosecute anyone.
That is, anyone except Brawley's advisors, the Rev. Al Sharpton and lawyers Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason. Their grandstand tactics have brought the case national notoriety, are costing New York taxpayers more than $500,000 and have strained race relations in the state to the breaking point.
The grand jury decided to not bring the case to trial, partly because Brawley--listening to her "advisors"--completely refused to cooperate in the investigation, and partly because of evidence that the story was a giant hoax.
Medical tests taken after Brawley was found showed no evidence of rape. Other forensic tests found under her nails traces of carpeting from the house where investigators claimed she hid during the four days of her supposed abduction but which Brawley denied being in during that time.
The real victim of the case is neither Brawley nor the state politicians whom her advisors accused of racism, but the Black community of New York. Because of the negative publicity brought about by the case, Blacks will continue to suffer the effects of a judicial system that never seemed to defend their rights anyway. The confused and frightened 15-year old girl who cried wolf may have set back race relations in the state by several years, but most New Yorkers prefer to place the blame on Sharpton, Maddox and Mason--who knowingly defended the false accusations--rather than on Brawley.
The loudest voices are not always the ones people should listen to. What the Brawley case shows is that the Black community must rely on its responsible leaders, who may not shout themselves onto the evening news every night but who are willing to work within the system to achieve change. If demagogues and self-promoters like Sharpton, Maddox and Mason are allowed to speak for all the Blacks in New York, the progress made by Blacks during the past few years in obtaining justice in the courts will be lost.
THE three advisors, who have portrayed themselves as the true leaders of the Black community, are not newcomers to controversy. For years, they have thrived on publicity generated by situations which have increased racial tension in the state.
Sharpton, a loud, overweight minister with a rock-star hair-do, has long been a Black activist from the pulpit and in front of the television cameras but has never been accepted or respected by well-known Black political activists in New York. Maddox and Mason are lawyers who have always been willing to take on extremely controversial cases in attempts to underlines the judicial system.
Together, these three attacked the system wherever they could promote themselves they could promote themselves by calling it unfair. The strategy was simple: find an incident that could be made racially controversial, make an apperarance on the 6:00 news and incite Blacks to the point that white New Yorkers would feel threatened enough to make changes in the system.
It is a pattern they often repeated unsuccessfully, but in the recent Howard Beach case the strategy worked. As in the Brawley case, they refused to cooperate with the authorities until a special prosecutor was appointed to handle the case. As in the Brawley case, they got what they were more significant differences between the two incidents.
Aside from the fact that there was an actual racial crime committed in Howard Beach, the case also showed that cooperation with the authorities can get result. Sharpton, Mason and Maddox accepted the city's special prosecutor, cooperated with the his investigations and the results were manslaughter convictions against the gang of white thugs who chased a Black man to his death.
THE Howard Beach decision was a significant event. It demonstrated that there could be justice for Blacks in New York. It also indicated that a separate special prosecutor to handle cases of a racial nature might be the best way to achieve justice. Unfortunately for the Blacks, that progress was jeopardized by Sharpton, Maddox and Mason in the Brawley case.
Pursuing the same strategies that worked so well in Howard Beach, they were able to get Governor Mario Cuomo to appoint Abrams as a special prosecutor for the case. But instead of cooperating with Abrams, the three--probably because they were aware that the case was a hoax--refused to help and began accusing Abrams of unjustified racism. They went on the attack, trying to turn the Brawley case into a vehicle for their self-promotion.
They made allegations about Cuomo's ties to organized crime on the television show Nightline, accused specific Wappingers Falls police officers of raping Brawley and blamed the whole situation on the political motivations of just about every New York political figure. Perhaps they were hoping that by making the lie bigger and bigger, it would become true.
With the story now exposed as a hoax, Maddox and Mason are being called up before the disciplinary board of the New York State Bar Association for their accusations and face possible disbarment for knowingly subverting justice. Sharpton, although a preacher and not a lawyer, has also completely lost what little credibility he had. On the Morton Downey show, he affirmed on his Bible that everything he said about the Brawley case was true.
In addition to betraying their professions, these three men betrayed the Black community for whose interests they claimed to be fighting. With their credibility destroyed, they leave a leadership vacuum among Blacks in New York that needs to be filled by responsible, respected political leaders.
The tragedy here is not that Tawana Brawley lied. The tragedy is that the next Black victim of a racial crime who tells the truth may not be believed. Once someone cries wolf, it is not easy to be open-minded the next time around. It is unfortunate for all New Yorkers that the memories of Sharpton, Maddox and Mason may last far longer in New York than their careers as activists did.