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Rally to Protest Racist Practices in Washtenaw County’s Criminal Justice System
June 17, 2020 @ 10:00 am
From Rev. Joe Summers:
George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Laquan McDonald. Aura Rosser. They are among millions of African Americans who haven’t received the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law granted by the 14th Amendment. Their justice has not been equal justice.
Our focus in recent weeks has rightfully been primarily on policing. However, we need to recognize how other actors in the justice system, such as our prosecutors and the courts, have had their knee on the neck of African Americans. I am asking you to join me in highlighting this kind of racial bias in our own Washtenaw County justice system this Wednesday, June 17 at 10:15 am at the County Courthouse (101 E. Huron Street, Ann Arbor).
We’ve chosen this date for a reason. Jacob LaBelle, a young African American man who grew up in our community and was a varsity athlete at Pioneer High School, is going to be sentenced on Wednesday. Our long-term Washtenaw County prosecutor has indicated he will seek a harsh sentence even though the person who was harmed asked that Jacob receive NO prison time and, instead, sought but was refused restorative justice.
Many of us who attended the trial were so disturbed by the actions of the prosecutor and the court that we started looking at all felony charges brought by the prosecutor and how judges in Washtenaw County handled those charges when it came to people of color. We are not finished with our documentation but, so far, the record on treating people of color with equality and fairness in our County looks bad. We’ve documented that this prosecutor has a penchant for charging people excessively and then pleading them down to a lesser charge. We’ve also documented that, on average, African Americans receive significantly higher minimum sentences than Whites do.
We are deeply concerned that this pattern will play out in this case. If we are going to move away from our mass incarceration system and towards restorative justice, we clearly need systemic change in how our Prosecutor’s office and our Courts function. Until then, if justice requires it, we need to be prepared to protest one case at a time to challenge a justice system that is grinding up our kids of color in courtrooms where we can’t take cell phone videos to show what is going on and where the statistics and facts are hidden.
Details about Jacob LaBelle’s case
People sometimes make dreadful mistakes. Our justice system often seems willing to recognize this when it comes to whites, but not when it comes to people of color. That is why we see such disparities when it comes to arrests, convictions, and the punishments meted out to people of color when compared with whites. The reason we have mass incarceration is significantly because, when it comes to young people of color, our courts refuse to see how people can make serious mistakes, cause real harm, and yet shouldn’t have their lives thrown away.
Last fall, I and dozens of others attended Jacob’s trial where he was convicted of assault with the intent to commit murder. The conviction resulted from a 2018 incident. Jacob was coming out of dinner to find he was blocked in by a Walgreens delivery truck. Mr. Ritter (the truck driver) and Jacob exchanged heated words about moving the truck as Mr. Ritter was unloading.
Mr. Ritter testified at the trial that he pushed a stack of totes used for unloading items onto Jacob because he thought Jacob had knocked some totes over earlier not realizing that Jacob was moving the totes to speed up the loading so the truck could be moved. Jacob was knocked back by the totes falling on him and moved away from Mr. Ritter. Mr. Ritter testified that he then kept moving towards Jacob and Jacob warned him that he had a gun. (It is my understanding that Jacob was carrying a gun because he has feared for his safety since he and his girlfriend were brutally kidnapped and assaulted when they were in college and that, at the time of this incident, Jacob was going through gun safety classes and applying for a license to carry the gun.) Mr. Ritter testified that he kicked and punched Jacob. When Jacob took his gun out, he then struggled with Jacob to get the gun out of his hand. A Walgreens employee testified that he tried to pull Jacob and Mr. Ritter apart by putting his arms around Jacob from behind when the gun went off.
Jacob put the gun down and immediately called 911. Jacob then waited until the police and EMT arrived to help Mr. Ritter. Mr. Ritter was successfully treated at the University Hospital and has fully recovered from his wound.
After the trial, Mr. Ritter wrote to the judge asking for a referral to restorative justice. In it, he wrote, “I am not interested in a punitive sentence being given to Jacob LaBelle. I do not think putting him in prison will address my issues or help us understand what happened that night or make anyone better going forward.” Jacob joined Mr. Ritter in asking to go through such a process.
Even though both parties wanted to go through a restorative justice process the prosecutor objected and the Judge denied the requests.
If we want change, we must demand equal justice for each of our kids and community members. We need to draw attention to the arrests of people of color but it’s equally important to shed light on what happens to them after they are arrested. We must hold prosecutors and judges to account by requiring them to be transparent about how they handle cases, who gets plea deals and why prosecutors decide to bring the charges they bring. We must demand that when the person who was harmed wants restorative justice that the prosecutor shouldn’t be able to block that.
Please join the protest on Wednesday from 10:15- 11 am at the County Courthouse. We plan to walk at a 6 foot distance and ask that everyone wear a mask. Feel free to bring a sign asking for equal justice or restorative justice. We’ll distribute t-shirts displaying a picture of Jacob (see below) and a call for Restorative Justice.
The Rev. Joe Summers
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