May 5, 2012

Overlooking (even seemingly high profile) rural crimes

Americans are often said to have a love-hate relationship with rural America. On the one hand, many wax nostalgic about the good old days, simpler times, the bond of "rural community" that many of our grandparents once lived, even if most of "us" grew up in the city. Plus, most everyone enjoys a bit of time spent in "nature," and some even realize--the urban ag craze aside--that most of our food is grown "in the country." On the other hand, urbanites often hold rural people in disdain, mocking them for their attachment to place, their regressive politics and culture and, yes, even for their nostalgia.

One particular aspect of the "love" (more precisely, nostalgia) with which we may regard rural America is the tendency to think that bad things associated with cities--most notably crime--are largely absent in smaller towns, in nonmetropolitan areas. That's hardly accurate, as I've discussed here and here. I wonder, though, if these rural myths are the reason that even more shocking crimes in rural settings--crimes involving, for example, racial or ethnic animus--don't get national attention. For crimes like these, I would think that urban Americans might be anxious to publicize the crimes, to hold these acts up as justification for the "hate" (that is, disdain, contempt) part of the relationship.

I was reminded of all this last week when the New York Times ran a story headlined, "Black Man's Killing in Georgia Eludes Spotlight," dateline Lyons, Georgia, population 4,169. Kim Severson's story tells of a white man, Norman Neesmith, killing a black man, Justin Patterson, in Lyons last year "on a rural farm road, here in in onion country." Neesmith was arrested and charged with seven crimes, but he is expected to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct, for which he might be sentenced to just a year in "special detention," which means no jail time. Severson goes on to compare the rural Georgia case to that of Trayvon Martin, which has attracted national and international attention:

In both cases, an unarmed young black man died at the hands of someone of a different race.

And [Justin Patterson's parents] began to wonder why no one was marching for their son, why people like Rev. Al Sharpton had not booked a ticket to Toombs County. The local chapter of the N.A.A.C.P has not gotten involved, although Mr. Patterson's farther approached them.

* * *

Why some cases with perceived racial implications catch the national consciousness and others do not is as much about the combined power of social and traditional media as it is about happenstance, said Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic who writes about racial issues.

Several events coalesced to push the Martin case forward: an apparently incomplete police investigation, no immediate arrest and Florida's expansive self-defense law.

The New York Times' highlighting the overlooked Patterson case reminded me of another pair of cases last year that received grossly disparate media attention.

I learned quite by accident last summer of a federal conviction based on a 2010 hate crime in Carroll County, Arkansas. It was especially odd to learn of the conviction by coincidence (from a UC Davis colleague whose distant relative in Arkansas sat on the jury!) because this was the first ever conviction ever under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a federal law passed in 2009. Here's what happened: After encountering each other at a gas station in Alpena, Arkansas (population 371) in the early morning hours in June 2010, three white men allegedly hurled racial epithets at five Latinos and then chased the Latinos in their car, while the white driver of the truck chasing them waved a tire wrench out his vehicle's window. The truck driven by the white men eventually ran the Latinos' car off the road, where it rolled over and burst into flames. All of the Latinos were injured, one very seriously, but all survived. Less than a year later, a jury in a federal courthouse in Harrison, Arkansas--(population 12,943, about 20 miles from the events, and with a reputation as a long-time bastion of KKK activity) took less than an hour (!) to convict the driver of the truck, 20-year-old Frankie Maybee, of "five counts of committing a federal hate crime and one count of conspiring to commit a federal hate crime." One of his companions, 19-year-old Sean Popejoy, had already pleaded guilty to a single hate crime and a conspiracy count; he turned state's witness. The third man was not charged, apparently because of a lack of evidence that he was part of the conspiracy. (In an effort to learn more about Carroll County matter last summer, I interviewed the Arkansas State Trooper who had helped investigate it, as well as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette journalist who reported on it. They provided some back story, which I'll take up in a subsequent post.)

Several months after the convictions in this case, it had not yet been discussed anywhere except in local media. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette ran about half a dozen stories, starting in April, 2011, when the men were indicted, running through the trial itself, and ending with Maybee's sentencing to 11 years in prison, in September, 2011. Television stations in nearby Springfield, Missouri covered only the sentencing, and Reuters, too, had finally found the story by then. In that way, the Arkansas case is similar to another Shepard/Byrd Act indictment that preceded the Arkansas conviction, this one in Farmington, New Mexico involving the torture of a developmentally disabled Native American by white men. That case resulted in a guilty plea and was mentioned, along with other Shepard/Byrd cases, in this NPR story a few days ago. (Other NPR coverage of the Shepard/Byrd law, which also mentions the New Mexico case post-guilty plea, is here and here).

Contrast that with the Shepard/Byrd charges against the three young white men who recently pleaded guilty in the death of James C. Anderson, a black man in Jackson, Mississippi. New York Times coverage of that crime is here, here, here and here. The Mississippi story is, of course, a huge one and deserves all the attention it got. But the Carroll County story seems like a pretty big one, too (did I mention that it was the first Shepard/Byrd conviction!?!), as does the case out of Farmington, New Mexico.

What explains the disparate and decidedly after-the-fact media attention to these cases? Perhaps coincidence. Perhaps differences in the Department of Justice's efforts to publicize the charges. Perhaps the fact that the Mississippi crime resulted in death whereas the Arkansas and New Mexico crimes did not. But as a ruralist, I can help wonder if the rural-ish settings of these crimes also obscured them from the national media?

Carroll County has a population of just 27,446, of which 12.7% are of Latino or Hispanic origin. I know the area quite well because I grew up in a contiguous county, and I wrote a lot about Carroll County's three-decade history of Latina/o migration in my 2009 article, Latina/os, Locality and Law in the Rural South. In 2003, MALDEF entered into a settlement with the Rogers, Arkansas Police Department, in neighboring Benton County, to prevent racial profiling.

Farmington, New Mexico has a population of just over 45,000, but surrounding San Juan county is technically metropolitan, with a population of just over 130,000. Indian reservations comprise more than 60% of San Juan County's land area, and 36.6% of its populace are Native American. Farmington has been the subject of major civil rights investigations over the course of four decades.

Like the relations between blacks and whites in Mississippi, then, both Carroll County, Arkansas and San Juan County, New Mexico have histories of racial and ethnic tensions. I would think the racial/ethnic contexts of these two incidents would make them interesting to a national audience--as would they way they illustrate widely held perceptions of the "best" and "worst" of rural America. The "worst" is that the hate crimes occurred--which confirms the image of rural folks as small-minded and bigoted. The "best"--at least in the Arkansas case--is that a local jury of the defendant's peers convicted the small-minded bigot--and they did so in no time flat.

Cross posted to Legal Ruralism and SALTLaw Blog.