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America’s newest crime: cheering at a graduation while black

News 3 memphis
  1. The superintendent of a Mississippi school district has pressed criminal charges against family members who cheered and yelled at a May high school graduation ceremony. They had been asked to hold their applause until the end.
  2. At least three people could be charged with misdemeanors for "disturbing the peace." They could face up to six months in jail and $500 fines, the New York Times reports.
  3. The affidavit filed with Tate County Justice Court last month reportedly accuses one woman of "yelling and clapping while inside the building after [an] announcement had been made for all to hold their applause and celebrating until after the end of the ceremony" and says the "loud, boisterous noise" was "against the peace and dignity of the State of Mississippi."

Race has a lot to do with what you can get away with

The primary reason the story of the three misdemeanor charges is making news is obvious: the prosecution of graduation guests for cheering is incredibly unusual and bizarre. After all, they did what most graduation attendees do, and they harmed no one.

Henry Walker, one of the Mississippi parents charged for yelling, "You did it, baby!" at the graduation, told a Memphis radio station that "it's crazy to think that I might have to bond out of jail or pay court costs or a $500 fine for expressing my love."

But when you take into consideration that the people charged for celebrating are black, this news can also be interpreted as being part of a larger pattern, under which African Americans are charged for tiny offenses that their white counterparts — or people outside of predominantly black communities — could easily get away with. A black person facing a judge for doing something that many other Americans do every day may be "crazy," as Walker said, in the sense that it's unjust — but it's not unusual in the least.

This is in part because, as David Kennedy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and director of the National Network for Safe Communities, argued in a piece for the Los Angeles Times, black communities are both underpoliced (when it comes to serious crimes) and overpoliced for petty offenses. Asking readers to imagine what it would be like to live in such a community, he wrote:

Then imagine that the cops sat you and your family down and said that they weren't going to do anything anymore except cause you trouble. We're going to double down on the weed and the rest, they say; expect to get stopped when you walk down the street and pulled over every chance we get. You probably didn't know that riding your bike on the sidewalk is illegal, but it is, and now we're going to arrest you for it. If you're not on your own block, in front of your own house, we'll arrest you for trespassing, and if you don't like it you can explain it to the judge a week later when you get out of holding and get arraigned. If we see more than three of you and your friends at a time, we'll prone you out on the street in front of your girlfriends and cuff you while we run a warrant check. We think you're all scum, they tell you, and you get no slack at all any more.

An April Tampa Bay Times investigation offers another example of this: it concluded that Florida police are targeting people riding bikes in poor black neighborhoods for minor — and sometimes imaginary — offenses as an excuse to question what a department memo called "potential criminals." In practice, "potentials criminals" translates to "African Americans."

According to the Tampa newspaper, officers have figured out a way to use "obscure subsections of a Florida statute that outlaws things most people have tried on a bike, like riding with no light or carrying a friend on the handlebars."

The resulting statistics are striking. Eight out of 10 bike riders stopped in Tampa from 2003 to 2015 were black, meaning they received 79 percent of the bike tickets despite making up a quarter of the city's population.

Then there's the well-known data that although black people aren't any more likely to use or sell drugs, they are much more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses.

(Joe Posner / Vox)

(Joe Posner/Vox)

This context makes clear that while the details of the charges in Mississippi are unusual, the fact that black people may be punished for doing something that's both common and harmless is not surprising in the least.

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