This article is dedicated to Mrs. Lisa Howlett who resides in Austin. She wrote and asked me to give my perspective on a June 5 Chicago Tribune Article, “Old South Racism Lives in Texas Town,” by Howard Witt.
First, a brief update on “emerging rights” for the disabled: In 1990 Congress passed “The Americans with Disabilities Act.” This act set in motion legal and political processes that are still defining who the disabled are and the rights available to them. The “ambiguous” definition contained in the 1990 law, seems to open the door to every point of view and continual litigation.
Back to the Tribune article, apparently some people in the small town of Linden, Texas, emulated their native-son president in their thought processes and “preemptively” attacked a 42-year-old mentally retarded black man. This happened two years ago, according to the Tribune article. Billy Ray Johnson was picked up outside a store in town and was driven to an outdoor party in a cow pasture attended by a crowd of white young adults. The four white males who picked up Johnson got him drunk.
What happened next is told by a 23-year-old resident (anonymous) who was in attendance: “Everybody knew Johnson was mentally challenged, that he wasn’t quite right. Johnson was having a good time, drinking. Then they started making fun of him, making him dance, to make a monkey out of him.”
As the story unfolds, according to the article, Johnson was directed to stick his hand into a “bonfire” to remove a burning log. Many other witnesses reported that Johnson was also subjected to a lot of racial slurs. According to Tina Richardson, the assistant district attorney, who prosecuted the case and the county’s only black lawyer, “It was the “N” word,” she said.
Richardson said references were made concerning the KKK, asking Johnson what he would do if the KKK came out that night. Then the story gets very dramatic and nasty, because after midnight, evidence indicates that Christopher Colt Amox, one of the attackers, punched Johnson and knocked him out. As Johnson lay unconscious, Amox and his three pals, loaded Johnson into a pickup truck (similar to what happen to Emmett Till) and drove him down a dirt road, tossing his body on top of a nesting mound of stinging fire ants next to a public dump.
Later, one of the attackers called the sheriff to report a man passed out on the ground. Johnson was in a coma for a week. He also suffered a brain hemorrhage that slurred his speech, weakened his legs and deprived him of the ability to take care of himself. The writer said that his body was covered with hundreds of painful ant bites. Today, Johnson lives in a nursing home, unable to take care of himself. He lives on public assistance.
Locally, the four attackers were charged with various counts of aggravated assault and injury to a disabled person by omission. Two pleaded guilty to the injury charge and agreed to testify against their pals, who opted for jury trials.
According to the Tribune article, the jurors in both cases, three of whom were African Americans, acquitted Amox and Hicks of aggravated assault. Amox (who knocked Johnson out) was convicted of misdemeanor assault, and Hicks was convicted of injury to a disabled person by omission. Both juries recommended suspended sentences and probation as punishment. But the district judge sentenced three of the attackers, including Amox, to 30 days in jail. The fourth attacker, Hicks, who called the sheriff to report finding Johnson was sentenced to 60 days!
The FBI and local law enforcement officials investigated the case, and all came to the conclusion that what happened to Johnson was a crime based on his mental incapacity, not his race. Thus no state or federal hate crime or civil rights charges were lodged.
From my perspective, Mrs. Howlett, what those four young men did to a mentally challenged person for their personal entertainment is barbaric and hateful. What is more troubling to me was the stereotypical “mind-set” of all involved in the investigation of this case; which included local and federal law enforcement officials, the jury and the judge. Their combined tone of “second class treatment” rhetoric over this obvious hate crime was eerily similar to the views of the “Reconstruction Era” of the south when African Americans were looked down upon as aliens, permanently inferior monsters in human form, dangerous parasites with zero rights that white Americans were bound to respect.
For example, in Augusta, Georgia in 1890, a black man was found in the street one morning beaten with his body riddled with bullets. A white resident asked his friend who was standing near the body, “Pat, who killed that nigger? Oh, some of the boys,” he responded with a grin. “What did they do it for? The resident asked. ‘Oh, because he was a ‘N…’ and added, “he was the best ‘N…’ in town. Why he would even take off his hat to me.” This type of attitude seems to still be around today in the “space age.”
The conclusion that what happened to Johnson was a crime based on his mental limitations, not his race, is shameful. No state or federal or civil rights charges were lodged as a result. Illinois has one of the strongest hate crime laws of any state in this country. People with physical or mental and psychological disabilities deserve the same respect and rights as everyone else, regardless of their race.
White, black, purple or green, the slap on the wrists for the “creeps” in the Johnson case after their hateful crime is sickening to most decent human beings.