Personal for them, and me

DEKALB CORRUPTION TRIAL

Michelle Miller is a story editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Jurors struggled mightily with the DeKalb County courtroom battle between District Attorney Robert James and suspended county CEO Burrell Ellis, and so did I.

I don’t know the defendant or the prosecutor. But long before the jury’s deliberations spiraled into dysfunction and a declared mistrial last week, something about the Ellis political corruption case, and the two black men at its core, had cut me to the quick.

Yes, the two black men, because, to my bemusement, the race of the protagonists was central to my pain. And I struggled to understand why.

I’ve been a journalist for more than three decades, so high crimes and misdemeanors, and the trials and tribulations of those involved, should be no big deal to me, even though I, too, am black.

I was born in New York City in the 1950s to a mother and father who met at Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Harlem after each had migrated from the Deep South.

Absolutely, I grew up loved, protected and encouraged by black men who, like my dad, were sly and sexy, proud and passionate, law-abiding and God-fearing. Men who, like my dad, had limited education and held blue-collar jobs that paid generously enough for them to buy houses and send their children to college.

Men who, like my late dad, were in awe of guys like James and Ellis: black males who’ve earned multiple degrees, attained status and amassed power in a nation that still wrestles with racism.

During the DeKalb trial — as well as in the months that preceded it, when the Ellis defense team fought hard to discredit James — I could just hear what my daddy would have said: “Who? What! Maaaaan, shoot. That Robert James? Why, he’s a … he’s a deee-aay! And that Burrell Ellis, maaaaan, he runs the whole county.”

Meaning: They are brothers in struggle, brothers in achievement. How can they go at each other this way?

But that’s a mindset of decades ago, after the civil rights movement and before the O. J. spectacle. Surely black Americans have advanced too far for me to wince at the sight of two illustrious black men trying to tear each other apart through the judicial system.

And, let me be real, I feel no emotional turmoil when the prosecutor is black and the defendant is an African-American accused of a violent crime such as robbery, rape or murder.

So when it came to the Ellis trial, what was wrong with me?

I asked several co-workers who look like my cousins whether any of them felt squeamish about the case. Seasoned journalists all, each one answered with a thoughtfully considered “No.”

“This is what you get when there are black people at every level of the power structure,” said one.

“It doesn’t affect me in that way,” said another. “I just think it’s unfortunate that it’s gotten so personal and so ugly between the two of them.”

She could tell I remained baffled by my own angst.

“Perhaps,” she offered, “it’s because before this there was never even a whiff of scandal about Ellis?”

Maybe, but not exactly.

I issued a “help, please” over the Internet. “Does anyone else feel deeply pained when witnessing high-profile, white-collar court cases in which both the defendant and the prosecutor are black?” I asked in a query I titled “Black-on-Black power struggles.”

Among the responders was Allison Valderia of New York, an attorney, career coach and blogger for the Huffington Post, who emailed this:

“As a former Maryland prosecutor, there is an inherent self-conflict. The alleged crime is not a violent one, and this defendant is educated, poised, intelligent, accomplished and does not seem like a typical ‘criminal.’

“Compounded with the fact that we are both black, it creates some sort of undercurrent that (as the prosecutor) I am the undertaker of his career and the entire livelihood that he worked to build, in a struggle that I should culturally understand.

“To a non-black person, or an outsider looking in, it seems fine because the judge and jury members are also black. Although the black prosecutor will not be seen as the ‘token Negro,’ he will always be seen as the enemy of everything that the defendant represents — including his blackness.”

Bingo. Her words helped me to realize that my heart remained colored by my father’s worldview: that black men — the good ones, the strong ones, the strivers and the achievers — have to stick together. That no one can fully appreciate the challenges they face other than someone who is, in so many ways, just like them.

Hence, the awfulness of witnessing James and Ellis, so outwardly alike, circling each other, looking for the kill.

It was Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Bill Torpy who wrote three weeks ago that the Ellis case had become personal for the two men at its center. And the day after the mistrial was declared, the jury’s forewoman told AJC reporters Mark Niesse and Rhonda Cook that several jurors (but not her) were reluctant to convict Ellis on corruption charges in part because they found him likeable, “very articulate” and “charismatic” — adjectives that could just as easily apply to James.

So what to do in light of all this?

Grow up. My colleagues got it right. When blacks are in positions of power at all levels, as they are in DeKalb, this is what you get. It can’t be about emotions tied to childhood memories. It can’t be about color, or gender, or both, as in a Black Brotherhood. It’s got to be about right vs. wrong, ethical vs. unscrupulous, the law vs. the alleged lawbreakers, however lofty their station.

That’s progress. It might not be pretty. But it must be acknowledged.