Too Weird for The Wire

This article in The Washington Monthly reminded me of a fun but one-sided men’s college basketball game I attended with a friend. As we entered the parking my pal began to speak about his strange day at work. A middle-aged Black defendant (race is relevant) walked into his Baltimore office with a question about the man’s upcoming criminal trial. The guy learned during his last jail stint a theory involving the the illegitimacy of the federal government since the Civil War resulting in the unconstitutionality of the income tax and our leaving the gold standard. If a defendant expressed all this to the judge, he must release you. “Should I use this defense?” he asked my friend?

Here’s what I learned at the ball game.

Since the defeated Confederate states were forced to approve the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution (the one’s ending slavery, granting full citizenship and voting rights to newly freed men), authority of the federal government to tax or have legal jurisdiction outside of garrisons or forts is NOT VALID. Taking the US off the gold standard in 1933, too, was unconstitutional, as the original text does not permit such action. It gets worse. The Federal Reserve, mind you, has used US citizens as collateral for debt we owe other countries. There’s something about capital letters and the idea that a defendant is “flesh & blood.”

Now, I’ve been to my share of neo-confederate and secessionist websites (for research) so I was clear about the racist origins of this stuff. Still I was fascinated. How did this travel from prison to prison? Who were the carriers? Did people really believe the judge would be forced to dismiss? Why would Black defendants be drawn to this? How did judges respond when the argument is raised? What’s the importance of the gold standard – isn’t the illegitimacy of the federal government since the Civil War enough?

I thought I would be the one to follow this great story. Alas, I never made it happen. Good thing I left it to Kevin Carey and the Washington Monthly. In reading the article, feel free to skip details of the case at hand for the conspiracy stuff. The guys most likely killed 4 people and Federal authorities wanted to try the case under their jurisdiction.

Here’s my little article summary. Read the whole fascinating, well told story.

Carey help me appreciate the banking conspiracy and anti-Jewish feelings vital to the worldview of conspiracy originators and early transmitters. The virus metaphor to describe the transmission of the theory between jails was helpful. He captured the magical incantation-like recitation of the defendants speeches, illuminated the openness of death penalty cases to odd arguments, acknowledged the prevalence of conspiracy theories in Black America and depicted Judge Davis’ outraged reactions.

I also thank Carey for finding the origin of the theory in resistance to the Little Rock High School integration efforts of Eisenhower in 1957. The story of Massive Resistance to integration has yet to be told. The story includes not just influential kooks like Gale but local officials and business owners form the White Citizens Councils while governors sponsored ($) State Sovereignty Commissions for neighbors to spy on each other, looking for integrationist activities. (Notice the similarities between certain anti-Communism and anti-Integration methods, and the “Commie MLK” rhetoric becomes more comprehensible)

Pockets of hard-core “patriots” have waxed and wained throughout the last century. Carey does a good job of connecting the militia activity that “blossomed” in the actions McVeigh and Nichols with these neo-Confederate theories. The rhetoric is not simply an isolated phenomenon in white America, it spills over into public violence.

Since the formulation of this latest neo-Confederate conspiracy theory 50 years ago, the role of federal authority in people’s lives has changed. The Federal role in integration has subsided or gone off into the domain of bureaucratic administration. White militias continue their grievances against Federal taxation and regulatory policies. And in the 1990s its has established martyrs — David Koresh, Ruby Ridge, McVeigh.

Still, with this history, why do Black defendants adopt such theories? Today, as opposed to 50 years ago, urban Black youth are unfortunately more likely to experience Federal drug sentencing than aid by an NAACP legal defense team or the support of the Justice Department enforcing the 14th Amendment. We fight with the tools we have against the enemy at hand. In our crazy world, the defendants logic almost makes sense.

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