jeff merkley 1 31 2020
Senator: This is a tragedy in every possible way
02:05 - Source: CNN

David A. Love is a writer, commentator and journalism and media studies professor based in Philadelphia. He contributes to a variety of outlets, including Atlanta Black Star, ecoWURD and Al Jazeera. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidALove. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

The impeachment trial of President Donald Trump is a relative rarity in American political history, and yet aspects of it have the haunting familiarity of a sham trial in the Jim Crow South, where black people were routinely criminalized and murdered in the name of “justice.” Yes, there are certainly obvious differences between this political trial and the ones that many black Americans have faced, but the common thread remains: going through a trial that has already been decided before it even began.

David A. Love

There is little precedent for how to conduct only the third presidential impeachment trial ever to take place. However, with the Senate vote by the Republican majority to exclude witnesses – likely including former national security adviser John Bolton and indicted Rudy Giuliani associate Lev Parnas – the impeachment trial became nothing more than a kangaroo court with a predetermined outcome, a very American ritual of injustice masquerading as due process.

Comparing impeachment to Jim Crow jurisprudence, Rev. William J. Barber II of Repairers of the Breach and the Poor People’s Campaign summed it up when he tweeted: “In the old Jim Crow South, when racists harmed Black folks, the prosecutor & judge would conspire to have a fake trial & ensure the racists didn’t get convicted. We are seeing these same tactics play out in the impeachment trial under McConnell & it’s shameful.”

There is ample evidence the fix was in, that GOP senators had no intention of acting as impartial jurors. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said there was no chance the President would be removed from office, pledged to work closely and in “total coordination” with the White House on impeachment.

Senate Judiciary Committee chair Lindsey Graham said, “I am trying to give a pretty clear signal I have made up my mind. I’m not trying to pretend to be a fair juror here.” And as some senators reportedly fell asleep and played with fidget spinners during the trial, Trump threatened to invoke executive privilege to block the testimony of former national security adviser John Bolton.

Boasting about hiding the impeachment evidence, Trump said “We have all the material. They don’t have the material.”

In a perfect example of jury nullification, Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander acknowledged Trump’s wrongdoing as “inappropriate,” yet supported acquittal and voted against witnesses. And Florida Sen. Marco Rubio wrote in a Medium post, “Just because actions meet a standard of impeachment does not mean it is in the best interest of the country to remove a President from office.”

Trump’s impeachment defense lawyers gave campaign contributions to Sen. McConnell and other Republican jurors in advance of the trial, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Preventing first-hand witnesses from testifying and new documents from being entered into evidence is very typical of how trials were conducted in the Jim Crow South, when gerrymandering, voter suppression and violence maintained white political rule, and all-white juries quickly convicted black defendants and exonerated white defendants without the need for evidence or deliberation.

For example, in 1955, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam – two white men – went on trial in Mississippi for the brutal kidnapping, murder and mutilation of Emmett Till – a black 14-year old boy from Chicago.

It was obvious then, as now, that the trial was for show, almost more a justification for what had happened to Till. A white woman, the wife of one of the defendants, alleged Till had whistled at her (decades later she admitted to lying).

A number of witnesses were called, including two black men, one of whom identified the killers, and both of whom were threatened with death for testifying. However, the sheriff reportedly placed other black witnesses in jail to prevent them from testifying. An all-white-male jury – black people were effectively not allowed to vote or serve on juries – deliberated for only 67 minutes to deliver a not guilty verdict. Even the jurors knew they were participating in theater; “We wouldn’t have taken so long if we hadn’t stopped to drink pop,” one juror said.

Similarly, in 1931, nine black teens known as the Scottsboro boys were falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama. While the boys were awaiting trial, a white mob threatened to lynch them. With the exception of the 13-year-old, they were swiftly sentenced to death by an all-white-male jury. Although none were executed, they collectively served 100 years in prison. Some of the boys were retried and reconvicted, and the Supreme Court twice overturned the guilty verdicts.

Echoes of Jim Crow jurisprudence continue to the present day, and even with attempts to reform the criminal justice system, injustices plague the poor and people of color, who are disproportionately incarcerated. When black and Latino teens, known as the Central Park Five, were falsely arrested, interrogated and coerced in the brutal rape and beating a white woman in New York, Trump placed a full-page ad in four newspapers calling for the death penalty. Even after the accused were exonerated by DNA evidence linking another person to the crime, as recently as last year, Trump has declined to apologize for his actions.

It is not surprising that Trump’s GOP would work overtime to conduct a fake impeachment trial with their own narrative and set of facts and no witnesses to avoid accountability. This, despite a CNN poll showing that 69% of Americans want to hear new witness testimony, and a Quinnipiac Poll in which 75% say witnesses should be allowed to testify. A recent Pew poll found a slight majority of Americans supporting Trump’s removal from office, with 63% saying he has definitely or probably broke the law, and 70% concluding he has done unethical things.

However, if the Senate does not reflect the will of most Americans, it is because the Senate is a fundamentally undemocratic institution that exercises minority rule. For example, on a strictly 53-47 party line vote, the Senate voted to reject a series of amendments to subpoena documents and witnesses (for the vote that decided whether to allow witnesses, two Republicans voted with Democrats in a vote that failed 49-51 to allow witnesses at Trump’s impeachment trial).

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    Those 53 Republican senators in the first vote, as author and reporter Ari Berman noted, represent 153 million Americans, as opposed to the 168 million people the Democratic senators represent. Minority rule is subverting democracy and the rule of law and undermining the popular will, resulting in unjust policies and decisions. This, as Republicans who control the Senate with a minority of popular support block the impeachment of a President who was elected with nearly 2.9 million fewer votes than his opponent. Jim Crow segregationists employed voter suppression, violence and coups to maintain power. Similarly, today’s GOP must rely on anti-democratic methods to cling to power in a changing America, and prop up a President who will most certainly stay in office through malfeasance, playing to xenophobic fear and threats of violence.

    Meanwhile, US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who has assumed the role of a potted plant throughout most the proceeding, helped create this mess by playing an active role in the erosion of democracy and the legitimacy of the political system. Under Roberts’ leadership, the high court has sanctioned gerrymandering, eviscerated voting rights, and allowed for unlimited money in our elections, including potentially from foreign sources.

    If the Republicans hope for an end run around democracy with a kangaroo court, this is nothing new. Following in the footsteps of those who played a part in sham trials in the Jim Crow South, the Trump party cares little about justice, and everything about breaking the rules to maintain power in perpetuity. Unfortunately, sham trials are as American as apple pie.