Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Willful blindness? Justice in the United States of America

Justitia, godess of justice, is always depicted as blind. She holds scales in one hand and a sword in the other. Somewhere along the line my knowledge of the symbolic meaning of this blindness (that justice is rendered without fair or favour) translated itself into a quite opposite interpretation (that justice, being blind, would be unable to see the true nature of things and apply the law with equity). How this happened and when it happened I don’t know, but I recently found myself telling one of my children that the blindness of Justitia meant that she could not be fair, and hence was intended as a caution about what one should expect from legal systems. It wasn’t a wry comment. It was straight — and necessitated his correcting me.

Jason Vassell’s story may help to explain how my understanding was unwittingly transformed.

Jason Vassell is a young Jamaican American man, formerly a student at UMass, Amherst. Early in the morning of 3 February 2009, that is a year and a day ago, he was attacked in his dorm by two drunk, young white men who hurled insults at him, broke his window, entered the dorm (though not through the broken window) and physically attacked him. (Unable to secure help from the campus police in time, he called a friend. When he opened the door to the dorm to let in the friend, the two white men forced their way in at the same time.) He tried to defend himself with a pocketknife. He did stab both men, but their injuries were not serious. One of the men broke Jason’s nose.

Jason Vassell has no prior criminal record. The attackers have prior records of disorderly and violent conduct, including (in the case of one in particular) racially motivated violence. Jason Vassell has a good academic record and was working full-time and performing community service when the attack took place. Numerous students, faculty and others have come forward eager to testify to his exemplary character.

Jason Vasell explains that he thought, while the attacks were in progress, that the men were going to lynch him. This would explain his use of the pocketknife. We remind that they had broken his window, and that they came, uninvited, into the place where he was living (his ‘home’ at the time) and attacked him, and he has a broken nose to prove it.

The upshot of all of this? As a result of defending himself against this unprovoked assault, Jason Vassell, the victim of the attack, has been charged with two counts of aggravated assault with a dangerous weapon and now faces charges carrying a possible sentence of up to 30 years. One of his attackers faces no charge at all; the other faces a maximum of five years. Members of the UMass community (excepting the university administration) have rallied around Jason and attempted to lobby the state to drop the charges against him, so far without success.

“The Memorandum of Law in Support of the Motion to Dismiss” Jason Vassell argues that there is compelling evidence of racial discrimination both in the actions and attitudes of some members of the police department and in decisions made by prosecutors of how to proceed — or not to proceed — against all three men. There are eyewitnesses to the incident and video tape of the encounter between Vassell and the men. One of the police officers involved in the incident noted that “[both white males] smelled strongly of an alcoholic beverage and were slurring their speech when trying to give statements.”

Further information on the matter is available at

Barack Obama may be in the White House but American jails remain full of young black males in horribly disproportionate numbers. Perhaps a story like Jason’s helps to explain why. Perhaps too, if sufficient persons in, what we hope is a new America, rally to Jason’s cause, Justitia will begin lifting a hand to peel off the blindfold. When a symbol comes to mean the opposite of itself, then perhaps we need to dispose of it.


Jdid said...

horrible! defending oneself in the face of danger should not be a crime

clarabella said...

Hi jdid. Wahzup? The university offered Jason the option of withdrawing or being kicked out. If you go to, you can read all the ugly details. It's scary, and all too possible. Hope 2009 treats you well.

FSJL said...

Vassell shows that he is must be evil because he defended himself when attacked, which no person of colour should ever do. The people who attacked him are, of course, saints because of their pink skins....

clarabella said...

Hi Fragano:
All you say is true and deeply disturbing. What I find frightening, though, is the University's attitude which is to distance itself from an incident taking place on their premises, on their watch, so to speak. In some countries, this would be perceived as a hate crime, a race-based crime, a forced invasion of Vassell's home and safe haven pro tem. Seems to me there are several bases upon which he can claim abrogation of his 'human rights' — if you believe in them, which I'm not sure I do!

FSJL said...

It is particularly worrying because the interim Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Thomas Cole, is an African-American, and the former president of a historically black university.

clarabella said...

Worse and worse! What on earth do universities perceive themselves as, these days? Do they have no idea of themselves as a community? And if they don't, well who? Of course, why am I of all persons asking this?

FSJL said...

The business of American universities is business.