“At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.” —Aristotle
Today, arraignments were scheduled for the Hemming Park Five, who were arrested on April 7 after a violent clash with police during a protest of the Syrian airstrikes. (They've been rescheduled for June 7 tentatively.)
After their arraignments, we could know a lot more about our new State Attorney. Will Melissa Nelson stand behind her brothers in blue even when their official version of events contradicts video evidence, when prosecuting to the fullest extent will sow the seeds of unrest and write another sordid chapter in the shameful tale of how this community treats people who exercise their constitutional rights to protest? Or will she consider the facts and evidence and decide that justice demands a course of action different from the one demanded by police, potentially damaging her office’s relationship with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office?
For nearly eight weeks, her office has been essentially mum about the incident. Nelson herself has seemed to be avoiding the press and our pesky questions, which is better than body-slamming reporters, anyhow. These are indications that she is struggling to decide how to proceed, whether to drop or lessen some or all the charges or to throw the proverbial book at the five, naysayers and constitutional rights advocates be damned.
No doubt she’s being pressured by JSO, which has a vested interest in the five being prosecuted. Simultaneously, she’s being pressured by groups, like the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition and racial justice organization Color of Change, to drop the charges. If Nelson takes the cops’ side, to some, she’ll be just another crooked arm of a red state hellbent on suppressing constitutionally guaranteed rights of speech, protest and assembly, particularly when those rights are exercised by liberals.
If Nelson takes the protesters’ side, letting them plea the charges down to misdemeanor wrist-slaps or dropping them entirely, it could telegraph to police that she doesn’t have their backs when it counts, and signal weakness to a tough-on-crime challenger from inside—or outside—her office in the next election cycle. The mailers practically write themselves.
Then there’s the fact that prosecuting the five will throw gasoline on the fires of discontent simmering beneath the surface of our city, which no one, not the protesters themselves and not JSO, really wants. As Detroit, Miami, Los Angeles, Baltimore and Ferguson have learned, these sorts of fires have an unfortunate tendency to become real riots.
We must also consider that, if convicted, these five face fines of thousands of dollars, the loss of their voting (and hunting) rights, and a lifetime of working the cash register at a sketchy gas station on 103rd or spinning a sign along Beach Boulevard in 100-degree heat. They could also spend years in prison alongside murderers, rapists and pedophiles.
Justice might be blind, but you don’t need eyes to see that there is little justice in that outcome.
Now consider the political fallout of taking these cases to trial. Imagine how it would play out when the respective defenses present their cases, including videos of the violence, for Bob and Margaret sitting on their microfiber thrones at home to watch an officer punch 74-year-old military veteran William “Willie” Wilder in the face, slam 27-year-old Christina Kittle to the ground, see the abject terror in deaf, black Connell Crooms’ eyes as he’s pinned down with an officer’s knee on his neck, and watch him get loaded into the back of an ambulance, battered and motionless. These videos would play over and over and over on the nightly news in five separate trials, which could take months.
And just when Jacksonville was starting to (hopefully) outlive a reputation earned with axe handles used on young, black men’s faces.
For what it’s worth, though it ain’t much, we know what her predecessor would’ve done: Prosecute the five to the fullest extent of the law and attempt to paint them as Public Enemy Nos. 1-through-5. Then maybe a manicure. The very fact that Nelson appears to be grappling with this decision is cause for hope we have not had in the Fourth Judicial Circuit for many years. It seems she isn’t willing to blindly prosecute just because the cops say so. Nor is she willing to kowtow to those who would have her turn on JSO because a few hundred spent part of a Saturday afternoon protesting and thousands took three minutes to type their names and email addresses onto an online petition.
I do not envy her position. She’s in a tight spot, caught between a hard place and the cops.
But it’s her job to make tough decisions.
Studying law, one learns that the best outcome of any mediation is when sides feel that they’ve lost. But this is criminal court, not mediation; Nelson can’t just give wifey the house and make her pay hubby for his share. But perhaps she can find a functional equivalent.
One thing is certain: This case is the biggest test of our new chief prosecutor thus far. A lot of us are hoping she passes.