Voodoo legal defense by mattsteinglass
July 16, 2008, 9:05 pm
Filed under: Oddities

The Washington Monthly has a great article this month by Kevin Carey, “Too Weird for The Wire,” about how black drug dealers on trial in Baltimore are increasingly falling under the spell of anti-government conspiracy theories originating with white supremacist groups like the Posse Comitatus, and using them to mount insane, hopeless “defenses” that just consist of reciting long absurd constructions of no legal value (based in various crazy rural myths about the illegitimacy of the 14th Amendment, etc.), while rejecting the advice of their own lawyers and judges. The article is a great read:

Suddenly, the leader of the defendants, Willie Mitchell, a short, unremarkable looking twenty-eight-year-old with close-cropped hair, leapt from his chair, grabbed a microphone, and launched into a bizarre soliloquy.

“I am not a defendant,” Mitchell declared. “I do not have attorneys.” The court “lacks territorial jurisdiction over me,” he argued, to the amazement of his lawyers. To support these contentions, he cited decades-old acts of Congress involving the abandonment of the gold standard and the creation of the Federal Reserve. Judge Davis, a Baltimore-born African American in his late fifties, tried to interrupt. “I object,” Mitchell repeated robotically. Shelly Martin and Shelton Harris followed Mitchell to the microphone, giving the same speech verbatim. Their attorneys tried to intervene, but when Harris’s lawyer leaned over to speak to him, Harris shoved him away…

…Although Mitchell and his peers didn’t know it, they were inheriting the intellectual legacy of white supremacists who believe that America was irrevocably broken when the 14th Amendment provided equal rights to former slaves. It was the ideology that inspired the Oklahoma City bombing, the biggest act of domestic terrorism in the nation’s history, and now, a decade later, it had somehow sprouted in the crime-ridden ghettos of Baltimore.

The article reminds me of the kinds of ritualistic behavior one finds in vodun sects and cargo cults. In Jean Rouche’s classic 1957 anthropological film “Les Maitres Fous,” the Haouka sect in Accra in the late ’50s mimics and burlesques the forms and signs of British colonial authority (white pith helmets, the Union Jack, carved wooden toy firearms) to invoke magical powers of healing. Here’s the first third of the movie — the important stuff starts 6 minutes in:

I spent some time in 2002 hanging out with practitioners of gorovodun, a popular sect in my then home of Togo, which worships a pantheon of spirits with mainly Arabic names and appearances. The initiates fall into trances and begin to speak made-up languages which sound like Arabic or Haussa — the languages of Muslims from the Sahel. The power of these kinds of sects is to reappropriate the trappings of the exotic and unfamiliar, and their connections to certain kinds of power, and to turn that aura into a kind of psychological, performative power of its own. In that way it’s a lot like vogueing.

Anyway, I know there are dangerous racial overtones to making the vodun comparison here, but that’s not what I’m getting at — I think “speaking in tongues” in white evangelical churches is very similar. (Of course that also probably has African roots, but we’ll leave that be.) The point is just that this is a typical and somewhat understandable reaction of uneducated, unworldly people who are caught up in very sophisticated social and technological systems that have tremendous power over them. This is equally true for white supremacists in Alabama in the ’70s and for black drug dealers in Baltimore today. By mimicking the forms of the system, they seek to gain control over its power. Of course to those who do understand and control the system, their performance appears to be insanity, parody, or some kind of religious art form.

Unlike vodun, though, the “flesh-and-blood defense” is completely pernicious and ought to be stamped out.


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