Be My Guest

Be My Guest Column by Dr. William Pollard

Reflections on Newtown

As I sat in church on Sunday, my mind wandered as it often does there, as church for me is a place that offers an opportunity for reflection both back and forward. This past Sunday was no different as I thought about the minister’s prayer of comfort and guidance in response to the shooting last week in a town in Connecticut, where it was not suppose to happen. My thoughts this past Sunday was about a student who attended Medgar Evers College.

Her name is not important. She was a mother who took her sick child to the hospital . While there, as her daughter was waiting to be seen by the doctor, she left the child with its father and stepped outside where she was senselessly shot to death. Her name is not important here, but to her daughter, her family and to her classmates and members of the Medgar Evers College family, she was a valued and loving human being.

This mom will be grieved by family, friends and the community which loved her. She will not be mourned by a governor, president or the world. She will only be mourned by the people close to her because she was a black woman who lived in a community where these things are suppose to happen!

I remain deeply disturbed by the continuing descriptions of the ‘horrific loss of life” in communities where these things are not suppose to happen. No child should be senselessly torn from its parents and family by acts of violence that have come to characterize to many of our urban communities. And no child should have to suffer the loss of a parent whose life has been snuffed out by an act of violence.

I am tired America, of grieving families, neighbors and communities who say that it is not supposed to happen here. It should not happen anywhere.

Dr. William Pollard is the President of Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York

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Be My Guest

Be My Guest Column by Dr. William Pollard

Reflections on 9/11

A quiet, bright, sunny, September morning.

People were going about their routine business. The warm sun’s glow seemed to comfort all.

Suddenly in a horrifying instant the peace was shattered — a loud explosion, screams, flames spewing out of windows, smoke clouding the streets obscuring vision amidst the panic and chaos.

Sirens screeched as police and firefighters rushed to the scene while people frantically searched for loved ones in the mass of confusion.

In that terrible moment more than brick and mortar, more than glass — even more than lives were shattered. Peace and hope and freedom from fear were also torn apart that September morning.

The Date: September 15, 1963
The Place: 16th Street Baptist Church; Birmingham, Alabama
The Dead: 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins; 14-year-old Cynthia Wesley;
14-year-old Carole Robertson and 11-year-old Denise McNair
The Injured: Some 20 others, 10-year-old Sarah Collins who lost her right eye

This act of terrorism was by no means the first on American soil and far from the first in Birmingham, where there had been three other bombings in 11 days following a federal court order that had mandated the integration of Alabama’s school system. In the previous 18 years there had been at least 50 bombings there. It should come as no surprise that the town was nicknamed “Bombingham.”

Subsequent violence in the city led to the killing of two Black boys, one by police bullets, prompting the National Guard to be summoned in to restore order.

This came just thee months after the assassination of Medgar Evers, for whom the college is named. Evers was a civil rights activist and an NAACP Field Secretary.

As we mourn the losses of those who died on September 11, 2001, and honor those who were involved in heroic acts on that day, we should not lose sight of the fact that acts of terrorism in America did not begin on either of those September days.

The moral outrage over the vicious murder of four little girls who were sitting in Sunday school, led to outrage around the country. It helped provide a momentum of support behind the struggle for equal rights and end to segregation. Within two years there came passage of the Civil Rights act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Bill of 1965.

What then has been the legacy of September 11, 2001? What can we point to that has spawned some lasting good?

Many may express despair with reports of acts of harassment and violence against Middle Eastern and Muslim people here in the United States. Or the feelings and attitudes of apprehension and suspicion that many harbor since the September 11 attacks. Those unfortunate facts cannot be denied.

Then came the 10th anniversary commemoration. I was stuck by the images of the powerful and tasteful memorial at the World Trade Center site, as well as the progress made on the new towers being built. It occurred to me that we are all in a rebuilding process.

It is a rebuilding of the spirit of America and of freedom that cannot be destroyed by bullets or bombs. It is a freedom that the people in Birmingham and places throughout the south sacrificed so much for. They managed to build more than the buildings – they rebuilt their faith and dedication to freedom.

And that is what I see happening here in New York City.

When you look closely — when I walk the halls of Medgar Evers College and the streets of its Crown Heights community, I see something happening. I see a glass that is more than half full with students and faculty, and staff and folks on the block, learning, working, playing and living together. People who are trying to manage, people trying to succeed and excel.

The rebuilding is usually not a dramatic process, but it is evident in those most simple, routine, things.

After all isn’t that what freedom is — being able to go about your routine in peace? Shopping, working, playing, socializing, traveling – even going to Sunday school on a bright September morning?

And although there is still much rebuilding to do, when I look at Medgar Evers College’s diverse community I know that we are all sharing in the rebuilding Medgar’s dream and that of many others out of the some dark days of our past.

Dr. William Pollard is president of Medgar Evers College – http://www.mec.cuny.edu

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Be My Guest

Guest Column by Dr. William Pollard

Where is the Justice?

In a decision that I can only describe as shocking and shameful,
Manhattan Federal Court Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that an $18.5
million dollar award given to a man who spent 22 years in prison for a
rape he did not commit doesn’t deserve a nickel of that money.

“It is not enough,” she said, “to have shown that the city’s post trial evidence management system is disorganized.”

The man in question is Alan Newton, a recent Medgar Evers College alumnus. He was arrested and convicted for rape, robbery and assault in 1984 and sentenced to 13 to 40 years in prison. His attorneys repeatedly requested evidence in the possession of the New York City Police Department that could prove his innocence, but according to Newton’s attorneys, they stonewalled any efforts to clear
his name. Newton was also denied parole three times.

Later the Innocence Project took on his case and DNA evidence was found at a Queens warehouse in 2005. (When Newton was arrested such technology did not exist.) He was exonerated in 2006. In October, he was awarded $18.5 million dollars by a jury to make up for the decades he lost in the New York City and New York State penal systems.

But despite spending 22 years in prison, the award was tossed out
because according to Judge Scheindlin, the city meant no harm. It was
“mere negligence.”

Where is the justice?

I wish to congratulate all those who worked so hard for so long to get
Alan Newton released from prison – the Innocence Project, as well as a
raft of attorneys, civic and community leaders, educators. But when an
individual is thrown into prison at 22 and released at 44 years of age
for a crime they did not commit – where is the justice?

No amount of money can replace the years of freedom taken away. The
missed time with family and friends, the missed opportunities. But a sum of money could go a long way to making the rest of his life much
smoother than those 22 years spent behind prison walls. A jury confirmed that last October.

To his credit, he is not bitter. Newton has gone on to live a productive life. I am proud to say that, funded by the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund, he earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Business
Administration from Medgar Evers College. While here, he worked at our
College’s Male Development and Empowerment Center, which addresses
minority male recruitment, retention and graduation issues. He is now
employed at City College of New York as a research associate.

According to a published article, when asked what he would do with the money from the award, he replied: “A decent place to live” and “I love paying bills, a sense of purpose again.”

I sat next to Alan Newton at a dinner on the night when the City had
tossed out his award. He was shocked by the turn of events, but still
not bitter. Mostly I listened to what he was saying, thinking about the decision. But I also wanted him to know that those who supported him in the past – as well as many of those who only recently became aware of his plight – would stand with him now.

And we must all stand up to this travesty of justice. The perversion and arrogance of this decision basically puts the City of New York in a position of saying, “my bad,” to a man who has lost much of his life.
Where is the justice?

And what message does this send to others who might one day find
themselves in a similar position – even if it is “mere negligence?” What does the future hold for them? Will they be eligible for any
compensation at all?

And when are we as a society going to realize that when someone is
released from prison (whether they were justified in being there or not) that those who are willing and able to participate as productive
citizens should be allowed to do so?

Medgar Evers College has been very active in helping enable those
formerly incarcerated to gain the means to do so – through education,
through job training and counseling resources. Later this month we will be hosting a panel discussion, “Life After Incarceration,” at our main
campus on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn.

This is part of our participation in the COMAlert program. The program was started in 1999 by Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes as a bridge between prison and the community for parolees returning to Brooklyn. Participants from his office will be included on the panel.

For Alan Newton it is already too late for total justice. He was denied any efforts to prove his innocence for over two decades. But some measure of justice must be forthcoming. Newton now stands as one of the best among us, with his character and his strength, and his enduring ability to better himself and become a contributing member of society.

He is an individual we should all be proud to say is a neighbor, or
friend or fellow New Yorker.

So the question remains: Where is the justice?

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