Al Sharpton has inserted himself into another racial controversy this week, this time in the community of Palmdale, located outside of Los Angeles. The case, which involves a disturbance at a Palmdale high school that involved four black students and a campus security guard, is threatening to exacerbate racial tensions in this small community with a growing African-American population. Los Angeles black civil rights leaders have jumped into the fray bringing in Al Sharpton in the process. However, as the investigation into the incident unfolds, this appears to have the earmarks of a Tawana Brawley-type hoax.
These are the details as we know them to date: On September 18, Pleajhai Mervin, 15, dropped a cake on the on the floor of the Knight High School lunch area and refused to pick it up when requested by campus security guards. (Cakes, balloons and other party items are not allowed on campus.) According to numerous witnesses, the girl became increasingly belligerent, yelling and swearing as the guards repeated their request over 20 times. Finally, one guard placed the girl in a wrist lock pinning her over a table to control her. At this point, another student, Joshua Lockett, 14, began recording the scene with a video camera, which are not allowed on campus and which he refused to hand over when asked. In the process, he was restrained by other security personnel and pinned to the ground. At this point, Lockett's sister, Kenngela Lockett, jumped on the back of one of the guards and began hitting him on the back. Eventually, deputies arrived at the scene and arrested the three students. Subsequently, Mervin's mother, Letrisha Majors, having been notified of the incident arrived at the school and was arrested for hitting three persons, the school principal, vice-principal and a security guard.
In the wake of the incident, black civil rights leaders in Los Angeles have become involved in the controversy charging the school and authorities with brutality and racism over the incident. This week, Najee Ali, an activist who is executive director of Project Islamic Hope, enlisted Al Sharpton, who happened to be in LA on unrelated business to participate. Sharpton and Ali then held a news conference on Wilshire Blvd in LA to protest the incident and announce a larger demonstration to be held in Palmdale on November 19 outside of the Antelope Valley Courthouse. Also present with Sharpton were Majors and Mervin, who had her right arm in a sling. According to Sharpton, Mervin's arm was broken. (Both Mervin and Kenngela Lockett have claimed that their wrists were broken.)
On October 11, about 60 protestors gathered in front of the above courthouse, chanting and holding up signs that read, "No justice-no peace". They demanded the firing and prosecution of the guard who had restrained Mervin. The previous evening, Charles Steele Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had stated that the protestors would "raise hell and go to jail". (Valley Press article by Amira Seyoum dated 10-12-07). Nonetheless, no violence broke out during the demonstration.
In the midst of this controversy, the LA Times has written a series of articles, based largely on statements from members of Palmdale's black community who say the incident is part of a pattern of discrimination in the Palmdale area. Comparisons have been made to the Jena 6 case in Louisiana. The Times' theme seems to be that the students were "victims", and that the school and local community were habitually too quick to discipline black students in many cases causing black students to end up with arrest records. In one article, black parents described school principal, Susan Mc Dougal as "dismissive and rude". (LA Times article by Ann Simmons,10-11-07).
Yet, other inquiries are pointing to a different conclusion. This week, when KFI's talk-jocks, John and Ken, began discussing the allegations made against the security guard, they received numerous calls from employees and families from Knight High School. According to their accounts, Mervin was completely out of control, and that the guard had exercised a great amount of patience until the point that it was necessary to restrain her.
Meanwhile, the Sheriff's Department, after interviewing witnesses and viewing video of the incident have determined that the action of the guards was not excessive, and that appropriate measures were used. (Valley Press article by Veronica Rocha, 10-12-07)
In addition, deputies who had custody of Mervin and Kenngela Lockett stated that they had no injuries, showed no signs of pain and declined going to a hospital. (Rocha) Upon being released, both signed their release forms with no difficulty.
Finally, ABC News reporter Leo Stallworth (himself an African-American) spoke on the phone with Mervin's doctor (with the permission of Mervin's mother) who informed him that during his examination of the girl, there was no injury to her wrist.
Last night, KFI talk show host John Ziegler spoke on the phone with Najee Ali during Ziegler's show. When confronted with the fact that there were no injuries, Ali tried to switch the theme to "emotional damage". When asked about the fact that an African-American reporter (Stallworth) was debunking the charges of injury, Ali dismissed Stallworth as an African-American by comparing him to Condoleeza Rice and other black conservative figures.
So that is where we stand today. It remains to be seen if Sharpton and other black activists continue to push this case, or if they will drop it like a hot potato. Unfortunately, as it stands now, we have another racial controversy that threatens to further divide whites and blacks in a part of the country (greater LA) that is already badly divided. Al Sharpton, in his brief LA appearnce this week, has already fanned the flames by essentially convicting the guard who restrained Mervin. This is taking on the appearance of Tawana Brawley all over again (although in the Brawley case, there was no underlying incident to begin with). Here, there was clearly an incident, but as cooler heads prevail, it looks more and more that the three youths and the mother were guilty of creating a disturbance and assault which justified the actions of the school guards.
We will have to wait and see if Sharpton returns to California to lead more demonstrations.