Porter outrage triggers positive steps
By ERNEST HOOPER
Published November 16, 2005
I approached Monday night's NAACP media conference with a degree of skepticism.
The three local branches of the 96-year-old civil rights organization called the press together to discuss the controversial Jennifer Porter case, and I worried there would be sound and fury signifying nothing.
Emotions have been running high in the black community ever since Judge Emmett Lamar Battles sentenced Porter to two years of house arrest, three years of probation and 500 hours of community service for her involvement in the fatal March 2004 accident that killed 13-year-old Bryant Wilkins and 3-year-old Durontae Caldwell.
Porter, who was charged with leaving the scene of an accident involving death, reached a plea deal that could have resulted in a 21-month sentence.
The fact she received no jail time set the stage for NAACP officials to underscore the community's outrage with their own condemnation.
Yet the association actually offered reasonable explanations and a proactive response. Yes, there was a general acknowledgement of the judicial system's disparities. Yes, there was an admission that the initial reaction to Porter's sentencing was anger.
But all of that was produced with reasonable tones and a professional demeanor. Barbara J. Pittman, president of the Virgil Hawkins Florida Chapter of the National Bar Association, explained in detail why Porter wasn't charged with vehicular homicide, why her parents were not charged and how the plea deal impacted the sentencing.
More encouraging was the local branches' launch of a CourtWatch Program. The NAACP will seek out volunteers and train them to be court observers of particular cases and particular judges and lawyers.
"We must hold judges and attorneys to a greater level of accountability, especially in racially sensitive or racially charged cases," said Nathaniel Ramsey, president of the Upper Pinellas NAACP branch.
The NAACP also plans to employ a similar watchdog effort for area school board, city council and county commission meetings. That may be even more necessary.
The NAACP's branches in Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough plan to centralize the Legal Redress Committee and partner with the predominantly black George Edgecomb Bar Association. Members in need of free legal advice can go to the Edgecomb Bar Web site (www.gebaonline.com) or contact the NAACP at (813) 234-8683. "For the last several months, there have been negotiations about how we can put this in place," said Edgecomb Bar Association president Clint Paris. "I'm not committing, and I hope my members out there hear me, that we will solve every legal issue that every person has throughout this community.
"But I want to reassure this community we are here to serve you and help you with your problems as you see fit."
Cynics will suggest the CourtWatch Program and the joint agreement between the NAACP and the bar association won't change all the inequities in the judicial system. Some will say that the NAACP's response, nine days after Porter was sentenced, comes too late.
But you know what? No other legitimate organization or political leader stepped forward in those first nine days to offer people a way to channel their disappointment and frustration into a strategic action plan.
Although the response may not have been on time, it was on point. It was thoughtful, and a sign that a new day may be dawning for the Hillsborough County NAACP branch. The press conference occurred just three days after the NAACP helped bring together community groups for a well-attended Veterans Day salute to African-Americans.
"I think it's changing," said Curtis Stokes, vice president of the Hillsborough County branch. "We just need to get more young people involved. If we're not proactive and professional, we're not going to attract those people."
That's the biggest key. Without manpower, the NAACP won't be able to make a potentially effective plan work. After all the venting about the Porter sentencing is done, are the folks who claim to be outraged just going to shrug their shoulders and move on? Or are they going to try to make a difference?
That's all I'm saying.
Ernest Hooper can be reached at 813 226-3406 or Hooper@sptimes.com
[Last modified November 16, 2005, 01:08:07]
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