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Endless night 

Crittenden County’s troubles rooted in its racist past.

QUESTIONS REMAIN: About the death of 12-year-old DeAunta Farrow, shot last year by a white West Memphis police officer.
  • QUESTIONS REMAIN: About the death of 12-year-old DeAunta Farrow, shot last year by a white West Memphis police officer.

In West Memphis the endless night of racial conflict that so characterizes the Arkansas Delta in the 21st century is being played out in a hothouse atmosphere of emotion and acrimony that is increasingly devoid of restraint. The aftermath of the tragic, night-time shooting death in June 2007 of 12-year-old DeAunta Farrow by white West Memphis policeman Erik Sammis, with its charges and counter-charges by an African American judge, a racially divided City Council, and white police chief, escalates almost with each news cycle. At one point in December police Chief Bob Paudert publicly called the six black city councilmen “a group of vigilantes,” adding, “I've had all I want of these radical, clueless members of the council.” The six had voted for a resolution requesting that West Memphis's white mayor, Bill Johnson, fire officers Sammis and Jimmy Evans, his partner the night of the shooting.

The chief also implicitly threatened a group of black ministers in West Memphis for their actions. “Some of these radical ministers are convicted felons and I've had calls asking me to expose them for who they are and what they are,” Paudert told the West Memphis Evening Times.

The six black City Council members responded by voting to “request” the mayor also to fire Chief Paudert, who has held the position for nine years and had been credited with substantially reducing crime in West Memphis by “pro-active” policing measures. The four whites on the board voted against the resolution. Mayor Johnson said publicly, “Chief Paudert has my undivided, unequivocal support,” and allowed the chief to remain on the job. A city ordinance requires seven votes to force a dismissal.

Throw into the mix two visits by activist Al Sharpton and other outsiders, allegations by the mother's private attorney who has filed a civil suit for damages for $225 million that DeAunta Farrow did not have a toy gun as alleged by police, and the power of the Internet to make plain the racism that rages on both sides of the color equation, and you have the makings of a perfect racial storm.

To be sure, what has been occurring in Crittenden County is not about any one incident, however incendiary. Like all racial dilemmas, whether in South Africa or the United States, Crittenden County's struggle is rooted in both the near and distant past. In the racial sphere, the history of Arkansas, particularly the history of the Arkansas Delta, has largely been the commitment of its white citizens to white supremacy, its eventual curbing by the federal government, and the failure in the last 50-odd years to come to terms with its consequences.

The temptation in Central Arkansas is to consider the on-going events in Crittenden County as problems peculiar to the Delta. In comparison, the racial difficulties outside the Delta deceptively appear almost manageable. On the contrary, the struggle that is consuming West Memphis and Crittenden County today may well be viewed in Little Rock as 2008's most dreaded “coming attraction.” In other words, assuming whites continue to leave the city and political power in Little Rock continues to shift to black Arkansans, racial conflicts that seem today mostly centered around the Little Rock School District and education will manifest themselves in other areas of public life. Thus, as Little Rock becomes a majority minority city the racial tragedies in the Delta are either Little Rock's future, or, in the best-case scenario, an on-going case study of what can go hideously wrong.

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