Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The Houston Riot Cases, 1917-2023

Over a hundred years later the U.S. Army is owning up, in a way, to one of the most visible symbols of its racist military justice system by granting clemency to 110 Black Soldiers it unfairly convicted by tainted mass courts-martial (military trials) in 1917. Of course this isn't justice, given that 19 of the men were executed, so justice is impossible. Furthermore, this clemency action was not on the Army's own initiative; to the contrary, the Army sat on the petition filed on behalf of descendants for years, despite having the evidence on hand for over a century that these trials were grossly tainted by racism and procedural irregularities.


It is telling that when asked about this clemency action, the Secretary of the Army couldn't even bring herself to apologize for these travesties of justice that saw the Army hanging its own men because of their race. Instead, Secretary Wormuth barely owned anything, instead merely stating that “[b]y setting aside their convictions and granting honorable discharges, the Army is acknowledging past mistakes and setting the record straight.”


To call the systemic racism that led to these executions and convictions "mistakes" reveals a profound lack of appreciation not only for what happened over 100 years ago, but how those same "mistakes" still infect the Army's flawed criminal justice system today. The Army still court-martials (prosecutes) Black Soldiers at twice the rate of white Soldiers -- no, Black Soldiers don't commit more crimes, they are just punished more because of the racism that lingers in today's Army. Hence the important and necessary clemency action just taken could have been used to acknowledge both past bias and institutional complicity, as well as the current racial issues plaguing the military justice system, with a pledge to fix the latter.


This opportunity was not taken, making this clemency action seem performative, as more virtue signaling than anything else. While this clemency action is undoubtedly worthwhile for educating the public on the Army's racist past, and  of course is quite meaningful for descendants of the men whose lives and legacies were forever destroyed, it also signals that the Pentagon leadership continues its complicity with racism in its military justice system. A problem ignored, Ms. Secretary, doesn't go away. It just gets worse.

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