Date: Sun, 3 Mar 1996 05:58:29 -0600
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/* Written 5:48 PM Feb 25, 1996 by bwitanek in igc:justice.polabu */
Cops and Klan walked after Greensboro, NC massacre
By Kathryn Watterson, Trenton Times, 25 February 1996
Witness to massacre, 10 years old at time, serves life sentences
Kwame Cannon was 10 years old the rainy November morning he went with his mother to an anti-Ku Klux Klan rally outside the public housing project where they lived in Greensboro, N.C. The dmonstration was led by Kwame's mother and her friends - leaders of an nterracial group working to organize black and white factory workers at local textile mills.
"We were alI singing," Kwame remembers, "when the caravan came down the street." Kwame saw the confederate flag on one of the cars and sounds he thought at first were shots from a cap gun. "They're shooting," he hollered as he began to run with his friends Ricky and Ayo.
TWO TELEVISION cameramen recorded the Nov. 3 bloodbath. Klansmen and Nazis parked their cars, coolly removed weapons from the trunk of a blue Ford Fairlane, took aim and shot down one unarmed demonstrator after another. A cigarette dangled casually from one Klansman's lips as he lifted, leveled, and fired his shotgun. Another white supremacist sprinted down the sidewalk with a pistol in his hand, firing bullets into the neck and chest of an organizer named Cesar Cauce who already was wounded.
Kwame's mother, Willena Cannon, might well have been shot herself that November morning had she not been putting her two youngest children - Imani, 5, and Kweli, 2 - into her sister's car seconds before the melee broke out. Hearing all the gunfire and creaming, she ran through the smoke to her friend, Jim Waller, who was bleeding on the ground. "Jim still had life in him," she said. "I kneeled down and put his head in my lap, and Nelson [Johnson] and I were trying to talk to bim when he died. We could see the light go out in him."
Police - who had left the demonstration at 10:30 a.m. to take a "lunch break" - arrived only after the shooting had stopped, even though an informant for the Greensboro Police Department and a federal agent were with the Klansmen and knew their plans.
One of the first things police did after their arrival was to arrest demonstrators - including Willena Cannon, who tried to stop their frenzied attack on Nelson Johnson, a fellow organizer, who had been stabbed in the shoulder by a Klansman. "I knew if I didn't do they'd kill him," she said. She was arrested and charged with interfering with arrest; then she was taken to jail and interrogated. "They'had me in this little room," she said. "I didn't know where my children were. My body literally shut down."
When did this happen? Not in the 1940s, '50s or '60s, but in 1979. Emily Mann's new play, "Greensboro: A Requiem," now playing at McCarter Theatre tells the story of that day, Nov. 3, 1979, and the events leading up to it.
Klansmen and American Nazis shot 13 people that day - several of them right between the eyes. Five died. Others - including Paul Bermanzohn, who was paralyzed - were permanently injured.
Even though the video coverage showed the murders clearly, an allwhite jury acquitted the Klansmen and Nazis of all charges. A civil trial eventually determined collusion between the Klan and Greensboro police in the slayings and ordered the City of Greensboro to pay damages to the widows and children of the victims.
But no Klansman ever paid a penny in damages. Nor did any Klansman ever spend a day in prison for the murders - not even Dave Matthews, who admitted to police that he thought he had shot three people. "There were some innocent people shot, I reckon," he said. "But I was shooting at the niggers."
The irony is that although Kwame Cannon saw his mother's friends killed - and saw their killers go free - he himself was sent to prison for life for six burglaries he committed when he was 16 years old. At the time, he was in 10th grade, upset about his parents' divorce, and subject to the influence of a 27-year-old cousin who woke him several times in the middle of the night, coaxed him out of bed, and sent him into the houses (while he waited outside).
The charges on Kwame's rap sheets show that his, "breaking and entering" -consisted of "entering through unlocked doors" and "open windows." Usually, Kwame simply lifted screens off windows, reached in and took a purse or a wallet off a nearby surface, removed the money, and left the purse or wallet where the owner could find it. The total value of the property stolen during all six burglaries was less than $500.
Kwame's lawyer - to whom his mother paid $2,500 - advised Kwame to plea-bargain in exchange for seven to 10 years instead of the "usual" 14.
NOT REALIZING he had any real options,, Kwame agreed. At Kwame's sentencing, the judge offered to wait until his mother could be present if he wanted. But Kwame - not suspecting what was coming - said, "No. I just want to get it over with right now."
The judge then pronounced Kwame's penalty: two life sentences to be served one after the other.
Kwame Cannon wasn't old enough to vote, buy a six-pack of beer, join the army, or undergo surgery without a parent's permission, but he was considered mature enough to know what he was doing when he waived his right to counsel and agreed to plea-bargain his life away without a parent's knowledge.
Kwame already has served 10 years in prison - his remaining teenage years and all of his young adulthood.
Appeals have failed - even though the lawyer Kwame's mother had hired - a man who smelled like liquor and always sipped from a flask during his meetings with Kwame later was disbarred and began receiving treatment for alcoholism. The next lawyer Ms. Cannon hired filed an appeal that was turned down by North Carolina Supreme Court Judge Thomas Ross, who found that the sentence imposed was not unconstitutional; that counsel for the defense provided adequate assistance; that the petition.er's confessions were freely and voluntarily given; that the petitioner did not request counsel, but did affirmatively waive his right to counsel at the time of his confession, and that therefore, Kwame Cannon was not denied his right to counsel or treated unfairly.
How could this be called justice when the Klansmen who murdered five young activists in a carefully orchestrated crime never spent even one day in prison?
IT'S HARD TO BELIEVE that Kwame's brown skin and his mother's politics - currently she's head of the Greensboro Poor People's Organization - didn't have something to do with the outcome of this case. My guess is that if Kwame Cannon were a middle-class white kid, he wouldn't be in prison today. A "good kid" who gets in trouble is usually given the benefit of the doubt. Often, he's seen as having some problems with which he needs help. But all too often, a black kid is not seen as a "good kid." He is seen as the problem, not someone with a problem who needs help.
Remarkably, Kwame Cannon doesn't sustain bitterness. In openhearted candor, he says that probably he was lucky; what he did was wrong, and if he hadn't been arrested when he was, he might have been shot the next time he entered a house. In prison, he's completed high school and taken additional course work at Wake Technical Community College. If he ever gets out, Kwame says, he wants to work with troubled kids.
Greensboro ministers - both black and white - have urged North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt to grant Kwame executive clemency, and they have offered to sponsor his work in the community. The president of Guilford College also has appealed on Kwame's behalf, pointing out his "exemplary attitude" and comparing the length of Kwame's sentence to much shorter sentences granted young white men convicted o similar crimes.
Even Myra and Deain, his last burglary victim, was so disturbed by Kwame's sentence that she researched his case, visited Kwame in prison, and urged the state to release him.
"I have learned that justice is not a scientific process," she wrote to Gov. Hunt. "I do not think there is any benefit to my community to continue to incarcerate Mr. Cannon. Mr. Cannon is remorseful and apologetic, and he desires the opportunity to work with children at risk of committing the same mistakes he made. This certainly would benefit the Greensboro community..."
Although an appeal for commutation of Kwame Cannon's sentence is pending, the odds are against it. In March 1993, Gov. Hunt denied a previous bid for commutation, saying: "A commutation is granted only in the most extraordinary circumstances. Such circumstances were not present in your case."
It scares me to think that Gov. Hunt may be correct - that Kwame Cannon's case may not be all that extraordinary either in North Carolina or in other states of the union. But if this is true - if our justice system is so unjust and inequitable - then it's a sad reminder of how much work we have to do to make these injustices a thing of the past, not of the present.
Kathryn Watterson, author Of "Not by the Sword: How the Love of a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman," lives in Princeton Township.
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