Ashfield attorney speaks on racial inequities in legal system

  • Ashfield Attorney Stewart “Buz” Eisenberg spoke about racial inequities in the criminal justice system before nearly 40 people at the First Congregational Church in Greenfield on Saturday, May 27, 2017.

  • Ashfield Attorney Stewart “Buz” Eisenberg points to a chart showing how robbery rates have declined over the years. Eisenberg spoke about racial inequities in the criminal justice system before nearly 40 people at the First Congregational Church in Greenfield on Saturday, May 27, 2017.

Recorder Staff
Published: 5/27/2017 6:52:08 PM

GREENFIELD — Speaking before nearly 40 residents Saturday morning, Ashfield attorney Stewart “Buz” Eisenberg remembered one of his life’s most formative experiences, and a high school boy named Jack.

In 1966, Eisenberg was a junior at Lakeside High School in Atlanta. It was the school’s first year enrolling black students, starting with only four.

“The seas parted when they walked down the hallways,” he remembered.

Then there was Jack, a black student who joined the wrestling team with Eisenberg, but who no one wanted to wrestle with. Eisenberg recalled the dreadful things the other students said about Jack.

“One of the comments I remember is ‘I don’t want to put my face in the armpit of some N-word,” he said.

Through becoming Jack’s wrestling partner, Eisenberg learned that Jack was just like everyone else.

“I realized he was a victim of his pigment, the color of his skin, and nothing more,” he said.

Since then, Eisenberg has spent over 30 years as an attorney, and has taught courses in law and government at Greenfield Community College for 16 years. He is known for his work getting eight Guantanamo prisoners released, many of whom were being held without charges.

On Saturday at the First Congregational Church, Eisenberg spoke about racial inequities in the legal system as part of a program offered by Racial Justice Rising. Eisenberg shared numerous stories from his years as an attorney, where he said blacks were targeted by police due to their skin color, or wrongfully accused.

“We have a cultural, social, racial civil war raging in our country,” he began.

One such story dated to the 1980s, when Eisenberg claimed one of his clients was stopped by an Erving officer solely because of his skin color. As the man had been smoking marijuana, he refused to roll the window down for fear the cop might smell it. In response, the officer opened the door and removed the man from the car, leading Eisenberg to have the case thrown out on the grounds of an unlawful search.

Eisenberg referred to the incident as a case of “driving while black.” Then, showing statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics regarding the 4,813 arrest related deaths from 2003 to 2009, Eisenberg noted the disproportionate number of blacks affected.

Of those deaths, 42 percent of those killed were white, 32 percent were black and 20 percent were Hispanic. By comparison, the United States population, as of the 2010 census, was about 64 percent white, 12 percent black and 16 percent Hispanic.

Black arrest related deaths represented over 2.5 times their appropriate percentage of the population, while whites were underrepresented.

“So many officers have been trained by their culture, like us, to see black people as dangerous,” said Racial Justice Rising member Sharin “Shen” Alpert. “There’s some untraining that needs to happen.”

“Our culture really needs a lot of work,” said Carol Letson of Greenfield, commenting on what she called a modern culture of fear. “That has caused us not to trust our neighbors.”

Multiple attendees spoke about incidents of racism they’ve experienced, including Jo Ella “Jada” Tarbutton, of Northampton.

“I’ve seen more racism there that’s got me questioning what decade I’m in,” Tarbutton said, discussing an assault and battery charge against her she felt was unwarranted. “I’ve found it’s not so progressive.”

“We already know about these statistics,” said Bennie Johnson, of Amherst. “We live through it … You need to take action and don’t be silent.”

Eisenberg asked the crowd what should be changed first, the court system or the culture. The crowd emphasized a need for reform on both levels.

“Maybe we need a group of social workers who work for civil rights,” suggested Sherrill Hogan of Charlemont. “We have to work at fixing the system from below.”

Eisenberg encouraged anyone struggling with a civil liberties case to contact the Western Massachusetts Legal Office of the American Civil Liberties Union, located at 39 Main St. in Northampton. Director Bill Newman can be reached by phone at 413-586-9115 or by email at info@aclum.org.


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