Black Teacher May Get 15 Years in Prison for Cutting in Line at Wal-Mart

Think about the story of Heather Ellis, then think about the fact that half of the people in the United States prison system are Black folks, even though we make up just 13 percent of the population. Then, ask yourself if our criminal justice system is operating the way it's supposed to operate.

Three years ago, Heather Ellis, a college student at the time, was waiting on line at Wal-Mart. She decided to get into another line, then got into a verbal altercation with customers. The cops were called. And she is facing a possible 15-year sentence in prison.

Black folks keep focusing on Ellis' background — she's a young school teacher with no record. Seemingly a good person, right? While that is true, my point is that should be irrelevant. Even if Ellis were a convicted felon, even if she had been stuffing DVDs down her pants, she should still not be facing 15 years in prison. Our criminal justice system is supposed to work for all of us, not just the good Blacks, not just those of us with character above reproach. 

If you believe Ellis' side of the story, she got out of her original line at Wal-Mart to join her cousin in a line that was moving more quickly. When she did, Ellis was pushed by a white customer, hassled by store employees, called racial slurs and physically mistreated by white police officers.

If you believe law enforcement's side of the story, Ellis shoved merchandise off the conveyor belt, became belligerent when she was confronted, told the police she would beat them if they touched her, refused to leave the store and resisted arrest.

The whole thing is strikingly similar to the Henry Louis Gates Jr. story. A Black man (in this case, woman) sees the situation through one lens, while a white officer (in this case, white officers and white Wal-Mart customers) see things through a different lens. Back then, I argued that perhaps Gates did get angry, perhaps he did say something to that officer that he should not have said, but the reality is that calling a cop a racist is not against the law, disturbing the peace and causing a public nuisance are not things you can do inside your own home. In this case, even if Ellis did resist arrest, she still should not be facing a 15-year sentence.

Once again, law enforcement is concentrating on how someone reacted, and they are not addressing the concept of a punishment that fits the crime. Let them present any evidence of someone with no criminal record receiving a 15-year sentence for resisting arrest. Force them to release the Wal-Mart surveillance video, which the district attorney has refused to do. 

Let's, for the sake of argument, assume everything Ellis says is false and everything law enforcement says is correct. She resisted arrest. She yelled. She shoved someone else's merchandise to the floor. None of that justifies the punishment they're seeking.

The prosecution of Heather Ellis is unfair, merciless and, I think, constitutionally illegal. It is Jena 6 all over again.

Unfair prosecutions and public debates about them are the lynching parties of the 21st century. This is how they teach us to know our place. And this is what they try to do to Heather Ellis and the rest of us when we speak up.

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