Sacrificial lamb 

Condemnation of Little B indicts Georgia's power bro

At ground level, The Condemnation of Little B is a remarkable testimony on behalf of Michael "Little B" Lewis, a 13-year-old ghetto child prosecuted as an adult for the 1997 Fulton County murder of a father killed in front of his children.

Author Elaine Brown begins by telling how she first noticed the case, watching as Atlanta press and politicians rushed to prejudge Lewis, whose guilt they first assumed, and then employed, to promote a new racist stereotype: the juvenile black "superpredator." Seeing these powerful forces enlisted against this lone ghetto child engaged the memories and bullshit-detector of Brown, herself ghetto-born and, among other things, a former chairman of the Black Panther Party. So she volunteered to help "Little B" as an investigator for the defense, a losing cause from which this book nevertheless emerged.

What Brown observed in Lewis' Fulton County criminal case were incident after incident of all-too-mundane evils and a textbook example of the sham that Georgia calls -- perhaps with unintentional pun -- "indigent defense."

As if the injustice of this process were not shameful enough, says Brown, Michael Lewis is innocent. And she makes a compelling case toward that end, both by the force of Lewis' own denials and by hammering at issues and questions that the Fulton County DA's office fought to deflect and obscure. Thus far, however, Brown's attempts to appeal his conviction have been unsuccessful, and "Little B" -- now 18 -- remains in prison, most recently at Phillips State Prison in Buford.

Thus concludes the book's story of Michael Lewis.

But a major portion of The Condemnation of Little B is devoted to a more general yet equally disturbing story of "modern" Georgia.

In the chapter "In the Shadow of the [George] Dome," Brown argues that the priorities of local white authority -- mostly white-owned real estate, financial and corporate interests -- are what really dictate how Atlanta's black neighborhoods are developed or, if they are poor and troublesome, destroyed. Efforts to obscure this power structure and sell Atlanta as a "Black Mecca" is simply the smoke and mirrors of what Brown calls the "New Age racist" agenda.

In short, according to Brown, the 1990s saw the powers-that-be -- blacks and whites in privileged places -- decree that racism had been eliminated so that people could stop fussing about fairness and let everybody get on with the business of accumulating wealth. Foremost among the Georgians who hitched their wagons to this gravy train, says Brown, were Sen. Zell Miller, Michael Thurmond ("chief enforcer of Georgia's merciless welfare reform program"), former Mayor Bill Campbell, Margaret Mitchell House director Mary Rose Taylor and AJC columnist Cynthia Tucker.

In the book's final section ("The Real Crime"), Brown departs from an account of visiting Lewis in prison to relate how the "peculiar institution" of slavery is alive and well in Georgia's prison system, where African-Americans make up a disproportionate two-thirds of the total population.

In this modern slave society, Brown notes how politicians, lobbyists and "consultants" have assumed the role of pre-Civil War slave traders, selling Georgia government on a prison growth industry, where revenue and other benefits accrue from more jails and more prisoners.

According to state and federal reports, in the past 20 years the state's total prison population has more than tripled to over 47,000 state prisoners and an additional 28,000 in county jails. Georgia's per capita rate of "correctional supervision" is the highest in the United States. And in a state where African-Americans make up 28.7 percent of the population, they represent 34 percent of probationers, 44 percent of parolees, and 66 percent of the people in Georgia jails and prisons.

Against this background, the case Brown makes in The Condemnation of Little B force one to ask just what kind of deals are we striking in Georgia. On these issues, Elaine Brown's voice is a clear, deliberate and timely one. Can we afford not to listen?

The Condemnation of Little B by Elaine Brown. Boston: Beacon Press, 2002. $28.50.

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