City Council President Jason Williams, pictured on July 22, 2020, takes questions from reporters after qualifying to run for district attorney. (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

District attorneys are incredibly powerful. They decide whether or not to charge a person with a crime, what crime to charge them with, and what kind of plea deal to offer. Here in Louisiana, they also decide whether or not to employ the habitual offender law, a formidable tool in extracting guilty pleas.  To a large extent, Louisiana’s soaring incarceration rates over the last four decades are a direct result of the decisions made by past district attorneys.

Outgoing Orleans Parish DA Leon Cannizzaro has continued the “tough-on-crime” policies of his predecessors. Many argue these policies have been both expensive and ineffective. Certainly, they have put Black men and women behind bars at alarming rates for lengthy periods of time. 

Cannizzaro’s past actions demonstrate a willingness to wield power in legally and ethically questionable directions. He has jailed witnesses, issued fake subpoenas, levied guilty pleas from innocent men as a cost of their release, pursued legal action against courtroom adversaries for doing their jobs, and prosecuted cases in which evidence was unlawfully withheld.

What’s more, Cannizzaro has a track record of interfering in elections. When LaToya Cantrell ran for mayor in 2018, Cannizzaro, who forcefully endorsed Cantrell’s opponent, forwarded an “anonymous” complaint to the state Attorney General’s office claiming Cantrell had abused her City Council credit card.  The accusation, made several weeks before the mayoral election, was costly, distracting, and ultimately, yielded no evidence of wrongdoing.    

Similarly, on June 26 of this year, just weeks before qualifying to run for District Attorney, City Council President Jason Williams, was indicted on tax fraud. The indictment came during a pandemic in which grand juries had otherwise been suspended. It was also weeks before campaign season, a time when the Justice Department customarily avoids indicting politicians so as not to appear to be tampering with the electoral process.

But whether or not Leon Cannizzaro played a role in Jason Williams’ indictment is beside the point. Very much to the point is how Williams’ indictment and the Cantrell accusation fall into a broader American tradition of thwarting Black, progressive officials. This tradition has evolved from outright violence to legal intimidation, and it stretches back well over a century, all the way to Reconstruction. 

In 1898, when white supremacists came for the Black politicians in Wilmington, North Carolina, they brought pistols, rifles, and torches. They burned the Black newspaper to the ground, marched on City Hall, and forced three Black councilmembers, at gunpoint, to resign. The men who did this, led by former U.S. Congressman Alfred Moore Waddell, killed at least 60 Black men

This coup d’état was but one brutal event during decades of violence and brutality in a white supremacist backlash against Reconstruction, the era in which Black politicians were first elected to U.S. offices. 

South Carolina’s former Governor Ben Tillman spoke of his efforts to disenfranchise Black Americans from political life with pride.  According to Lerone Bennett’s “Before the Mayflower,” Tillman, whose political reign spanned thirty years through World War I, said, “We have done our level best.  We have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last of them. We stuffed ballot boxes.  We shot them.  We are not ashamed of it.”

Sixty years ago, another backlash followed a new surge in Black political power — the Civil Rights Movement.  African Americans pushed with unparalleled force and restraint demanding their country make good on one of its central claims: to offer liberty and justice for all. This time, when the upper caste of the United States sought to disempower those duly elected from its lowest caste, they left their guns holstered.  They came instead armed with the IRS and the FBI. 

They came for representatives and senators, for mayors and councilmembers, for civil rights leaders, lieutenant governors and law enforcement officials. They came for Dr. Martin Luther King alleging tax fraud. Dr. King testified in his own defense, telling the jury what his tax examiner had told him: that the examiner was under pressure to find fault with King’s returns. 

An all-white jury found Dr. King innocent.  Still, the mere accusation was damning and costly, and it emotionally sapped Dr. King.  In “My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Coretta Scott King said, “Though the accusation was utterly false, it caused Martin more suffering than any other event of his life up to that point.”   

Dr. King’s was not an isolated attack.  In 1977, “A Report on Harassment of Black Elected Officials” found that harassment of Black politicians was widespread and coordinated. The report was undertaken by The National Association of Human Rights Workers, who found that not all Black elected officials were harassed. Rather, politicians targeted were those who posed a threat “to the status quo …  Blacks who are committed to fundamental …  social and economic change.”

Personal testimonies pack the report’s 265 pages. Those harassed served at national, state, and local levels. But it was progressive politicians — “Black elected officials who were most strident and most consistent in acting out… a philosophy of change” — who were the focus of harassment.

Shirley Chisholm represented Brooklyn in the New York State Legislature from 1965-1968 before running for national office. Her slogan was “Unbought and Unbossed.” When Chisholm won, she was the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress. Between November 1973 and April 1974, The New York Times chronicled Chisholm’s troubles. According to the Times, her fellow congressman from Harlem, the legendary Adam Clayton Powell, advised Chisholm: “If you are a simple, quiet black woman and you don’t speak out against the inequities, they’ll leave you alone.  But once you become outspoken, they will get you.”

Chisholm’s career consisted of speaking out against inequities. On Capitol Hill, she hired a congressional staff made up entirely of women, half of them Black.  She helped create the food stamp program and passed a bill to give domestic workers the right to minimum wage. But it was when Chisholm ran for President in 1972 that they came after her.  The federal government charged Chisholm’s campaign with violating federal campaign finance law. 

“I was told I was one of their chief targets because I am a black official, very outspoken, very blunt, with a terrific following among women’s groups, black people, the young people and the Spanish-speaking people,” Representative Chisholm told The New York Times. “I think it’s their way of telling Shirley Chisholm, ‘You better be careful and draw yourself in.’”

In a 1976 article for The Nation, New Orleans native son Jason Berry chronicled a wave of bullying by the IRS against southern, Black Leaders.  In just three years, Berry writes, “more than fifty prominent members of black liberal alliances… have been audited or investigated, lied to, harassed, divested of many dollars in attorney’s or accountants’ fees.” Berry reported that in several southern states, “the IRS functions, in effect, as an arm of political systems which are trying by economic means to keep blacks out of power.” 

By no means did this practice end in the 1970s.  Writing for The Crisis magazine in 1992, David Hatchett catalogues then-recent accounts of undercutting Black political power with weaponry such as FBI investigations, Justice Department leaks to predominantly white-staffed newspapers, and death threats.

More than 25 years later, in December 2019, The Guardian reported on a spate of attempts to overturn elections and remove Black elected officials in Mississippi and Georgia. “When the white majority fails to maintain the status quo through a democratic election,” the Guardian reports, “there’s still a way to undermine the shift in power.” Methods include vigorously prosecuting even “frivolous” charges of fraud.

Of course, the IRS of today is a very different agency from the IRS weaponized against Black politicians in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s.  Today’s IRS has seen its budget decimated, greatly limiting its workforce and how many audits it can conduct.  The result: the wealthy are audited a lot less. 

In May 2019, ProPublica reported good news for the wealthy: “millionaires in 2018 were about 80% less likely to be audited than they were in 2011.”  Also, in 2019, The Amsterdam News reported that African Americans are audited by the IRS more than any other group. 

Accounts of harassment point to the lingering damages of merely being accused, regardless of guilt or innocence. “A Report on Harassment of Black Elected Officials” describes a cascade of consequences — which stretch far beyond the political wounds of losing an election or being forced to resign. 

There is the toll of time and energy required to combat charges and accusations.  There is one’s physical and emotional response to having one’s integrity impugned. There is the fear for one’s safety and for one’s family’s safety.  And, of course, there is the cost.  Not just in attorney fees, but in a damaged credit rating and the loans these politicians will no longer qualify for. 

What’s more, the stigma of being accused will follow these politicians. It will get in the way of other jobs, of advancing one’s career, of accessing more power.  “The talent of some of the most capable, energetic, and committed persons in the nation is thereby lost,” states “A Report on Harassment of Black Elected Officials.” Faced with these scenarios, many Black officials think twice before speaking their minds.

Perhaps, the report muses, this “is precisely what is intended by the perpetrators of the conspiracies – to make the position of an elected official so frustrating, so unattractive, so anguish-filled, and so intolerable that Blacks quit, or refrain from running for re-election, or decline to seek office in the first place.”