New Orleans Newspaper Releases Shameful Attack On Community Leader

Several days a week, columnist James Gill exemplifies the mediocre writing, faulty arguments, and ignorance of basic facts that too often pass for commentary in The New Orleans Advocate. Gill’s work is a symptom of a deeper prejudice from the management of our local media. New Orleans is still 60% African-American, but you wouldn’t know it from the mostly white staff and management of The New Orleans Advocate, or Gill’s former outlet, The Times-Picayune.

Gill was far out of his depth on June 1, when he attacked Norris Henderson, a passionate advocate and reformer who spent over 27 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit.

Henderson is widely recognized as one of the nation’s most brilliant and dedicated leaders in the field of criminal justice reform. He has lectured at Harvard Law School and appeared regularly on news reports from the New York Times to Al Jazeera. As Bill Quigley, director of the Law Clinic at Loyola, noted in response to Gill’s article, “In going after Norris Henderson, Mr. Gill and The Advocate remind us why our state is number one in the world in arresting and incarcerating its citizens.”

Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, is among many national leaders who have been mentored by Henderson. “Anyone who knows Norris or has worked with him immediately understands that he is a man of great integrity,” says Warren. “When I became the head of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Norris was one of the first people I contacted for advice on building a strong, national criminal justice focus in our advocacy.”

Warren adds that Henderson is “an activist, guide, friend, mentor and possesses a vision for freedom that is both precious and strong. Norris Henderson is a shining example of what we as people who believe in justice should be aspiring to.”

Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of The Advancement Project, is another national leader who has been profoundly influenced by Henderson. “Norris has worked tirelessly to guarantee that people have second chances and to improve the lives of people and families impacted by mass incarceration,” she says. “His voice is critical in this work and shouldn’t be silenced by distractors.”

Even as 27 years of his life were being stolen by the state, Henderson had an effect far beyond the prison walls. He coordinated statewide electoral campaigns from behind bars with the Angola Special Civics Project, which organized by reaching out to family members of those incarcerated. Since his release, Henderson has continued his tireless work for justice, taking a national leadership role on campaigns like Ban The Box, which seeks to stop discrimination against the formerly incarcerated in job, school, and housing applications.

Jon Wool, New Orleans director of the VERA Institute of Justice, says that Henderson is “a selfless advocate for justice and safety for all New Orleanians,” and calls the attacks on him part of a “culture of demonization that is on the rise in this country.”

“We all should be helping to amplify his voice,” adds Wool, “Rather than trying to silence it.”

Gill’s attack came as Henderson took the lead in a historic package of criminal justice reforms recently signed by Governor Edwards, while also playing an important role in fighting against expansion of Orleans Parish Prison and working to rein in the abuses committed by District Attorney Cannizzaro. Perhaps the column, which was written without calling Henderson for a response, came at the request of political players threatened by these reforms. Gill did not respond to an email request for answers to these and other questions raised here.

This is not the first time that Gill has used his platform for shameful attacks in an attempt to derail critical civil rights work or criminal justice reform. When the Justice Department announced that they would not be pursuing charges against the officer that killed Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge last year, Gill began his column by complaining that Sterling had children by more than one mother, then went on to offer further evidence of Sterling’s supposed bad character by saying that he was staying in a homeless shelter, and was “a big, strong ex-con,” as though this information justified killing Mr. Sterling.

Despite writing regularly about the criminal justice system, Gill appears to be ignorant about how it functions. In his columns he regularly defaults to the myth that everyone in prison should be there. Writing about a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Louisiana’s death row prisoners, he called them “the worst of a depraved bunch.” Such ignorance is particularly egregious in Louisiana, which is fourth in the nation for death row prisoner exonerations in the modern death penalty era. New Orleans leads the nation in exonerations for all crimes per capita.

Even these statistics barely scratch the surface. Most people who have been wrongfully convicted, like Henderson, are not exonerated. In fact, the Supreme Court has ruled that proof of innocence is not enough for someone to be freed from prison. New Orleans’ sky-high rate of exonerations, along with our documented history of police abuse and prosecutorial corruption, is proof that our city’s law enforcement regularly targeted African-Americans without regard for truth or innocence. Gill has written about prosecutorial misconduct, but seems unable to do the math in Henderson’s case.

Part of the reason Gill knows so little about our criminal justice system may be that he does not live full-time in New Orleans. Gill is paid to pontificate on local politics even as he writes many of his columns from England, where he grew up and increasingly spends his time.

However, even when Gill writes about the criminal justice system in his own country, he is not much more informed. Writing about the protests and uprising that followed a police killing in North London, Gill wrote, “it is unlikely that most of the rioters cared much about the slain suspect.” Perhaps Gill is so missing in empathy for victims of law enforcement violence, he cannot even imagine that others might care about someone killed by police. As he observes masses of people are taking to the streets in response to a killing, Gill projects his own feelings onto the protestors.

Gill has shown sympathy for certain people accused of criminal acts, particularly when those individuals are in his rarified circles. When his friend Michael Sartisky was fired from Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities after a “pattern and practice” of sexual harassment that went on for at least fifteen years, Gill wrote multiple columns defending his friend, referring to Sartisky’s “long, and distinguished, association with the LEH.”

The fact that The Advocate believes there are no African-American New Orleanians qualified to comment on local politics, but gives a platform to UK resident James Gill, shows what the management of the paper thinks about the majority of this city’s residents.

Jordan Flaherty is supervising producer of the Laura Flanders Show, and the author of the book Floodlines: Community and Resistance From Katrina to the Jena Six . He can be reached at: solidarity@gmail.com. Read other articles by Jordan, or visit Jordan's website.