To Sheriff Harry Lee, the logic was simple: Blacks in white neighborhoods were “up to no good.” So he would order his men to stop and search any blacks who were on the wrong side of town.
Lee, sheriff of New Orleans’ suburban Jefferson Parish, gave that order Tuesday. What he got in return was a fusillade of protests so vehement that he had to rescind the order the next day, saying he was himself a member of a minority and anything but a racist.
But black leaders in the community said Wednesday that the damage has already been done, that racial polarization had set in, and the American Civil Liberties Union is calling for Lee’s resignation, despite the recantation.
“He’s brought national shame on Louisiana,” said Martha Kegel, executive director of the Louisiana branch of the ACLU. “A public official cannot release that kind of poison and remain in office.”
The furor over the sheriff, himself of Chinese-American descent, began Tuesday afternoon with a press conference in which Lee announced that more than $10,000 in overtime pay had been approved for 45 officers to cruise residential areas and commercial parking lots. Then he said blacks would be a primary target of the stepped-up patrols, citing statistics that 79% of all robberies in November were committed by blacks and that 73% of all burglary victims were white.
“If there are some young blacks driving a car late at night in a predominantly white area, they will be stopped,” Lee said. “If you live in a predominantly white area and two blacks are in a car behind you, there’s a pretty good chance they’re up to no good.
“We will stop everybody that we think has no business in the neighborhood,” Lee said. “It’s obvious that two young blacks driving a rinky-dink car in a predominantly white neighborhood--I’m not talking about on the main thoroughfare, but if they’re on one of the side streets and they’re cruising around--they’ll be stopped.”
Lee said he expected some criticism from the black community for his new policy, and criticism is just what he got.
Chief among his critics was Shirley Porter, president of the New Orleans chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
“I was really outraged. I couldn’t believe what I heard,” she said. “This, in the 1980s, seemed so unreal. It was unbelievable. It was like a nightmare to me.”
Porter said that she had talked to Lee on Wednesday and that the sheriff had asked to meet with members of her organization to show them that he is not a racist. She said that she agreed to the meeting but that she is still wary of what he might do to blacks in the future.
“We’ll listen to him, but we will be watching Sheriff Lee and his deputies in Jefferson Parish. He has put some polarization in this community.”
Another critic was Wilma Irvin, a black councilwoman from the Jefferson Parish town of Kenner, who said that “the harm has already been done.
‘Like South Africa’
“The comments he made were to the point that no black should go to a white community,” she said. “That’s like South Africa.”
And Kegel of the ACLU said that, even with the recantation, she was still calling for Lee’s resignation. She said the sheriff’s statements made “civilian racists feel they have the tacit approval of the parish’s top law enforcement officer to act out their racism.”
“This man is known for saying outrageous things, but no one can believe he was stupid and ignorant enough to say this kind of thing,” she said.
Lee felt the sting of those remarks and others like them. On Wednesday morning, he called another press conference and said the plan to stop blacks driving through white neighborhoods had been ditched. He said, instead, that his officers would stop anyone for probable cause, based on information on hand that they might be suspected of having committed past crimes.
Apologizing “to the many people in our community that I may have inadvertently offended,” Lee said he is not a racist or a bigot, and had, in fact been credited with the peaceful integration of New Orleans restaurants more than 20 years ago.
He said that as a federal magistrate, he granted relief in more civil rights cases than anyone else in the country. And he said that, on Christmas Eve several years ago, he had helped to lodge, feed and clothe 60 blacks left homeless by a fire.
“I am a minority and I know intimately what prejudice is, having been a victim of it most of my life,” he said. “It distresses me greatly that I have been characterized as a bigot and a racist because I know in my own heart how it feels to be treated differently.”
That offered little solace to Porter of the NAACP.
“Harry Lee put us on the map in two days,” she said ruefully.