The Race Factor

Were the Tennessee Waltz defendants "profiled" by the government or by themselves?

| June 14, 2006

We all saw the demonstrators in the plaza in front of the federal building last week, their signs and shouts accusing the government of both racial and political bias in its prosecution of Roscoe Dixon.

Racial, in that former state senator Dixon and most of the others accused in the Tennessee Waltz scandal are African Americans. Political, in that most of them are Democrats. And a little conversation with one of the protesters, a friendly enough gentleman, fused those two categories together into a third: Ford Democrats.

The idea was based on the fact that Dixon, state senator Kathryn Bowers, and (to say the least) Dixon's former Senate colleague John Ford were prominent among those caught in the FBI sting. These were all members of the diminished but still influential political constellation that was brought into being 30-odd years ago by former Congressman Harold Ford Sr., who now resides in Florida and intervenes in local affairs only once in a while.

One of those occasions, under way as we speak, is that of his son and political heir, Harold Ford Jr., squeaky-clean and scandal-free and currently attempting a U.S. Senate race from the springboard of the 9th District congressional seat he inherited from his father back in 1996.

Though there is still a rough cleavage in inner-city Memphis politics between forces loyal to the Fords and those partial to Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, the old rivalry lacks the fire. It is well understood that Harold Jr. aspires to national prominence, not local, and that even a defeat in the Senate race would not consign him to mucking about in the trenches of local ward politics.

Yes, there are members of the extended Ford family in this or that political office, and a new generation of hopefuls running for yet others, but the simple truth is that "Ford Democrats," pending the outcome of that Senate race, are not so much a political force as they are a faction -- one of three more or less co-equal ones -- in the Shelby County Democratic Party of today.

It is doubtful that the FBI, or the U.S. attorney's office, either, is interested in mixing it up with the Del Gills of the world to determine the pecking order of that embattled satrapy.

To what, then, do we owe the preponderance of Ford-faction African-American Memphis Democrats in the ranks of Tennessee Waltz indictees? Racism? Innate disposition? Political targeting?

Answer: none of the above. One need look no further than Barry Myers, the Dixon factotum whose motor-mouthed extravagance in the FBI's surveillance recordings -- even more than his testimonies, past- and future-tense, for the government -- is crucial to the shaping of the Tennessee Waltz's cast of characters.

When "L.C. McNeil," the pseudonymous FBI agent posing as vice president of the bogus electronics firm E-Cycle Management, asks the counsel of Myers, an early contact, about likely collaborators in pushing the firm's legislation in return for payoffs, it is Myers, not the FBI or the TBI or the U.S. attorney's office, who determines the identity of the eventual stingees.

He scornfully advises the agent to stay away from "the white boys" when several white legislators, mainly Republican ones, are mentioned. But he's an equal-opportunity excluder; he also steers the agents away from the likes of Joe Towns, an independent-minded black Memphis Democrat, whom he dismisses as a "nonentity."

Myers is insistent that "E-Cycle" confine the spread of its lucre to a relatively small group of legislative intimates. These, he assures the presumed E-Cycle executives, are the "niggas" you can trust. It's our thing, he tells the agents, or, as one would say in Italian, cosa nostra.

There, rather than through some imagined predatory scheme of the federal government's, is the likely explanation of how the subjects of the Tennessee Waltz sting ended up being profiled. There may be further organized protests, but the most effective appeals on these defendants' behalf are more likely to be heard in courtrooms than in public plazas.

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