Henry Clay Johnson of Jefferson didn't like the military.

Johnson was drafted in the fall of 1917 amid the outbreak of WWI and along with a long list of other local young men, he was sent to Camp Gordon for military training in September that year.

But Johnson apparently didn't like the Army life and left Camp Gordon in early 2018, returning to Northeast Georgia and farm work.

As an alleged deserter, Johnson was bound to be targeted. The government had placed a bounty of $50 on the return of deserters to the military camp. That was a lot of money in those days.

Before being drafted, Johnson had worked for G.H. (Herbert) and E.B. (Bird) Martin of Arcade. The Martin brothers heard of Johnson's flight from military service and decided he needed to be captured.

They went to Jefferson city marshal M.H. Bailey, who deputized them. The three contacted federal officials who told them to see if they could capture Johnson.

The three men, along with a fourth man, heard that Johnson was working on a farm in southern Clarke County. On Wednesday, May 9, 1918, the four set off to find him.

As they were questioning a young man in the Tuckston community of South Clarke about the whereabout of the deserter, Johnson road up on a mule.

Herbert Martin pulled a pistol and stood in front of the mule, telling Johnson to stop. Johnson slid off the mule and ran for the back of a nearby wagon, his hand reportedly on his hip.

Both Martin brothers fired their guns; the bullet from one of the weapons hit Johnson in the back, exiting his stomach. He ran for a short distance, then collapsed and died.

•••

I tell this story because it echoes today's news events in ways that are troubling.

Johnson was a black man who was killed by white "officers," something that continues to resonate in today's world.

Both Martin brothers claimed self-defense in the killing of Johnson and were exonerated in a coroner's inquest held the day after the shooting. (They had already moved the body before the coroner was contacted.)

There was probably much more to the story than what was reported and said at the inquest.

In the early 20th Century, a lot of black men were killed by white men, often men who had been "deputized" as part of a posse to hunt them down.

The defense by white men for killing a black man in that time was, almost without exception, said to be self-defense.

Very few white men, let alone law officers, were ever held accountable for shooting a black man in that era. Lynchings are what we often think about from the early 20th Century, but there were many more "routine" killings of black men that were considered to be "legal." 

Johnson had been shot in the back, fired on by two white men who had previously been his employer. According to court records, Herbert Martin had also been involved in another shooting of a farm hand.

The underlying truth of the Johnson shooting can be found in this sentence from a news story of the incident:

"The verdict of acquittal, it is stated, was based mainly on the evidence that the negro was a deserter from the United States Army, the penalty of which is death."

In other words, Johnson was a deserter and deserved to die, so who really cares how it happened.

•••

I recalled that old incident this week as a Minneapolis jury considered if a white policeman should be held accountable for the death of George Floyd last year.

That incident, which was recorded on camera and made international news, led to a summer of protests across the nation. Calls for justice and a stop to the deaths of black men by police began a protest movement of the kind that had not been seen in this country since the anti-war protests of the 1960s and 1970s.

On trial is policeman Derek Chauvin, who put his knee on Floyd's neck, slowly killing him as video cameras rolled.

As I write this, we don't yet know the verdict. While Chauvin may not have intentionally killed Floyd, his actions were clearly wrong. There was no reason to use excessive force with Floyd on the ground and in handcuffs. 

•••

The underlying question in the Floyd case, and in the other high-profile cases of black men dying by police force, is whether or not these incidents are example of individual bad actors, or are part of a deeper, systemic policing problem.

A lot of people would argue that it's the latter; that seething racism infects law enforcement decision-making and that the deaths stem from an institutional attitude that black men's lives aren't important.

Certainly, the historical narrative suggests that's the case. In the broad, historical context, black men were treated more harshly in our criminal justice system than their white counterparts. There's no disputing that, or that incidents like the one involving Henry Clay Johnson happened frequently.

But that system of racial abuse began change following the Civil Rights movement as juries became diverse and police departments began hire minority cops.

It would be wrong to say that today's criminal justice system is no different than it was 50 or 100 years ago — it has changed.

•••

Even so, there are undoubtedly problems in law enforcement, just as there are in any business.

Specifically, there is a lack of accountability in some law enforcement agencies where bad actors just get passed along. When under pressure, many law enforcement agencies tend to circle the wagons, protect their own rather than have a transparent accounting of what may have been bad behavior.

In addition, law enforcement needs more money for better pay, more psychological testing and better training. There's too much turnover in law enforcement and too much pressure on the average beat cops. More needs to be done to hire better people who have the mental and emotional capacity to deal with the inherent stresses of the job.

And there needs to be changes in policing laws that bans, or limits, the use of chokeholds and that allows bad cops to be sued more easily.

•••

Despite those obvious institutional issues, I'm not convinced the popular narrative that institutional bias it to blame for the disproportional number of deaths of black men during violent police encounters. The statistical data is unclear on that point, as are the individual circumstances that led to those deaths.

There may well be institutional biases in policing, but whether that's the cause of these deadly police encounters isn't clear.

What is clear is that a lot of calls that lead to deadly police encounters start with relatively minor incidents.

The call that led to the George Floyd encounter was about a counterfeit $20 bill. The death of Eric Garner in 2014 in New York under similar circumstances involved Garner selling cigarettes on the street illegally. 

Why do these minor calls end up with someone dying?

I suspect it has more to do with individual bad cops who get angry during the encounter and overreact. Bad cops who don't have the patience and temperament to deal with the stresses they encounter on the street should be weeded out. That should be done before someone dies, not after it's too late.

There may be racial bias in some law enforcement agencies, but the narrative that all police agencies are racially bias and deserve to be "defunded" is wrong.

Let's get rid of the bad cops and improve the overall accountability of law enforcement, but there's no reason to throw all cops under the bus to do that.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstream Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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