Jones: Shame on Seth Williams for letting down African Americans

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As Mayor Michael Nutter (left) applauds, Seth William kisses outgoing D.A. Lynne M. Abraham (right) immediately after he is sworn in as district attorney at a ceremony at the Kimmel Center Jan. 4, 2010. Williams was indicted Tuesday.

My heart is broken at the news that Seth Williams has been indicted on charges of corruption. But the pain I feel is not for Williams - a man I've known for several years. Rather, my pain is for Philadelphia's black community.

Having read through the federal indictment that lays out Williams' alleged crimes, the evidence is damning. From text messages between Williams and two business owners that seemingly illustrate quid pro quo relationships, to Williams' admission that he accepted more than $160,000 in gifts, to the fact that even in self-reporting, Williams left out a used luxury car he received from one of his benefactors, the embattled district attorney seems trapped in a web of his own creation.

But Williams is not the only one entangled in his failings. Philadelphia's black community is trapped, as well. We lived through the Frank Rizzo era, where police brutality was both the symptom and the disease. We survived being targeted through illegal stop-and-frisk tactics. We watched high bail imprison our neighbors simply because they are impoverished.

And yet we hoped.

We hoped that by electing a black district attorney, the disparate treatment we suffered in our criminal justice system would cease. We hoped that a prosecutor who looked like us would see himself in our children, would treat us more fairly than his white predecessors did and, at the very least, would see us as human beings.

But Seth Williams failed the black community. Not just through what look to be pay-to-play relationships with businessmen who paid for luxury trips, cars, cash, furniture and more for Williams and his girlfriend. Not just through the actions he allegedly took in exchange for those gifts, such as making one benefactor a special assistant and offering to help another with a criminal case.

No, Williams failed the African American community because, like nearly every white prosecutor before him, he tried to climb the political ladder on the backs of black folks.

When a tragic building collapse killed six people at 22nd and Market in 2013, Williams prosecuted the black contractor and heavy-equipment operator. Both received jail time, while the white architect and developer who hired them were not criminally charged.

When former Attorney General Kathleen Kane pointed out that only black public officials were caught taking money in a sting under her predecessor, Williams went out of his way to say no racism was involved. Then, when Kane dropped the cases, Williams took the extraordinary step of prosecuting those officials himself.

Many in the black community were outraged, because one of those black political figures, Thomasine Tynes, was a former traffic judge in her 70s. She wound up doing jail time for taking a $2,000 bracelet from Tiffany's.

Another legislator caught in the sting operation was state Rep. Louise Williams Bishop, who was forced to resign after taking $1,500 in three separate donations from confidential informant Tyron Ali. Williams Bishop is in her 80s.

Black Philadelphians were even angrier when we learned that Williams - after breaking his neck to prosecute black senior citizens for failing to report gifts worth a few thousand dollars - took gifts worth far more. And, if the federal indictment is to be believed, he exchanged official favors for those gifts.

At a time when the president of the United States thanks black people for not voting, African Americans deserve better from our own. When the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, in a swipe at Black Lives Matter, passes legislation to hide the names of police officers who shoot and kill civilians, African Americans deserve better from our own. At a time when the U.S. attorney general indicates that his Justice Department will no longer monitor police departments that engage in systemic discrimination and brutality against black and brown people, African Americans deserve better from our own.

We looked at Williams as one of our own, but, even as he jailed black and brown people for the same crimes of which he now stands accused, Williams too often did not look back at us.

That saddens me.

I'm sad for the black mothers who've watched their children go to jail for crimes that earn whites probation. I'm sad for the black prisoners who sit in municipal jails because they can't afford to pay their bail. I'm sad for the black defendants who can't afford competent counsel and are thus railroaded by the system.

But most of all, I'm sad for black voters. We looked to Seth Williams to change the system.

It appears the system changed him.

Solomon Jones is the author of 10 books. Listen to him mornings from 7 to 10 on WURD (900-AM).

sj@solomonjones.com

@solomonjones1