(See below for the updates.)
The court of public opinion is weighing in a week after a Baton Rouge judge was accused of using racial slurs inside a Highland Rd. restaurant and many are varied on their opinions of the claims.
It’s a six letter word that has sent shockwaves across the community. “We are here to stand in solidarity with Ms. Johnson,” local NAACP president, Mike McClanahan said.
A Baton Rouge woman posted on Facebook a week ago that Baton Rouge Judge Mike Erwin allegedly hurled the “N-word” at her several times during a heated argument over a seat at Sammy’s Grill on Highland Rd. The restaurant has since banned the judge, but on Monday afternoon, the accuser, Kaneitra Johnson, along with her attorneys, community activists, and a host of elected officials say they want the judge to step down immediately.
“We feel that it’s impossible for Judge Erwin to serve the people of East Baton Rouge Parish in a fair and equitable manner,” said Rev. Reginald Pitcher.
One of Johnson’s attorneys said they are filing a formal complaint against the judge through the judiciary commission. The group wants a thorough investigation into the claims, but in the meantime, they say Erwin should be suspended. “We all have the right to be able to be heard and to be given respect and dignity by any judicial official, especially on or off the bench,” said Erin Rigsby, one of Johnson’s attorneys.
So far, Erwin has remained silent and on Monday, when given the opportunity to speak, Johnson declined as well. Her attorney said the matter is still too fresh.
“Honestly at this time she’s a bit too emotional to address any questions,” Rigsby added.
So the whole gang shows up to turn this into the next Alton Sterling incident after a week of it simmering on social media.
We looked into the incident in question, and from talking to several people who were there it sounds a lot like both sides acted badly. Kaneitra Johnson, who is far less than the ideal victim in a case like this, was with a large group of people who apparently walked into a crowded Sammy’s on a Friday night and asked for a table. Since it would take a long time to accomodate so many people at one table, they faced a wait of at least an hour, so all of them packed into the cramped bar area where there really isn’t much room for people to stand around. Depending on whose account is given credence, things got testy when members of Johnson’s party began stealing the seats of the bar regulars as they got up to go to the bathroom, and Erwin, who has been a legendary figure of sorts as he’s held court from a stool on one side of that bar, began grousing about the takeover.
Whether he actually said the word Johnson accuses him of saying or not is unknown. Sammy’s has banned him, but they’ve done that before – and given the height and heat of the racial bonfires in Baton Rouge at the moment, the last thing the management likely wants is offended black people looking in on the bar at Sammy’s on Highland to see if Erwin is available to receive a piece of their minds. This sort of thing isn’t particularly good for business regardless of what actually happened.
You would think that, the restaurant being as crowded as it was, there would be some corroboration of Johnson’s version of the incident – not that Erwin was ugly to her; nearly everyone agrees he probably was. We’re told Erwin was irritated at the prospect of someone from Johnson’s group stealing his seat if he got up to use the bathroom. But nobody who was there has come forward and confirmed Erwin actually used the N-word, so this is merely an allegation.
And furthermore, there is this…
Which is an indication of just how lousy a victim she is. Johnson stole some $75,000 from a company she worked for a few years ago and was put on judicial probation. Whether it was that case or another one which landed her in Erwin’s courtroom at the 19th Judicial District Criminal Court we’re not sure, but as witnesses go she’s not the best.
And this isn’t the best bit of public messaging we’ve seen…
The race-fueled allegation has sparked a debate online with some questioning the claims, some praising Johnson for her bravery, and others bringing up a past post from 2013 where it appears Johnson herself used a version of the “N-word” on Facebook.
Less than an hour after the press conference, Johnson took to a 9News Facebook page, where it appears she defended her alleged use of the word, saying, “The word used towards me was ‘n-i-*-*-e-r’ which has been documented as a racial slur.. the term I used is often used in the black community.”
9News reached out to Johnson’s attorney to clarify her meaning of the Facebook post, but has not yet heard back. A spokesperson for the Louisiana Supreme Court released a statement to 9News saying, “We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of a complaint.”
“The term I used is often used in the black community” is an admission that there are things black people can say but white people can’t. You need a lot higher standard than that if you want to remove an elected official from his job based on mean remarks he may have made in an argument at a bar.
In any event, there is a procedure to remove a sitting judge. One must file a complaint with the Louisiana Judiciary Commission, which will investigate and hold hearings into the complaint and then decide how to dispose of the case. The LJC will have evidentiary standards in place, and those standards will amount to much more than the he-said, she-said presentation that we’ve seen thus far. If there are corroboratory witnesses to Johnson’s accusation, then we’ll find that out.
But now that the NAACP and the rest of the Gang Of The Perpetually Aggrieved have lined up behind Johnson and demanded Erwin step down, it’s playing out precisely as we predicted a week ago. Erwin keeps his mouth shut and waits for the storm to blow over so that he can, he hopes, finish out his term and retire quietly in 2020, and meanwhile he becomes a villain the Gang Of The Perpetually Aggrieved presents to others in Baton Rouge and asks “will you join us in demanding his resignation, or are you a racist as well?” The first of those others is District Attorney Hillar Moore, with whom Erwin has been longtime friends, and next is East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux. And it’s not going to be acceptable, if the Perpetually Aggrieved gin up enough hysteria about this incident, to just ask that the established procedure be followed and an objective judgement be made. That, after all, is how the institutional racism gets protected in Baton Rouge – if you can’t see that accusation coming, your eyes aren’t open.
After all, the Perpetually Aggrieved managed to put one of their own in office as mayor-president, and it’s only a matter of time before they’re able to control, if not nominate, a new police chief. Getting a judgeship and perhaps a district attorney and – dare they dream? – the sheriff – would be an outstanding harvest from a few wayward racial epithets on a beer-soaked Friday night.
But a Sheriff’s Office follow-up report, apparently completed after a staffer for Erwin complained to sheriff’s deputies about phone calls demanding that the judge address the allegations, didn’t come up with anyone who could corroborate Johnson’s allegations.
The report says that a deputy working at Sammy’s Grill on the night of the incident, Feb. 3, noted that a male patron told him the judge directed “racial language” toward the patron. But in a follow-up conversation with another deputy, the man — whose name is redacted from the report — denied ever making those comments to the original investigating deputies.
One patron, described as a regular at Sammy’s Grill, told deputies that Erwin remained polite despite Johnson and her party acting in what he described as a “very vocal and aggressive” manner.
According to the report, released Tuesday morning, deputies examined surveillance footage from the restaurant to identify others near Erwin and Johnson during the altercation.
Erwin told deputies he got in a dispute with Johnson after she sat in a stool he was trying to save for a friend, the report says. Erwin said she retorted that seating was “first come, first serve” and said they argued but denied using racial slurs during the conversation.
In a written statement provided just after the Sheriff’s Office released the report, Erwin said, “I never have, never would and never will utter the language I was accused of saying.”
UPDATE #2: Here is Erwin’s full statement…
And just to give you an idea of what this incident has done to Baton Rouge, here’s something from the comments under the WBRZ report on the sheriff’s report and Erwin’s statement…