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The monsters of Rutherford County

The monsters of Rutherford County October 10, 2021

This is a shocking, engrossing, infuriating tale of cruelty, depraved sanctimony, and industrialized white supremacy: “Black Children Were Jailed for a Crime That Doesn’t Exist. Almost Nothing Happened to the Adults in Charge.”

It’s a tale of inhumanity told with great humanity by Meribah Knight of Nashville Public Radio and Ken Armstrong of ProPublica. You may remember Armstrong as one of the reporters who brought us “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” which earned a Pulitzer and a Polk and eventually became the award-winning Netflix series Unbelievable. This latest report on the piously corrupt juvenile injustice machine in Rutherford County, Tennessee, bears the hallmarks of that piece — the same exhaustively thorough and detailed reporting, beautiful writing, expansive empathy, and unbearable heartbreak.

Read the whole thing and then sit with it a while.

This is breaking news — current events, an ongoing and developing news story. But it is also exactly the kind of history that Tennessee’s white Republican state legislature and school boards are aggressively working to censor, ban, and erase. As Don Moynihan noted on Twitter, “if a teacher used this case as an example of systemic racism, they would be accused of breaking Tennessee law.”

After reading Knight and Armstrong’s exposé, you may wonder whether that phrase — “Tennessee law” — means much of anything other than the monstrous system created to ensure, as Frank Wilhoit put it, that “There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.”

I read this jaw-dropping report shortly after watching Mike Flanagan’s provocative Netflix horror-parable Midnight Mass. And so I was struck by the similarities between the fictional villain of that story, Bev Keane, and the real-world monster preying on children in Rutherford County, “Judge” Donna Scott Davenport. The nature and character of their smug evil is remarkably exact.

It is often said of good investigative journalism that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” I can only hope that the sunlight provided by Knight and Armstrong’s excellent reporting here has the same disinfecting results as the sunrise on Crockett Island.

 

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