by Ted Kirkland
(Originally Published in the Buffalo Criterion newspaper on July 11, 2009 and July 18, 2009)
My relationship with Curtis Byers began when it became apparent, to me, that this Black youth, 17 year old, was being lynched by the white media and intimidated by a crowd of firefighters in blue uniforms, similar to Klansmen in white sheets. So, I wrote Curtis the following letter to let him know that contrary to news reports, he was not alone, that if no one else cared, I do. I sent the following letter to the Erie County Holding Center where he was being held for violating his probation.
May 21, 2009
Dear Mr. Byers:
Contrary to news reports and the actions of the Buffalo Firefighters showing up in court to intimidate you and the judge; you are not the monster they would like you to believe you are. Yes, you have made mistakes and so have most people, some more serious than others, but you are young enough to turn your life around. Remember your life is in your hands.
But my reason for writing is to let you know that I was appalled that the judge allowed a mob of firefighters in his courtroom to intimidate a young 17-year-old Black boy. Their actions were reminiscent of a time, in my lifetime, that I hoped would have ended.
I do not know the circumstances of the fight you had at Williamsville High School , but I do know how difficult it can be for a young Black minority among a white majority. I know there is another side to the story other than what has appeared in the white media. Although I work for the Black media, I am not seeking a statement from you, I am only concerned about your constitutional rights, and I am planning to attend the next court session on June 5, 2009 to witness the court proceedings.
Meanwhile, stay strong. I will be the 75-year-old Black man in the audience. Sincerely, Theodore Kirkland
Byers was scheduled to be sentenced by New York State Supreme Court Justice, M. William Boller on June 5, 2009 for violating probation. He was originally sentenced to four years probation for setting fire to an abandoned house where a Buffalo firefighter lost a leg fighting the fire at this abandoned building in a neighborhood where too many eye-sores await the torch, bulldozers, or both. It is a neighborhood where children use abandoned buildings as places to play; the drug pusher to stash drugs; hangout for junkies; and shelter for the homeless. The city allows abandoned buildings to multiply: In return, the city receives federal aide for demolition contracts that are awarded to political supporters. But Byers sentence of probation was not pleasing to firefighters.
After serving a period of probation without incident, Curtis became involved in an altercation with Michael Lang, a white 17-year-old fellow student at Williamsville South High School . Michael may have provoked the incident when he is said to have pushed a chair into Curtis during the verbal altercation[all italics by the bullet].
Byers is said to have responded with a volley of punches, leaving Michael requiring medical treatment. Curtis was charged with probation violation on the complaint of Michael’s mother, for the assault against her son. Politics would then enter when Shelly Schratz, Michael’s aunt, an Amherst Town Board member became the spokes person for Michael.
The white media took up the cause and went on a crusade to lynch Byers. His picture was front page or the City Region front page for several days in the Buffalo News, and the television lead off story. Byers joined previous lynching victims as Ulner Still, Malcolm Watson, Varner Harris Jr., and Terrol Massey. They were all Black males, and their victims were white.
Most of the information used by the media, to lynch Byers was redundant. It was used to engage and enrage the white majority and firefighters dissatisfied with Byers’ original sentence of probation giving him by Judge Boller, last year. Responding to the media’s lynching crusade firefighters appeared in court on May 4, 2009, when Byers took the customary not guilty plea for probation violation; and again on May 15, 2009 when he pled guilty to violating probation. Following his guilty plea, Judge Boller set June 5, for sentencing, the firefighters vowed to return for his sentencing on June 5, 2009.
One needs only to observe the handing of two present cases involving white teenagers, the first in Wilson, NY and the other in Lockport, NY to notice the overt bias in the reporting of the Byers case. Although the alleged crimes of the white teenagers were, sexual abuse, and murder respectively, they suffered no media lynching, no over exposure of their pictures. In some news reports, the subject’s pictures weren’t publicized, nor their names. Such careful reporting to insure constitutional rights and humane treatment should be the mandate of each news story regardless of race, but the white media apparently cannot stop perpetuating white supremacy.
It was 9:25, on the morning of June 5, 2009 when I arrived at Part 13 where Justice Boller was to sentence Byers for probation violation. The firefighters were there in full blue uniform. Seeing them in mass numbers wearing the uniforms that represented them as employees of the city of Buffalo, I wondered if they were violating policy, or was the city of Buffalo supportive of their racist effort to intimidate the court? A numbers of firefighters were standing in front of the courtroom door apparently to be sure to enter first.
At precisely 9:30, court security personnel opened the door to Part 13. As if planned, and agreed to, the firefighters that had blocked the door entered the courtroom and the first 13 of them boldly walked, uninterrupted with the courage in numbers, directly to the jury box; took seats as if they were jury members. The one person of color looked uncomfortable and out of place. Two or three other persons of color were there in uniform.
As other firefighters entered the courtroom, some took seats; others ignored the vacant seats opting to line themselves up against the rear wall of the courtroom, facing the Judge’s bench. None of the firefighters were challenged by court security personnel. About ten minutes later Judge Boller entered the courtroom, took his position behind the bench, glanced around the courtroom; and to my dismay said nothing to the demonstrators in the jury box and those lined along the rear wall. His only reaction was a slight nod of recognition toward them. The stage was set.
Shortly afterwards, Byres came in accompanied by his white court appointed attorney, Francis C. Amendola. They came through a door on the left side of the courtroom. When they entered the courtroom, the jury of blue uniforms was directly in front of them, and the Judge was to their left. They had to turn left to face him. The courtroom audience was behind them.
Standing there with his lawyer at his right, Curtis reminded me of so many other Black men who find themselves in a hostile environment surrounded by white men in authority. His attorney’s only words to the court were to inform the Judge that his client had a statement to read before sentencing. I am sure Byers and his lawyer knew that this portion of the proceeding was perfunctory since his sentence had already been pre-determined by the media and the mob of firefighters; the only role of the judge was to announce the sentence and sign the prison commitment papers. Byers read his statement with emotion and courage.
Byers’ Statement to the court
Dear Judge Boller
I want to thank you and I appreciate the chance you gave me to turn my life around. Last year Sept. 3, 2008 I left this courtroom to live a law biding life and not to return. When I left it was like a new life starting from scratch and that’s basically what I had to do. My sister, who took me in, got me into a good school and also drove me around in search for a job. I was doing everything that had to be done. I never missed one day of school, not even a sick day and I worked so that I could pay off my surcharge, which I’ve done. I liked my new surroundings in Willliamsville and I loved the school. I got myself into sports to keep myself busy, a sport I’ve never tried before until last year. I wrestled on the Will-South wrestling team and took a major liking into this sport and been to schools I’ve never heard of until now like Starpoint and Low-Port and even made 2nd place in the ECIC’s triple A’s wrestling tournament and was a tournament away from States. I even made the paper for something good.
I got good grades and was always in by curfew. The night I was at Herbert Chandler’s house was during spring break and I missed my bus home and planned to get a ride from his mother that night after she got off work. Me and Herbert Chandler pretty much grew up together and played little league football together. He was like a brother to me. Yes, I was aware of him being on probation and I know his situation but I didn’t look at him as a criminal. I looked at him as a brother. The media is making it seem as if I am a bad kid, which I’m not! I don’t go around hurting people nor do I go around breaking laws purposely, that’s not the type of person I am, but not too many people know that, besides the people that know me personally, all they know is the monster that the media is trying to make me look like.
When I was released last year I came out a changed man that learned from his mistakes. I’ve made a lot of new friends and got to meet most of their parents and I showed nothing but respect and kindness, and now when I sit in my cell it makes me wonder. After all the media did bringing up things I planned to leave in the past and do not look or turn back to, I wonder. Do these parents, even my teachers still think of me as the respectfully young man that some knew and some met or do they think of me as the monster the media is making me look like? I also want to say that none of this is my sister’s fault because my life is in my own hands and it’s on me to do the right thing or not so I’m here to say I take full responsibility for my actions. Thank you, that’s all Your Honor.
Following Byers’ statement, Judge Boller then imposed the maximum prison sentence of four years with a minimum sentence of 1 1/3 years. The firefighters seemed pleased as they filed out of the courtroom. The television cameras and print news reporters were there interviewing people as they came out. They would report that no member of Byers’ family was there, this lie would be repeated over and over on news broadcasts. In a lynching whites attempt to slander the Black person even among his own people. But Byers did have family members among the few Blacks present, the media never queried them, nor did they ask me.
The sentencing of Byers for probation violation was not the end, he still had the felony assault charge lodged against him by Michael Lang’s mother. He was indicted and entered a plea of not guilty before Erie County Court Judge, Michael L. D’Amico on June 22, 2009.
During a telephone conversation on June 25, 2009 with assistant Erie County District Attorney, Brian K. Parker; the prosecutor handling the assault case against Byers, he was asked if Michael Lang had been in a previous fight earlier that school year before his run in with Byers. I detected a slight pause; then Parker responded that he was unaware of any fight Michael had been in. But his response was guarded as he volunteered that I would need a court order to obtain such information from the school; and gave the impression that I wouldn’t get it. But he gave no indication of being interested in getting it himself in order to determine whether Michael may have been the aggressor and not as innocent as the press is making him.
The following day after speaking with the prosecutor, I spoke with Byers’ defense attorney, Francis C. Amendola and asked the same question. He admitted that he had heard that Michael had been in a fight earlier that year, and that the information came from one of Byers’ relatives. From the tone of his voice I got the impression that he was doubtful of the information. I then added that Michael’s mother, Edla Collora, in a Buffalo News article said that her son had been in a fight earlier in the school year. I even offered to cite the date and the location in the paper where the statement could be found, but Amendola said that wouldn’t be necessary, that he had all the Buffalo news articles on Byers.
The failure of the News to follow up on Michael’s involvement in a previous fight, and the prosecutor’s lack of interest in the information, indicate that their major interest is to lynch Byers, and not justice.
During another telephone conversation, a confidential source said that Michael had just recently returned to school from a suspension for having beaten a Black youth earlier this year. This bit of information, Michael’s previous fight and with another Black youth, in which he was the victor wasn’t presented to the grand jury. If Michael did beat up a Black kid earlier in the year and was suspended from school for it, this could show that Michael might have some bias toward Blacks.
This additional information provided by Michael’s mother, an apparent slip of the tongue, could make, what the prosecutor thought was a slam dunk, into a nightmare for the prosecutor and the lawsuit Michael’s mother filed against the school.
What an honor to have Ted Kirkland; one of Buffalo’s longest-tenured newspaper columnists (Buffalo Challenger, Buffalo Criterion) and a local talk radio host Kirkland’s Korner; Tuesday’s from 12-1pm on W.U.F.O. AM 1080) to undertake and reveal his own investigation into this locally-slanted issue. This is his first piece for the bullet.