“Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like so many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.” (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (2010) at p. 1.) That is a frustrating and misleading way to start a frustrating and misleading book. And the worst part isn’t the unnecessary use of the passive voice (Cotton “has been labeled”), and it isn’t the fact that a parolee was denied voting rights. I hadn’t even thought about the latter much, before picking up this book. No, it’s Alexander’s characterization of Cotton as having lost his voting rights when someone “labeled” him a felon.
Cotton was not labeled a felon by the establishment, “The Man,” a racist cop, or some other bogeyman. He committed a felony. No one did anything to him. He did it to himself. He broke the rules and got caught. Alexander tries to take the focus off Cotton, as if losing his voting rights happened to him in the same way that you happen to get rained on, or in the same way that you happen to catch a cold. That is just not the case, and it’s a dishonest way to start your book.
What Jarvious Cotton Did to Lose His Voting Rights.
On March 12, 1982, Robert Irby was with some friends outside the city auditorium in Natchez, Mississippi. Irby was a popular 17-year-old student football star and the son of a prominent banker. The Natchez Pilgrimage tableaux was being held. Irby and his friends were approached by Jarvious Cotton and Terry Johnson. The two men were friends. “When we was hanging together,” Johnson said, “I put my education with his street knowledge.” Johnson was 15 at the time. He said he was high on marijuana and codeine.
Cotton and Johnson brandished a gun and demanded money. The men got about $21 from Irby and his friends, and turned to run away. Irby ran after them. Cotton turned around and shot Irby dead. According to Johnson, Cotton fired three times. The first two shots hit Irby in the legs. The fatal shot hit Irby below the ear. Cotton said, “He wants to be a hero. There’s another dead soldier.”
Cotton and Johnson fled to a car. The getaway driver was a third man, Anthony Gerald Jackson, who drove them out of state to Louisiana.
Jarvious Cotton’s mother Audrey had ten children. Jarvious was the fourth. He used to run away constantly between the ages of 7-12. He had his first brush with the law at age 17, when he was convicted of burglary. After Cotton killed Irby, he was later caught and held awaiting trial at the Adams County Correctional Center, which is now a private prison. His mother helped him escape from his cell. He fled Mississippi, but she remained and was later convicted herself, as an accessory to his crime.
He remained a fugitive for five years until he was apprehended almost by accident in New York. Specifically, he was arrested for marijuana possession¹ in a New York subway. Officers discovered that he was wanted for murder in Mississippi.
Once Jarvious Cotton was identified as a wanted murderer, Mississippi began proceedings to extradite him. It may surprise you to learn that the Legal Aid Society of Brooklyn fought on behalf of Cotton to prevent his extradition. They fought extradition for almost a year before the New York Court of Appeals unanimously held that Cotton must be returned to Mississippi. Some sources say he was convicted of murder by a jury of his peers. Others say he pled guilty in exchange for a life sentence with the possibility of parole.
Alexander Used Jarvious Cotton to Mislead You.
Cotton lost his right to vote because he killed a teenager. He did not lose his right to vote because the system “labeled” him a felon. The New Yorker has the same problem with Alexander’s opening. The Boston Review sums up my feelings nicely.
“Alexander’s passive construction—Cotton “has been labeled a felon”—suggests that he had no choice in the matter. The compelling arguments against felon disenfranchisement would lose none of their force if Alexander were to acknowledge Cotton’s crime, but she never does.”
Alexander’s language has actually misled people. Even though we know Cotton was convicted of murder, college students who read this book do not. For example, students at Cal. State Long Beach were asked to read the introduction and write about it on a message board. One of them said, “Lastly is Jarvious who is also denied the right to vote because he is on parole for being charged with a drug conviction.” Nope, he killed a teenager.
If an author cannot be trusted in small things, she probably cannot be trusted in large things either. If Alexander was willing to try to pass of Cotton as a victim of the system rather than a the worst kind of criminal, what other things is she trying to pass off? Alexander is a loud voice for sentencing reform. She should not discredit the arguments of the movement by deceiving her audience about the facts.
Notes and Annotations
Why can’t felons vote? There are good reasons for this rule. In a nutshell, if you aren’t willing to follow the law, you shouldn’t get to make the law for everyone else.
Cotton will vote when he’s off parole: Jarvious Cotton served his time for murder and was released on parole to Adams County Mississippi. Mississippi denies voting rights to parolees. But Cotton will regain his voting rights once he completes his term of parole.
California has the same rule as Mississippi: a felon is stripped of his right to vote while she is incarcerated and on parole. But when the term of parole is complete, her voting rights are returned. People incarcerated in county jail, which includes felons, can vote.
Here’s a newspaper article discussing the case.
Here’s a thoughtful perspective on Alexander’s use of Jarvious Cotton in her argument that the criminal justice system has created a racial case. Jarvious Cotton chose to commit a crime, whereas slaves and southern blacks during Jim Crow did not choose to be victimized and oppressed.
You can read court opinions about Cotton’s extradition that include the facts of his case. (See People ex rel. Neufeld on Behalf of Cotton v. Commissioner of New York City Dept. of Correction (1988) 71 N.Y. 2d 881 [describing Cotton as an accessory].)
After his conviction, Cotton became a jailhouse lawyer. He sued Mississippi prison officials asking for money to compensate him for having to prove his legal mail did not contain drugs. He sued over a leaky roof, and over the decision to deny him parole. He brought so many bogus suits that the Fifth Circuit barred him from filing more. You can read a detailed account of his life after conviction here.
¹To me, the fact that Cotton was apprehended for possession of marijuana is the most ironic part of his story. Alexander argues that enforcement of drug laws should be ended, because they are used to create a new racial caste system. Jarvious Cotton shows that real life does not fit this argument. Or we can go farther; Alexander’s own examples don’t fit this argument. Because in Jarvious Cotton’s case, enforcement of a minor drug law led to the apprehension of a murderer. We could speculate that since Cotton was apprehended on the subway, that he may have been arrested as part of “stop and frisk” enforcement, or broken windows policing. In other words, the enforcement practices that Alexander criticizes successfully identified and arrested a murderer, an extremely positive result. And she still turned around and used Cotton as an example in her book, secure in the knowledge that only a tiny number of people would ever care enough to dig deeper.