Racial divide

RICHMOND, Va. – The crowded, chaotic sidewalk on Main Street, across from the federal courthouse, was an unlikely location for a lesson on the virtues of the fifth amendment.

But standing behind a throng that wanted a pound of Michael Vick's flesh – people that had just screamed for the Atlanta Falcons quarterback to "burn in hell" and held signs advocating his murder, torture and neutering – was Thomas Smith in work boots and a white t-shirt.

High above his head he held a simple sign with just a single word: "Constitution."

"These folks have convicted a man who hasn't even had a chance to defend himself," said Smith. "They just forget everything about America."

But here was America in full force, full vision, mixing it up while Vick pled not guilty to federal charges pertaining to an alleged dog-fighting ring on property he owned in rural Surry County. And front and center, impossible to ignore, was race.

Like Smith, almost all of the people supporting Vick or holding signs pleading for "due process" and "innocence until proven guilty" were African American.

On the other side was an emotional, angry, passionate anti-Vick group that was overwhelmingly white.

Certainly not every animal rights supporter was screaming for Vick to die. Many were just there to support the cause of caring for animals, ending the barbaric practice of dog fighting and using the massive media presence to benefit good.

But a significant number were focused on Vick. When he emerged from a black SUV and made a slow walk up a ramp and into the courthouse, they pushed toward police barriers and let loose.

"Burn in hell you (expletive) (expletive)," repeatedly screamed one woman.

"Die like those dogs," shouted another.

Not long after Vick got inside the courthouse – and in a scene that was repeated when he left less than two hours later – the two sides clashed in shouted voices and dueling signs.

White people screaming for justice; black people asking if they still remember everything justice entails.

That a case involving dog fighting can break so quickly along racial lines is a testament to how it bubbles below just about everything in this country. We all wish it wasn't so, including both sides here. No one wanted this. Almost no one even wanted to acknowledge it. But it was there, plain as day in black and white.

"I wouldn't say it's a racial thing," said David Williams, an African American, in a hopeful tone. "It's not racial. But for these animal rights people to take one person and crucify him isn't fair."

The thing is, the "animal rights people" here were an estimated 90 percent white. The pro-Vick/due process crowd was probably 95 percent black.

Obviously, both animal rights advocates and due process proponents come in all colors. And certainly a circus show like this, revved up by a massive media presence, isn't representative of America.

But, then again, I also know what I saw and what I heard.

"They are not going to give the man a chance?" Williams said. "You're innocent until proven guilty. He hasn't even had a trial yet."

There should be two undeniable, 100 percent agreed upon truths concerning this case: First, dog fighting is a barbaric felony and whoever participated in it on Vick's property should get hammered by the justice system.

Second, Vick deserves the right to defend against the charges. The indictment cites four "cooperating witnesses," but presuming each is a dog fighter himself, potentially facing prosecution unless they rolled on Vick, who and how reliable are they?

That said, the U.S. Attorney's office is known for its detail and diligence – this isn't some hack county prosecutor like the Duke lacrosse case. They rarely lose, so the challenge for Vick is serious and significant. But he has the right to fight.

"This is going to be a hard-fought trial," agreed Billy Martin, Vick's attorney.

It may not be any less intense than the scene out on Main Street, where two sides, clearly divided and easily identifiable, both anchored in righteous beliefs and moral causes went at it.

Two black women held a sign declaring: "I support Mike Vick due process." That caused vocal jeering from the protesters, which in turn caused the women to taunt them back by waving the sign at them. Later two men had to be separated by security as their debate descended toward physical confrontation, all as a crowd surrounded shouting in all directions.

And on and on it went on this hot Southern sidewalk.