In January 2009, the month that Barack Obama was inaugurated into the Presidency of what some refer to as post-racial America, a mini-series of incidences began to take place that found Walter Currie, Jr. celebrating his 16th birthday last week with a simple family dinner; life-altering second and third-degree burns covering his face, neck arms, and stomach; and an assault charge.
According to his mother, Winona Currie, in January, Walter was involved in an altercation with a fellow 15-year-old schoolmate, Billy Rasberry (who is white), after Rasberry said that
“he wished slavery days were still in effect because he would get rid of him” (Walter is Black).
Both young men were called into the office to talk about it, and as Mrs. Currie recounted for HipHopWired, since then Walter had even “went over to his [Rasberry’s] house, outside in the driveway, and sat out there and talked.” Her son told her,
“I thought he was a friend of mine.”
By June 13th, around a quarter to nine-o-clock at night, Walter had just finished walking “a little friend half way home” and met up with his cousin at a bowling alley in his Southeast Missouri hometown, Poplar Bluff, population 17,000.
A few days prior, on June 10th, Walter and his cousin were in a park the same day Rasberry and his younger brother were. According to Mrs. Currie, Walter was speaking with the younger brother when “they heard something and they looked around and the young man [Rasberry] was getting up off the ground.” He apparently had been hit.
On June 13th when Walter saw the two brothers again, he approached the younger brother “cause he [Walter] heard they [the brothers] wanted to jump him… the little brother said wasn’t nothing like that happening.”
The elder Rasberry joined the conversation by announcing,
“’I have gasoline and a lighter.’ And my son said he just kind of looked at him and he just kept talking to the younger brother.”
Reportedly, Rasberry then doused Walter with gasoline, squirting it from the Gatorade bottle he was carrying, and lit Walter on fire. “It wasn’t nothing I could do but run,” Walter later told his mom.
Reports also mention that Rasberry carried a pair of scissors in his pocket that night.
There is speculation that Walter had been, throughout the mini-series, among a group of young men who were repeatedly bullying Rasberry.
A month later, Walter was charged with assault for the park altercation, although, the police had already arrested someone else.
“I had to get a lawyer and the lawyer finally got me a copy of the police report and we still don’t understand why my son is being charged,” said Mrs. Currie.
Dr. Boyce Watkins, author, finance professor, and social commentator learned about the story when assisting with a case that occurred only 50 miles away in which a young black woman, Heather Ellis, faces 15 years in prison after a line-cutting incident at a Walmart led her to “perhaps padded” felony and misdemeanor charges. He’s since been helping to bring awareness to the Currie case.
“It [the Walter case] was a sobering reminder that this justice system has a long way to go before it’s fixed,” said Watkins. “We do not live in a post-racial America, there are thousands of people all over the country every year who are victimized by the system.”
Further south, approximately 3 years prior, another mini-series of racially charged incidences concluded in what is now historically referenced as the Jena 6. Young black men faced perhaps padded charges in the beating of a young white male.
Mirroring the Jena 6 is Walter’s case. Rasberry was at first charged as a juvenile (He is now facing adult charges: a Class A felony of first-degree assault and an unclassified felony of armed criminal action.), whereas the debate in the Jena 6 case stemmed from one of the six young blank men being charged immediately as an adult (and, after much protest, being charged as a juvenile).
“I know that the people of color in that area do not feel that the justice system works in their favor,” said Watkins. Walter’s mom concurs. “I’ve only been here in Poplar Bluff two years and as I’m going through this, my understanding is this is their M-O down here, the police department, they real hard on the Black community and easy on the white community.”
Though Mrs. Currie said Walter is, “doing pretty good,” she also mentioned, “We’ve gone to see a therapist because, yeah, he’s totally different now… he doesn’t like to be left alone… I have to watch him cause he just won’t sit still.”
The case goes to trial December 7th. Mrs. Currie is hoping for Rasberry to plead guilty. “Even the night when my son was set on fire,” she said, “When the police came and got him [Rasberry] they said the first thing he said was,
‘Yeah, I’m the one that lit him up.’”
Meanwhile, Watkins is holding a rally November 16th to discuss both this case and that of Ellis.
“We’re trying to rally as much support as we can so we can make the Attorney General and the Governor’s office aware… and we’re really actually reaching out to the White House,” said Watkins. “I don’t think you can get to a post-racial America unless you honestly talk about race. You can’t solve a problem by ignoring a problem; you solve a problem by acknowledging the problem.”
For Mrs. Currie, though, her sights are still localized.
“I hope Poplar Bluff will realize they just can’t mistreat people of any race, any nationality, that everybody has a right to walk these streets freely without a threat of being set on fire, without a threat of hassle.”