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TCA Diary: Discovery’s ‘Sugar Town’ documentary and the death of Victor White III

A Louisiana man died with his hands cuffed behind his back. Police said he shot himself in the chest.

LOS ANGELES — New Iberia, Louisiana, never really vanquished Jim Crow.

In 2014, sheriff’s deputies there arrested 22-year-old Victor White III. They patted him down twice, arrested him for drug possession and put him in a patrol car with his hands restrained behind his back in hinged handcuffs.

Then deputies claimed White committed suicide by shooting himself. An autopsy found that White sustained a fatal gunshot wound — in his chest.

White’s death and his family’s quest for justice is the subject of Sugar Town, which airs Aug. 6 on Investigation Discovery at 8 p.m. White’s father came to the Television Critics Association press tour Thursday to discuss the film and his son’s case.

The documentary, directed by Shan Nicholson, details how White, who was 22 when he was killed, became an emblem for systemic racial injustice in Iberia Parish. It depicts a small Southern town ruled by Sheriff Louis Ackal. Under his leadership, officers would routinely abuse black citizens, both on the street and in the parish jail. Sugar Town features surveillance footage from the jail showing officers beating a black man in handcuffs who is lying on the ground. One of them allows a police dog to bite at his face, arms and chest. The documentary also reveals a weekly ritual in the sheriff’s office known as “n—–knocking,” in which members of the department terrorize the residents of black neighborhoods.

After Louisiana state police conducted an investigation and concluded that White committed suicide, the federal government launched its own investigation, which it closed in December 2015 due to insufficient evidence. However, a federal grand jury indicted Ackal on charges of conspiracy and civil rights violations. Although 11 deputies testified against Ackal, he was acquitted in 2016, ran for sheriff again and was re-elected.

Earlier this year, the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office settled the civil suit that the White family filed against it. The terms were sealed.

New Iberia, which is home to fewer than 7,000 people, continues to be a segregated town divided by railroad tracks. On one side, called City Park, are the wealthy white farmers who control most of New Iberia’s economy, which is dominated by sugar. On the other, known as West End Park, are dilapidated shotgun houses, shacks and former slave quarters that are still standing and in use by impoverished black residents.

“If you talk about the slightest thing of black and white, the next thing you’re subject to see a police officer chasing you down, running you down, doing some type of thing to you,” White’s father, the Rev. Victor White II, told me during an interview here.

Even though New Iberia’s stark class divide is clearly related to the legacy of slavery, white people there bristle at discussing it, White said. Louisiana sugar plantations were particularly notorious for their brutishness during slavery. Harvesting cane by hand was dangerous business (losing whole limbs was common), and so was the process of refining it.

“If you go across the tracks on the white side of town, you’re not to mention it. … When you go to City Park and you’re African-American and you want to take your children where it’s nice, comfy and cozy, and you get over there and start talking, the way people look at you, you can tell that they think you’re out of place,” White said. “You’re not out of place, but they believe you are.”

Readers of the Natalie Baszile novel Queen Sugar, or those who have watched the OWN series based on it, will recognize elements of the fictive St. Josephine’s Parish. The terrors of life in St. Jo’s seem to have been ripped straight from headlines about Iberia Parish.

His acquittal in 2016 emboldened Ackal, White said. “He got re-elected based upon that fear that he incited against the African-American community,” Carol Powell Lexing, the Whites’ attorney, told me. “While his base was able to go out and vote, the African-American community was intimidated and in fear of retribution from him. That’s one of the reasons why he got re-elected.”

In the years since his son’s death, White has become an activist like many other black parents whose children have been killed by police. He’s hoping to draw attention to his son’s case and others while seeking reform of the criminal justice system. White admitted that it’s difficult to know where to turn. Black Americans have long relied on the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department to function as a check on local police forces.

“We’re in a worse situation now because the U.S. attorney general [Jeff Sessions] came out and said he favors police officers,” White said. “They want to keep the oppressed oppressed.”

White, who is accustomed to offering comfort to his parishioners, found himself in need of the same services he offers. He’s formed a friendship with Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, and other black parents who have lost children to police violence, such as Theresa Carter. Carter’s son Chavis also died of a gunshot wound while handcuffed in police custody. Like White, the police said Chavis Carter’s death was a suicide.

“Every time there’s another killing, we console one another because we know that’s our child,” White said. “We relive it all over again. We support each other. We encourage each other. I get down during the holidays. No one can understand us. We’ve entered this fraternity that we didn’t ask to join.”

White, 57, continues to speak out because too many in the parish are living in the same state-sanctioned hell that drove so many black people out of the South during the Great Migration.

“There’s nothing any different,” he said. “We’re still having the same systemic issues from the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s. Even with Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, even with those crusaders, we still have the same issues.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.