Niggers and Squirrels

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During my college years, at a time I finally learned to appreciate the wisdom of older people, my grandfather, Homer, told me that the life of a “niggah don’t amount to the life of a squirrel.” Having lived the first seventy-five years of his life in and around Greenwood, Mississippi, he said that he’d seen white men go to jail for killing squirrels when it wasn’t squirrel season, but he had never seen a white man go to jail for killing a black man.

From the early 1900s to 1975, when he moved to California, he had seen his share of lynching and other murders. He stood with the victim’s grandfather as he watched lynched teenager Emmit Till’s mutilated and bloated body being dragged out the river near Money, Mississippi. He had seen proscribed blacks who trusted the system enough to turn themselves in being dragged from the jail kicking and screaming, only to have their mangled and burned bodies found hanging from one tree or another the next morning. He heard hushed whispers over the years that some of the worst murderers of black men and their families were friends and relatives of the judge. “That was just the way thangs was,” he told me, “An ya couldn’t go ta the sheriff, cuz lotta times he was part of the lynch gang.”

Notwithstanding, my grandfather was one of those black men who had faith in the criminal justice system here in America, though he didn’t trust the guardians of that system. While he was never bitter, he always suggested that America is the only country where it’s a crime to be a black man.

I grew up in Sacramento, the fourth of seven children in a middle-class family. I was a typical California teenager: I spent summers in and at swimming pools; I went to good schools where I played saxophone in the band, I ran track and I got involved in speech and debate and student government. My best friend was a white kid who lived on the next block. Yet when neighborhood kids swarmed to play football in the street in front of our house or basketball around the corner, we were black, white, Filipino, Mexican, you name it.

So It Begins…

I guess we were just too busy having too much fun to notice the racial differences between us. We knew who had an early curfew, we knew who got clothes from the second-hand store, who had no outside shot, who had never kissed a girl. Those were the things that made us different then. It was an innocent time for all of us, yet by the time we were finishing high school, we were completely amazed at the way society had begun to force its distinctions and preferences on us.

There was a game the whole gang of us used to play at the mall. We’d go in and just walk through a department store. When we sent my best friend and his brother, they were able to move around unhindered. If they asked to look at the jewelry, the smiling, patient clerk would remove it from the case and let them examine it.

But when they came out and my brother and I went in, we were conspicuously followed by security guards who whispered into walkie-talkies. The clerks ignored us and balked at our requests to examine the jewelry. While we all laughed and were bewildered at the blatant absurdity of it all, it was then that I was forced to realize that throughout my adult life, I would be treated differently just because I was black.

The Death of Innocence

We were all involved in the typical teenage mischief during high school like the rest of our peers, but none of us ever got into any trouble with law enforcement. Nonetheless, my first conscious examination of the criminal justice system in America came in 1979, the year after I graduated high school. It centered on a significant incident in Sacramento.

A kid we went to high school with, a black kid, who was still a senior, had been stabbed to death by two white kids as he was walking home from school. His name was Milton Baker, and because his parents and mine were acquainted, I knew him well. He was a smart, quiet student who had played tuba behind me in band. I had the distinct impression he liked white people better than he liked blacks, evidenced by the fact he had few black friends and loved rock music. Anyway, after being stabbed numerous times, he tried to run home. Disoriented from blood loss, he collapsed next to a tree in a neighbor’s front yard and died there.

His parents were understandably angry and outraged, my family was angry, many blacks in the community were up in arms, demanding justice. To our surprise, the two white teenagers who killed Milton Baker claimed they had acted in self-defense. They said that the quiet, mild-mannered kid I remembered had somehow attacked them. A witness claimed to see the boys still stabbing Milton as he was running away.

The boys were arrested initially, but they were released after a few days. Despite pressure by the family and the black community, they were never charged and made to stand trial. A few days in jail for viciously stabbing a human being to death! I’d known of people spending more time in jail for traffic violations. That’s when I began to lose faith in the American justice system. The callous devaluation of Milton Baker’s life devalued my own, devalued the life of every other black man, woman and child in America.

Notwithstanding, outside the criminal justice system, most notably in the fields of sports and entertainment, blacks prospered. Donna Summer was the disco queen and Earvin Johnson was bringing his unique brand of magic to basketball. O.J. Simpson was setting records and Oprah Winfrey was beginning her media career. Yet the wholesale devaluation of the lives of black people continued.

In Buffalo, two black taxi drivers had the hearts cut from their bodies. In Chicago, police investigated the sniper shootings of four black men in separate incidents. Elsewhere, the FBI hunted James Vaughn for questioning in connection with the rifle murders of blacks in five cities and the shooting of National Urban League President Vernon Jordan. By mid-November 1980 in Atlanta, eleven black children had been kidnapped and murdered and another four were missing. Most of these murders remain unsolved today.

Comedian Richard Pryor joked on an album about special precautions blacks had to take when being confronted by law enforcement, but in reality it was no laughing matter to many like myself. I have been randomly stopped about twice a year in every year of my adult life for no other reason than being a black man on the road. The underlying injustice is that, while I am being stopped and questioned on a regular basis, my white counterparts are not subject to the same scrutiny or mistreatment.

Akin to Rape

One of the most significant events of my life happened during one of these random stops by law enforcement. I was twenty-two and I was staying with an uncle in southern California, more specifically in Norwalk between Buena Park and Whittier. My Uncle Bill, who was a superintendent for the County Solid Wastes Department, happened to live in one of the area’s nicer neighborhoods.

Anyway, one rainy afternoon as I was driving back to his house in my blue Ford Mustang, I noticed a police car behind me flashing its headlights back and forth from left to right. As I looked over my shoulder, he turned on the red and blue lights atop the car and blared the high-pitched siren for a couple of seconds. Already accustomed to being randomly stopped, I pulled my driver’s license from my wallet, placing it on the dash next to the vehicle’s registration taken from the glove box. I then placed both my hands in full view on the steering wheel and sat back in the seat.

Normally, such precautions were enough to insure minimum harassment by law enforcement, but it became apparent that this officer planned on taking the systematic harassment I had been experiencing to a new level. Responding to a tap on the window, I looked back almost directly into the long barrel of a .357 magnum revolver. I was certain he was going to shoot me, so I just held my breath and waited.

He tapped on the window again, insisting that I should lower it, which I did very dutifully and cautiously. He demanded to see my driver’s license and the vehicle registration card which I, hands shaking, transferred from the dash to the window. During this time, in quick discreet sidelong glances, I couldn’t help but see the gun pointed at the back of my head. He stood in the rain, carefully examining the documents for about a minute before lowering the gun.

“Stay in your vehicle. I’ll be back.”

The admonition was unnecessary. I hardly moved a muscle in the five to seven minutes he was gone. Nonetheless, through my car’s rear view mirrors, I was able to determine that there was another officer in the police car. I’m not sure why, but the presence of another officer was a relief to me; I guess I felt that even the most rogue person on the force would have to exercise a little restraint in the presence of another officer. He tapped again on the window I had raised to keep the rain out. I lowered it, apologizing and explaining why I had raised it.

“Shut up! Just get out of the car, nigger!”

“Nigger,” the notorious “N” word. It was a word that had never really bothered me. To me, it brought more disgrace to the person who used it than it did the person or persons being so labeled. Yet my subjective thoughts, however noble, were irrelevant in the situation.

The police officer had called me “nigger” for a very specific reason: to humble and humiliate me. I was apprehensive about getting out of the car. I knew I had no outstanding traffic-related warrants and absolutely no criminal record, so I couldn’t understand why he was ordering me out into the street. For that matter, he had never told me why I was stopped in the first place. Politely, I put the question.

“Why did you stop me? What did I do wrong?”

His response was a series of threats, expletives and another demand that I step out into the rain, which I did.

“On the ground, nigger.”

His cold eyes were full of arrogance and contempt for me. He held a large black flashlight in his right hand, tapping his thigh impatiently, ready for me to challenge him. Despite my generally pacifist nature, it was as close as I’ve ever come to physically assaulting anyone in my adult life.

I was prepared for the insults and intimidation from the beginning—those I could endure. It was just that I wearing a brand new 3-piece Armani wool suit. It was only the second time I had put it on. I looked from the muddy ground before me back up into the face of the man, who managed a sadistic grin as he neared, trying to appear more threatening.

“On the ground!”

I had little choice. I dropped to my knees, feeling at once the cold, wet, gritty asphalt through the fabric of my pants.

“All the way down!”

With his knee, he had forced me flat on my stomach and he remained there, his knee pressed firmly into the small of my back. After what seemed like a minute, he leaned his head down by mine whispering into my ear. I can still remember feeling his heated fetid-smelling breath as he whispered.

“You are a nigger, and that’s all you’ll ever be. I don’t care where you live or how much money you make. You’ll always be a nigger in my book, and I’m never gonna let you forget it. You got that, nigger?”

I just held my breath, saying nothing. He increased the pressure on my back.

“I didn’t hear an answer. I said, ‘you got that, nigger?’“

I nodded, laboring to breathe for the strain on my lungs.

“Yes.”

His hand on the back of my head, he pressed my face into the muddy asphalt as he got up.

“You can go.”

He tossed my license and registration onto the ground beside me. Slowly I rose, brushing the mud and tiny rocks from the front of my suit as I glanced around. The officers got back into the car and drove past me so close that I had to scramble away to avoid being hit.

Stumbling back to my car, as I fumbled to get the door open, I noticed that a woman had come out of the house next door and was standing on her lawn, watching me. She was an older white woman, probably in her fifties. Our eyes met briefly before I bowed my head, tears forming in mine. Beginning to shiver over the ordeal in the muddy, ruined, rain-drenched suit, I climbed back into my car and tried my best to move on.

It would take years before I was able to evaluate the event with any degree of analytical objectivity, let alone discuss it with anyone. The moral wrong committed against me that day was more akin to rape than any other crime, and from that day on I have felt a genuine empathy and sympathy for women who are victims of physical and emotional abuses.

Yet the feeling of helplessness I experienced during the event was augmented as I came to realize I was dealing with a system and society that refused to acknowledge the harassment of black males by law enforcement has become completely sanctioned, if not encouraged by the general public; that officers who do these deeds are shielded by a conspiracy of silence from within their respective agencies; that they are protected by a conspiracy of acquiescence and consent through default which extends to even of the blacks on the force; that the devaluation of the lives and rights of black males is considered a necessary and acceptable evil in society.

In silence I believe I experienced the same shame and humiliation and the same feelings of self-deprecation common to rape victims, and yet when I was finally comfortable enough to speak freely about the incident, the majority of my male colleagues who were white refused to believe that a police officer would commit such an offense.

In contrast, the majority of my male black associates understood me, and some shared stories describing themselves in similar situations, which were just as deplorable. It is a conundrum the media has devoted no more than a moment or paragraph to until recently.

In spite of the vastly divergent opinions between blacks and whites on the integrity and supposed impartiality of law enforcement agencies, few news editors have been perspicacious enough to truly tackle the issue in order to examine and determine its underlying causes. The polarized attitudes between blacks and whites are largely the result of our separate and consistently dissimilar experiences with the agencies we all pay to maintain.

The Rodney King Incident

Owing to my own experience, I was uncomfortable and almost became physically ill the first time I watched the tape of Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King shamelessly, and yet I would have felt the same empathy for any person so abused by the police regardless of national origin, race, religion, sex or legal status. “Enforcement” is not synonymous with “punishment.”

While it is the duty of the police to arrest and charge, it is solely the responsibility of the courts to punish. Because Rodney King had run afoul of the law, the officers who stopped him were within their right to subdue and arrest him. Yet despite the attempts by defense lawyers in both trials to trivialize such a brutal beating by saying that the four officers who abused him did so fearing for their lives, the tape revealed that Rodney King was punished as he lay in the street.

The most revealing aspect of the incident for me was not the beating itself, but the degree to which the police department defended itself and the actions of the officers. Chief Gates of the Los Angeles Police Department ended up being the officers’ most vocal advocate, manifesting that indecent treatment of black males was sanctioned in even the highest reaches of the department.

Blatantly, he called for general endorsement and support for the errant officers, but the public had seen the tape, and fortunately most people were too decent to offer ostensible affirmation. If not for the tape, Rodney King would have been just another “dumb nigger” who got taught a lesson, just another incident to brag about in the locker room, just another “gorilla in the mist.”

O.J. Simpson

The O.J. Simpson conundrum divided blacks and whites in the country along racial lines for reasons that were superficially obvious, though a more careful and better-directed investigation reveals something more telling. Orenthal James Simpson, a black man, was accused of killing his ex-wife, Nicole, a white woman, as well as Ronald Goldman, another white person.

If such an incident had happened forty years ago, O.J. Simpson would have been lynched and Los Angeles County would have saved money on the trial. If Rodney King had been accused of murdering his wife in similar circumstances, he would have been tried and promptly deposited in prison.

O.J. Simpson however, was a rich and popular celebrity. In fact, he was the quintessential stereotype of a successful black man: the athlete, the former inner-city delinquent, the nigger who wanted to be white, the sex-driven, lascivious lecher and the corrupter of young white women. His celebrity status, the lurid nature of the murders and the obvious racial undertones of the case mesmerized America and dominated all aspects of the media, which I monitored during the trial.

I’m not ashamed to say that I have never been a fan of O.J. Simpson. I saw him as a man of questionable character, and it didn’t matter to me whether or not he got convicted or acquitted. What did matter however, were the methods used by police in order to produce evidence or facts, methods and results, which were relied on by prosecutors in their attempt to get a conviction.

Those methods had a special relevance to me and many other black males in this country as a result of our fatalistically consistent experiences with less-than-professional individuals in law enforcement. When the glove and evidence-planting theories were advanced, when the conspiracy theory was advanced, I did not and could not automatically reject it. I knew better. My own life experience made me at least consider the possibility of corruption before forming an opinion.

The Black and White Divide

I have a very good friend, a lawyer, with whom I loved discussing and debating details of the trial. He’s a white guy, a former California Highway Patrol officer who worked in southern California during his time on the force. He is also one of the most honest and principled people I have ever met.

He rejected the conspiracy theories as impractical, suggesting that in his experience with the agency, the number of people who would have to be involved in such a conspiracy and the degree of collusion required made the idea of anyone manipulating evidence next to impossible.

As I told him about my traumatic experience with the Los Angeles area police, he listened carefully, denouncing the officer’s behavior as “despicable.” He insisted he had no idea that such gross misconduct ever occurred down there, claiming he hadn’t remembered hearing anything like it in his years with the Highway Patrol.

Yet it happened to me, and it happened to many others like me in cities across America. It happened to people who are forthcoming about being harassed, devalued and humiliated by law enforcement.

Conspiracy of Silence

So why was my friend, a former law enforcement officer, in the dark about it? The answer lies in the nature of conspiracy itself. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so insightfully reasoned, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

Thus a “conspiracy of silence” is not a conspiracy of action. Rather, it is accomplished by a lack of action, willful or unconscious, when action should be taken. It involves no scrupulous planning, no whispering, no plotting and no collusion.

A “conspiracy of silence” is by its very nature a “conspiracy of consent,” meaning that a person who has knowledge of impropriety and does not oppose it in effect sanctions it. During my own experience, as I lay on the muddy asphalt, bracing myself as that harsh officer assaulted my very soul, I looked over to see his partner standing there, doing nothing. Was that man involved in a conspiracy? Absolutely.

The various other law enforcement officers who stood by and did nothing as they watched Rodney King being beaten—where they involved in a conspiracy? Imagine there hadn’t been a videotape and consider that question again.

Thus a “conspiracy of silence” can involve the actions of even one person, protected by the silence, inaction and ignorance of many. Persons who have been abused by law enforcement know it only too well. “Some men wish evil and accomplish it,” penned discerning American writer Steven Benet, “But most men, when they work in the machine, just let it happen somewhere in the wheels.”

The Real O.J. Debate

Within the context of the O.J. Simpson trial, that is where the line was drawn. The so-called media experts missed the point. It wasn’t that blacks, blindly siding with the defendant, were willing to buy into a far-fetched conspiracy theory. It was rather that persons of all races who have been harassed by law enforcement, the actual victims of this “conspiracy of silence,” were more inclined to consider the possibility of corruption.

Certainly there were many blacks who blindly believed in O.J. Simpson’s innocence and would have embraced any suggestion which supported their intractable position. There were no doubt hordes of whites who wholesale believed him guilty, rejecting any suggestion to the contrary. But in the middle, where the actual line was drawn, were the thinking people, were the people who were willing to listen to arguments and consider opinions other than their own.

On the question of police evidence integrity, what separated black from white and indeed black from black related to a subjective view of the police. For those persons, black or white, who have been victims of invariable harassment and misconduct by law enforcement, because they didn’t trust the police, it was easier to consider a theory that involved improprieties by the Los Angeles Police Department. At the bottom line, it was not a racial issue.

When considering the O.J. Simpson case, many black males like myself didn’t mistrust police methods and motives because the police were white and the defendant was black. Race had nothing to do with it. For that matter, for some of us O.J. Simpson had nothing to do with it. Rather, after years of systematic profiling and persecution by law enforcement, it was just difficult to believe the pristine, virtuous and ethical image of police that prosecutors and police were trying to sell.

A “conspiracy of silence,” after all, could have involved the actions of one corrupt and unethical person, protected by the silence, inaction or inattention of others. As the primary victims of injustices and deliberate persecution by police, blacks were acutely aware of the Rampart corruption, other criminal behavior and cover-ups in various divisions of the LAPD literally years before the scandal broke.

All Too Common an Occurrence

In September 1997 I heard a story that for its very implications should have disturbed the whole state and indeed the entire country. Here it was: a man in Sacramento had allegedly been savagely beaten by the police after leading them on a high-speed chase; the man had died in police custody; the police were claiming the beating had nothing to do with his death; there were witnesses to the beating—people who requested that their faces be obscured because they feared retaliation by the police…

(the story continues…)

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