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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 “nigga 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.
His hand on the back of my head, he pressed my face into the muddy asphalt as he got up, bruising my lip.
“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.”
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.
I quickly snatched up a week’s worth of newspapers, pouring over stories, day-by-day, section by section, but I could find nothing on the event. I found it odd that the Sacramento Bee, an established paper with an ethical duty to investigate and report on such matters, had for some reason shirked its responsibility and ignored the event. To fully understand the magnitude of the story, a person need only remember that Rodney King was beaten in a like manner and he lived!
In this case there was no videotape, though there were witnesses, but this man had died in police custody after being beaten! He was dead! So why wasn’t the story airing on every channel? Why wasn’t it on the front page? Why wasn’t the city in an uproar? The insidious answer to those questions illustrates how law enforcement, political officials and the media can participate in a cooperative “conspiracy of silence” much to the detriment of our society and the very security of American citizens.
I called the Sacramento Bee immediately and was referred to the reporter who had investigated the account. Apparently, the paper had run a terse, inconspicuous story on the event in its Metro section shortly after the man’s death. When I asked if there would be a follow up, the reporter said that until he got the coroner’s report, he didn’t want to “fan the flames.”
I asked him if there was a more involved investigation underway by the Bee to which he replied in the negative; I asked him if there was any action taken against the officers, such as administrative leave pending the results of an internal investigation, but he said there had been none.
I told him that I was amazed by the conspicuous degree of non-coverage relating to the story. His reply was that he would make some calls and look further into things. When he countered that the man who had been killed was driving a stolen car and that he had been combative, I asked if he thought that driving a stolen car and a combative nature (whatever that means) was meritorious of the death penalty, which indeed was enforced, if the story as I understood it was true.
He finally admitted that the death of a detainee while in police custody should have been a bigger story. But it wasn’t, and apparently the Bee would maintain silence until the coroner’s office released its report.
My next call was to Fox 40 News, the one television station in town with the integrity to initially run the story. The person I spoke with told me something that almost frightened me from pursuing the matter further. This reporter said that the police had visited the station shortly after the account aired and that they “came down on the station,” threatening non-cooperation in the future if the station continued to pursue the story.
Careful not to falsely impute impropriety or sinister motives to the police, I called later and confirmed their visit and the perceived threats with an official at the station. There was also the suggestion that the police were actively working to keep the story from the public, possibly attempting sanctions against the coroner in order to delay a public statement. Needless to say, the story didn’t run again on Fox 40 News, and it ran on no other station.
I also learned from the person I spoke with at Fox 40 that the decedent’s body was being buried that day, October 9, and yet there was still no coroner’s report, so I called the coroner’s office and asked when I’d be able to obtain a report on the man who had died in police custody. The woman on the phone told me an autopsy had already been performed and a final report with toxicology findings might take weeks or more than a month. When I asked if he died of natural causes, she would only say the cause of death was still under investigation.
While I am no expert at forensic science and medicine, I thought it odd that, after the autopsy, it would still take such a long time to determine the cause of death. I’m not necessarily suggesting that the coroner was purposefully delaying making the report public, but one thing was certain: the absence of a prompt statement by the coroner would no doubt perpetuate the silence surrounding the event and the public would remain largely uninformed.
The woman I spoke with, however, was forthcoming about the name of the victim, Albert Thiel, and she said I could obtain the report for twenty dollars once it was issued.
Frustrated, I called the other television news stations and asked why Fox 40 was the only station in town with the courage and temerity to run the story, but one news director promptly pointed out that Fox 40 had abruptly stopped airing it, adding that, according to his understanding, no station would air the story until the coroner’s report became public.
Off the record, another news director said he was “dumbfounded” about the way the police chief and the city were handling the matter and that “the public had a right to know what happened.” Nonetheless, he said he was more concerned about the death of the detainee than he was with police methods at attempting to control the media and the message. He volunteered that the victim’s race probably played a part in non-coverage since race relations were already “somewhat strained” in California.
It Strikes Close to Home
It wasn’t until after I obtained the coroner’s report that I learned I knew the victim. He was one of the neighborhood kids who played football in the street with us, and when we played basketball, we all called him “Lame-O Thiel,” owing to a funny-looking, ineffective jump shot. No one knew him as Albert because we called him by his middle name, Glenn. He wasn’t in the neighborhood long, though I remembered him as a genuinely nice and sensitive kid who respected older people.
I hadn’t seen him in twenty years, but my brother saw him a few years earlier at a track meet in Vacaville. Glenn had followed my brother all the way back to Sacramento just to say hi to my parents and to see how they were doing. Notwithstanding, I am not attempting to canonize Glenn. I have discovered that he had his share of problems over the years. In fact, he was driving a stolen car on the night he led law enforcement on that high-speed chase which ended in his beating and homicide by four police officers.
The police initially said that because he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol, he ignored the pain and was irrational and combative, justifying the use of the extreme force administered in a potentially mortal choke-hold restricting the life-sustaining carotid artery. The coroner’s report later indicated that he had 4/10 of 1/1000 of a gram of cocaine in his body—barely a trace—and that his alcohol level was .06, which was under the legal limit. The coroner’s cause of death: homicide. Because the dead are incapable of speech or replies, no one will ever be able to hear the victim’s side of the story.
The one indisputable fact however, was that Glenn was dead, and the mortician who prepared him for the funeral told Glenn’s mother that she had never seen anyone so brutally beaten in her decades of experience.
Properly, the police should be held accountable. It might be stressful and uncomfortable, but they have to answer the tough questions that must be asked, and if the news media in Sacramento is too beholden to them, too indifferent or too inattentive to ask the questions, then someone has to ask them. There are some who might think that a “conspiracy of silence” and the passage of time might lessen the interest and the pain, but for others of us, the incident just strikes too close to home.
You see, we have to go out into those streets and will inevitably be pulled over by one law enforcement agency or another. Our brothers have to go out into those streets. Our sons will one day go out into those streets. Our fathers go out there.
If someone doesn’t make the police accountable in the homicide of this black man, if someone doesn’t ask the questions that make law enforcement agencies consider the behavior, policies and procedures of their officers, if someone doesn’t rip the shroud from the collective conspiracy of silence practiced by law enforcement, local officials and the media in cities across the country, then it becomes just a little too easy to brutalize, kill and devalue the life of a black man and to pretend that nothing significant has happened.
In the case of Glenn Thiel, what perhaps should have happened from the beginning is some manner of a forum between the police and the concerned community. Because the incident ended in death, there should have been either a full explanation or the promise of a full explanation of the event within a reasonable time frame.
There should have been a full investigation into the background of the officers involved and of the actual incident itself. There should also have been a full explanation of police policy relating to the carotid choke-hold used and the manner of training officers receive relating to its application. There should have been an explanation of what behavior, short of an actual exchange of blows, is considered “combative.”
In my own incident with police, would the officer have been justified in administering a mortal choke-hold if I had resisted lying in the street? And finally, there should have been a review on overall police public policy. Ideally, the police, city officials and the media should have had demonstrated more consideration for not only the black community in Sacramento, but also for the community at large.
Rather than evading the issue with the hope that it would somehow disappear, there should have been a more ostensible effort at investigation, reporting and some manner of explanation that might have allayed well-placed concerns in the community. In that sense, the police, city and county officials and the local media have been derelict in their duty to the community.
The question that looms largest for many of us is “why?” Why would the police seek to suppress the story? Of many possible explanations, two come to mind: 1) they truly do have something to hide; and 2) they are uncomfortable with public scrutiny and accountability. In terms of suppression to hide impropriety, there may be unflattering facts related to the event that they want to keep from the public, and yet while non-disclosure may go a long way toward decreasing public hysteria and racial tension, the community has a right to know what happened.
Such an explanation may seem unlikely to many, but concerned persons are forced to wonder why, even years after the incident, the police have issued no official public report. On the issue of scrutiny and accountability, it’s perhaps natural for the officers involved to want their names and individual histories withheld. The Rodney King incident and the O.J. Simpson trial has given them examples of police officers under scrutiny, being branded “corrupt” and “racist,” their families and careers in upheaval.
Most people can understand how they wouldn’t want that. I wouldn’t want that, but then again, I am not a police officer involved in the homicide of an unarmed civilian, and I am not a police officer whose future actions, proper or improper, intentional or unintentional, could cause further loss of life.
While accountability isn’t often pleasant, it is a responsibility that should rightly accompany the immense power and discretion law enforcement is given by the people and it is the only way to earn and maintain the trust and respect of people in a given community. A very wise man observed that God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.
If the police in this incident were guilty of nothing and the suspicion of some in the community was misplaced, then an open, fair and objective investigation of what happened would have led both sides closer to a relationship based on effective communication, mutual respect and goodwill.
Although the majority of this essay has related to blacks and law enforcement, its most salient points are underscored by a much broader issue that involves the civil rights and constitutional issues for all Americans, regardless of background.
We are unconditionally bound by the shared belief that we are all created equal, that we are all endowed with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. “Injustice anywhere,” spoke Dr. King, “is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Never should any American accept a lesser or devalued status among his or her countrymen and countrywomen regardless of the trouble caused for addressing perceived wrongs. Never should any American put up with the murder or mistreatment of fellow patriots regardless of the expense and difficulty at reaching a real and equitable solution. Finally, never should any American remain silent or do nothing when justice and goodwill call for speech and action, for in the words of Edmund Burke, “It is necessary only for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph,” and “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
An Obligation to Speak Out
As I began to conclude this essay, I shared it with my father, and he advised against ever publishing it, claiming that it would create unnecessary difficulties for me. A few friends who read it suggested publishing it under a pseudonym to avoid making enemies. I almost begged off, but one night even as I was considering the implications of how, when or if I would send it out, I was pulled over bythe California Highway Patrol.
Now, I wasn’t speeding or swerving and I hadn’t run a traffic sign or light. My offense: I was a black male driving home from work at night. I was taken to the station where I tested under the legal limit. Nevertheless, I was held at the jail for fourteen hours before finally being released.
While the DA rejected the single charge of “driving under the influence” as “groundless,” I was inconvenienced in a major way nonetheless. It was simply not fair. I should have never been pulled over in the first place. A distinguished American jurist probably put it best when he opined, “The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in the insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”
Unless I articulate the frustrations I share with many black men all across America, no one will ever understand the institutionalized persecution we put up with on a daily basis.
In the past thirty years, we’ve all somehow allowed our shared public consciousness to slumber on matters relating to civil rights and constitutional issues. Perhaps the state and nation, as Socrates suggested, are “like a great and noble steed, who is tardy in his motions, owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred to life.” In that sense, I seek to serve the purpose of the tiny gadfly in “arousing, persuading and reproaching you, irritating and awakening you when you or the state are caught napping.”
The behavior of law enforcement in California and elsewhere, in stopping motorists merely for being black, is reproachable. The devaluation of the lives of black people by law enforcement throughout our country is reprehensible. Police agencies must stop murdering black people. It’s equally condemnable that the media, once a symbol of freedom and democracy, has lost its courage, conscience and sense of purpose. Sadly, the media in America has lost its very soul.
It’s easy for many to believe that because the previous fervor for which blacks sought equality in America has waned, we somehow live in a society in which persons are judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. While such a thought is a noble ideal, it is merely a dream, and dreams are dreamt in slumber. In my personal American journey, nothing could be further from the truth. I can only hope I’ve stung some thinking Americans awake to that stark reality.
Call to Action
So where do we go from here? What do we do about our deeply rooted, entrenched problems, which manifest themselves as a festered boil in the flank of our great and noble steed? In order to examine the boil, a critical and candid discussion about the devaluation of the rights and lives of black males becomes necessary.
This is why I am petitioning others like myself to come forward with their stories; this is why I am entreating others to share like frustration and discuss similar experiences in something of a public forum.
More than merely abhorrent, it’s frightening, in light of our literal persecution and devaluation by law enforcement, to read about an unarmed man in New York being shot nineteen times by a New York City Police death squad who fired a total of forty-one rounds, about another man whose rectum and intestines were permanently damaged after being ruptured by a broomstick in the hands of the New York City Police, about a handcuffed gang member being shot/murdered by a rogue faction of the LAPD, about a possibly unconscious woman in Los Angeles being shot more than twelve times by law enforcement.
Such incidents send an unmistakable message to the nation: that the lives of black people are somehow less valuable than the lives of other Americans. The sheer regularity of like incidents makes the killing of blacks with little accountability mundane and commonplace. They tend to desensitize the public to these outrages, making it easier for any officer to squeeze the trigger when the person on the other side of the barrel is black or brown. They make it easier for hateful, misguided demoniacs to think they can chain up a black man, drag him to pieces behind a pickup truck and think they can somehow get away with it.
Only by combining our voices on the atrocities committed against us will we be able to lance, open and expose the wound to the public forum that we have brought to light. Only by engaging the American people in a solution-oriented, comprehensive and spirited debate with institutions and agencies about questionable practices and policies will we be able to examine, with the hope of discovering a cure for, the complex and difficult societal-disease germs which are its underlying cause. Only by working diligently to create legislation that limits, regulates and holds accountable the very institutions and agencies that have traditionally humiliated, devalued, persecuted us and taken our lives will we be able to allow the wound to heal in “the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion.”
DWBB – Driving While Black or Brown
In 1999, California State Senator Kevin Murray introduced legislation that would require the Highway Patrol to report to the Commissioner, “in the manner prescribed by the commissioner, as to the number of motor vehicle drivers stopped by law enforcement, whether or not a citation or warning was issued, for each stop, certain specified information (race, ethnicity, reason), and other information.”
The bill would have gradually required city and county law enforcement agencies in California to report to the Highway Patrol Commissioner in the same manner. Senator Murray began introducing the legislation after he himself was summarily stopped and questioned by law enforcement in southern California for the crime of “driving while black.”
According to the bill’s sponsors, “Although anecdotal evidence across the country suggests that police stop members of minority groups for traffic enforcement purposes in numbers greatly disproportionate to their presence in the driving population, the research on the issue is limited.
Limited research and studies confirm what many know to be a common occurrence. Although African-Americans comprise 14% of the overall population; some studies indicate that African-Americans account for upwards of 73% of all routine stops (Source: U.S. Justice Department and U.S. House Judiciary Committee).”
Although Mr. Murray’s bill passed in both the Senate and Assembly with bi-partisan support, California Governor Gray Davis vetoed it, stating, “There is no evidence that this practice is taking place statewide.” Ironically, the very purpose of the bill was to substantiate whether or not the practice is taking place in the state.
Until our lawmakers and our governors direct objective studies that examine whether or not racial profiling is indeed taking place on statewide levels, the only evidence available will be anecdotal and therefore cannot be substantiated.
Thus Mr. Davis and other insensitive governors that follow will always be able to evade the issue by claiming “there is no evidence.” I wondered if the governor feared that taking a stand by addressing the concerns of black and brown males would somehow make him less popular with voters in the center. The governor’s callous veto of such a munificent message from the legislature is a direct, unmistakable insult to every one of us who have been pulled over without cause and harassed by law enforcement.
In lieu of endorsing the bill, the governor asked the Highway Patrol to coordinate a voluntary data collection system, an option that caused me to recall an observation Dr. King made during his unjust imprisonment in a Birmingham jail.
He commented, that “we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and non-violent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture, but as Reinhold Neibuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
That demand, a mandate that we all take a closer look at racial profiling in California, as endorsed by both houses of the legislature, showed up on the governor’s desk in the form of Senate Bill 78 in 1999. As impossible as it seemed to many of us, Governor Davis placed himself squarely in the center of the road, in effect blocking the way of our path toward justice.
Notwithstanding, the struggle will continue. In 2000, Senator Murray reintroduced the legislation as Senate Bill 1389. It passed in both houses, though Capitol Democrats allowed the governor to render any effective provisions of the bill effete through backroom deals and compromise.
In 2001, Assembly Member Marco Firebaugh brought the issue again, and so racial profiling will come before this governor and future governors again. Only in the future, if anecdotal evidence is all we have, let us build a mountain of anecdotal evidence and “bring the mountain” to the governor’s doorstep.
Collecting the Empirical and Anecdotal Evidence
Let us all take the time to write our stories down. Let us recall every memorable detail from every improper traffic stop. Let us compile these stories in such quantity that it will be literally impossible for any good and responsible governor to answer, “there is no evidence.”
Beyond California, Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) introduced legislation that would require the Justice Department to conduct a study of racial profiling on a national level. The efforts of Mr. Conyers and like-minded leaders would be greatly benefited by a victory in California and the mountain of evidence we must work diligently to amass.
Yet a victory on the racial profiling issue must not be an end, but a beginning. We must renew the fight not only for justice, but also for the value of our lives. We must make anyone who takes or devalues a black life as well as any other life answerable not only to the courts, but to the families of the victims, to the national community and to history.
Talking to Our Children
When my son was younger, I occasionally took him to Capitol Park where we’d walk in the shade of stately trees and feed the squirrels. Early one morning as we were strolling along, we came upon a dead squirrel whose stiff body had been squashed and smashed into the soft earth.
Becoming agitated, he demanded to know what had happened to the poor squirrel. I told him I did not know, that the animal could have gotten too old and just tired out, that maybe he had an accident and slipped, dropped and died after the fall, that maybe the policeman on the horse in the distance had accidentally stepped on him. It was impossible to tell. He asked me what was going to happen to the squirrel, but again I had no answer. When he asked if we could take it home to bury it, I told him that people don’t bury dead squirrels.
What I did not tell him is that some people look at dead squirrels and feel sad for a moment, but then they walk away and quickly forget about what they saw and how bad they felt. He prayed for the squirrel that night before he went to bed and he never mentioned it again. I’ll probably take him to the park again soon, to talk about father and son things. I have not looked forward to it, as I have always worried the day will come when I will have to admit to him that many of the things I told him were lies.
I told him the things my father told me, though I could no longer believe them. I always stressed to him that it does not make a difference what race or color people are, that we are all the same. I told him that if he worked really hard, he could earn himself an illustrious and secure life. I told him the police put bad people in jail and serve the interests of honest citizens. I told him that America was the greatest country in the world, and like most children, he believed everything I said without doubting for a moment.
So how do I tell him I deceived him and why? When do I admit I lied to protect his young heart, his precious sense of morality even as it developed; his innocence and all his potential for accomplishing good? How can I tell him that when he grows up, he’ll be targeted and persecuted for the rest of his life, that no matter how well he does professionally, he will be stopped and devalued by law enforcement who will never let him forget that he is a “nigger?”
My Responsibility as a Father
Do I tell him he will probably one day go to jail, regardless of whether he’s committed a crime? Must I warn him that if he does something that might subjectively be considered “combative,” he might be murdered by the police? Should I prepare him to witness the anguish of his closest relatives, their very sanity tested, suffocating under the crushing force of continual and unrelenting harassment? Do I tell him that, in my own experience, “the life of a nigga don’t amount to the life of a squirrel?”
No, I refuse to let that be his future. I will not tell him any of those things. I will just keep on telling him the things my father told me when I was a boy. Only from this point on, I will not be lying.
Rather, I’ll be working within myself and with others to help bring about lasting change. I’ll be willing to sacrifice my very life so that his experience and the experiences of other precious little black and brown boys and girls are richer and happier than mine. I’ll hope and exercise faith in God and in the goodness and goodwill of others. I’ll speak out frankly even when stinging words must be spoken and ask the difficult questions when those questions must be posed.
My duty is clear. Thus in the words of a truly great man, With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Dedicated to the memory of Homer Jefferson, 1900-1988
I met Anthony Dwain Lee at James Rutter junior high school in 1974, but we didn’t become friends until we competed together on the speech and debate teams at Valley High School in Sacramento. I admired Anthony because he was very smart. During 1977-78, his junior year, when he chose Othello as the subject for his Dramatic Interpretation, I realized he had incredible acting ability. In fact, we both went to the state meet that year at Fresno State. We were roommates. Anthony Lee was my friend.
In the years since high school, our paths would cross from time to time. I watched him in a stage production at Cosumnes River College, I saw him at Florin Mall and I ran into him a few times while he was up visiting his sister, Tina. Yet it was the last time I saw Anthony that stands out in my mind. I congratulated him on his success in Hollywood, which was just beginning (he had played a part in the movie Liar, Liar with Jim Carey , and he had recurring television rolls), and I shared an item I wrote with him.
The piece was called An Essay On Niggers And Squirrels, and it was about the devaluation of the lives of African American males by law enforcement. He read it and we talked about it. As a result of our discussion, I know Anthony was acutely aware of the risks black men face whenever we confront law enforcement. Would Anthony have ever pointed a gun, would he have even playfully pointed a fake gun, in the direction of a uniformed killer? The answer is no. Anthony Lee knew better.
That is why I was so shocked when I saw the stories in the news on Sunday and Monday, October 29 and 30, 2000, that Anthony was shot after he had “allegedly” pointed a toy gun at an officer of the notorious LAPD. But then the details of the murder began to emerge. A day later, it was not clear to investigators whether or not Anthony even knew there was an officer standing outside this five-story, twenty-two room mansion in the dark, his trigger finger at the ready, but it’s perfectly clear to me and to anyone who knew Anthony.
It was equally uncertain to them about whether or not he had actually pointed the gun, but it was certain to me. Anthony had no idea he was about to be murdered until nine bullets came crashing through the window. He had no idea that this paid executioner, Tarriel Hopper, lying in wait, was there to investigate a mere noise complaint. According to reports, the officer never knocked on the door, he never identified himself—he just fired away. It might as well have been a “drive-by.”
So who is to blame? The list is a long one. Most prominently, we have to blame Officer Tarriel Hopper. He is the murderer. He is the killer who aimed and fired nine bullets, ending Anthony’s life. Even those of us who are not police officers realize that if you are standing on the outside of a lighted building, looking in, you can see persons inside, but they can’t likely see you. Thus the person standing in the dark outside would have distinct advantages and distinct options.
If Officer Hopper would like anyone to believe that, in spite of his obvious advantages, Anthony drew this toy gun, accurately aimed at him where he stood, hidden in the dark, and seemed ready to shoot him, then the officer must think we’re fools. If he wants to convince us that, in spite of his obvious advantages, he had no other option than to fire nine bullets at Anthony with the intent of killing Anthony, then the officer must think we’re fools. If he has convinced himself that the murder of Anthony Dwain Lee is in any way justifiable, then he himself is a fool and has no business with a badge and a gun.
But the blame goes beyond the man who pulled the trigger. Early on, many were quick to point out that Officer Tarriel Hopper is a black man and Anthony Lee was a black man—that the shooting had nothing to do with racism or bias. Yet the black man who murdered Anthony Lee is part of an institution, trained by that institution, conditioned by that institution. If a law enforcement institution conditions its officers to believe that the lives of black men are less valuable than the lives of other Americans, then all its officers, black and white, will see black lives as less valuable and will act accordingly.
Admittedly, officers of law enforcement have a tough job. They often go into situations where their lives are at stake. Yet by that same token, for African American males, every time we encounter law enforcement, our lives are at stake.
In that split second for officers, in that split second when the finger is on the trigger and there is a gun barrel between the officer and another person—should the race of that person make a difference? No, but it does. It does because officers of law enforcement are held by lower standards of accountability when they pull the trigger and a black person is shot. So it’s easier to squeeze that trigger to kill black people. If you’re not black, ask yourself how many personal friends or family members you have lost to law enforcement killers. Blacks and whites live in separate police realities.
When a law enforcement agency, at its highest levels, sanctions racial profiling, brutal beatings and the murder of blacks, then it is easier for all officers, regardless of race, to commit crimes against African Americans, Latinos and other groups. After the Rodney King beating by the LAPD, erstwhile Police Chief Gates was quick to defend the bloody-fisted officers by calling the thrashing “justifiable,” sanctioning such violence against black men.
It is disappointing that Police Chief Parks in effect placed the blame on Anthony for the shooting during the chief’s public statement shortly after the murder, sanctioning such violence against black men. So does that make Chief Bernard Parks, a black man, a racist? No. Did the defense of LAPD officers make Chief Gates a racist? No. Does the violence and murder perpetrated against African Americans make Tarriel Hopper and the many other LAPD officers who more willing to fire their weapons on black men in particular racists? Not necessarily.
The racism is institutionalized and conditioned, deeply imbedded in the daily activity of the LAPD, like a virus. Thus even black officers have been conditioned to unwittingly become the instruments of racist policies. Change will not come quickly, but it can only come if city leaders step forward and pursue it.
But city leaders see the difficulty in accomplishing real solutions to the institutionalized and conditioned racism practiced by the LAPD. They shirk their duty toward African Americans and wish it would all somehow just go away, but it won’t. Black men will continue to be murdered by law enforcement.
That is why a portion of the blame goes to the media and the public. There was a time when local governments and agencies were held accountable by the media and public opinion. There was a time when the media asked the difficult questions and the public listened and responded. But now this virus of institutionalized and conditioned racism has rendered both non-factors. Violence against blacks and the shooting and murder of black males in America has become commonplace and is no longer newsworthy.
Injustices have become so routine that the mere mention of them annoys the general public. “The blacks are always complaining about something.” “Rodney King was beaten—he should have stopped—it was his fault.” “A gang member was gunned down by the police?—shouldn’t have been a gang member—it was his fault.” “Comply, cow-tow, be more subservient and humble so police know that you know your place and you won’t be perceived as resisting for asserting God-ordained human rights— the beat-down was your fault.” “Anthony Lee was murdered at a Halloween costume party—he had a toy gun—his murder was his fault.” It is time for the media to do its job. It is time for the people to wake up.
What has disturbed me most about Anthony’s murder is the reaction of people who read the story in the papers and watched the reports on television. I’ve heard displays of sympathy for the killer, who has been portrayed as a victim. I’ve heard that the incident was no big deal, just an unfortunate mistake.
I’ve heard Anthony described as a “dumbass” who was stupid for pointing a gun at police officers. Chief Parks said an investigation was underway, but as such investigations go, LAPD Internal Affairs will find some way to justify the actions of the killer. At some point, the city settled with Anthony’s family, offering money to make this visible symptom of a deeper problem disappear, make it go away for now, but it fixed nothing. No justice.
If the real truth ever comes out, however, we will learn that Anthony did not point a toy gun at uniformed police officers. Anthony was too smart for that. He knew better. It’s insulting to those he left behind to suggest that this man we all respected for his immense intellect just somehow became stupid in the end. He wasn’t “just another dumb nigger.”
The life Anthony Lee lived and his death are a matter of public record, so I didn’t write this letter to share that. His sister and other friends have already done a wonderful job of bringing his life before us.
It’s sadly another story in an unending national narrative. So I wrote a letter I think Anthony would have wanted an honest, deeply troubled old friend to write after his ignoble end. Was it all for nothing, or will any of us learn anything from this travesty and those that will follow? Thus I celebrate the life of Anthony Dwain Lee. I lament his death and will continue to do so. We will not see another like him.
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice.
— Othello, the Moor
November 11, 2000