"MIAMI HAS BEEN GRIPPED AGAIN by racial violence," announced the big T.V. Newsface. So much for winter vacation. I sprawled on the couch and waited for the reports to trickle in between soap opera commercials. The real-life script turned out to be even worse than "All My Children."
The plot sounded familiar. On December 28, two Miami policemen went to a video arcade in the predominantly Black Overtown neighborhood to conduct a "self-initiated check," Nevell Johnson was playing pinball, and officer Luis Alvarez saw a "suspicious bulge" under Johnson's shirt. According to the official spokesman, "the individual made a quick movement, and the officer's gun discharged." Johnson had been hit in the face at close range, and the 20-year-old died within hours.
Some witnesses in the arcade said Johnson was unarmed. Others said that even if he did have a gun, there was no cause to shoot him in cold blood. As word of the killing spread through Overtown, rock-throwing became car-burning became looting and vandalism.
It turned out that officer Alvarez had been investigated five times in the last year for things like false arrest, neglect of duty, and brutality. As a punishment, admitted the police, Alvarez was assigned to a low-income Black neighborhood. On the night he killed Johnson, they added. Alvarez had violated police rules by leaving his assigned patrol sector and going to the arcade.
Miami's famous Liberty City riots of 1980 had begun for similar reasons. Black businessman Arthur McDuffie had been beaten to death by five white policemen who stopped him for a traffic violation. When the officers were acquitted by an all-white jury, the disturbances began.
But two years later, the authorities were prepared for Overtown. Within a day, National Guardsmen joined Miami police in sealing off a 200-block section of the city. Four helicopters flew over the neighborhood, dropping tear gas canisters. At one point, about 300 guardsmen and police were scouring the area, armed with gas, shotguns, revolvers and attack dogs.
They were out to quell the disturbance, but ended up attacking people with a surprising amount of indiscretion. Journalists and ordinary residents were gassed along with those who were breaking into stores. One storekeeper was mauled by police dogs, and another was badly beaten with billyclubs. A 17-year-old named Alonso Singleton was shot eight times while trying to break into a food warehouse (police say he had a gun.) The officer who killed Singleton has stacked up 24 citizens' complaints filed against him in the last 10 years. There may be more, when someone asks why he reloaded his gun and kept shooting Singleton.
The murders of McDuffie in 1980 and Johnson this month offered some intriguing parallels. I spent a full day with library microfilm looking at 1980 newspaper accounts. A little more research revealed a recurring phenomenon. All over the country in the last few years, policemen have wounded or killed people under circumstances that range from questionable to openly criminal.
The following list is drawn from only one source, the 1980 New York Times, with random additions from the last decade. To the best of my knowledge, it represents the first collection of all these cases in one place. In each, the officer is white and the victim Black (Hispanic in one case). And for each incident in the news, dozens more must be assumed to go unnoticed outside of Black communities.
* New York, 1974.
Clifford Glover, 10, was shot and killed by officer Thomas J. Shea. While looking for two grown men who had robbed a taxi. Shea and his partner came across Glover walking with his stepfather in a section of Queens. Thinking the pair were his suspects, Shea leaped from an unmarked car. He was wearing street clothes and did not identify himself. Shea fired when the 10-year-old raised what turned out to be a plastic toy gun. The officer was acquitted in court, but an internal police tribunal expelled him from the force.
* New York, Thanksgiving 1976.
Randolph Evans, 15, was shot and killed by patrolman Robert H. Torsney. The policeman and his partner went to a housing project in the East New York section of Brooklyn to investigate a report of an armed man. When they reached the apartments. Evans and five other children approached Torsney, who suddenly shot Evans from a distance of two feet.
Two fellow officers at the scene later testified against Torsney, saying the killing was completely unprovoked. But Torsney said he thought Evans had a gun:
"A young man walked up to me. I believe he asked a question. He was talking to me. I don't remember exactly. I remember as he was walking toward me he was reaching into his left waistband with his right hand. He was still talking and pulling out a silver object which looked like the barrel of a gun. I was pulling out mine, pulling it up. I fired. I never had a chance to extend the gun. He was gone."