Violence in the Streets
"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."
Torsney's partner had seen no "silver object." There was no weapon of any sort. An all-white jury found Torsney not guilty of murder by reason of insanity; they were convinced the officer had experienced a "psychotic episode" triggered by an epileptic disease so rare that medical experts had never heard of it. Torsney's first and last "Seizure" occurred the moment he killed the child. He was released from a mental ward in 1979 when doctors could find nothing wrong with him.
* New York, 1978.
Businessman Arthur Miller was beaten to death by 16 policemen. Miller's brother, Samuel, was fighting with two officers who sought to arrest him for driving without a license in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Arthur Miller joined the battle, and more police were summoned. Some 16 officers "swarmed" Miller, who died of "pressure applied to throat." A series of demonstrations followed, one of which drew 2000 participants. A grand jury acquitted all 16 officers, saying there was no evidence of brutality in the case.
* New York, 1979.
Manuel Martinez, 40, and his nephew. Domingo Morales Jr., 25, were shot point-blank by Officer Kevin Durkin. The policeman was off-duty in a bar across the street from his Bronx police precinct. Morales and Martinez were about to leave when Durkin suddenly fired five shots from within two feet of the men; Morales was hit once in the face and Martinez twice in the back. As Durkin's fellow officers removed the gun from his hand, he stood over the bodies, muttering. "I'm on the job. I got them. They're coming in the bar."
Durkin later testified that he believed the two men were members of the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), a Puerto Rican leftist group. He also said he "had no choice" but to shoot because Morales moved as if reaching for a gun (neither man was armed, nor did they have anything to do with the FALN.) Psychiatrist Daniel W. Schwartz, whose "rare epilepsy" testimony had convinced a jury in a similar case in 1976 (see above), argued that Durkin had temporarily gone insane. The jury found Durkin not guilty, but passed over the insanity issue and decided the officer had thought his life was in danger. Bronx District Attorney Mario Merola expressed disgust at the verdict: "Any man who shoots an unarmed man twice in the back should not be given a gun and put back on the streets." Durkin did not return to duty.
* Philadelphia, 1980.
William Green, 17, was killed by patrolman John Zeigler. Green was spotted driving a stolen car in North Philadelphia; Zeigler chased the car until it hit a tree, then pursued the fleeing Green on foot. After catching the teen, Zeigler cracked his skull twice with the barrel of his revolver. In the process, the gun went off and killed Green. The resulting community protests included overturning cars and pelting police with bricks and bottles. Zeigler was removed from the force.
* Baltimore, 1980.
Ja-Wan McGee. 17, was crippled by an officer in a pizza parlor when he reached into his pocket for a cigarette lighter. The officer later said he had fired because he thought McGee was taking out a gun to hold up the parlor. City Attorney William A. Swisher refused to prosecute the policeman because, in his view, there had been "no criminal intent." Demonstrations followed the decision.
* Flint, Michigan, 1980.
William Taylor Jr., a 15-year-old, was killed by officer Gerald Collins. The patrolman saw Taylor running from the scene of a house burglary. When the boy did not respond to the command "Freeze," Collins hit him in the back of the head with a shotgun blast. Within a week of the killing, hundreds of Blacks hit policemen with stones and attacked squad cars. The Flint police cleared Collins of any wrongdoing.
* Houston, election night 1981.
About 10 off-duty white officers, wearing jeans and t-shirts, terrorized the Black inhabitants of a hotel after an election night party. Brandishing a Confederate flag and a skull-and-crossbones flag, they shouted racial epithets, gashed one resident with a flashlight, knocked someone's teeth out, and threw a third person down a flight of stairs. After a year-long investigation, seven policemen were dismissed from the force and six were suspended without pay.
* Mexia, Texas, 1981.
Earl Baker, 19, Steven Booker, 19, and Anthony Freeman, 18, all drowned while in custody of three county deputies. They had been arrested on suspicion of marijuana possession at the annual "Juneteenth" public festival (commemorating June 19, 1865, when slaves in Texas first heard they had been freed). While the officers were ferrying the youths across Lake Mexia, the small boat capsized 80 feet from shore. The deputies swam to safety, which was impossible for their handcuffed captives. The Dallas Medical Examiner found that none of the suspects had any traces of marijuana in their bodies. The deputies were acquitted of negligent homicide.
WHAT MAKES PEOPLE fire on children and completely unarmed men without provocation? Why don't we hear about Black cops accidentally shooting children who "make a quick movement" or reach into their pockets "suspiciously"? A passage from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man may be apropos:
"When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination--indeed, everything and anything except me...You wonder whether you aren't simply a phantom in other people's minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy."
When Officer Torsney shot Randy Evans point-blank, he cannot possibly have seen Evans for what he was--a 15-year-old asking a question. When Ja-Wan McGee reached for his cigarette lighter, he had no way of knowing a nearby cop would "see" a holdup. Patrolman Kevin Durkin slipped into a waking nightmare, and two men suddenly found themselves cast as Puerto Rican terrorists.
Invisible Man was published in 1947, but it seems that all too many whites still continue to see horrible visions where other human beings stand. This state of affairs can prove fatal when police are involved. And even when the absence of lethal violence makes the syndrome merely tiresome, it can ruin your day.
Take Cambridge, for example. After turning in articles at The Crimson in the wee hours, I often walk back to my dorm in the Quad. There's usually a good chance that the police (Harvard or Cambridge) will "escort" me there, as they have done so often in the past. The game starts when they pass you in the police car, then turn down the next available side street. About two blocks later, they reappear from another side street just as you reach it, and drive past again, but in the opposite direction. A minute later, the whole process starts again. Eventually, we all get to the Quad. This treatment might make some feel safe, but somehow I can never convince myself they are following me for my protection.
THE EFFORT to get American police departments under control and in line with reality seems to be picking up steam in a few places. With new guidelines on the use of deadly force. Flint's police have begun making progress in shooting less often at the unarmed and the innocent. As one Flint doctor involved in police issues put it. "Police have often precipitated riots, and the police here want to avoid that."
A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that cities with Black mayors have led others in restraining police gunplay. Many of these mayors had campaigned on platforms that included ending brutality. Newark's Kenneth Gibson has cut the rate of shooting by 75 percent since he entered office in the late 1970s. In Detroit, the average number of annual deaths caused by police fell in the late 1970s from 32 to 21. For Atlanta under Maynard Jackson, the average went from 11 to four. Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, an ex-cop, allows the District Attorney to conduct frequent investigations into how and when his police fire their guns.
Other cities have taken longer to reform. Philadelphia under Mayor Frank J. Rizzo once reputedly ranked with Houston as the most brutal department in the country; the Justice Department cited the entire Philadelphia police force as consistent violators of civil rights. Not until Rizzo left office in 1979 did the city gets its first written policy on the use of deadly force by policemen.
James Fyfe, an ex-cop-turned-professor at American University, claims better training and their restrictions on the use of firepower actually benefit the police in more ways than one. In a New York study, he found that restrictive measures led to 50 percent fewer police killings and also reduced the number of policemen injured by suspects and fellow officers. At the same time, the arrest rate rose. "There's no evidence it [curbs on the use of deadly force] hurts police efficiency," says Fyle.
Part of the national effort has included hiring and promoting more Blacks in police departments. In New York, New Orleans and other cities, hiring practices have been found discriminatory in court cases. Black cops who help police Black communities, it turns out, tend not to have the kind of delusions that make men shoot without cause.
Not everyone sees the connection. The Justice Department is currently challenging a court-approved promotion schedule in the New Orleans department. The city and a Federal District court had both agreed that, in a city which is 55 percent Black, the near-absence of Black officers was a situation that needed redress. This conclusion was not just based on liberal notions about affirmative action: New Orleans police have led the country for years in the number of annual complaints to the federal government of impropriety. The city's rate of police killings per violent crime is about 10 times that of Newark. An investigator of brutality in New Orleans says the situation is not improving.
BLEARY-EYED from staring at microfilm, I got home and turned on the TV to watch "the second day of racial unrest in Miami." The crowds of Blacks protesting the killing of Johnson had been largely dispersed. Men wearing gas masks ran around with rifles, lobbing gas grenades. Helicopters circled overhead. A convoy of jeeps rolled down the street. The Newsface came on and reported. "President Reagan said today that there is no room for violence in the streets of America." You could picture him saying the words. It was almost funny.
I kept repeating the words out loud. There is no room for violence in the streets. After Miami's riots, then-President Carter had earmarked $83 million in emergency funds to rebuild the already-depressed Black community. When Reagan took over, about half the funds had been administered; he froze the rest. There is no room for violence in the streets. From 1978 to 1981, about $450 million in job training funds came into southern Florida, 60 percent of which went to Black communities. Reagan cut the figure to $20 million, and he is expected to eliminate the program altogether next year.
There is no room for violence in the streets. Would he say that to the next group of policemen he addressed? Would he say that to the mothers of the kids listed above?