“…when will they ever learn?”
from Where Have All The Flowers Gone by Pete Seeger
The one thing that never should be forgotten about men is they used to be boys. With any understanding of the latter creatures, one might begin to fathom how the former come to be. One feature of boyhood is stupidity, which is distinct from ignorance or naiveté. Stupidity requires knowledge; it is an essential component of being stupid – the ability to knowingly do foolish things. The latest police-inspired conflagration is a case study in the condition.
The “latest,” as of this moment, is the death in another American city of yet another young black man at the hands of police. This time it was the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, who died almost exactly like another young black man in that city ten years ago: arrest, police wagon ride, broken neck, days in the hospital, dead. Gray saw the police, and ran. The problem was the response, giving chase. As attorney Billy Murphy, Jr., – scion of a prominent black family in the state – has repeatedly pointed out to reporters, running is not a crime. I guess that should be obvious, but I never had given it any thought before a decade ago as I sat in a courtroom and heard that very same thing from a judge.
I was observing the trial of a juvenile defendant. The twelve-year-old boy had been one of four boys on a playground a block from his home when one of his companions – stupidly on a dare – snatched the purse of a woman who was on the playground with her daughters. Terrified, the other boys ran from the scene with the culprit. The boys were chased by the police; the snatcher and one other, my grandson, were caught. Both were charged with robbery. The judge in the case, upon learning that the victim was our next door neighbor, was doubtful my grandson would be an accomplice, but acquitted him on the simple fact that running is not a crime.
Some police seem not to care about this, as evidenced by the recent shooting in the back of Walter Scott, the unarmed man running from a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina. Some officers hate to be run from, and this hatred can blind them to what is right, bringing out the stupid boy in grown men. I know this because of my years as a juvenile probation officer. When my colleagues and I received cases in which one of the crimes with which a youth was charged was Assault on a Police Officer, it usually was a red flag for us. We had come to learn that boys who ran from the police to avoid arrest were often beaten. It seemed officers provided themselves cover for any injuries or complaints by reporting the youths had assaulted them. What I never learned is whether or not the prosecutors who consistently added the bogus charge were in collusion with or duped by the police.
We know there are many problems between some communities and some of their police, problems endured generation after generation. They are only magnified when they reemerge vividly month after month and week after week. An unjustifiable foot chase is one thing. An unjustifiable death caused by police action or inaction is one thing too much, especially when unresolved or resolved unsatisfactorily.
We know, too, that geography has no bearing – neither the Northeast nor the Midwest, the far West nor the deep South is immune. Baltimore is just thirty-five miles from here, but it happens here in Washington and right across the river in Virginia. In August, 2013, John Geer (who was white) was shot and killed by a Fairfax County police officer as he stood with his hands up in the doorway of his house in Springfield. Nearly a year-and-a-half later, the officer’s name had not been released, and he remained on paid desk duty. We now know his name, but that’s about all. Just this past February, 37-year-old Alexandria mother Natasha McKenna was killed at the Fairfax County Jail. The 130-pound woman, already in a cell, was placed in full restraints (handcuffs behind her back, leg shackles and a mask) by six members of the Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team, and then given four 50,000-volt shocks from a stun gun. McKenna’s only crime was being schizophrenic. The investigation into her death continues.
Here in DC, every year for three years running – 1996, ’97 and ’98 – a black police officer was shot mistakenly by a white police officer; witnesses to the death of Officer Thomas F. Hamlette, Jr., the son of a retired officer, said he was killed while lying on the ground. In 2007, fourteen-year-old, unarmed DeOnte Rawlings was killed by police under circumstances still not adequately explained. In March, a homeless man carrying a tree branch was killed in a subway tunnel by a Metro Transit officer. To date, none of these deaths has resulted in any police being charged.
In cities like Baltimore and Washington, with large numbers of black officers and black officials, it is believed by some that death at the hands of the police shows racial prejudice in policing is a myth. It does not, and there is no absolution or solace to be found in the fact that some black police kill black people with impunity. If anything, this fact gives potency to a long forgotten phrase from a frequently forgotten group: the Black Panther Party, which used to say “A pig is a pig is a pig,” making no distinctions regarding color.
Is the path taken by the Panthers one that needs to trod again? The reasons for the Party’s formation were not plucked out of thin air. Consider the words of former Panther Frank Jones when questioned by a member of the House Committee on Internal Security in 1970:
Mr. ROMINES. Does the Black Panther Party encourage members of the black community to possess weapons?
Mr. JONES. Yes.
Mr. ROMINES. Why?
Mr. JONES. For self-defense. The Black Panther Party, when I joined, was titled the “Black Panther Party for Self- Defense.” That title was chosen because of the activities of police officers in the city of Oakland, primarily. They often showed disrespect for the homes and persons of people in the black community. The Black Panther Party was instituted with the intention of instilling in the black people in that area their right to defend their homes and the necessity of doing so.
Mr. ROMINES. Does the Black Panther Party differentiate at all between black and white policemen?
Mr. JONES. Not on that basis, no. I think they differentiate between good and bad policemen.
Mr. ROMINES. The vast majority of the cartoons that I have seen depict white policemen.
Mr. JONES. I don’t think so; I think the vast majority would depict a pig dressed in a policeman’s uniform.
Mr. ROMINES. And no intent on the part of the Panther Party to say this is a white policeman?
Mr. JONES. No.
When Jones testified, it had been only three years since Panther leader Huey Newton had survived being shot by Oakland police, and only a few months since the police murders in Chicago of Party members Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. “Murders” is not hyperbole, given what has been proven since then. FBI Special Agent Gregg York made it clear at the time when he said “ We expected about twenty Panthers to be in the apartment when the police raided the place. Only two of those black niggers were killed, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.”
There was a time when I thought the word “pig” an appropriate sobriquet for the police. My attitude softened somewhat after watching The Tonight Show one night in the early 1970’s. Johnny Carson’s guests were a group of children talking about their parents’ jobs. I remember a little black girl saying her father, a police officer, was not a pig. I’ve tried to keep what she said in mind, but it’s been on a case-by-case basis. That is difficult to do these days when hearing Baltimore police union leader Gene Ryan call peaceful protesters a lynch mob and insist officers did nothing wrong with Freddie Gray. He also impugns the motives of Baltimore City’s State’s Attorney because she dares to bring charges, even though her great-grandfather, grandfather, father, mother and uncles were all police. It sounds as if he is learning nothing from what has happened, as if he’s a petulant and stupid boy.
When bad police officers are called pigs, it is pigs that are getting a bad rep. Besides, it wasn’t pigs the old folks used to tell kids not to run from, it was dogs. Running, they said, only encouraged them to chase you.