“…earth’s sweet flowing breast;”

I need your help. No, I am not stranded in some far-off place where I have lost my wallet and cell phone. It is much more serious than that. If you believe there is something special about us as a species, something that sets ours above all others, I need you to help me see what it is.

A dogwood tree sets me on this quest. A still and silent beauty, it stands just outside the kitchen window, now — all of a sudden, it seems — a deep, dark yet vivid red where green had just been. How are we the masters of this? We and it share the same seven characteristeristics common to most life. We share some DNA. It and I sometimes even share the task of feeding Ogden, a squirrel who is content to munch on what the tree provides when I am not at the ready with the raw almonds he prefers. What I don’t have in common with the tree (or any other living thing) is this: I never will stop people in their tracks and cause them to have to catch their breath because of any beauty beheld.

And, oh, what it will do next. In a few months, it will stand starkly bare but still beautiful in the gray, winter’s light, and will cause me to worry that a particular limb might succumb with the arrival of a wet, heavy snow. Soon enough, once again, I will look up and be startled by the appearance of pale green of buds, I will stare as if spellbound at a profusion of pink blossoms.

So, without having concluded there is an answer, without having established a belief in the validity of the question, I ask “What sets us apart?” Is it our ability to conceptualize, to conceive of such an idea as beauty and to recognize it in the world? I often have wondered if this might be it, but I am not prepared to deny a dolphin’s ability to think. As for an appreciation of beauty, how am I to look at the nests of bowerbirds and believe only base instinct causes them to create such works of art?

Some spiritual traditions take for granted there is no difference between you and an amoeba. Others, such as the Judeo-Christian tradition, places us way above single-celled life, just below God but in His image — as distinct from the rest of Creation. I was reminded of this today in a column discussing a book by historian Timothy Snyder, who writes that Adolf Hitler considered the idea that humans “were above other animals, and had the capacity to decide their future for themselves” to be a poisonous one propogated by Jews. It was at odds with his belief that “the law of the jungle was the only law.” One need not agree with the Führer‘s hateful rhetoric, or believe in a kill-or-be-killed state of existence, to question the belief in human superiority. Hitler believed one’s race was paramount, not one’s humanity.

Some of you have deeply-held beliefs on the subject. Others have interesting and provocative theories. Help a brother out; share your thoughts on what makes us greater than — or the same as — the rest of Creation. My interest is genuine. In the meantime, I will look out of the kitchen window at the red-for-now beauty, remember poet Alfred Joyce Kilmer’s much maligned and parodied work, and think “What the poet wrote a hundred years ago is true. I will never see a poem as lovely as you.”


Once, while wandering the ancient streets of Avignon during that town’s annual arts festival, I happened upon a performance in the courtyard of a medieval building, a building that baffled me. It was called the Palais des Papes, the Pope’s Palace. “What,” I thought, “a papal palace? In France? How did that happen? What was that all about?”

The answers were my introduction to events I never had heard of prior to that July afternoon. It was then and there that I learned about the Frenchman who was elected pope but declined to move to Rome, about the six Frenchmen who succeeded him as pope, and about the last of this first group, Gregory XI, who eventually made the move. His relocation, however, was only a temporary end of popes in Avignon. Following his death, a Neapolitan was elected, a man whose suspicious nature and violent outbursts of temper so alienated the cardinals that they elected a rival pope, leading to what became known as the Western Schism and to a line of popes later deemed antipopes. Historians note that all this drama six hundred years ago was based on political rather than on any theological differences.

Not being Roman Catholic, I’ve never been invested in the belief of papal infallibility. Had I been, history certainly would have disabused me of such a notion – including the recent history of a pope’s visit to Washington. What fault could I possibly find in such an eminence as Francis I? One stands out – his continuation of a status quo that diminishes women. I understand theologians can find Biblical objections to the rights of women, but where are any moral objections to be found? I don’t expect a pope to change Church doctrine, but a pope who believes in the Big Bang and evolution, who talks about not judging gays, who says women who’ve had abortions and people who’ve had divorces should be forgiven, and who says annulments should be expedited is surely a pope capable of publicly contemplating the Church’s age-old discrimination against women. Was it not possible for him to openly discuss the equality of women without explicitly calling for an end to the ban on women serving as priests? Surely just talking about such things would not result in rebellion or, worst, a poisoned chalice. Yet, he did not, does not, do so. How much of the world’s progress is retarded when one of the most admired and influential figures on the planet chooses to ignore and dismiss a matter of such magnitude? Does talking about the life’s work of Dorothy Day or telling a gathering of nuns he loves them compensate for this lack?

Religions, including Christianity, are not the source of gender discrimination; cultures are. Religions, however, often are conduits of culture-based discrimination, making it possible that a 239-year-old country such as ours has been allowing women to vote for only the past 95 years.

Noticeably absent (or, maybe, not widely reported) during the pope’s visit was any large-scale effort by women’s groups to address the issue of women in the priesthood. It’s not as if American Catholics don’t have an opinion on the subject; for the past several years, the number of those who favor the ordination of women has hovered around 60 per cent, yet they appear content to tolerate the present situation rather than emboldened to demand change. I imagine their faith confers a patience that eludes me, a knowledge that reminds them that religions have rules and change sometimes is slow. They know there was a time when Catholic women couldn’t participate in mass, sing in choirs or even touch the cloth on a church altar.

A friend, an agnostic who describes herself as a “recovering” Catholic, has great admiration for Francis. She – among other astute women I’ve heard talk about this pope – did not seem to have a problem with his not having waded into the thicket of gender equality. When asked why, she explained she believes his beliefs still may be evolving, and that he may yet surprise us on the subject. Perhaps, but mightn’t a bit of direct action speed the process?

A pundit, speaking on a news program recently, noted it was men who voted to give women the franchise in this country. It was pointed out that those men, most likely, had wives and daughters to prod them, relationships missing from the lives of the men who make up the College of Cardinals. It is doubtful those cardinals or their leader will welcome women into the ranks of ordained clergy anytime soon without being made to do so by the laity.

The first pope of whom I became aware was John XXIII. His has been a hard act to follow. Francis may yet rise to that stature, but he may need help. He is, after all (as he would acknowledge), a man as fallible as any other.

Darker than

     Those who know the music of the late, great Curtis Mayfield know that one of the songs on his seminal, eponymous debut album was We People Who Are Darker Than Blue (released forty-five years ago this month). Given how black people sometimes treat each other based on skin tone, and given Mayfield’s own complexion, I always thought that song carried an extra dose of pathos. He, however, made it clear he meant to include more than those as dark as he. I’m talking ’bout brown and yellow, too, he sang. Those words are being borne out in places and in ways he never had in mind.

     On the continent where 18th century German scholars created the concept of whiteness with their invention of racial science, people are once again being dismissed for falling short of an arbitrary standard. In Hungary – a country once occupied by the German Nazis, followed by the Soviet communists and now under the leadership of right-wing nationalists – people are being singled out based on skin color. Inundated by tens of thousands of desperate men, women and children fleeing fighting in Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Libya, the Hungarians have blocked the refugees’ progress toward Northern and Western Europe with razor-wire fences, police lines and discerning eyes. The latter involves police at the Budapest train station allowing white and lighter-skinned people to pass through but stopping and demanding papers from virtually all darker-skinned people. (The Washington Post). The question this raises is what matters most, status or color? The Syrian refugee I saw interviewed in a CBS news segment, describing his lack of food and sleep, was fair-skinned and blue-eyed. What reason would Hungarian police have to stop him based on the criteria already set?

     This tactic echoes one being employed closer to home. In the Dominican Republic, where black people have managed to convince themselves they aren’t black, the government has passed anti-immigrant laws aimed not only at Haitians, but even Dominicans of Haitian descent. Demanding that such people provide papers proving their right to remain in the country, the government decided that one way to deal with those who could not obtain the necessary documentation was to expel the ones who were deemed dark-skinned or African in appearance.

     It is ironic that a proximity to whiteness has attained such importance. In her book The History of White People, renowned Princeton historian Nell Irvin Painter writes that the ancient Greeks noted their northern neighbors (whom they considered to be barbarians) had lighter skin than the Greeks thought normal. That was then. The new norm means people reaching Greece today from the Middle East and North Africa face additional hardships based solely on not being white enough.

     Perhaps some of those refugees from places like Iraq, when reflecting upon the life they left behind, might gain an appreciation for the difficulties of some of their former compatriots still at home. I have in mind the more than half-a-million, marginalized black Iraqis who trace their ancestry to slaves who arrived beginning in the 6th century and continuing until the 20th. One such Iraqi was a man named Jalal Dhiyab Thijeel, described in a New York Times article as tall, funny and handsome. Taking inspiration from the opening of Iraqi society after the 2003 American invasion and, later, by the election of Barack Obama, Jalal began to push for anti-discrimination laws in Iraq. His efforts resulted in his assassination in 2013.

     Today, people who are much lighter than blue nevertheless sit in makeshift camps in Hungary. A line from a song unknown to them would offer some insight, if they could only hear it. If your mind could really see, you’d know you’re colored the same as me.

What a Coincidence

By its very nature, this city must double as a hometown and a tourist town. Over the years, it has attracted many types of visitors. Occasionally, this has included some of what might be called visitors of the close-encounter kind. Although the ideal times to see the sites of this city are Spring and Autumn, these particular tourists seem to favor visiting during the sweltering heat of the month that just passed.

I had been on this planet just six months when others reportedly came here in a manner quite unlike you and I. They, apparently, arrived in vehicles of much greater speed and maneuverability than the F-94 jets sent to identify them. This was after they suddenly appeared on the radar screens at Washington National Airport and at Andrews and Bolling Air Force bases as unidentified flying objects. It was after the pilot of a nearby commercial flight reported watching six bright lights streaking across the sky, “like falling stars without tails.” A headline on the front page of The Washington Post read: “ ‘Saucer’ Outran Jet, Pilot Says; Air Force Puts Lid on Inquiry.”

This was July 26, 1952. Given Washington’s weather, our “visitors” may have been nothing more than that – weather. That is the official Air Force explanation. Those blips on the radar screens, those speedy lights in the sky, they were the results of temperature inversions.

A temperature inversion is when a layer of cold air is trapped under a layer of warm air – commonly occurring in extremely hot weather – causing radar beams to bounce down and make objects on the ground appear to be thousands of feet in the air. This same strange “weather” had happened just the week before, with experienced pilots chasing what they described as lights that were speeding, hovering, changing directions, vanishing at the approach of fighter-jets, and reappearing when the jets left. All of this happened while experienced air traffic controllers watched it play out on their radar scopes. We are to pay no attention to their reports, only to what their superiors say.

That line of reasoning is a persistent one. How else to view its resurrection fifty years later – to the day? Yes, on July 26, 2002 area radar detected an unidentified aircraft with which controllers were unable to establish contact. As reported by Steve Vogel in The Washington Post the next day “…NORAD was notified. When the F-16s carrying air-to-air missiles were launched from Andrews, the unidentified aircraft’s track faded from the radar.” This was reported by a military official speaking on condition of anonymity. The official line of the DC Air National Guard says the launch of the F-16s was “routine”. An area resident who told Vogel he went out to see why military jets were flying low over his home in the middle of the night was convinced what he saw was not routine. “It was this object, this light-blue object traveling at a phenomenal rate of speed,” he said. “This Air Force jet was behind it, chasing it, but the object was just leaving him in the dust.” I recounted all of this in a conversation with a friend a few evenings ago. Much to my surprise, I learned his wife thought it was not routine when she observed the object from their kitchen window.

John Kelly, writing in the Post in July, 2012 about the 1952 incident, sides with those who say it was just the weather, concluding “that asking whether there were any alien spacecraft over Washington in 1952 is like asking whether there were any witches in Salem, Mass., in 1692.” I admit his logic escapes me. Maybe it’s because of my tinfoil hat.


In the last weeks of summer in 2001, I found myself hunting for something in my files, “files” being a euphemism for frayed, yellowing papers stuffed here-and-there. Some idea had come to mind, and I remembered something I had scribbled on the subject at some point before, so I went looking for it. To this day, I cannot remember what I originally had been trying to find because – as often happened – I stumbled across other things which diverted my attention.

What I discovered that summer day were two essays I had written some years before, one of which I had submitted to this city’s commission on the arts and humanities for a contest it was sponsoring. Typed on impossibly thin Coraserble Bond paper, it railed against the geopolitics of the time. I had had high hopes for Iran following the overthrow of its shah, and had grown disgusted that the country’s revolution had replaced the fascism of its right-wing secular government with the fascism of a theocracy. Judging by what I had written, I had been even more disgusted by how the leaders of this country and Europe seemed to have responded. The other essay was written as a humorous piece about a non-humorous subject. It was an open letter to all the world’s disgruntled groups engaging in what some such groups do at times. It was titled “Don’t Bomb Washington”. In it, I explained that the people of this city never do anything to give anyone any reason to bomb us. I pointed out we don’t have a vote in Congress, where most anger-inducing policies are made.

The memory of running across those two pieces remains with me because of what happened three days after finding them. That third day was September 11th, and this city barely missed being bombed. Now, recent events remind me of something I thought then, a thought some might find inappropriate given that day’s carnage, but it is what came to mind nonetheless: “There are not enough jihadists in the world to ever make me forget that the profile of a terrorist in this country is a white male.”

That truth was borne out two weeks ago today in Charleston, South Carolina by one such individual who has said he believes in the separation of the so-called “races”. In his mind, this includes the elimination of the race from which he hopes to separate. One white organization I would support – were it to exist – would be the National Organization to Make Sure White Men Don’t Get Mad About the Wrong Things (N.O.M.S.W.M.D.G.M.A.W.T.).

White male anger is not necessarily a bad thing. This nation was founded by aristocratic English colonists angry enough to believe they could secede from the English kingdom. When angry American soldiers in Philadelphia demanded to be paid for having fought all the king’s men, the frightened founders – realizing no state could guarantee their protection elsewhere – established this federal district called Columbia as a safe-haven for themselves. The birth of the nation and its capital are just two entries on the list of not-so-bad things resulting from white American male anger.

Then, there is that other list, the one of terrible things. Let’s consider an item near the top. With their angry forbears having successfully seceded from England a mere 77 years prior, Southern aristocrats in some of those former English colonies became mad enough to secede from this country. That might have gone well for them had they not also been angry enough to fire on our Fort Sumter. That was a mistake leading to 630,000 deaths and more than a million casualties, but it was their mistake. The question we find ourselves asking 154 years after we were fired on is “Why does the United States of America continue to pay for the mistakes of the Confederate States of America?”

That’s a question we never would have to ask if we had an N.O.M.S.W.M.D.G.M.A.W.T. We don’t, so the question must be answered. One answer is a word now commonly associated with 20th century English statecraft and diplomacy: appeasement. If you know your history, you already know it is a word fraught with negative connotations ever since British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain mistakenly thought he could appease the anger of German Chancellor Adolf Hitler by agreeing to let him annex parts of Czechoslovakia. You also know how Hitler proved him wrong.

Our own appeasers predate Chamberlain by more than 70 years. In a spirit of brotherly love, for the sake of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation, our appeasers thought they could “soothe the savage breasts” of the Civil War’s losers by welcoming them back into the nation. It was a noble notion, and may have gotten worthwhile results were it not for the fact that the anger of our former antagonists never dissipated. Instead, it metastasized.

Lately, we have been witnessing the beginning of the end of at least one form of appeasement – the official reverence afforded the Confederate battle flag. It is not enough that the freedom granted by our Constitution allows people to display their ancestral disdain for the nation on bumper stickers and billboards. They have expected their state to display it as well, and the idea that the state might disagree makes them angry. Frightened by the prospect of that anger turning into the loss of elections, legislators have capitulated and anti-American flags have been flying on government grounds. As for the rest of us, we have not been angry enough to do much more than protest. Now, because of the confluence of tragedy and guilt, this one type of coddling will cease. Of course, angry new-age rebels do more than wave flags. Seven years ago, one burned down a black church because he was mad a black man had won the White House. Fourteen days ago, one killed nine people in church because he was mad black people exist.

The home of Mr. and Mrs. Wilmer McLean in the Virginia hamlet of Appomattox Court House is where this nation’s appeasement of the South began. It was there that the victorious General Grant graciously gave the vanquished General Lee a break instead of what many believed Lee deserved. The appeasement continued during the decades that followed. In 1877, it was the terminating of Reconstruction and removal of federal troops. It was the Supreme Court’s Plessy decision in 1896, which made racial discrimination legal until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Two years ago, the Court weakened the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the midst of voter suppression. Two days ago, we learned the Court has agreed to hear yet another challenge to affirmative action during its next session. Despite all of this and more, it never has been enough. A war we pretend ended a century-and-a-half ago continues to be fought in angry hearts and minds.

In high school, I had the fun of playing the title character in a production of “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox” from William Thurber’s revue, A Thurber Carnival. In that skit, a drunken Grant surrenders to Lee, providing more irony for audiences than Thurber might have imagined or intended. Playing Grant is one thing, but in real life I am only 16.5% white, so I am not the best candidate to take a swing at starting something like an N.O.M.S.W.M.D.G.M.A.W.T. More of the 100% folk need to grab a bat and step up to that plate.

Chances Are

One summer evening, after gathering at my apartment in Anacostia, DC, a group of my friends and I piled into someone’s car and headed off to see the group War perform at the DC Armory. Concerts at the Armory were sit-on-the-floor affairs – literally, there was no seating. The show had just begun when my friends and I, and those sitting near us, heard the low but growing rumble of what sounded like approaching thunder. We turned our gazes from the stage toward the sound, and saw what looked like a tsunami. A rising wave of panicked, stampeding human bodies was headed right for us, people who already had spied the wave approaching them and had instinctively leapt to their feet and turned to run away. If the question of “Why?” ever entered anyone’s mind, it was a fleeting thought. We knew only that we must move. We jumped up and turned to run just in time to be swept up and carried along like flotsam. I had taken pillows from my sofa, pillows I never saw again. A friend lost his glasses. Other concertgoers lost shoes and other items. We were the lucky ones. Some had been nearly trampled or crushed, and had to be carried out in ambulances which had been driven right onto the Armory floor.

Once the crowd began to pour through the doors in a rushing torrent, things slowly began to calm. We soon learned a fight had broken out in a far corner of the venue, and those nearby who tried to move out of the way apparently started a chain reaction of retreat. Once the ambulances left, the show resumed, and people settled down on the floor once again as if nothing unusual had occurred. The chances of the same thing happening again did not seem to enter people’s thoughts.

I remember that evening as having presented me with what I thought was a moment of clarity. I used to wonder how people who had experienced an earthquake could so casually resume their lives in the same location. It came to mind again as I sat back down to listen to the music. “Oh”, I thought, “people just take their chances, even in situations like this”.

The recent deadly flooding in Texas and Oklahoma brings to mind this very point. One elderly man being rescued commented to reporters that all of it was nothing more than a bad, hundred-year flood he had heard about all his life. “Well”, I thought, “if he knew all along that a bad one was due, I guess he just always has taken his chances.”

Life goes on, as it must, but sometimes it makes no sense to keep doing the same things in the same ways. The destruction from flooding in Houston, the nation’s fourth most-populous city, must be considered alongside this fact: there are real estate websites that tell people in Houston and its surrounding areas exactly how FEMA has assessed the flood risk there – assessments that cover centuries. Home buyers are informed that the 100-year flood plain carries a 1% chance of being flooded in any given year, and a 26% chance of flooding during a 30-year period. The 500-year flood plain has a 0.2% chance of being flooded in any given year, and a 6% chance of flooding during a 30-year period. Potential residents also are told that localized street flooding can happen anywhere in a heavy rain, not only in the 100 and 500-year flood plains.

Before the age of websites, of course, people have posted warnings for posterity’s sake, warnings that often are unknown or unheeded. Think Leviticus, for instance. Whatever your opinion of the dietary restrictions found in that book, looking at them through modern eyes may make you appreciate their efficacy. As pointed out by the Biblical Archaeology Society “Like other ancient peoples, the early Jews avoided certain foods and other practices through simple observation of the dangers. Many of their statutes form a basic health-and-hygiene guide for any people living in a warm, arid climate without the luxury of refrigeration and availability of advanced medical treatment. They observed that in a hot climate, mixing milk and meat can have a bad effect on health. The prohibition against eating shellfish makes sense if you consider they are potentially deadly for a consumer if water reaches a certain temperature. Spoiled finned fish is readily detectable by smell and taste, but not so with shellfish. Pork rots easily. Spoiled pork is more dangerous than other meats like goat and – because of a pig’s diet and lack of ability to sweat – can contain up to 30 times more toxins than beef or venison, thus a potential health hazard as well as a possibility of transferring parasites.”

What has been happening in Texas recently brings much more to mind about heedlessness and risk taking than memories of that War concert or thoughts about Leviticus. I am reminded of the tsunami that struck Japan following the 2011 earthquake. For me, the most stunning revelation to follow those events were the reports about ancient warnings. Unlike what we read about the Ten Commandments, the Biblical dietary restrictions were not written in stone. The Japanese warnings were. As Martin Fackler wrote in The New York Times in April of that year “Hundreds of so-called tsunami stones, some more than six centuries old, dot the coast of Japan, silent testimony to the past destruction that these lethal waves have frequented upon this earthquake-prone nation. But modern Japan, confident that advanced technology and higher seawalls would protect vulnerable areas, came to forget or ignore these ancient warnings, dooming it to repeat bitter experiences when the recent tsunami struck. The flat stones, some as tall as 10 feet, are a common sight along Japan’s northeastern shore, which bore the brunt of the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami on March 11 that left almost 29,000 people dead or missing.”

The forbears who erected the stone outside the small village of Aneyoshi were specific in their caution, writing “Do not build your homes below this point!” Paying attention paid off. Fackler writes “Residents say this injunction from their ancestors kept their tiny village of 11 households safely out of reach of the deadly tsunami…that wiped out hundreds of miles of Japanese coast and rose to record heights near here. The waves stopped just 300 feet below the stone.”

We may be risk-averse as a species, but not so much as individuals. So, as we will inevitably continue to take chances and place ourselves on shaky ground at times, perhaps its best to remember the words of Aneyoshi villager Isamu Aneishi who said “We are proud of following our ancestors, but our tsunami stone can’t save us from everything.”


“…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. 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.