Living ‘Black’ in the United States of America

And living to tell the tales.

Traffic was heavy on Route 17 in Hasbrouck Heights on my way home to Ridgewood, NJ, after work on Wednesday, which wasn’t exactly news. But, as I approached a stretch where Route 46 and Interstate 80 go over Route 17, traffic eased and I saw the reason why. Rubbernecking motorists.

What were they looking at?

A black man with both hands on top of his head standing in front of a white police officer on the grassy area next to the shoulder. The cop’s car, lights flashing, and another car in front of it were parked on the shoulder. Unlike Alton Sterling on Tuesday or Philando Castile on Wednesday, this black man stopped by a white cop was still alive.

James Eagan Holmes, heavily armed, killed 12 and injured 70 people in a Colorado theater and was captured alive. Dylann Roof killed nine churchgoers in South Carolina and was captured alive. Jason Dalton killed six and injured two in Kalamazoo. His life was preserved as he was being arrested.

Cedric Chatman. Tamir Rice. Laquan McDonald. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Black men make up 6% of U.S. population; are 40% of people killed by police.

He’s lucky to be alive, I thought as I drove on. Was that too sanguine a response to the situation?

Jesse Williams Speaking out

I am not taking the situation lightly. I’ve lived long enough to be a middle-aged black male despite too many tangles with cops, both in the United States of America and elsewhere, to do that. But, as these killings pile up, becoming more and more common each day, I’ve long realized that I’ve been lucky to still be alive to tell tales of encounters with cops.

My narrow escape from racist Afrikaners in 1994, while on assignment for the New York Daily News in South Africa, is an entirely different story that will be told a different day. Not today. Also, it’s available on the Internet for anyone curious enough to want to find out.

St. Louis, MO in the ’80’s

A police car pulled up behind my car as I eased into traffic after a college friend and I left a bar late one night many years ago. He pulled me over. The cop came up to the car, peered in, then instructed me to step out. I did. He said that he had stopped me for suspected drunk driving because he had observed me weaving in and out of traffic. I protested that I did no such thing and that, in any case, I couldn’t be drunk driving since I had not been drinking.

He cuffed me and took me to a police station while my drunk friend slept in the passenger seat of my car on the side of the road.

In the station, I was put in a room where a guy asked me to breathe into a machine. I did. At first, the annoyed cop told me to stop fooling around and really breathe into the machine. I showed him that I was. He told to his colleagues that I was not drunk, that they should let me go.

I was in a daze but felt an overwhelming sense of relief. My ordeal was about to be over. About a half dozen officers standing outside the door grabbed me as I came out of the room and slammed me to the ground. They shackled my hands and feet to my waist and marched me off to a holding cell. A fury replaced my sense of relief.

I gradually became aware that there was someone else in the cell with me. He told me to calm down, that I should ask for a glass of water the next time the cop came by. I did as he said and my shackles soon came off.

Talking with the man afterward, he told me he was relieved to be in the cell because he “I always seem to stab people when I find myself outside.”  Great. And I was in there alone and shackled with him. I passed a restless night.

I was released the next morning and was told I was free to go. What are the charges, I wanted to know. No charges, was the response. Wait. I just spent a night in your jail. What do you mean there are no charges? I called the ACLU as soon as I got home. I wanted them to file a lawsuit. They sympathized with my plight but there would be no lawsuit, they said. Why not? The cops intentionally did not charge me because they were going to deny ever coming in contact with me.

On my way to play in a soccer game a few days later, a cop car pulled up behind me, lights flashing. I pulled over, stopped my car and, before any instruction from the cop, I laid on the ground with my hands behind my head. Two cops approached.

“What the hell are you doing?” they asked. They were smiling.

“You’re about to arrest me, right?”

“What would we arrest you for?”

“I don’t know.”

They said they pulled me over because my car momentarily did not appear to have an operator. I explained that I had leaned over to pick up a soccer boot. I apologized if I created any danger. They were shaking their heads as they walked away, as if I was crazy.

New Jersey and New York in the ’90’s

I became a newspaper reporter after college and worked with cops in my career, even knew some of them as friends. I used to sit in Hackensack Police Chief William Iurato’s office shooting the breeze. I just remember laughing a lot when I was around Chief Iurato.

“You’re not black and I’m not white,” Chief Iurato would tell me. “We are the same. We have everything in common. We came into this world holding our dicks and sucking our thumbs.”

Michael Mordaga, a legendary cop in the Hackensack Police Department, gave me some of the best stories I wrote at the Bergen Record. One of my first assignments at the Record was to go cover an Al Sharpton rally in Teaneck, NJ. It was August 1990, some time after Patrolman Gary Spath had shot 16-year-old Phillip Pannell. Spath was white and Pannell was black. People in Teaneck resented the township’s notoriety in the wake of the shooting, the Police Department most of all.

I had sought to speak to Captain Donald Giannone that day. He refused to speak with me. Another captain, whose name escapes me now, called me aside and spoke to me that day. I liked the captain–he was very open-minded, practiced Yoga, was studying the Japanese language, and did not mind that his teenage daughter was tattooed, often driving her to and from concerts in New York City. I made it a point to stop by his office when I made my rounds of police departments in those days to check what was in the police blotters.

One day, as I was leaving the Teaneck Police Department, Giannone, who had since become police chief, called me over. He reminded me of our previous encounter and guessed out loud that I probably thought him a son-of-a-*&%#. I smiled. His countenance was serious as he leaned in to give me a history lesson.

He told me about the Los Angeles riots in 1965 and how the Los Angeles Times did not have a black reporter and so sent a messenger from their advertising department into the city’s riot-torn neighborhoods to cover the story. That reporter, he said, won a Pulitzer Prize for his work. The story was more complicated than that but he was coming up to his point.

More than 25 years after the Los Angeles Times had to press a black messenger into covering riots in that city, the Record did not have a black reporter to cover Teaneck’s riot. Yet, the Record had the gall to write daily editorials excoriating Teaneck for not having black police officers. Giannone could barely contain his rage as he told me this.

He was talking to me, he said, because he did not want me to think his not taking my questions at the rally a personal snub. When I identified myself as being from the Record, I was the first black staffer from the newspaper he was meeting, he said, and it was hard for him to get over the paper’s hypocrisy.

We shook hands and told me the department and his office was always opened to me.

That story was kind of off topic but I relate it to show a more nuanced professional relationship with cops, some of them good and some not so good. But I didn’t have a chip on my shoulder when I came in contact with cops. Jack Terhune, a veteran Teaneck officer who became the Bergen County Sheriff, didn’t much care for me but that was because he thought my coverage of suicides in the county jail was unfair. He held a meeting with Glenn Ritt, editor of the Record at the time, to ask him to remove me from covering his department.

My stories were not unfair. Then Bergen County Prosecutor Jay Fahy, whose office investigated the suicides, corroborated most of the things I was finding out about the county jail. Ritt, to his credit, never removed me from the cop beat.

At the New York Daily News, I covered all manner of stories and had many encounters with New York City cops. Perhaps the most significant one occurred one day in November 1996. It was my day off and my wife and I came out of our Chelsea apartment to find a crowd of our neighbors arguing with a cop.

Figuring that I am used to dealing with cops, I went over to see if I could keep things from escalating. In those days, “Opposite-side of the Street Parking” rules were suspended on Wednesdays, meaning people could park on both sides of the street without being ticketed. The city had apparently changed the rules without informing my neighbors. The officer was ticketing every car. I convinced my agitated neighbors to let me talk to this cop.

But he would not listen. My neighbors should take their summonses to court, he said. Tell it to a judge, was his essential message. My neighbors were working people. Taking time off work to go to court would cost them. After failing to convince the cop, I told my neighbors that we needed to go to the precinct, which was on 20th Street. I made one mistake that day. As I turned to leave, I called the cop an “a–hole.”

He heard me. The word barely escaped my lips when his hand flew to my neck and he pinned me against the wall and radioed for backup. In a blink of an eye, the 10th Precinct shut the block down. Police vehicles from everywhere descended on 16th Street and 8th Avenue. Before I could breathe, I was flat on my back with a cop holding each limb. The one sitting on my chest was punching my head. I was shackled in no time and bundled into a police van and taken four blocks to the precinct.

I was in a second floor holding cell watching as a group of officers, holding a book, were deciding what I should be charged with. The decided to charge me with everything in a section of the book, including OGA or obstruction of governmental administration, resisting arrest, and assault on a police officer — six felony counts in total.

I was in a daze as I made my way through the system, getting to Central Booking and seeing a judge about 3 a.m. My attorney that morning, even though it had been my day off, was Daily News Attorney Eve Burton. Eve was a legend and I can’t say enough about her toughness. But she couldn’t represent me because, again, it was on my day off. I was, however, facing serious charges. Six felony charges was no joke.

Eve Burton called in a favor and connected me with Jack ‘Rusty’ Wing, who was a partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, a big deal international law firm headquartered in New York City. As serious as the charges were, my case was quite pedestrian by the standards of the cases they handled. Jack Wing nevertheless had the firm investigate my case, including interviewing my neighbors about the incident. Eve Burton also vouched for me.

A call was placed to Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau’s office letting him know that I was solid and ready for trial. On a sunny day in early 1997, I went to court and a bevy of prosecutors told a judge that they could not substantiate the charges of six felony counts against me.

Without any question to me or the prosecutors, the charges were dismissed and I was a free man. We later had a dinner to celebrate with my benefactors, including Eve Burton and Jack “Rusty” Wing and colleagues like Tom Robbins and Gene Mustain.

So, why do I consider myself lucky?

I am a black man in America who has managed to stay alive despite numerous scrapes with police officers, including during Rudy Giuliani’s reign as New York City mayor. I covered the the stand off on July 3, 1993 between law enforcement and the followers of the ‘Blind Sheikh’ Omar Abdel-Rahman for his involvement in various terrorist plots, including the first bombing of the World Trade Center. That night I ended up detained by 70th Precinct cops (no charges filed) in the same holding cell where NYPD Patrol Officer Justin Volpe later sodomized Abner Louima with a broken broom handle.

Luckily, Louima lived. Amadou Diallo was not so lucky. 41 bullets. Patrick Dorismond said no to drugs and an NYPD undercover cop took his life. Ousmane Zongo, Tim Stansbury, Sean Bell, Eric Garner. And that was just New York City. Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland. . .

How did I go from that optimistic 16-year-old African immigrant who alighted in in April 1979—Chicago’s stardust-flecked streets an unlikely promontory to my gossamer American dreams—into the married father of two sons who is now eternally afraid for their lives, if not his own?

It is experiences such as I’ve described that curdle the American dreams for me and my own. And the too often awful tidings about lives of people who look like my sons and me being snuffed out.