Friday, July 31, 2009

This Brew's For Blue

Where my niggaz at? I don't actually speak that way. In fact, I loathe that type of speech in general, and the spelling in particular, but I felt if I did something inappropriately racist and caused a fuss, like arresting a man in his own home, I might stand a chance of having a beer with the President. Only, I drink sweet tea down here in Memphis, and I don't need a "teachable moment" concerning racial profiling. I've seen it up close, personal, and ugly. In my youthful interactions with the police, then mostly Korean War and WWII vets, I've been jacked up, backed up, frisked, knocked down in the middle of a student riot, threatened with a nightstick and a snarling German Shepard, roughed up, cuffed up and caged, and spoken to by the police with obscene homosexual references concerning the length of my hair. And that was just for being in attendance. Back in the hippie era, my black friends would always remind me that although I had tasted police abuse, I could always cut my hair, whereas the only black man who has successfully changed his skin color is Michael Jackson, and look where that got him.

Growing up in a segregated society, I have seen police abuse against black people my entire life. I saw a policeman beat a man with a billy club for dancing in place at his reserved seat at a Rhythm and Blues concert. Police then never referred to a black man by anything other than "boy," and God help you if you objected. Gradually, police standards were raised and alot of the old guard was phased out by the mid-seventies, but a policeman friend told me at the time that that the command structure "resented the college man," and it took many years to try and purge, at least, the overt racism that existed in the Memphis Police Department. So my tale is personal, and only this latest incident in Cambridge caused the recollection.

I had a friend named Mike Whitten, who, unlike most hippies in the early seventies, worked a steady job as the night manager of a mid-town 7/11. He didn't mind the late hours because he loved to read, especially horror stories, so we often exchanged different volumes of H.P. Lovecraft. I still have one of his books I meant to return. One night two black thugs with guns held him up. Whitten cooperated and when commanded, got on his knees on the floor, Still, one of the men shot him execution style for nothing. Shock reverberated through our youthful community of longhairs and Mike's friends. It was a severely painful episode in the middle of a sorrowful time. Police caught the robbers, but the loss was tragic and palpable.

After the tearful funeral, a wake was organized at the apartment of my friend and colleague Skip Ousley, where we would toast to our late friend. Skip is a black man who worked as a bouncer at the time at the High Cotton Club. Soon, many toasts were made and the crowd in the small space was growing unmanageable, until they filtered out into the common courtyard several floors below. A particularly drunk, boisterous, and grief stricken husband and wife began a personal argument that echoed throughout the building until Skip had to intervene and bring them back inside. But soon they were back at it in the echo chamber courtyard, only this time, while Skip tried in vain to stop them, the Memphis police arrived. They immediately went for Skip, who was shirtless, cuffed him and threw him in the back of the police car, and then they asked what happened. The drunken white couple attempted to speak up and were immediately put in the patrol car with Skip.

Uncommonly, I had the clearest head that night, so I approached the officer courteously and tried to explain the painful reason that we were assembled, and that this noisy couple simply had too much to drink. Skip had merely tried to stop the argument. The policeman frowned at me and said, "Everybody's going downtown." This was a younger cop and I thought I could appeal to his reason. "Look," I said, "This man lives here and was doing his best to stop the noise. There's no good reason for him to be arrested." The officer stared at me coldly and said the words I'll never forget, "Ain't no way the turd's not going down." I was stunned silent, but more bothersome was the reaction of my friend. Skip sat, handcuffed and head bowed in resignation, accepting of his fate, offering no protest. I was more outraged than he was. "Can I at least bring him down a shirt," I asked. In the same terse manner, the officer said, "Say one more word and you're going too."

So, Skip went to jail for the offense of being black while two white people in his parking lot went berserk. The charges were ultimately dropped, but Skip was printed, spent the night in jail, given an arrest record, and needed a lawyer. My friend's reserved response showed that he had learned never to argue with the police regardless of the circumstances, but my shock over the casual injustice showed my naivete regarding police attitudes towards blacks. These two cops had no sympathy for the situation and made no attempt to remove the guilty parties, only relished the thought of taking another black man, in the midst of these white hippies, down a peg. It was a disgusting thing to watch. Since then, the professionalism and diversity of police departments across the country has most certainly improved, but there are places and remnants of the old attitudes everywhere. So, although Cambridge Police Officer James Crowley may be the exception, don't tell me that there aren't a ton of racist cops still out there who get their power rush from harassing "niggaz." Sorry, Mr. President. I prefer Miller High Life in a frosted mug.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Your Cell Phone Is Killing Me

In the name of all that's holy, will some elected official entrusted with the public's safety; man or woman, Republican or Democrat, local, state, or federal, please find the conscience or the nads to stand up to the telecom industry and propose legislation banning cell phone use while driving? Is this a difficult call to make? Nothing is more personally enraging than to be held up in traffic by some grinning, oblivious, self-absorbed fool, yammering into a cell phone with one hand on the wheel and the other up to an ear, while angered drivers maneuver to pass on the left and right. Don't they still teach Driver's Ed in school? And if so, whatever happened to both hands on the wheel in the ten and two positions? At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, I believe that cell phone use is a prime contributor to the breakdown of civility in society, but using the dastardly devices while driving a car is simply stupid, and deadly.

Now we discover that, according to the New York Times, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration withheld hundreds of pages of research confirming the deadly results of cell phone use in cars, "because of concerns about angering Congress." The research, begun in 2003, estimated that cellphone use by drivers caused 240,000 accidents and nearly 1000 fatalities in the previous year, and we would never have heard about it had not the Center for Auto Safety petitioned for the findings under the Freedom of Information Act. Clarence Ditlow, the Center's director, said, "We're looking at a problem that could be as bad as drunk driving, and the government has covered it up." Why am I not surprised that the Bush era Transportation Department, under Secretary Norman Mineta, decided to quash the report as "inconclusive?" The Bush team caved-in to every other corporate interest with political donations in hand, why not the cell phone industry too? Ditlow added, "No public health and safety agency should allow its research to be suppressed for political reasons." Can I get a witness?

There are currently fourteen states that ban texting while driving, which is like outlawing mixing cocktails behind the wheel, but only six that forbid yacking.(Current state cell phone and text messaging bans are posted here). The texting ban grew after the April 29, 2009 incident of a bus driver in San Antonio captured on film while he texted his way directly into the rear of several vehicles stopped at a red light. Tennessee has a texting ban, but although they have compiled crash statistics, there is currently no effort to ban hand held devices while driving. There is some irony in the fact that, as a nation, we mourn the brave soldiers, now over 5,000 in number, who have sacrificed their lives in the Bush wars over the past eight years, yet we barely swallow hard over the nearly half million traffic fatalities on our nation's roads annually. It took Mothers Against Drunk Driving to raise public awareness about that deadly behavior, but a University of Utah study comparing 40 volunteer drivers of a "virtual car," discovered that the actual drunks did better than the cell phone users, and that chatting on the cell was the equivalent of registering a .08 on the drunk-o-meter.

I understand that there now exists a "culture of the cell phone" that will be difficult to alter. I carry a cell phone, but I don't answer it if I'm driving, and if I need to make a call, I pull in somewhere and stop. It's not that I'm not smart enough to multi-task, it's that I realize that driving today's roads requires complete attention, if only to protect yourself from some Suburban Assault Vehicle drifting into your lane because the driver is on the phone. Unless you're a doctor or a fireman, aside from a "please pick up some milk on your way home" call, there is no phone message so urgent that it can't wait a few minutes to be answered safely. In Europe and the UK, cell phone use is already banned while driving, so why does it always take this country so long to enact the obvious? I forgot, we disdain European culture. The Old Country takes the matter so seriously that there is a kit for sale that includes a paint-ball gun for drivers to mark the cars of violators when the police aren't around. Of course, anyone around here would have their heads blown off with a real gun by the law-abiding, carry-permit holders who would never allow such an affront to their property. The effete Europeans don't allow guns in cars either, but at least in this country, we're able to call in a shooting with the cell phone that's already in hand.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Willie and the Hand Jive

"North side, east side
Little Willy, Willy wears the crown/
He's the king around town...
'Cos little Willy, Willy won't go home/
But you can't push Willy round/
Willy won't go."

"Little Willy" The Sweet, 1973

There are occasions in the life of Memphis city politics when you just have to stand back and stare in awe. In 1968, Mayor Henry Loeb's patronizing, pigheaded position concerning city employees virtually forced a confrontation with sanitation workers. Then there was the memorable evening back in the mid-seventies when a disgruntled bar patron grew tired of hard-drinking Mayor Wyeth Chandler attempting to grope his date and kicked his ass in the parking lot behind Overton Square. Now, we have the on-again, off-again resignation of Mayor Willie Herenton, supposedly set for July 30, depending on how spiteful he's feeling at the time. But the bellicose rhetoric and the contempt the Mayor has shown for those citizens outside of his loyal voter base has made it open season for Herenton's critics, and they are legion.

If Chicago is "The City of Big Shoulders," then Memphis must surely be "The City With a Chip On Its Shoulder." It's true enough that African-American citizens have been disenfranchised, underrepresented, and used as pawns in city politics in the not-so-distant past, but most Memphians long for the time when those days can be considered ancient history. It's just that some politicians who shoulder the largest chips won't allow us to move beyond it. Race is just too good of a political wedge issue to leave alone. City Council votes fall routinely along racial lines with many agenda-driven Councilpersons seemingly in it for self-aggrandizement or personal advancement. There is the rare, well-meaning, public servant, but John Vergos retired in frustration over trying to deal with the half-wits, even if he denies it. Perhaps it would be helpful to begin each City Council meeting with a brief group therapy session, or a 12-step program to see how everyone's doing with their respective dependencies. Meanwhile, the mayor's utter contempt for the Council does not make for good government, nor do his take-it-or-leave-it pronouncements from on high.

The most common term describing the mayor that I have seen lately, from professional editorialists to letters to the editor, is "egomaniac." He has become George Bush-like in his opinion of his subjects; you're either with him, or you're against him. And if you're not beholden to the mayor for your job or other "city services," you're considered by Herenton as just another "hater." The Mayor has been playing defense so long now, he has forgotten how to inspire. But it wasn't that way always. I voted for Herenton three times, and three out of five ain't bad. But he lost me around the "Don't bring no mess" phase, when his speeches became increasingly angry, paranoid, and racially tinged. Recalling Herenton's election as Memphis' first black mayor and the tremendous elation that came with the hope that this city might finally transcend its' racially divisive past seems like a very long time ago. Eighteen years of waiting for a renaissance that never arrived has made me Willy weary in the extreme. Especially since he ran for his fifth term just to prove he could be re-elected.

Mayor Herenton's admirable place in the revitalization of downtown during his first two terms has decayed along with the city. The combined efforts of government and business have overseen the opening and closing of Peabody Place, the pending destruction of the Coliseum, the Mid-South Fair moving to Mississippi, and questionable construction issues concerning the FedEx Forum. And as far as our big, empty Pyramid, it is way past time for Bass Pro Shops to fish or cut bait. Remember when a consortium of businessmen wanted to put a first-rate aquarium in the Pyramid? The mayor blew that one off before he even examined how similar facilities in Chattanooga and New Orleans have become major attractions. The thought of coming over the Memphis-Arkansas bridge and envisioning the architecturally beautiful Pyramid with a giant, hooked fish on its facade would be enough to make the project's founder, John Tigrett, spin in his grave, had he not purchased the "Fair and Square" casket he descibed in his autobiography that leaves him no wiggle room.

So now Herenton wants to run for Congress against Steve Cohen to restore African-American representation to the majority black 9th District. As reported in the Flyer, the Mayor thinks Cohen is "an asshole," but he's wrong. Maybe Cohen used to be an asshole as a young, ambitious County Commissioner, but thirty years in the state legislature taught him the humility needed to compromise with others for the common good. The difference between Cohen and Herenton is that Cohen is running for re-election to serve his constituents; Herenton just wants to win. It was heartening to see Rep. Cohen get a position on the prestigious House Judiciary Committee, where as a freshman, he was taken under the wing of legendary Michigan legislator John Conyers. Cohen was wise enough to know that he had a lot to learn and humble enough to allow himself to be mentored by the elder Conyers. Herenton has no such humility. I'm certain that if Herenton knows John Conyers, he considers himself every bit his equal. After all, what has John Conyers ever run? In the U.S. Congress, you must wait your turn; not the best job for a 70-year-old man used to getting what he wants when he wants it. Herenton has already said he plans to win the election with black votes alone, so we can expect a particularly ugly and race-based campaign.

I think Herenton feels under appreciated. After 18 years, the Mayor is crying out for recognition as the historical politician that he is, only he has stayed at the dance too long and the guests have all gone home. This late-life, vanity run for Congress is an attempt to prove that nobody stops Willie Herenton. Except, the Mayor may first want to check the last election returns to see that Cohen captured 60% of the African-American vote, and in the age of Obama, racial politics takes a back seat to the competence of the candidate. My unsolicited advice is for Dr. Herenton to make good on his retirement of July 30, go out a winner, and forsake further political ambition. Either that, or learn how it feels to lose, badly. Mayor Herenton has become an angry man who no longer receives praise or thanks for his work and feels persecuted by those around him. I think what he really needs is a big hug. So, how about this? For your decades of service to this community, thank you Willie Herenton. During your tenure as Mayor, you did many good things. May you enjoy your golden years in tranquility. Now, was that so hard?