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.