While the world observes the recent acts of police killings and brutality, and the exonerations of the policemen, it should be emphasized that there is nothing new about these events. Law enforcement personnel have been engaged in chokeholds and other forms of brutality and killings since the transatlantic slave trade.
In 1857, the fifth Supreme Court justice of the United States, Roger Taney, wrote in the Dred Scott decision, “Black people have no rights white people are bound to respect.” In my 55 years of ministry, one of my major efforts has been trying to wring justice from the criminal justice system, including the courts, penal system and especially the police. As I observe the demonstrations across the nation, especially in New York, I relive the countless demonstrations, rallies, boycotts, sit-ins and other acts of civil disobedience that I led as chair of the National Black United Front.
Monday, Dec. 8, as I was on my way to a basketball game at the Barclays Center with some of the youths, Eric Garner’s support marchers had filled the streets with mostly young people. When some of them saw me, they clapped, smiled and put their fists in the air, expressing respect and appreciation. What moved me the most was what one youth said to me as she marched by: “We are carrying on the torch, reverend.”
It took all of my strength not to join them, but I had made a commitment that I had to keep. I thought to myself, “I’ve been in enough marches that I can miss one. There will be another time to march.”
As I continued my journey, smiling and overwhelmed with emotions of pride and gratitude, I whispered to myself, “Thank God.”
I would like to share my thoughts on the causes and solutions of police behavior, most of which I’ve submitted to mayors and police commissioners. In so doing, I hope I can make a contribution to achieve justice within the criminal justice system, especially as it relates to the police.
November 1976: Randolph Evans, a 15-year-old Black youth was killed by police officer Robert Torsney. November 1977: The jury gave him a tap on the wrist. He was sentenced to two years of psychiatric treatment with weekends home. In our anger, we called for a citywide economic boycott. We called it “Black Christmas ‘77.”
We continued the boycott of the stores in downtown Brooklyn for another nine months until we arrived at a settlement of our 10-point demands, which included a memorial scholarship and a memorial crisis fund named in honor of Evans. To keep his memory of alive, since 1978, we have given 10 college-bound students at least a scholarship of $1,000. The late Basil Paterson helped to negotiate the agreement. The feds refused to indict Torsney for the violation of Randolph’s civil rights.
In June 1978, Arthur Miller, a widely respected businessman, died from a police chokehold. The jury refused to indict the officer. I wrote to then-President Jimmy Carter and Drew Days, who was the assistant U.S. attorney at the time, describing the deaths and overall police behavior. I received no response. Later that year, Carter came to New York. I marched thousands across the Brooklyn Bridge in an attempt to get the president’s attention. Most of the crowd were driven back and chased off the bridge by policemen on horseback. A few of us did succeed in getting through to scream our anger at the president and Mayor Ed Koch as they held a ceremony on the steps of City Hall.
As I observe the meetings of civil rights leaders with President Barack Obama on the question of police conduct, I marvel and hope that it means progress toward radical reform of the criminal justice system, particularly the police. When Koch won the mayoral race in 1977, he came to Brooklyn for one of his inaugural ceremonies. It was held at the Brooklyn Museum. As he rose to speak, a mic was handed to him. I snatched the mic and told him he couldn’t speak in Brooklyn until he addressed the killing of Evans. The startled mayor agreed to meet regarding the slain youth. We met at City Hall Jan. 12, 1978.
It was the first issue with which Koch had to deal as he started his tenure as mayor. It would not be the last. I often wonder how many lives would have been saved if our demands for justice and recommendations for police reform were implemented.
The National Black United Front, the Black Panther Party, Assemblyman-elect Charles Barron, the Rev. Al Sharpton and so many other Black leaders (and some whites) tried with all their might, year after year, killing after killing and brutality after brutality, to achieve justice, to transform the Police Department. We even influenced two congressional hearings chaired by Rep. John Conyers, one in Harlem (July 1983) and the other in Brooklyn (September 1983).
Yet, here we are with the same issue. The first chokehold death in which I struggled to obtain justice for the victim was Miller. He was killed June 14, 1978. The officers were exonerated, which followed the historic pattern—no matter how brutal, how obviously guilty the officers were, seldom, if ever, they were punished for their crimes.
In 1973, 10-year-old Clifford Glover was shot in the back by a police officer named Thomas Shea. While he lay on the ground dying, Shea’s partner was reported to have said, “Die, you little b—d.” There was no indictment.
Prior to Garner, the more recent chokehold death was Anthony Baez. The guilty officer was Francis Livoti. The city jury exonerated him. However, a federal jury found him guilty of violating Baez’s civil rights and sentenced him to seven years.
In recent years, there have been over 1,000 complaints of chokeholds submitted to the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Only a relatively few received minor punishment. The more serious punishment was the denial of vacation time.
To be continued.