Bearing white witness

B

Note: I’ve been called for jury duty many times but have never actually served. The closest I got was on a case that the Assistant District described as a robbery of clothing from a store. He delivered this explanation to a panel that had already been narrowed to a number close to required final dozen. “I have one more question that I will ask you to respond to with a show of hands. Would you have any reason to disbelieve the sworn testimony of a police officer?” As soon as he finished his question, I knew that I was going home again. I raised my hand and was dismissed.

Here is the story behind that raised hand and what it has to do with the burning issues surrounding the police and their relations with communities of color.

In the long-overdue attention these past weeks to police violence against Black people, the issue remains an abstraction to most white people in the same way that we experience news reports about the oppression of the Rohingya in Myanmar. We may feel outrage and compassion without any basis in actual lived experience. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of bearing witness to an egregious, but all too common, example of this police brutality and the casual way in which it is treated by the system. Retelling it now may help other white people consider the abuses that have been hiding in plain sight forever and the passion behind current Black demands for change – finally.

The years my wife and I spent in Mississippi in the ‘60s had already predisposed me to not seeing the police as protectors of “good” people from bad actors, helping children or old people who have lost their way to return home safely. In Mississippi, the cops were often the bad guys, a source of menace, particularly if you were either Black or a white person open to be seen as n…. lovers. We were teaching at a predominantly Black college outside of Jackson, and if, on a nighttime return on the dark road from town to campus, we saw that blue light in the rear-view mirror gaining on us, we were consumed by fear. The campus was just beyond the county line that marked the end of the jurisdiction of the pursuing police car, so if we hustled, we could make it home safe. On other occasions, we had to bail students out of the county jail after arrests for nothing more than being Black, so our feelings about those men in uniform were already more complicated than they were for most whites.

It was shortly after our return to New York from three years away in Mississippi. We were living in a brownstone in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. My daily route home from the subway led me past a street that housed a school for what were then called with little self-consciousness “juvenile delinquents.” As I recall, in the Department of Education classification system, these were 600 schools. 100 and 200 schools, like PS 189, the school I attended, were ordinary neighborhood schools. The 600s were for kids who had been expelled from their neighborhood schools and/or had had run-ins with the law.

On this day, as I passed the street on which the school was located, I saw a large crowd gathered around two teen-agers, one Black, the other white, who were going at each other pretty aggressively in the old fashioned manner – fists, headlocks, but no weapons. (If you haven’t already, you should read Geoffrey Canada’s memoir Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun, which traces the increasingly violent path of street combat in New York City.) The fight had been going on long enough before my arrival to allow time for someone to call the cops who were just arriving when I got there.  They jumped out of their car and separated the two boys but grabbed only the Black student and threw him into the back seat of their cruiser with the unaccountable, but now familiar, hand on top of head as the prisoner is lowered into his seat. It was a particularly ironic gesture, given what was about to happen.

It looked like the whole affair had been wrapped up, so I continued the remaining few blocks on my way home. Now this becomes a story of one-way streets. The school’s street was one-way headed east. When I got to the corner of the next block, here came the police car now heading west. Standing on that corner I had a ringside seat to watch the cop who had climbed into the back seat with the young man, who I assume had been handcuffed at some point. The officer was landing blows more punishing than any in the original — punches to the face and stomach that felt almost as brutal to watch as they were to absorb. I was pretty shaken by the time I got home, but the tale seemed to end there for me.

But it was only the beginning. There was a story in the paper the next day because, as I recall, the student had been hospitalized after his arrest and he was arraigned on the grounds that a weapon had been retrieved from the site of the fight. I had been close enough to that scene to know that there were no weapons involved, unless the cops had planted some. The boy, let’s call him Raymund, was being raised by his grandmother who, the news story reported, was looking for witnesses. I contacted her, as did one of the teachers at the school who hadn’t seen the beating but was prepared to testify that there were no weapons and that any injuries Raymund suffered were not the result of the fight.

For the next two years, the teacher and I appeared every time the case was on the court docket, only to have it postponed, usually because the cops failed to show up. It was clear to me and my fellow witness that the cops were counting on us to give up on the case, so they could finally get an uncontested conviction on the charges. Raymund was only 14 or 15 at the time of the fight, so he was treated as a minor. In New York that meant that his case was heard in Family Court which operates less formally than regular criminal court. I remember watching the judge, a woman with a progressive reputation, as we told our stories of the events of that day, which by then were tending to blur a bit, though nothing in comparison to what I’ve lost in all the years that have passed since. (Hint: I left New York 49 years ago.) She was so incensed by the behavior of the police in this case that she dismissed the charges against Raymund – tears from Grandma – and referred the case to the police review board for action against the officers.

Once again, our patience as witnesses was being tested. It took several months before a hearing was scheduled. There was no civilian review board the time, so the case was dealt with internally by a high-ranking police officer who in this instance happened to be Black. It’s a safe bet that his race was a factor in the outcome because the offending cops received 30-day suspensions without pay. This felt like a pyrrhic victory, given the nature of their offense and the burden on everyone’s time, but my guess is that most cases prosecuted by the cops themselves resulted in dismissals, so it wasn’t nothing.

There were some positive notes along the way – the judge who saw through the case that had been fabricated against Raymund and the police officer who at least gave his fellow cops a slap on the wrist, but I think the resolution of the case is the exception that proves the rule. It is, in the end, a story about white privilege, the outcome determined by the presence of two tenacious White witnesses. For every case like Raymund’s, there are dozens where Black young men get railroaded into a conviction or a plea deal and where the actions of the police are not called into question at all. My presence on that street corner in Brooklyn gave me a glimpse of the ugly underbelly of unchecked police violence against Black men and boys that remains invisible to most white people. Yet cumulatively, the police killings of Black men and women in recent years and the accompanying videos which expose both the disregard for human life and the false police narratives behind their actions have finally caught the attention of a critical mass of white citizens who now recognize what they have almost willfully overlooked for too long. White people don’t need any further proof of a reality that every Black person can attest to. It’s time to do something about it.

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Marv Hoffman

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