In 1994 a shooting occurred that plunged the city of Springfield Massachusetts into controversy and threatened to cause racial unrest. Here are excerpts from a New York Times article on the affair.
A month after Officer Donald Brown's welcome-back party, people here are still talking about it.
Officer Brown, who is white, had been on a paid leave of absence for killing an unarmed black man last winter, a case that had already caused an uproar, not least because of what many saw as the Police Department's unlikely portrayal of it: as an accident growing out of a mistake that stemmed from a hoax.
A grand jury cleared Officer Brown of wrongdoing, and a police commission decided not to hold disciplinary hearings, so his friends and colleagues decided to give him a party at the Ale House, a downtown tavern.
"Congratulate Don on a job well done (Keep up the good work)," read the invitations, which were posted at Police Headquarters.
The party-givers say they were just trying to cheer up a colleague who had been devastated by the shooting. But to many others, the party sounded like a celebration of the death of Benjamin Schoolfield, the 20-year-old man whom the officer had shot to death. Blacks also point to a ham that was given to Officer Brown as a present at the party -- a gift traditionally exchanged, they say, by white vigilantes of the Old South....
"Why would they congratulate someone for a shooting?" said Chelan Jenkins, an 18-year-old friend of the Schoolfield family who has helped organize marches and vigils to protest both the shooting and the party.
Actually, no historical evidence was ever presented that such a ritual has ever existed, in the South, in Springfield or anywhere else. In retrospect, apparently the myth of the ham ritual was created out of thin air simply to inflame the situation. Also from the Times article:
The events that led to the killing began when a woman dialed 911 and reported that her van had been stolen at gunpoint. That call, the police now believe, was a hoax, perpetrated by the woman because she was afraid to tell her boyfriend that she had lent the van to an acquaintance, who in turn lent it to Mr. Schoolfield....
At its recent convention in Chicago, the N.A.A.C.P. passed a resolution condemning both the shooting and the party.
To Chester J. Ardolino, the president of the Patrolmen's Union in Springfield, the N.A.A.C.P. response was an overreaction. "I don't think anybody was intentionally intending to offend anyone," said Mr. Ardolino, who was at the party. "At the worst, it was in poor taste."
Mr. Ardolino confirmed that a ham had been presented as a gift but said that he -- and, to his knowledge, everyone else at the party -- had been unaware of any ritual significance to it.
Of course I had to put my two cents in.
The work ethic, apparently, is in decline even among car thieves. In the old days, if you wanted to take possession of another person's automobile, there was a certain minimal level of skill and hard work involved.
First, you had to stake out your intended vehicle, in order to be sure you wouldn't be surprised by its owner's unexpected arrival. Then you had to get into the car, despite it being locked, and then hot-wire the ignition. These are not skills requiring a degree in engineering, but it's not the sort of thing you could necessarily expect to do successfully on your first try. You have to have a little practice, or a short apprenticeship under the tutelage of a more seasoned thief. At least that's how it used to be. Today - like the chimney sweep and the blacksmith - the skills of the traditional car thief are becoming a thing of the past.
Nowadays, if you want a nice car to drive around in without the inconvenience of having to pay for it, you take a much simpler and direct route. First, you pay a visit to your local unlicensed gun dealer, who sells you an appropriate piece on the spot, no ID required and no questions asked.
Next, position yourself near a major intersection, preferably one with a reputation for having a long running red light. As the cars line up waiting for the light to change, pick out your intended vehicle. Don't be afraid to be choosy, after all there is always a remote chance you'll be apprehended by the police, and why risk weeks or even months in jail for a beat-up Chevy? Hold out for the Mercedes or the Lexus, or if it's your lucky day, the Lambourghini. Even if you're a juvenile or a first offender, you still may as well steal a car worth your while. If caught, it's terrible the number of tiresome hours you have to spend hanging around the courthouse waiting to be assigned your probation officer.
Once you've singled out the appropriate victim, walk up to the car on the driver's side and place the end of the barrel of the gun directly on the glass, preferably so that it makes an ominous, attention getting sound. Once you have the driver's full attention, shout out some variation of the command "GET OUT" perhaps accentuated by an obscenity. You'll be amazed by how quickly and obediently most drivers will exit the car. Then jump inside (remember that the light will change momentarily) and long before the car's former owner can dial 911 you'll be on your merry way.
That's it. No fumbling with stubborn locks. No messy playing with shattered ignitions. So simple that even a graduate of the Springfield School System can succeed on their first try!
Some people who own expensive cars now drive out of their way to avoid neighborhoods like Mason Square or the North End due to the fear, rational or not, of who may come tapping on their window if they're forced to stop at a red light. Something terrible happened in Springfield on the night of February 7, something we still don't understand but which continues to send shockwaves, both social and political, throughout our Valley.
A woman called the police claiming that her van was taken from her in Mason Square at gunpoint. Later, she would admit that this was a lie. The woman was actually a drug addict who lent the van to her drug dealer in return for a fix. The drug dealer then lent the van to Benjamin Schoolfield, for reasons that are not yet clear. In any case the police spotted the vehicle cruising the city's streets, and naturally believing that it was the armed carjacker who was behind the wheel, prepared for a possibly violent confrontation. What happened next is a question of fierce debate, but this much is known for certain: When it was over, behind the wheel of the van was the 20 year old Schoolfield, who was wanted on default warrants but was not a violent carjacker, and he was dying from a bullet wound inflicted by a policeman's gun.
At this writing, an inquiry into the tragedy is underway. If the past is any guide, it will produce findings that will be considered unsatisfactory by all concerned. However detailed the inquiry may prove to be in a factual sense, it is impossible to recreate the emotional and high tension atmosphere in which it occurred, thereby leaving any conclusions open to any second guessing anyone chooses to make.
The shame is a lot of that second guessing is likely to be politically motivated by people with an axe to grind. There are powerful forces in Springfield who are trying at all costs to discredit the police in the eyes of the public. They are doing so in order to advance an agenda of "reform" whose real purpose is to bring the police department under tighter political control. While most city departments are completely political extensions of those in power, the police department has remained a mostly independent entity immune to political pressure.
In recent years, the political independence of the police has proven to be an embarrassment to the Democrats who dominate Springfield's city government. In 1988, when local Democrats were falling all over each other trying to promote the presidential campaign of the then Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, the Springfield police gave their endorsement to George Bush. That a police department in Dukakis' home state endorsed Bush deeply humiliated our local Democrats, especially when Bush himself flew into town to accept the endorsement in person, causing the event to receive national attention.
Another embarrassment for the local Democrats occurred when contractless Springfield police picketed the Civic Center during the Democrat State Convention of 1990. A fracas broke out when some delegates tried to cross the picket line, causing an incident which made the Democrats look anti-union and anti-cop. In local politics the police union has repeatedly endorsed candidates for local office outside the city's political establishment, most recently opposing Mayor Robert Markel's re-election bid in favor of challenger Kateri Walsh.
The result has been repeated political retaliation designed to bring the police to heel. First came the article "House of Hate" in the Springfield Newspapers. That article portrayed the police department as a haven of bigotry, sexism and discrimination, with unproven allegations printed in tones implying they were facts, even though most of the allegations came from one disgruntled female officer, Paula Meara.
Around the same time, a group described by the Springfield Newspapers as "concerned citizens" called for a study into possible "reforms" in the police department. Not everyone recognized that the leader of those "concerned citizens" was Brian Long, an executive with the Springfield Newspapers.
The ultimate result of the demands of these "concerned citizens" was the infamous Wasserman Report. Ridiculed from the moment it was released, the report was dismissed as a collection of rehashed ideas and vague goals. But buried among the bromides and flotsam were a few very specific recommendations, which if implemented would bring the police department under strict political control.
For example the report called for the Police Chief (who now comes up through the ranks) to be appointed by the mayor, including granting the mayor the right to appoint someone from outside the police department. This would mean that the mayor could appoint a political crony, or an ideological soul-mate from another state, to head the police. In short, the Police Chief would be beholden not to the public, or to the police officers, but to the politicians with the power of the chief's appointment. Would such an appointee oppose the mayor's re-election or step on any politician's toes?
The politicization of the police department is the hidden agenda behind these relentless attacks on the police, chiefly being made through the political establishment's primary mouthpiece, The Springfield Newspapers. Mindful that the the public is not likely to be inclined to support such a naked political power grab, every attempt is being made to create the impression that the police department is out of control and in need of "reform."
It is this ongoing political agenda that explains the bizarre coverage of the carjacking tragedy. Virtually no mention has been made of Schoolfield's prior criminal record. Instead there has been lengthy accounts of his hobbies, family ties and other irrelevancies, to the point that if you knew nothing of the circumstances that brought Schoolfield to his unhappy end, you might think he was on his way home from a prayer meeting! Distraught family members (the least objective commentators imaginable) were given lengthy quotes in which, with nothing to back up their accusations, they were allowed to accuse the police in print of committing murder.
Political battles in Springfield are typically mean, vicious, manipulative and unprincipled. But this exploitation of a tragic death, inflaming racial tensions for political ends, is a new low. It's the politics of death, and don't fall for it.
2008 Update: They did fall for it. The leaders of the Schoolfield protests, Benjamin Swan and Chelan Jenkins, rode the controversy into political office and taxpayer financed positions. The Schoolfield family itself sued the city and received hundreds of thousands of dollars. Mayor Michael Albano implemented the recommendations of the Wasserman report, appointing to the Chief's job department critic Paula Meara and to the Police Commission Gerald Phillips. Meara was later forced from office by Mayor Charles V. Ryan amidst widespread charges of Meara's incompetence, while Phillips was sent to prison amidst an array of allegations of misconduct both financial and sexual.
It was so cold this morning even my neighbor's dog had a coat on!
Later at the bus stop I saw this guy with some cool Grateful Dead stuff embroidered on his bag.
A complete success or utter failure
Is in such critical balance
That every smallest
Human test of integrity
Every smallest moment to moment decision
Tips the scales affirmatively or negatively
Wherefore we recognize that
It is both fear and ignorance
That delays popular comprehension
Of our historically unprecedented option
Of total human success
-R. Buckminster Fuller
Epic Poem on the History of Industrialization