From “Burn, baby, burn!” to “I can’t breathe!”

We ain’t rioting against all you whites. We’re rioting against police brutality …. When the police treat us like people instead of treating us like animals, then the riots will stop.

These words* were not spoken in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, but in Newark, New Jersey in 1967. The speaker was a young man named Billy Furr, who had come to Newark from Montclair, NJ, to get his unemployment check and look for work when five days of rioting broke out. Billy could not get home because bus service had been disrupted by what Life magazine called “the predictable insurrection.” Newark police had been seen dragging the limp body of a black taxi driver they had arrested for passing them on the wrong side into a precinct building across the street from a large public housing development. This incident may have triggered the violence, but the indiscriminate shooting by the N.J. National Guard reignited the blaze after the first day.  (*I have recast the reporter’s attempt to imitate black speech, which strikes me as condescending now.)

After talking with Life reporter Dale Wittner on Avon Avenue at the corner of Livingston Street in Newark in the middle of the turmoil, Billy went off to look for beer. Shortly afterwards Wittner and his photographer Bud Lee found Billy carrying cases of beer cans out of Mack’s Liquors about a block down Avon. Dale took the beer that Billy offered and then went into a nearby tenement “to view rat holes and roaches in a cruddy $85-a-month apartment.” Just as Dale stepped back out on the sidewalk, a police car screeched to a stop in front of the liquor store. In a series of photographs published in the July 28, 1967 issue of Life magazine, Bud Lee captured Billy’s last moments. A police officer jumped out of the car, yelled for everyone to get down, and shot Billy in the back as he raced off down the street. Stray pellets from the blast of the officer’s shotgun also struck 12-year-old bystander Joe Bass, Jr. in the neck and thigh. The series of images in Life include one of Billy lying dead on the sidewalk with a can of beer at his feet and the shotgun-wielding officer standing over him. Taking up the entire facing page is another photo of the young Joe Bass lying on his side with blood flowing down the sidewalk. Another shotgun-wielding officer with a cigar clamped in his mouth rushes over to check on the boy. On the cover of this issue, Life published a different angle of the wounded Joe Bass Jr. bleeding on the sidewalk. Here is a link to that cover.

Someone, probably my father, sent a copy of that issue of Life magazine to me in Kenya, where I had been living for the past 18 months. I still have the pages with the Newark story. The story and images upset me greatly. That’s why I kept them. That’s why I wrote this poem at the time. It’s called “Moto, Toto, Moto,” using the Swahili words for “child” (toto) and “fire” (moto) to echo the sound of “Burn, Baby, Burn.”

Moto, Toto, Moto

Life Photographer:

Moto, toto, moto,
Billy—my young black friend,
Running round like loco …
Cops’ll get you in the end.

Black, Billy, you’re black, Billy,
And you’re drinking whitey’s beer.
Run, Billy. The cops, Billy.
Get the hell out of here!

So, Billy, you’re dead, Billy.
Like I’d thought you’d be.
Well, Billy, you know, Billy,
I’m glad it wasn’t me.

Billy’s song:

Burn, baby, burn.
America …
my country’s burn-
ing—
me.

Beer, baby, beer.
America …
the land where beer’s
not—
free.

See, baby, see
America …
the whore, which bore
not—
me.

With beer, baby, with beer,
America …
the whore, douched
out—
me.

Me, baby, me.
America …
the land where I’m
not—
me.

I retrieved this poem and these pictures from Life because I have been thinking about the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and on Staten Island. Previous posts have looked into resentment, reluctance to forgive, and in particular, African-American resentment over centuries of slavery and mistreatment. While African-American reaction to these recent incidents has not been as literally explosive as it was in the 1960s, the depth of their feeling cannot be understood without recognizing its consistency with their justifiable resentment.

Would those well-meaning whites, who reject resentment as unhealthy and immoral, be willing to stand up now and tell an audience of African-Americans that they should forgive Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown? If forgiveness is the absolute imperative for mental and moral health that some whites make it out to be, why don’t we hear these same people advocating forgiveness as the means to heal our nation’s wounds? Instead, it’s very easy to vilify and sneer at all police in this country, implicitly to avoid becoming a target of African-American resentment, while keeping quiet about one’s own disdain for any kind of resentment.

As for examining my own conscience, I was struck when the commentator David Brooks observed that whites are able to separate specific incidents like Ferguson and Staten Island from general patterns of racism. I know that I can. I can talk dispassionately about why the Ferguson grand jury decision is defensible, but not the one in Staten Island. I can say that one officer followed proper procedure, and that the other broke a clear, long-established rule against choke holds. It bothers me that I can think this way.

Where is the outrage of the young man who wrote the poem about the death of Billy Furr?  There are ways that life and work smooth off the rough edges.  I have known too many caring police officers to engage in the vitriol that recent events have unleashed.  During my recent tenure as township manager, at least one police officer took medical retirement because he actually had to use his sidearm to shoot someone on the job.  The person shot did not die.  I know that many would now say that the process use to confirm that the officer was acting in self-defense was flawed, but by the officer’s own reaction I know that using his gun on another human being was the last thing he wanted to do.  This horror at having inflicted violence on another is so well-known that granting medical retirements to police officers after a shooting incident is routine under New Jersey pension regulations and procedures.

As my 71st birthday approaches, I ponder the words of Robert Frost that I read one summer in college, and ask what must I do to make sure they don’t become more true:

I never dared to be radical when young
For fear it would make me conservative when old.

Uncomfortable thoughts for an aging radical in uncomfortable times.  Now, some African-Americans are criticizing President Obama for, in their view, not speaking out forcefully enough.  They dismiss his claim that things are better now as a generational perception.  His generation, they say, may feel that things have improved, but they haven’t gotten any better “for those on the street today.”  In one of his interviews the President alluded to his institutional responsibilities.  I know that in my years as CEO of a municipality it was my duty to protect the institution, often more from politicians than members of the public.  To reach back into my radical past, let me note that in State and Revolution, Lenin argues that people can be cultivated to become unselfish, committed members of the community by being made to act that way over and over.  Like all attempts at social engineering, Leninism led to the disaster of Stalinism.  But Lenin did have a fundamentally sound psychological insight.  If you do something over and over again, it can become not just a habit, but also your new reality.

Sometimes I could overcome this process.  During my first year in one of my township manager positions, I was asked to speak at the annual Martin Luther King Day community breakfast.  When I was shown the peace, love and brotherhood feel-good bromides that had the previous presenter had used, I wrote my own piece.  Needless to say, that in subsequent breakfasts, this item was removed from the agenda in the name of shortening the program.  I was never asked to speak again.

THERE IS A REASON

There is a reason why we are here today. There is a reason why we remember Martin Luther King Jr. today as a great and good man.

The reason for this occasion may be found in three pictures which I saw this past week.

Some of you may have seen the first image on the front page of the New York Times, a picture of 15 Chinese immigrants huddled together in the rain on the docks of Seattle, survivors of a trip across the ocean in a metal cargo container. These people were so desperate to get to America, the golden land of opportunity, that they endured over two weeks entombed in a dark box, with no food for days, no toilet facilities, and the bodies of three dead companions. Probably, only to be sent back.

But we are not here today to talk about the dream of America as the land of opportunity. We are not here to celebrate the fact that Franklin Township has a new mayor who comes from India. Even though I do celebrate that fact. And I do think that our salvation as a nation will come from our openness to all peoples and all cultures.

We are here today because Martin Luther King’s ancestors did not make the trip across the ocean willingly. Dr. King’s ancestors were kidnapped, chained, and thrown into ships in conditions even more horrific than those endured by the Chinese immigrants who landed in Seattle last week. We are here because the survivors of that ocean passage were then held in slavery for generations. We are here because the stain of the crime of slavery on our nation has not been removed even by a civil war.

The endurance of that stain, that wound of slavery and racism, the continuation of that affliction is captured in the second image I would like to note. That is the picture of Lige Daniels that was published in last Thursday’s New York Times. It is the picture of Lige Daniels being lynched in Center, Texas on August 3, 1920. It is the picture of the white men and boys standing around Mr. Daniels’ body, smiling into the camera.

The reason why we are here today is that between 1882 and 1968, the year of Dr. King’s death, over four thousand seven hundred African-Americans were killed by lynch mobs in this country. The reason why we are here today is that in 1998, James Byrd Jr. was dragged to his death in this country, just because he was black.

The article accompanying the picture of Lige Daniels describes another picture in a collection of photographs currently on display at the Roth Horowitz gallery in Manhattan. I quote from the article:

One exhibit at Roth Horowitz provides a glimmer of what these photographs might mean for the future. It is a photograph of Frank Embree, standing on the back of a buggy, naked and chained, shortly before his death in Fayette, Mo., on July 22, 1899. He has been severely whipped and the camera records the deep lacerations up and down his body. But it also records his insuperable dignity and his eyes, which look down at the camera and directly into the lens, oblivious of the leering white men who crowd into the picture.

[The exhibit annotator] writes that Embree’s eyes are dead, but it seems equally arguable that they know death is coming. Their narrow, exclusive focus gives them a flicker of life. Embree looks into the camera as if into the future, as if he knows that the camera will ultimately betray the men around him and let the world know his fate.

The third picture that explains why we are here today is the cover of last week’s New Yorker magazine. It shows a well-dressed Dr. King stepping off the curb on the streets of New York trying to hail a cab. We are looking at Dr. King through the windshield of the cab. In the upper corner of the picture, we see the frightened eyes of the white taxi-driver reflected in the rear-view mirror.

That New Yorker cover requires no further comment as to why we need to be here today.

I apologize if the images I have called before you this morning are unsettling. But we are here on serious business. I do think that Dr. King would take it as a tribute to his own memory if we were to say that we are here today for Frank Embree and James Byrd Jr. We are here today because the Franklin Martin Luther King Scholarship Fund is one way for us to say and to make sure: Never Again!

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

(*) Required, Your email will not be published