Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Williams' homicide and the need to learn from history

By Barbara J. Miner

Police relations with the African community have a long-standing and disturbing history in Milwaukee. The names Daniel Bell, Clifford McKissick, Ernest Lacy and Frank Jude Jr., in particular, will always be remembered.

How police and public officials responded to past allegations of brutality was as important as the initial transgressions. The hope is that the latest disturbing incident — the homicide of Derek Williams while in police custody in July 2011 — will provide an opportunity to heal rather than divide.

Now, as then, it will require not only changes in police behaviors, but also serious attention to related issues of joblessness, poverty and apartheid-like segregation in Milwaukee.

The most infamous case of police behavior, the death of 22-year-old African American Ernest Lacy three decades ago, has troubling similarities to Williams’ homicide. In both cases, police knelt on the suspect’s back; in both cases, the suspect died after an inability to breath.

On Thursday July 9, 1981, Lacy was helping his cousin paint an apartment near 24th St. and Wisconsin Avenue. Just before 11 p.m., Lacy walked to a nearby Open Pantry Food Mart for a snack. Near the store, he was stopped by three Milwaukee policemen looking for a rape suspect.

Certain details will never be known. But four eyewitnesses —three white students from nearby Marquette University, and a black church elder — later testified at an inquest that they saw Lacy face down on the ground, his feet near the curb and his head almost in the lane for oncoming traffic. He was handcuffed with his wrists behind his back, his arms jerked high into the air. An officer was kneeling on him. The only disagreement among the eyewitnesses was where the officer had put his knee —the neck, the base of the neck, perhaps the upper back — and whether Lacy’s arms were at a right angle to the street or “nearly” a right angle.

Lacy was thrown into a police wagon and police then drove a few blocks to arrest another man on old parking warrants. When the other man was put in the police wagon, it became apparent that Lacy was not breathing, and an officer administered smelling salts. By the time paramedics arrived, Lacy’s heart had stopped. Lacy was taken to a nearby hospital where, just before midnight, he was pronounced dead on arrival. In the meantime, another man had been arrested for the rape.

Jurors at a subsequent inquest, after a month of testimony from 100 people, unanimously found that Lacy died due to an interruption of oxygen to his brain because of the pressure applied to his chest and neck.
For almost two years, sparked by Lacy’s death, race relations in Milwaukee were dominated by the issue of police brutality.

It didn’t ease the community’s anger when, about a week after Lacy’s killing, a jury exonerated police in the death of a young man shot during Milwaukee’s 1967 riots. A policeman had shot the 18-year-old black youth, Clifford McKissick, while he was running away from the scene of a firebombing. The family had filed a civil suit, which took 14 years to work its way through the courts.

A few months later, in December of 1981, the Lacy case again overlapped with past allegations of police brutality. This time, the black community was vindicated. A federal civil jury awarded $1.8 million to the estate of Daniel Bell — a 22-year-old black killed in 1958 after being stopped for driving a car with a broken taillight. One of the officers, Louis Krause, admitted more than two decades later that fellow officer Thomas Grady shot Bell in the back, the gun’s muzzle only six inches away.

When Lacy died in 1981, education, jobs, and housing were pressing concerns, as they remain today. The Lacy case, in what was so starkly a matter of life and death, became a focal point for anger and discontent that had many roots and many causes.

Thousands of people marched throughout the summer, demanding justice. “Fire Breier,” they would chant, referring to the police-chief-for life, Harold Breier. Breier, in turn, would show up at the demonstrations, all but taunting the crowd.
Jurors at the inquest that fall recommended that three of the police officers be charged with reckless homicide. Charges were eventually dropped, with the district attorney citing difficulties in getting a conviction. The Coalition for Justice for Ernest Lacy continued organizing, and forced the Fire and Police Commission to take disciplinary action. One officer was fired and four others suspended.

The Lacy case earned a place of distinction in Milwaukee history as the most-sustained, well-organized community campaign ever against police misconduct. But it was not the last incident to spark concern.

A decade after Lacy’s killing, in 1991, Milwaukee suffered through its most heart-wrenching murders ever. Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer murdered 17 men and boys, with Dahmer’s gruesome crimes including torture, dismemberment, necrophilia and cannibalism. A number of the victims were young African Americans and Asians. Concerns were soon raised that police racism and homophobia helped Dahmer remain beyond scrutiny as he killed so many for so long.

Then, in 2004, came the vicious and prolonged beating of Frank Jude Jr., self-described as biracial, by off-duty white policeman. At one point, Jude was kicked so hard in the crotch that “his body left the ground,” according to a federal appeals court ruling. Pens were stuck into Jude’s ear canals, and his fingers were broken “by bending them back until they snapped.” One of the police thrust a gun to Jude’s head and said, “I’m the fucking police. I can do whatever I want to do. I could kill you.”

The federal appeals court most eloquently summed up the significance of the Jude case. In a decision upholding the conviction of three of the officers involved, it noted: “The distance between civilization and barbarity, and the time needed to pass from one state to the other, is depressingly short. Police officers in Milwaukee proved this the morning of October 24, 2004.”

The recent actions of police and public officials — the letter of concern from 11 members of the common council, the potential federal investigation, and the district attorney’s reopening of the case — give hope that Williams’ death will lead to a much-needed look at police relations with the African American community.

Should that happen, perhaps we can also hope that joblessness, segregation and poverty will get the serious attention they demand. Indifference is not an option.

As Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes noted so many decades ago:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

— — —

This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.

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