As American as Apple Pie
In 1950, my parents named me Thomas Jefferson Greene. The first and middle names were to honor “all men are created equal,” even though that eloquent founder held slaves. When I was a teenager, I challenged my father on the contradiction. He shrugged. “Just focus on the words.”
A half-century later, I am struggling to focus on the promise in those words. I am also clawing my way through crying jags and have engaged in some bad behavior, especially toward my wife, Mary.
This evening, I arrived home in Douglasville, outside of Atlanta, and went straight to my safe haven, a recliner in the den. With my stature and poise diminished, I must make a crucial life decision here and now. I should have checked in with Mary first, but I did not. There is a small wrapped gift for her on the side table.
I have been a mediator for the federal government for more than twenty years. My job is to help resolve, without favoritism, disputes between communities and police departments. The disputes almost always involve accusations of excessive force, mainly in minority neighborhoods. My skills have been in great demand lately.
But a few days ago, I was accused of racism and bias against police on the basis of my words in a doctored video. In it, I appear to accuse all white cops of deliberately keeping blacks in their places through violence. In my job, that’s not a view I am allowed to express.
This entire episode is a smear. In fact, I used to be a cop myself, although it has been decades since I served in the Atlanta Police Department. After making Captain, I was recruited by the U.S. Department of Justice, still my employer at least for the moment.
My life is full of cop controversies, several involving dead adolescents and public outrage. This constant discord is a central feature in the latest chapter in the story of American civil rights. And it is tough to be neutral in a street fight.
After a flurry of increasingly uncompromising e-mails from Washington, this decision has been thrust upon me. I must either sign a letter of apology that admits to “racially insensitive and misguided accusations against police officers everywhere,” or be fired immediately. It is now 8:30 p.m., and my deadline is midnight.
I picture myself crumpling up the letter and replying “what are you smoking?” to the department’s lawyer, Victoria Gerber. For days, loudmouths everywhere have been allowed to comment freely about me—except me. Now I am supposed to denounce myself?
Yet here I am. I am holding a black ballpoint, thinking of it as a wand with the power to end this. That’s how I’m leaning right now. If I sign I will receive a demotion with no loss in pay or pension. I am not ready to stop working. My closest friends say this is a “cushy deal.” Mary even admits it’s a cushy deal.
Though I am leaning, the wisdom in it is not so plain to me. Reputation apparently doesn’t have a discernible weight on a scale. It doesn’t matter much at all unless you’re the one losing it. This signature may as well say: “I’m so sorry I’m a racist, always have been, who knew?”
My face is wet, and I need a towel. I’m feeling sleepy. The aggravated speech I am muttering to myself is starting to slur. “They won’t compromise. I tried … everything.” I wish my father were alive for advice. Otherwise, I’m glad he’s not witnessing this.
* * *
This controversy is an achievement for the tea party blog Freedom Flame. They sure must have been crowing when they posted their sensational new video clip. The clip was delivered anonymously on a flash drive. I am identifiable on it with two other African-Americans, a man and a woman. The clip pulls just seconds out of a long conversation—the damning part shows me saying that police “are racist to the core and part of a conspiracy to keep black people in their places,” and that the whole system corruptly covers up hate crimes by police. I understand that no impartial mediator can hold those views, and I don’t. The tape was chopped up, and the exonerating parts have mysteriously disappeared. I was just play-acting, a justification that even Mary squinted to understand when I tried to explain it to her.
The Flame got its readers’ attention by observing that I had just organized my own “lynching.” They also said I am “wacky and racist,” especially considering my job description, and that the video proves the Justice Department isn’t neutral at all.
Pending their own investigation, really a series of damage-control meetings, my bosses set down two rules for me: first, make no comment, second, see a shrink.
* * *
I did visit the department’s appointed psychiatrist this afternoon but spent the morning driving around Atlanta and becoming more and more morose as I deliberately drove past the CNN Center and the Richard B. Russell Federal Building where I work but may not enter. I was trying to calm down after receiving one of Victoria’s e-mails. She said, “don’t shoot the messenger; this is coming from the top.”
I was equally sullen about Mary. It finally dawned on me what had caused the previous night’s combat. I texted my apology while driving. Recalling the fight, I became more despondent.
“This letter is the key issue, not the settlement,” I said after Mary told me she would support my decision either way. Up to then, Mary had shown more fight than I had, but suddenly she sounded a little vague about it.
“Decide whether what you receive equals the value of what you may be giving up.”
“Thanks, babe. That clears it right up.” Yes, I said that to her. I had already been going around the house saying things like that under my breath, but the remark to her face sparked a minor explosion as she stomped from the room, returning with desperation in her soaked eyes.
“I just want you to come back to me,” she said. I’d been sleeping in the guestroom, and I thought that was what she meant.
“You have no understanding of what I’m going through. Sleeping arrangements? That’s seriously what you’re worried about?”
“What are you talking about? You’re not present at all.”
“My reputation. Everything I’ve worked for. Everything I am.”
“Everything? What’s that make me?”
“Nothing. This is my face, not your face on TV.”
“Fuck you, Thomas.”
I responded by flinging my arm with the letter in an expressive gesture and sent a lamp, a cherished wedding gift from her parents, crashing to the floor and bulb glass flying. She was not frightened, I was sure, since she must have known it was an accident. But I saw feigned terror in her expression, which angered me more, and I picked up the lamp and threw it across the room. The lamp landed far from where she was standing, and I told myself I hadn’t acted irresponsibly.
I also told myself I was the grownup since I voluntarily cleaned up the glass and the broken lamp afterward. Only this morning did it occur to me that she was frightened of me when she drove off and didn’t come home. And only this morning did I comprehend my fault.
“Do what you want,” she had said before leaving. “I don’t give a fucking shit anymore.”
My next stop was a gift shop she liked downtown, but I wasn’t sure she’d be home to accept the present, a pendant, or if it might even rub her the wrong way.
At noon, I received her text: “I love you, Thomas. We’ll get through this.” The dull city skyline, it seemed, turned into an outline of bright blue and gold for a moment.
I had a grilled-cheese sandwich in midtown and reflected back, wondering how my last assignment had gotten so convoluted, so quickly.
* * *
The Mayor of Florida Terrace, an urban-suburban city outside Miami, called me ten days ago. She said a disaster was unfolding there, and things could get out of hand quickly. So I went.
Florida Terrace is mostly black and is fed up with its mostly white police department. The Miami Herald has been all over perceived brutality with stories and editorials for years.
Watching smartphone movies of cops shooting or beating kids, even the vicious ones, tests any neutral mediator’s objectivity. LaMarcus Farmer is not even a tough kid, much less vicious. At 19, he lives in a pre-adolescent fantasy world and is “feeble-minded” according to his own mother.
He spends his time in a run-down one-block area. For years, according to every cop I spoke with, patrolling officers have laughed while he dances around on the sidewalk and even when he yells profanities at their passing vehicles. He started yelling “black lives matter motherfuckers” after Ferguson. No one knows where he got it. I’m also told it was never a consideration to arrest him. He was a show.
Scott Homer, a recent academy graduate, was riding alone on this Saturday evening. Homer had not been clued in about the show according to my sources.
The iPhone movie has no sound. It starts with LaMarcus skipping along the opposite sidewalk, like Charlie Chaplin without the talent. Homer drives by, and LaMarcus has his hands cupped around his lips shouting something. The eyewitness swears he was yelling “black lives matter motherfucker.” Homer reported it as “I’ll kill you, you motherfucker. I’ve got a Glock.”
Homer stops, exits the car, shouts orders and aims his gun at the boy. LaMarcus laughs, flips the bird and plays musical chairs around the police vehicle.
The famous part, the gruesome part, shows Homer leaping through the air, like Barney Fife, after holstering his gun. He removes a large flashlight from his belt and bashes the side of LaMarcus’s skull until he is unconscious and then swings again. A woman who turns out to be his mother is wailing in the background.
Charges against LaMarcus are dropped as he lingers in a coma at Terrace Hospital. Protests, arrests and newscasts precede my arrival in Florida Terrace. As usual.
* * *
Two days after the beating the City sponsored a big forum billed by someone as the “Beginning of Healing.” At one point a male in the crowd shouted “bullshit sandwich!” The Mayor mistakenly closed with: “any last minute questions?”
“Yes, I have one. This is Rupert Loncke of the International Union of Police Associations, AFL-CIO. Do you believe a police officer has the right of self-defense?” The crowd growled, and a tight circle of protective cops surrounded Rupert’s rushed exit.
The first time I met Rupert was at a dinner honoring the “Atlanta Eight.” The first eight black police officers in the history of Atlanta weren’t hired until 1948. At the time of the dinner a few years back, only one was in attendance, Johnnie Paul Jones. The other seven were dead. Rupert made a point of telling Johnnie how his union was “instrumental in putting the dinner together.” Johnnie told me he quit the force because “they wouldn’t let us arrest white people.”
* * *
One reason I left law enforcement was to take a “swipe at social injustice.” I was sympathetic to lethal force, having had to use it. But I also had an “abnormal amount of social consciousness,” according to my Chief.
“We should be examples of restraint whenever possible,” I said.
“Good guys. Bad guys. There’s a difference,” the Chief said.
I had another reason for leaving too. When I first joined the force, I heard nigger a lot; later it was Sambo, and later still imitations of Eddie Murphy’s Buckwheat, and some were pretty funny, marking a perverse progress. The higher I rose, the more it was about affirmative action.
The first sign of my final troubles came after I made captain. I was cleaning up after an academy class I was teaching called Community Policing. The student cadets had gone home, but a lieutenant who had been watching from the back of the room approached me.
“Hey Captain,” he said. “Congratulations on the promotion.”
“I caught the end of your class, good stuff. I’m one hundred percent in favor of the program.”
“Affirmative action. It’s like what you say in your class—more than half the city is negro … black … so we need more of the same at the top around here.”
“I earned the highest test score,” I said. Several older lieutenants had been passed over.
“Yeah, well, you wouldn’t know it, I don’t suppose. Awkward.”
He left. It was the beginning of 12 months of vandalism and harassment. Sliced tires, “nigger captain” spray-painted on my car and on the front door of my house, more than a dozen incidents untraceable by internal affairs to any cop. It slowed down but never completely stopped before I moved on to Justice.
* * *
I first got wind of the Freedom Flame video within an hour of its posting and watched it in a whirling outrage. I promptly called my superiors in Washington to assure them that the video clip was edited out of context. But I felt an unfamiliar distancing, hinting at a professional divorce.
While I remained silenced, the story kept building by the hour. I ignored all press inquiries, many from friendly reporters who would have given me a fair shake. Good will from years of careful press relations evaporated.
I spoke only once on the phone with Victoria, who I’d worked with before. I said the Department’s obstructionist approach was taking its toll on Mary and me. That there were a lot of details I needed to explain. That anyone who heard the whole conversation would think what I said was proper. She ended the call, obviously offended at the word “obstructionist.”
* * *
I felt old. I slowly climbed the newly repainted red stairs of the even older Victorian on the outskirts of downtown, Dr. Irving O’Brien’s practice. A psychiatric therapist, he had been retained by Justice for me on short notice. I knew the name because we use him for agents who experience trauma on the job. I guess this qualified as trauma, but I sensed a humiliating message that they thought I had lost my grip.
The converted 19th-century address had an office that patients are not allowed to enter, a bathroom, a kitchen and a large living room, big enough for group sessions. No receptionist. As I entered, I admired the antiques and felt soothed by the slightly dimmed lighting which created an impression of privacy. After the preliminaries, I showed him the apology letter which had arrived as an attachment to an e-mail the day before.
“You sound angry about the letter.”
“That’s because they want me to blow up my own career and my reputation—or they’ll blow them up for me. Of course I’m angry.”
He also wanted to know if I thought I had done important work for the government.
“I don’t take sides. But I know I’m serving a good cause.”
“Your job was not to be an advocate for a cause.”
“Occasionally, it’s black and white.”
“Did you sleep at all last night?”
“Double dose of Ambien. Those poor pills had to overcome an hour of snarling and muttering just to knock me out.” I didn’t mention my fight with Mary.
* * *
Last night, with the sleeping pills kicking in quickly, I fell on the guestroom bed after Mary left. I was asleep by nine. My favorite dream returned, the highlight of my week. It is based on a distorted version of a 4th of July footrace in 1968.
I am in the middle of a steep downhill run, simultaneously hurtling and controlling the gravitational pull. If I lean too far forward I lose control and fall. If I pull too far back, I slow down and lose momentum. I had this actual experience hundreds of times when I was a kid in Lindsay, Texas, where I grew up. I would charge down the hill almost every day.
Mixed in with warm air flying by is an awareness of my individual advantages—youth, speed, intellect and, above all, self-control. Win or lose the race, I’m heading for college to be a policeman, and, best of all, my father is watching me compete today. The dream does not match the reality of that day, but it is a welcome escape.
This morning, the depression lump was back in my chest. My parents, sadly, are long dead. But I smiled at the memory of them and also at the dream’s abstract truths, those feelings of joy, prowess and anticipation. Awake, I recall what really happened in 1968, and the dumb bastards who almost killed me.
* * *
Adjacent to the picnic meadow in Lindsay was a treacherous uphill path we used for the steep downhill running. Graduating seniors used it for the annual footrace on the 4th of July right before the picnic feast. After hiking to the top, each contestant, one at a time, would turn around, wait for his signal and allow gravity to pull him into an exhilarating, full-speed gallop. It was dangerous. That year a generous $50 prize had been put up for first place.
Only a few had any real chance of winning. There was me. There was Robin, my only white friend. And there was Dennis Fester, the football team’s quarterback, a dark horse. Robin was a longhair and my fellow wide receiver on the newly integrated team. When I was being tormented or roughed up, he would stop it. He said he didn’t mind being called “nigger lover.”
“Everyone in this town is prejudiced,” my father said. “Thinking of your best interests. You shouldn’t put all your trust in that white boy. All I’m saying.”
My father talked of little else besides race that year, especially after King and Kennedy were killed. When he wanted to vote for Bobby, he needed a volunteer lawyer just to get registered. But the ceaseless race talk wore on me.
“Dad, he’s my friend, case closed,” I said. Despite my father’s social discomfort, he came down to watch me compete on the hill that day. None of the black families actually attended the picnic.
“Hey, hope you’re ready to get second place,” I said to Robin when we met up in the morning to set up picnic tables.
“Don’t go crying to your Mama if you lose, partner,” Robin said.
There were 23 runners spaced over an hour, and I was scheduled last. That was supposed to be an insult but it gave me an advantage. I would know the time I had to beat.
I was talking with my father when four of the football players came over all smiley. They told my father they were rooting for me to win and invited me over to the punch table for a toast. I went along with it for my father’s benefit. He was a World War II veteran. He bonded, in his mind, with two of the boys who were heading for Southeast Asia in September. I drank the punch poured by one of them who said: “to the fastest negro kid in Texas.” Not my preferred toast, but it was by far the nicest thing they’d said about me all year.
A little while later, I trudged up the hill feeling dizzy and sick on arrival. Undeterred, at the signal, I hurled myself down the hill, my mind suddenly blank. I crash-landed, all twisted up on my back after a midair somersault, knocked unconscious. Robin said he thought I was “dead for sure.” It was a crushed collarbone, broken ribs, concussion and deep gashes and bruises all over. I was laid up for months and had to put off the academy for two years.
Robin was the announced winner of the $50 prize, but he told them to “shove it” after talking with my father and putting two and two together. Robin said they tried to murder me.
I never accused the football players of spiking the punch. I was afraid they would come after me. But I knew that I had been drugged or poisoned. The one who proposed the toast died in Vietnam when two grenades exploded between his legs.
* * *
All day, I read and returned Victoria’s increasingly grim messages. From her icy style, I knew that explaining myself further was futile. She knew the anti-cop rant was out of character, but she couldn’t sell my explanation without the rest of the recording. Now she was “sure the tape was destroyed,” and “without it, it’s just your self-serving explanation.”
I wrote back: “It’s the truth.”
* * *
Kendall Martin led me to one of his law firm’s nicest work spaces, featuring a redwood conference table with a high gloss top, surrounded by plush high-back chairs. I sat in one and smiled at his client, Wanda Farmer. This was confidential, but the camera could have been planted anywhere.
“We need to fight back with the Constitution,” she said.
“I don’t disagree,” I said. “I mean it. City needs training, a citizens’ commission and body cameras. Real concessions.”
“I want this cop indicted and put in jail. He’s a menace,” she said.
Kendall and I knew Homer wasn’t going to trial, much less prison, but didn’t say it.
“Not a subject in mediation,” I said instead. We went back and forth. I told her that advocacy was the role of the activists and her attorney. I had to stay neutral.
“Why can’t you fight for us?” She was breaking down a little.
“Wanda,” I said, “just imagine if I walked into that mediation with proposals I know won’t fly. It would go nowhere. What would I even say?”
This is when the notorious video clip starts. I put on a voice and pretended I was an advocate, not a neutral. “The police in Florida Terrace are racist to the core and part of a conspiracy to keep black people in their places. They won’t prosecute cops for shooting unarmed black citizens. These are hate crimes. Homer should be behind bars.” The video clip ends there.
“I can’t talk like that.” I said. “It would backfire. I don’t want to go back to Atlanta empty-handed.”
“I can ask for an indictment, can’t I?” said Wanda.
“But let’s focus on what’s realistic. Someone once said ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good.’”
“Voltaire,” said Wanda. A little smile. Progress. The next day we got the concessions.
* * *
Victoria’s e-mail was blunt. “That’s the most complicated explanation I’ve ever heard. It won’t fly, Thomas. Her attorney says it was confidential, and he doesn’t know what you believe.”
“Someone is smearing me. I’ve earned your trust.”
“That tape is poison.”
“I need your support. I need you to stand behind me.”
“You can’t spin it.”
“I’ll compromise. I’ll take the demotion without the apology.”
“Need the letter. By midnight.”
* * *
On my drive home from Dr. O’Brien’s, I took a circuitous route northwest on Highway 20 toward Georgia State, my alma mater, home of the Panthers. I stopped and wandered the vicinity for hours. I was hoping to recall something inside myself that would help.
The face of a beautiful, young white woman, a nursing student I was introduced to at a college party, invaded my thoughts. Her eyes were festive and green. Our introduction had not been ideal. She asked me what I was majoring in at GSU.
“Criminal Justice and Criminology,” I said, “I’m in the police academy.”
That was all she needed to hear. She promptly excused herself, leaving only her eyes to remember her by. I was surprised to have another chance with her a few weeks later in the cafeteria. I received a small, reluctant nod and put down my food tray.
“You’re the cop.”
“Well, not yet. You have a problem with cops, I gather?”
“You should too.”
I shifted my seat and my approach. “Civil rights is my main motivation for becoming a policeman. Change from the inside, you know?”
She conceded one date, which turned into a few sleepovers at her tiny student apartment. I learned she was a couple of years older than me and had been active for years with “Snick,” the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC was originally formed to support King’s activities. Their logo was two hands shaking, one black and one white.
“I quit when H. Rap Brown completely took it over. He brought in the Black Panthers.”
“We couldn’t change his mind. Me, I still believe in nonviolence.”
“H. Rap Brown, there’s someone. He says ‘burn it down.’ What, the whole country?”
“Yeah. He believes it.”
“Brown gave up on incremental change like a lot of folks.”
“He says ‘violence is as American as apple pie.’ No wonder he’s on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List.”
“That was trumped up,” she said. “Inciting a riot in Baltimore was just giving a speech.”
“And carrying a gun across state lines.”
“He doesn’t have the right to defend himself?”
“Skipped out on his trial. He’s still in the wind.”
I never stopped following Brown’s life. He was eventually captured and later served five years in Attica for a robbery. Decades later, he was convicted of murdering a cop in a shootout. To be clear, in 1970 he was famous for being a wanted radical who gave provocative speeches.
But if anyone knew now what I did then, the federal government might fire me anyway, even after all these years. The Atlanta Police Department, if they knew, certainly wouldn’t have hired me in the first place. When H. Rap Brown showed up at her apartment one night, on the run from his Maryland arrest, I took a hike. He was a fugitive. I wanted to tackle him and turn him in. But instead I chose to protect a friend I had met less than a month before.
I saw her on campus a few days later. “Thomas, please. He was only looking for a place to sleep,” she said. “I made him leave.” I turned away and left Mary standing there. I wondered if she would have harbored him if I hadn’t been at the apartment that night. Truth is though, even then, I knew I would ask her to marry me.
* * *
Mary shakes me awake in my armchair. “It’s eleven o’clock, Thomas, you fell asleep.”
Stirred, I am no closer to a decision with only an hour remaining. “They won’t let me take the demotion without the public apology.”
Mary is holding a slip of paper in her fingers with the number of a CNN producer I know, who promises a friendly interview. She has the apology letter and the pen in her other hand.
“Time to decide,” she says.
I wipe tears from my awakened, swollen eyes and distinctly see the unconscious, battered face of LaMarcus Farmer. It morphs into the face of H. Rap Brown still cowering in Mary’s doorway. I will never forgive that cop killer. But, in this moment of decision, the undisciplined resentments in his fiery, uncompromising eyes are my own.