Armies of the Right

Tim McVeigh’s revolutionary Footsteps

Moments after the cop ordered the Chevrolet Suburban to the side of the road that Saturday afternoon in Wilmington, Ohio, the man in the passenger seat jumped out, pulled a pistol, and opened fire on the officer. Staggering backward, the cop fumbled for his own gun and managed to get off a fusillade of shots. Unscathed, the car’s passenger ran into the woods. The driver, who had been standing beside his door, knocked aside another cop, got behind me wheel, and took off down the road.

Later that day the same men tangled with the cops in another shootout. Again they got away. The police all points bulletin for the men pictures a sweet-looking young man, with twin­kling eyes, his face protected by the floppy brim of a western hat straight out of Lonesome Dove.

His name is Chevie O’Brien Kehoe, 24. And it looks like he made a clean getaway across the Midwest in a Dodge Executive mobile home, along with his brother Cheyne, 20, and their wives and kids. Two weeks ago the motor home was found abandoned at an underpass on an in­terstate outside Casper, Wyoming.

The Kehoes are wanted for questioning in the robbery and grisly mur­der of an Arkansas gun dealer. But they are not just another gang of desperadoes. They are known to have ties with the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations in northern Idaho. And after the February 15 shootout in Ohio, police found in their vehicle what have by now become tell-tale tools of the far-right guerrilla war: bullet-resistant vests, two FBI logo baseball caps, two U.S. Marshal badges, handcuffs, a portable scanner radio, a gas grenade, pepper spray, a portable stretcher and body bag, latex gloves, duct tape, camouflage clothing, and three gas masks.

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The Kehoes, then, are foot sol­diers in a political army. Like others in that army, they see themselves as revolutionaries in a far-right movement who are determined to overthrow ZOG (the Zionist Occupation Government) and re­store society to its rightful protectors: white Christian men.

Some outriders in this movement look with favor toward Timothy McVeigh, whose trial begins March 31 in Denver, as another sol­dier in the fight for a white America. “I think he’s a courageous man,” says Dennis Mahon, the Tulsa leader of White Aryan Resistance. “Tremendous drive … If we had a hundred men like him in this country we’d probably change things around.” Referring to the Okla­homa City bombing that McVeigh is charged with, Mahon says, “I don’t agree with what he did particularly. My personal opinion is that that building should have been bombed early in the morning.” Mahon has offered to testify on behalf of McVeigh.

What makes this a movement and not just a collection of disparate violent acts is the web of associations that tie together the participants. The most powerful is the religious tenet of Christian Identity, which preaches that the true inheritors of the earth are White Aryans, and all others are subhuman “mud people.”

There are other ties that bind these like-minded people together. Some are pulled together because they practice polygamy. Many younger members are groupies on the skinhead circuit, follow­ing bands around the country, and picking up work at movement enclaves (like the sawmill at Elohim City) when the need arises. Others hang out together at summer camps, evening Bible studies, paramilitary training sessions, gun shows, and meetings of sympathetic militias. The reli­gious gatherings are where the hardcore, far-right operatives out of the old Ku Klux Klan or Posse Comitatus mix with less political, naive Christian religious people. The result is a potent combination of politics infused with religious zeal. It’s one thing to believe that it’s your mission under the constitution to set up, say, a citizens’ grand jury outside the corrupt court system, and quite something else to think of yourself as a Christian soldier in the opening phases of the battle of Armageddon.

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Beginning in the ’80s, groups of apocalyptic Christian fundamentalists withdrew from society, forming their own closed communities so as to more closely practice their religious beliefs and wait for the return of Christ. One group, called The Covenant, The Sword & The Arm of the Lord (CSA), aligned itself in the mid 1980s with the Order, a far-right under­ground gang. That explosive combination led to a tense showdown between 300 lawmen and some 75 heavily armed reli­gious zealots prepared to do God’s will in a shootout. The shooting was averted by last-minute negotiations.

In today’s revolutionary terrain the secluded enclaves remain, although they are of less importance now than in the last decade. Large gang-type formations like the Order have given way to a complex network of leaderless resistance cells, each made up of anywhere from six to eight in­dividuals. The cells strike at various targets, every one selected for the purpose of ad­vancing their revolution: bombing an abortion clinic, robbing a bank or ar­mored car, murdering an interracial cou­ple or someone thought to be Jewish, blacking out a big city by blowing up pow­er lines and thereby sparking a race riot (disrupting Tulsa in this manner has been much discussed at far-right gatherings), or blowing up federal buildings.

Indeed, the actual plan to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City was first hatched within the CSA during the early ’80s. The attack was aborted when the rocket that was to be used blew up in the hands of the man who was build­ing it. By adopting the leaderless resistance cell strategy, the far right made large actions like Oklahoma City possible.

These violent acts are carried out with both the aim of screwing up an oppressive govern­ment (for example, by dumping cyanide into a community’s water supply — another plan that was hatched with the help of the CSA. This time with Robert Miles, the grand dragon of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan), or the need to raise money (by, say, robbing a bank or selling dope). The money is then used to purchase land to create a white bastion, buy equipment such as radios or trucks and vans (which are sometimes stolen as well), and amass weapons and ammu­nition (which are also often ripped off through home invasions of gun dealers).

Far-right gunmen have pulled off the greatest chain of bank robberies since Jesse James­ — one a month starting in 1994, with 19 in eight states by 1996. But the bomb is their m.o. Oklahoma City was the biggest, but it was just the first of a rash of such actions: in the south, three members of the Georgia Republic Militia were convicted of stockpiling bombs. Militia members from West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania stand accused of planning to blow up the FBI’s national fingerprint center in Clarksburg. And in Vacaville, California, a federal mine inspector and his wife were critically injured in a far-right car bombing; before the car blew up, a caller had warned, “Timothy McVeigh lives on.” Other bombing attacks in­clude last-year’s Oklahoma-based conspiracy to blow up Anti-Defamation League offices in Houston, and the recent siege on abortion clin­ics and gay bars in the south.

In all, 25 states have recently experienced violent incidents linked to the far right. Amazingly the feds still see these violent acts as indi­vidual crimes.

The Oklahoma City bombing, how­ever, was clearly not a random act or terror. It was quite simply, a major operation in a growing revolution  — one that had been discussed for over a decade. And its timing suggests several intended messages: as possible retribution for the execution on April 19, 1995, of Richard Wayne Snell, a leader of the CSA who was sentenced to die for murdering an Arkansas state trooper and a pawn broker he mistakenly thought was Jewish. It may have been retaliation for the 1992 Idaho shootout be­tween the feds and Randv Weaver. And most likely, the Oklahoma City bombing could have been a response to the government’s siege at Waco.

Timothy McVeigh had been in and out of the far-right scene since he left the army in 1992, and was reportedly highly agitated by Waco. One of the main ques­tions to be answered at McVeigh’s trial, then, is to what extent did he fit into this revolutionary landscape — just how did his “cell” operate in relationship to the others now functioning across the Amer­ican hinterland?

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The Kehoe saga begins in western Arkansas with the disappearance in January 1996 of William Mueller, 53, a gun dealer; his wife Nancy, 28; and her daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Powell, age 8. They were last seen on their way to a gun show in the town of Springdale. Several weeks after the Muellers disappeared, a witness reported seeing them in a car along with several other men, fueling speculation that they had been abducted. In February, one of Mueller’s guns turned up at a pawn shop in Seattle, and it was traced to Kirby Kehoe and his son Chevie, who had sold it at a Washington gun show. The investigation dragged, and then on June 29, the badly decomposed bodies of the Mueller family surfaced in the Illinois Bayou, just north of Rus­sellville, Arkansas. Their heads were cov­ered with plastic bags and wrapped with duct tape, and the adults’ hands were cuffed.

By last summer the search for the Kehoes had widened into an interstate task force of law-enforcement officers. The witness who saw the car carrying the Muellers had identified the other occupants as Tim­othy Thomas Coombs (a white suprema­cist wanted for shooting a Missouri state trooper), and Kirby Kehoe’s two sons, Chevie and Cheyne. The cops started to close in. The Kehoes lived in a remote part of the Kaniksu National Forest in the mountains along the Washington-Idaho border — a place where most of the houses are without electricity, telephones, or even addresses. But somehow they were tipped off and witnesses reported seeing the Ke­hoes in a truck loaded with belongings, hightailing it out of the forest. The family headed for Montana where they lived until the Ohio shootout.

In December, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, police found another Mueller gun in a truck registered to the wife of Chevie Kehoe. The firearm and vehicle were in the possession of Sean Michael Haines, a 19-year-old Washington man with ties to white supremacist groups. He claimed he obtained the stolen rifle in a swap with Chevie. Haines later said he met Chevie at an Aryan Nations compound in northern Idaho, and that the two attended gun shows together. Kehoe married his first wife in a ceremony at that compound. Haines de­scribed him as less of a supremacist than a “white separatist” as well as a “constitutional­ist” and a survivalist. In their search of Haines’s truck, police found another stolen gun (traced back to Washington state), blood stains, flexible handcuffs, and duct tape.

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Eastern Washington, where the Kehoes far-right movement that has long sought to establish a “white bastion” in the mountains stretching into northern Idaho and western Montana. Its headquarters is the Aryan Na­tions compound at Hayden Lake, a suburb of the resort and retirement community Coeur d’Alene in western Idaho. But its followers are sprawled out into the Idaho panhandle around Sandpoint, where Louis Beam, the de facto leader of the movement, has bought land. Sandpoint is also the home base of America’s Promise, a Christian Identity ministry.

Three members of America’s Promise have been tied to a string of bombings and a bank robbery in Spokane last year, three men — Charles Barbee, 44; Robert S. Berry, 42; and Verne Jay Merrell, 51 — have been charged with the April 1 bombings of the Spokane Spokesman ­Review‘s Valley office and a nearby U.S. Bank branch office. They are also charged with rob­bing the same bank and bombing a Planned Parenthood clinic on July 12, just two weeks be­fore the Olympic Park bombings. The robbers left behind notes signed Phineas Priesthood, a symbol of the far-right racialist underground. Phineas is a Bible figure who is a mythic hero on the right because he supposedly slew an inter­racial couple having sex.

The suspects were arrested October 8 in Yakima after a botched attempt to rob yet another bank. The men told a federal judge in Jan­uary that they are “ambassadors for the kingdom of Yahweh,” and hence beyond authority of the government. If convicted they face life without parole. A fourth suspect, Brian Ratigan, 38, was arrested last weekend in Spokane. He is charged with conspiring to bomb buildings and rob banks in the area last year.

The government believes Merrell is the leader of the gang. The son of an upper-middle­-class Philadelphia family, he went into the Navy following high school. After serving in the Atlantic fleet for 12 years, Merrell got jobs — and security clearances — in domestic nu­clear power plants. Along with Louis Beam, he writes for Jubilee, the Christian Identity news­paper, whose owner, Paul Hall, also lives in Sandpoint.

In late January, the Spokesman-Review re­vealed that the same witness who originally led the FBI to the accused America’s Promise bombers claimed he sold them a military back­pack and talked to them about a time-delayed detonator. The Olympic Park bomb — which killed a woman and injured 111 people — came in a military backpack and was set off by a time-­delayed detonator. A witness places at least one of the Spokane suspects, Robert Berry, in Atlanta during the Olympics. And telephone records show calls to Charles Barbee’s home were made from Atlanta at about the time of the July 27 attack. Barbee had worked at AT&T in Georgia, Florida, and Idaho before quitting his job. “Half the people I worked with were women,” Barbee complained. “They were working instead of being helpmates to their hus­bands, as God requires.”

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If Hayden Lake and the western slope of the Rockies are at one end of the outlaw trail, the Ozarks and the Elohim City compound at the other. Elohim City is another stronghold of Christian Identity and a common rest stop for members of the far right’s western  faction when they travel east. The Kehoes, for example, stopped off at this safe haven, where some resi­dents practice polygamy. Elohim City is the headquarters for another spoke of the move­ment, the Aryan Republican Army bank robbers, a gang of four men who had robbed one bank each month, beginning in 1994, before getting caught by the feds early last year.

Led by Richard Guthrie Jr., who was found hanged in jail last summer at the age of 38, and Pete Lan­gan, 38, a former in­formant for the U.S. Secret Service, the ARA was partly masterminded by Mark Thomas, 46, the Aryan Nations leader of northeastern Pennsylvania.Thomas put Guthrie and Langan together with young skinheads who squatted at his farm outside Allentown. According to the federal indictment, Thomas took some of the $250,000 stolen between 1994 and ’96, and used it to aid other white-power groups. Thomas has reportedly agreed to a plea bargain, while Lan­gan has been convicted of one robbery and has yet to be sentenced.

These are the type of people and this is the world that surrounded Timothy McVeigh, He is known to have made the gun-show rounds while selling copies of The Turner Diaries and staying overnight with gun collectors. His phone records show that he made one call to Elohim City shortly before the Oklahoma City bomb detonated, and be also received a traffic ticket not far from that far-right compound in an earlier incident.

Additionally, his defense team claims, he joined an Arkansas branch of the Ku Klux Klan, and his phone records reveal several different calls to a representative of the National Alliance in Arizona. William Pierce, who heads the Na­tional Alliance, is the author of The Turner Diaries. The McCurtain Daily Gazette, a local paper in Idabel, Oklahoma, has reported that an undercover informant for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, says McVeigh was a figure on the Aryan scene in Elohim City and knew the ARA bank robbers. A stripper in Oklahoma also claims to have seen McVeigh along with one of the accused ARA robbers. Although tantalizing, these stories remain largely unconfirmed. It is always possible, however, that the defense will try to insinuate them, one way or another, into the trial.

If anything, the struggle between the Aryan resistance movement and the government has intensified since the Oklahoma City bombing, with one cell after another coming to the surface. With the feds refusing to recognize their existence, the attacks by these pockets will only increase in size and strength. ❖


New Jack City Eats Its Young

Motor City Breakdown


“Yo-yo, where the money at?”

Lenny Higgins, 17 at the time, didn’t usually go to the store with his foster brother James, also 17, but on the night of March 1, 1987, James asked and Lenny obliged. It was 10:30. At Williamson’s Party Store, on Perry Park Boulevard on Detroit’s West Side, they bought sodas and played some games. They left about 10:45. As Lenny tells the story, he and James were approaching their corner of Heckler Street when a hooded figure ran across the street and stopped them in their tracks. Clad in a black jacket and black hooded sweatshirt, Mark Hunter, 24, pulled a .357 Magnum from his pants waist and stuck it in James’s temple.

“Yo-yo, where the money at?”

Three seconds later another figure joined Hunter and put another .357 to Lenny’s head. Lenny had seen this boy around the neighborhood, knew him slightly, but they weren’t friendly: Dashaw Green, 15. Wearing a black, Run-D.M.C.-style “popcorn” leather jacket, hooded black sweatshirt, black jeans, and white laceless Adidas, he echoed his partner:

“Where the money at? Which one a y’all got the money?”

Lenny was confused, scared, angry — but not willing to be a toy hero, a dead toy hero — “Here!” he said, “You can have my money, just don’t shoot me!”

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Lenny gave up his $26, and James handed over $30 or $40. After they took the money, Mark and Dashaw looked at each other, an evil, hungry look, Lenny says. They lowered their guns and pushed Lenny and James backward. Mark raised his gun and fired. Flames spit out the muzzle like and orange and white blur, hitting James in the abdomen. The bullet exited through the spine. James doubled over. Lenny was frozen. Mark and Dashaw ran five or six steps in the opposite direction, but then Dashaw turned around. Mark turned around. Dashaw hesitated for a split second. Maybe he thought, I’m with my boy, and if I don’t shoot, he might think I’m frontin’. He might even shoot me. I can’t let this nigga go scot-free. I gotta shoot him, too. Dashaw and Mark ran up on Lenny, and they fired five shots — all of which hit Lenny because he stood as a shield on James’s left side — and fled into the night. Lenny and James slumped against a neighbor’s fence, not far from their house. Lenny called to one of his friends inside the house.

“Tanisha, come help me! Me and Jimmy just got shot! Come help!”

A puddle of blood formed underneath them, branching off in several directions, before a direct line dripped into the street. Lenny could smell smoke rising from his body where the bullets had dug into his left arm, left side, back, and legs. Thoughts circled in Lenny’s head as if it was a turntable fashioned by a madman—too slow at 45, too fast at 16. Lenny wondered why they didn’t take his gold chain, his sheepskin, or his Filas, or James’s Bally shoes. Just before he heard the chorus of ambulance and police sirens, he whispered to James, his best friend, “Jimmy man, not matter what happens, I love you. We gonna make it. Just take it easy, sit there and rest. We gonna make it.”

Three hours later at Henry Ford Hospital, after the first of many operations, Lenny learned that James had died.

1987 Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper about gun violence in Detroit


ACCORDING TO official estimates, there are at least two guns for every person in the Detroit metropolitan area. Nearly 65 teenagers 17 or under have been killed this year. Almost 300 have been wounded. The number exceeds last year’s body count of 48, and the wounded are steadily lurching toward the 365 of 1986. Detroit is a city whose horror reaches cinematic proportions, like The Living Dead Wear Kangols and Filas. However you like your chiller theater, Detroit is the worst because it’s real. Unlike New York, where the DMZ begins south of 96th Street, or Baltimore, where guerilla dope wars are confined to eastern and western black districts, Detroit’s violence knows no boundaries. It’s among the high-rise office buildings downtown, the upper-middle-class homes and condos on the West Side, the poverty-worn projects on the East Side. Detroit is like that nightmare where your legs become paralyzed when the monsters are chasing you; you can’t escape.

Statistics, like germs ink-stained and clamped down under a microscope, are neat and tidy from a safe distance. But once you zoom in and focus, you see fascinating, intense, and sometimes ugly details of lives previously ignored. The kids in Detroit are more than data on police bar graphs and newspaper charts, distributed as lunchtime chitchat or after-dinner arguments during the Eyewitness News. The kids in Detroit are suffering from a disease so new, powerful, contagious, and fatal that there’s not even a name for it yet.

Business is booming for funeral homes and florists in Detroit. Funeral home director James Cole said, “It’s pathetic. Just about every day, we get young people who are being killed needlessly. It’s business we shouldn’t have.”

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Emergency-room physicians often wonder if they’ll be able to treat all of the gunshot victims on busy nights. Dr. Cynthia Shelby-Lane of Detroit Receiving estimates her city sees 40 percent of the city’s young, black, male gunshot wound victims. One incident that stuck out in Dr. Shelby-Lane’s mind concerned at 13-year-old boy who was rushed to emergency with a gunshot wound in the chest.

“He was a surgical code one,” the doctor said, “which is a resuscitation victim in a life-or-death situation. Everybody looked at each other and said, ‘Thirteen? How young are the going to get?’ When they reeled him in, he was sitting up, so he wasn’t unconscious. As we started immediate resuscitation — he was breathing on his own and had good blood pressure — we could feel the bullet in the front of his chest. He was in pain but he was a young kid, and after 30 minutes, he asked me, ‘Well, can I play basketball again?’ And we just looked at each other. Obviously, he didn’t have any understanding of what almost happened to him, and, perhaps, how to prevent it from happening to him again. And that’s the biggest problem for me.”

The problem is exacerbated by the juvenile judicial system. Heavy hitters such as Y. Gladys Barsamian, 55, presiding judge of the juvenile division in Wayne County, are beleaguered, belabored, and chastised by Michigan’s legislators, who crave a scapegoat. Judge Barsamian addressed the flaws in Michigan’s juvenile justice process in an interview last year with Free Press reporters David Ashenfelter and Michael G. Wagner: “We have created a generation of children without conscience, without values. So they have no concern about people’s lives. Life is very cheap to them.” Barsamian added, “You’ve got to be able to hold people responsible for their actions, and we’re not able to do that.”

Ron Schigur, deputy chief prosecutor of the juvenile division, also says the system is lacking. “The juvenile laws in Michigan are a joke to these kids,” Schigur said. “We’ve had examples of some kids who just laugh at the cops after committing a crime, and say, ‘Hey my mom will come and get me in the morning.’ They know if they are locked up, that the law says we can only keep them until their 19th birthday. The truth is, whether he spits on the ground or murders his mom, he’s going to do an average of a year.”


THERE IS ANOTHER FACTOR more important than the impotent laws, though, a factor that anchors uncomfortably in many a Detroiter’s mind. It is the DNA for this mutant strain of teen hood: the 1967 riot. Its ravaging aftermath was presaged — unwittingly, of course — by two different idealists. One’s oratory shook the nation; the other’s rhyme rocked the house. But to simplify things, let’s set it up, as if trying to break the full court press. In the early ’60s, Martin Luther King threw the bounce pass for the fast break: “If you sow the seeds of violence in your struggle, unborn generations will reap the whirlwind of social disintegration.” In 1981, while dodging bullets at a rapper’s convention in the former Harlem World Disco, MC Busy Bee Starsky caught the zeitgeist and slam-dunked it: “I got sperm, that jingo-jangle-jingles …” For me, there’s a photograph that locks the horror of the 1967 riot into a never-ending moment. It depicts a 30-year-old black man, John LeRoy, shot by a national guardsman at a roadblock on Lycaste Street. Lying next to a bloody corpse, LeRoy is barefoot and chest down, bleeding profusely: he looks like he’s treading the concrete, gushing blood outlining the form like an obscene surfboard, trying to escape the thick waves of night that eventually drown him. LeRoy would die three days later. His left index finger is pointing to something, maybe the future, but the look on his face asked the question on everyone’s lips — why?

After the smoke had cleared, after the Da Nang-ing M1s had silenced, after the tanks had rolled away from West Grand boulevard, after the army infantry and paratroopers had left their alleyway bunkers, after 1700 stores had been looted, 412 buildings destroyed, 657 people injured, and 43 killed, the question remains unanswered, and continues to stupefy 20 years later. Not that racial maelstrom was new to Detroit. In Ford: The Men and the Machine, Robert Lacey provides several proof texts confirming that race relations in Detroit have a long history of trouble. There was Dr. Ossian Sweet, a successful gynecologist who, with his brother and nine more blacks, was arrested on the night of September 9, 1925, after firing into a crowd of several hundred whites who were pelting the Sweet home with rocks and debris. Sweet had just moved into the two-story, $18,000 brick dwelling, located in a white, middle-class enclave on the East Side. He met with resistance from the local neighborhood “improvement” association — a front for newly recruited Klan members.

The Klan recognized Sweet as a paradigm of the Southern black who migrated northward — by 1920, the 5000 blacks in Detroit at the turn of the century had grown to 40,000, arriving at a rate of 1000 a month, looking for a better life. They found it with Henry Ford, who hired more blacks (even promoting them to foreman) than any other auto magnate. The burgeoning black middle class of Detroit was one of the first in America. But the Klan wasn’t going to stand for this. Sweet and supporters fought back, wounding one of the crowd and killing a next-door neighbor. After two trials fought by Clarence Darrow, Dr. Sweet and his comrades were acquitted.

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This turmoil was just the beginning. In 1943, the country’s bloodiest race war until that time took place in Detroit. Thirty-four people lost their lives, 25 of them black, and over 1000 were wounded. But the July 1967 “Summer of Love” is the one to beat. It haunts Detroit to this day.

If you failed to inspect the political underbelly of the community during that period, a riot in 1967 Detroit would have seemed outlandish. Riots exploded in places like Newark and Watts, but not Detroit. Impossible. The auto industry was stronger than ever — there were no Yugos or Hyundais to compete with. Detroit was one-third black, and blacks were a substantial portion of the work force in the plants. The black middle class and working class lived side by side, and their combined financial strength wasn’t to be denied. The black bloc elected James Cavanagh as mayor, and his new, very liberal administration elevated several blacks to key government positions. Detroit also had two black congressmen. Whites began their flight to the suburbs.

Berry Gordy’s Motown was the bullhorn for this new black age, and its “Sound of Young America” was heard around the world. Motown was the example of how far my people had come, and how far we could go with hard work, three-part harmony, silk and sequins, and tricky terpsichore. Motown went to the heights because white America loves black people who know their place after assimilation. From 1960 to ‘67, it seemed that Detroit was living the best of times.

“Life in Detroit before the riot,” said Dr. Carl Taylor, “was an absolute paradise.”

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Dr. Taylor, 38, is a professor of criminology at Michigan State University. He is also the president and founder of Centrax Services, Inc., one of the top private security outfits in the world. For 38 years, Taylor has lived and breathed Detroit. He can remember riding downtown to a tailor with his “Uncle Milton” — Milton C. Jenkins, the renowned Detroit street hustler and manager of the Temptations when they were still the Primes — Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson to pick up sharkskin suits for a Motown Revue. He can remember the strong, self-contained high society among blacks in Detroit before the riots. Nellie Watts, a black patron of the arts, would have to turn people away from her crowded ballet and classical recitals. Taylor also remembers the caste-conscious “E-Lites” in attendance: sepia-toned, middle-class darlings in madras shirts, Levis, and Weejuns.

They were nothing like the mocha-colored “Hootie-Hoos,” with their Damon knit shirts, gabardine slacks, and alligator slip-ons. If the E-Lites didn’t leave their coveted West Side dwellings to mix in the Hooties’ East Side wild life, it was okay. Black people in Detroit maintained a perfect balance. That balance was seen on 12th Street, too; whatever the mostly Jewish merchants sold, the blacks bought in record numbers. Twelfth Street was the main vain.

“Twelfth Street was a mecca,” said Taylor. “It was a major business center in the black community. On 12th and Hazelwood, you had Bosky’s Restaurant (owned by the father of Ivan Boesky), which had the best food, especially the ‘bomb’ corned beef sandwiches. You also had drugstores, appliance and furniture stores, pawnshops, you had it all on 12th Street.”

But 12th Street was dismantled during the wee-hours of July 23rd, 1967. Rumbling started in a “blind pig” — a private, after-hours joint that sells unlicensed liquor—that called itself the United Civic League for Community Action. When police busted the place that night, there were nearly 90 people packed inside the tiny bar and grill. All had to be escorted to the police wagons downstairs, which couldn’t hold everybody. A crowd gathered at the entrance as the police led their captives out. The merriment turned ugly. Bricks and rocks were hurled, smashing the back window of one patrol car; Molotovs rocketed through the street. Stores were devoured, as if by locusts.

“I can remember as a teenager sitting on the porch,” Taylor recalled, “watching people pushing shopping carts of TVs and clothes. My neighborhood was a working class atoll on the West Side. And you could see the same sights in middle-class neighborhoods. It was unreal, almost ethereal—like everyone was a contestant on the Wheel of Fortune, and had solved the puzzle.”

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RESURGET CINERBUS. It shall rise from the ashes.

Detroit is a city full of personal billboards, slogans, and mottoes. This particular one was used to revive a dying city. It was partly fulfilled. A spanking new monorail ties some of the major hotels and office buildings downtown together like a concrete dipsy-do, all too symbolic — round and round, going nowhere. The mirrored Renaissance Center — Henry Ford II’s helping hand to Detroit after the devastation — juts out of the ground like a weird urban stalagmite. In the 20 years since the riot the city has lost a third of its people and a larger portion of its jobs. The white merchants on 12th Street and other parts of the city were frightened beyond belief, and decided they could never come back. Not only was this bad for the blacks who patronized these stores, it was bad for the blacks who worked in them — including those who were rioters themselves. With the loss of so many people and jobs and so much finance — and the upswing of crime — the city’s tax base rapidly dwindled. By 1985 it had shrunk to 12.6 percent of Detroit’s three-county metro area, down from 45.6 in 1980. With the move of Hudson’s and others out to the suburban malls, badly needed moneys were siphoned out of the city on a regular basis. Middle-class whites and blacks who did remain found themselves plagued by armed robberies and burglaries. People decided to arm themselves. Handgun sales rose sharply, and the street was flooded with illegal weapons. The city’s homicide rate shot skyward.

What happened? Why didn’t Detroit recover? There’s no solid answer to that question, at least not by conventional logic. Conventional logic doesn’t force the city’s political power to admit that the bounty of the ’80s wasn’t equally distributed. Conventional logic doesn’t scream out that the riot wasn’t why Detroit unraveled: it merely burned away the façade that had hidden Detroit’s invisible society, the forgotten underclass.

In the Detroit Free Press, Barbara Stanton pointed out that 12th Street, along with its bustling stores, hot nightlife, and periphery of black middle-class homes, had in its midst an undeniable ghetto. From West Grand Boulevard to Claremont, there was an enormous number of substandard dwellings, the largest number of unemployed, and the highest crime rate in the city. “The riot was the underclass’s way of getting back,” Taylor said. “It was pure rebellion. It was the underclass’s way of saying, ‘We’re tired of being ignored. Now you’re forced to pay attention.’ This was the guy who didn’t work in the plant, for whatever reason. This was the guy who couldn’t commerce like the working and middle-class blacks who came into 12th Street. This was the guy who was trying to figure out all of the hype going around at the time about how blacks were prospering. Blacks were working — some prospered, like the doctors and lawyers that served the black community when whites refused to — but they weren’t prospering. It was like that line Florence said to George Jefferson on a Jeffersons episode. She said, ‘How come we overcame,’ referring to the civil rights theme song, ‘and nobody told me?’ I guess that’s what the underclass felt. And they took matters into their own hands.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”726874″ /]

Those blacks who believed they overcame, or at least got over, were what made Detroit a Reconstruction dream. Fantasies of affluence in the industrial North came true in sprawling mansions along Boston, Chicago, and Edison boulevards. High auto-industry wages created by a black population — more than a million by the early ‘80s — that needed professional services. Black doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers, and businessmen filled the vacuum left by white professionals, who had departed for the suburbs along with their clients. Between 1950 and 1959, over 350,000 whites migrated out of the city. Racism helped create a thriving and powerful and black elite in Detroit. But when the auto industry started its long slide, the black elite’s monopoly on black business began to look like an empty package. Black America’s city of dreams was beginning to feed on itself.

The 1967 riots scarred the urban psyche. As time brought the consequences into painful clarity, blacks realized the insurrection was a painful mistake. The city was becoming a wasteland before their eyes. Many wanted to forget what happened.

A few years after the riots heroin made an appearance in Detroit. Unlike Harlem and Newark, where the drug picked up steam around 1966, heroin was almost an oddity in Detroit until 1970. It was then that Henry Marzette — a black former Detroit cop allegedly jailed during the ’50s on corruption charges — became a top dog in the city’s drug trade. After prison, he was a feared “Gorilla” pimp — one who recruits prostitutes from other pimps by force. But it wasn’t until Marzette noticed the exorbitant profits the Mafia was making from heroin in New York that he decided to get in on the action. Between 1969 and 1970, he took over the trade from a mob family in Detroit and became the city’s biggest heroin financier. Marzette influence extended well beyond the street corner and shooting gallery; during his reign little or no press coverage was given him in the Free Press or The Detroit News.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719763″ /]

After Marzette’s death in the early ’70s, heroin continued to ravage Detroit. Crime surged as addicts fed their monsters. Detroit’s car theft rate became the nation’s highest. Home owners spent tens of thousands turning their houses into iron-barred fortresses. In 1975 gangs like the BKs (Black Killers) and the Errol Flynns appeared on the scene. The Errol Flynns — with their black Borsalinos and weird pumping hand-dance — became infamous during an Average White Band concert where they went on a raping and robbing spree. The situation was so volatile that year that Motown — the soul of black Detroit — moved to Los Angeles. Nelson George, author of the Motown history Where Did Our Love Go?, told me, “I hate to say it, but during that time, Detroit wasn’t conducive for a booming black business.”

With Motown gone and the auto industry in a slump, the scenario in Detroit was beginning to resemble a Greek tragedy. And the city was about to be hit with the deus ex machina — Young Boys Incorporated, or YBI. Not only were they unexpected walk-ons in the second act, they rewrote the script.

In a twisted way YBI took the place of Motown. They were young superstars to street teens, more revered than Michael Jackson and Prince. For older junkies hooked on nostalgia, YBI wrapped the 45s in coin envelopes that contained a feast of memories; “heh-ron” was a stone soul picnic. The origins of YBI are bizarre. Not only were the organizations forefathers — Mark Marshall and Raymond Peoples — well known to police, but their individual crimes prior to YBI were headline news during the mid-’70s. Peoples, a tall and powerful enforcer, was charged with two other men for the 1975 murder of Marian Pyszko. Pyszko, 54, a Polish immigrant and pan washer in a bakery, was dragged from his car one night and beaten with a piece of broken concrete during a rash of racial disturbances. After three trials during which several witnesses developed convenient amnesia, Peoples was acquitted.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719876″ /]

Marshall’s story is a more perverse tale. Marshall was a brilliant student in school. He was the product of a broken middle-class home; his mother, Mary, was a secretary, and his father, Wallace, owned a shoe shop. Marshall grew up in an attractive dwelling in a West Side neighborhood, Russell Woods. Wallace later married Constance Blount; her stepmother, Beatrice Blount, was the widow of the founder of the Great Lakes Life Insurance Co. On August 19, 1974, Marshall’s father, stepmother, her mother, and Beatrice Williams, Beatrice Blount’s nurse, were murdered. Marshall was charged with the knife-and-meat-clever slaying. The police report mentioned traces of semen on the bodies. After two mistrials, all charges were dropped in August 1978. Marshall said after the trial, “Justice has been done after four years. I’m going up north to fish and think.”

Marshall must have pondered long and hard, because it was around this time that he and Peoples began YBI — allegedly with more than $70,000 collected from Marshall’s father’s insurance. Starting from the northwest street corner of Prairie and Puritan, YBI’s tentacles eventually covered Detroit and several counties.

By 1981, YBI’s employees were 300 strong, all teens and preteens, who were immune to the harsh punishment for drug trafficking. Many law enforcement observers have noted that YBI was run like a military outfit, organized into soldiers (street dealers), lieutenants, and the “A-Team” (enforcement). But YBI was more like a $400 million corporation — that was YBI’s estimated gross in 1981 — not unlike its hometown predecessor General Motors. Salesmen were instructed never to use the product. Milton “Butch” Jones, third man in YBI, would drill his soldiers in “marketing” meetings to “get high on money.” As reinforcement, top salesmen were given expensive perks — gold and diamond jewelry, and goose down leather jackets with fur-trimmed hoods known as “Max Julians.”

“YBI was the first drug organization that I know of to use brand names on their heroin,” said U.S. Attorney Roy Hayes. “They had names like CBS, Rolls Royce, and Coochi Khan. It was a Madison Avenue approach — you can trust our product.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”721103″ /]

When the competition copycatted, YBI undercut them by selling low-grade heroin under a competitor’s name. YBI’s drugs (they were selling $3 plastic packets of crack, back in 1982) were the most coveted in the state. YBI was aware of this, and brazenly began to hand out flyers in the neighborhood that stated brand name, price, day, date, and time of sale. Drugs were distributed using Mercedes Benzes, BMWs, taxi cabs, scooters, and 10-speed bikes. Sales areas were patrolled by members of the A-Team in Laredo and Wrangler jeeps, packing Uzis for warding off rival gangs. Jeeps eventually replaced luxury cars for drug distribution — their four wheel drive insured delivery in snow storms, and made it easy to elude cops by escaping into off-road brush.

YBI made bloody examples of those who crossed them. On May 30, 1984, Rickey Gracey, 26, and three accomplices tried to rob the home of Butch Jones. The attempt was thwarted by Jones’s wife, Portia, who wounded Gracey with a shotgun as the other three escaped. While he hobbled on the front lawn, Portia put in a call to Charles Obey and Spencer Tracy Holloway, members of the A-Team, and driver Andre Williams. When they arrived, according to Williams’ testimony, Portia was outside waiting for them. Gracey apologized and asked them for some water. Obey shot him five times with a .38 automatic. After Gracey had revealed the identity of his partners, Holloway shot him with an Uzi. Fifteen times. Gracey bounced up and down on the grass. Later, his body was found dumped in an alley on the north side.

As successful as YBI was, it suffered some major setbacks that appeared to dismantle the enterprise. In 1982, Mark Marshall went deep underground at the height of YBI’s prominence. In 1983 Butch Jones was sentenced to 12 years in prison, as was Sylvester “Seal” Murray, 30, multimillionaire supplier of YBI and other drug syndicates. Murray was wealthy enough that police investigators found $80,000 cached in a safe — it had been there for two years. Murray had forgotten the combination. In August 1985, Raymond Peoples was found in a car with several slugs in his back.

By 1986, the Detroit Police Department, DEA, FBI, and the Internal Revenue Service was congratulating themselves, saying they finally destroyed YBI. What they forgot was that, although 42 people had been indicted, YBI still had 258 people on the loose. It’s true that prosecutors like Hayes, the late Leonard Gilman, and Gary Felder did a great job of attacking YBI — treating it as a multinational cartel rather than some counterfeit gangsters on a street corner — but Young Boys had grown too big to take down in one sweep. This was proven in August, when a grand jury federal indictment of 26 defendants took place in Detroit. The name of the case is Young Boys II. “Nine of the defendants were previously indicted in connection with the Young Boys case,” said attorney Hayes. “Some of the defendants are a Wayne County deputy sheriff, two attorneys hired by YBI, and Milton ‘Butch’ Jones.” Hayes alleged Jones had continued running YBI from his prison cell in a Texas federal penitentiary.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725936″ /]



This is a huge advertisement that looms over Woodward, across the street from Palmer Park. One high-schooler told me that the new jacks “look at it and say ‘Fuck the madness. You can’t stop it, so just roll with it.'” The sign has been reduced to a banal slogan, a doofy punch line among the new jacks and front artists. In Motown a new jack is a calculated novice who enjoys killing you, aside from making a name for himself. His imitator, a front artist, pulls out a snapshot of a “nine” (9mm automatic), expecting you to run for your life. It goes without saying that front artists don’t live long.


This is a personal billboard in red letters on the black spare tire cover mounted on the rear of a triple-black — black exterior, interior, tinted windows — Mitsubishi Montero jeep. Wide Jefferson Avenue is full of jeeps — a new jack posse circling Detroit like crazy sputniks. In sync, the volumes of each Blaupunkt and Alpine stereo are increased at a red light. On green, Rakim and Eric B. sound the charge, the anthem of a new generation, the opus of a new ruling class, the preview of a new rap on the Friday night master mix.

“I ain’t no joke…”

I rode with a high-schooler downtown to the Afro-American Festival in Hart Plaza. He knew some of the crews, has rolled with some of them in the past. Now he wants out of the neighborhood because he is book smart and street aware. But the street is like a Doberman; it can turn on you.

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Finding a parking space near the Joe Louis Arena, we got out and walked. The July night was hot and humid. Renaissance Center stood tall and indifferent, the pallid moon overhead, and the rivers of people beneath; it cooled in the mirrored panes of its hi-tech narcissism.

The people moved like waves of warm water along the sidewalk cafes of Greektown, Woodward’s shopping district, and deposited into the concrete cavern of Hart Plaza. Packs of new jacks — all between 13 and 19 years old — covered the area in designer sangfroid and $2000 portable cellular phones, just in case another crew wanted to “step off” into Uzi conflict. They resembled Nam platoons on maneuvers in Elephant Valley. Their classy gear consisted of Gucci and Bill Blass jogging suits, Bally and Diadora gym shoes, shiny gold Rolex watches. Some were so bold they wore diamond encrusted Krugerrands necklaces, hung from telephone-cable-thick gold chains. That’s equivalent to Nat Turner fashioning a leather-studded belt out of the same cat-o’-nine-tails used to plow his back. But maybe I’m confusing bravado with ignorance.

The festival was too crowded, the jazz band too weak, and the fish and chips booth downstairs was out of its legendary whiting sandwiches. The high-schooler said there were too many crews walking around.

“Something might jump off,” he told me. I asked him if the crews had names. “Some do,” he told me, “but they’re pretty lightweight. If you’re high-powered, you don’t use a name. After YBI there are no more names. Names attract too much attention. Some use hand signals.” I asked him about one group that holds up both hands and flashes peace signs. The high-schooler said he didn’t know about them. I didn’t press the issue; a school security official said later that it’s the code used by the 20–20s.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720490″ /]

So I know a code; I still don’t have the key to New Jack City. I know its inhabitants come from two groups: deracinated middle-class black teens and their less well-off peers. The deracinated black teen knows that being heir to “a better life” resulted mainly in the castration of desire, their confusion of self (Buppie or B-Boy? As Nelson George has said), and their enlightenment that, in 1987, there is no “better life”. Never knowing what it is to want — and, therefore, never growing up, or growing up with nothing to grow into — is a cruel death. New Jack City offers a suicidal lifestyle on the teens’ own terms.

New Jack City for the economically deprived is a crystalline legacy formed by the cooked-down anarchy of their parents in the 1967 riot. Because of the seared riot consciousness, because of heroin’s flip-flop — killer and money-maker — and crack’s entrepreneurial spirit, outlaw is the law. Teen gangsterism has transformed the teen middle and underclass, the children of the E-Lites and Hootie Hoos, into the Get-Over class.

Rap music is also key in understanding the Get-Over class — I think. My trepidation comes from me blaming the ills of the world on L.L. Cool J and rap music. L.L. and rap music are just reflections of New Jack City. As a matter of fact, L.L., Rakim, Run-D.M.C. and other emcees are prisoners of the hard rock image they have triumphantly sold to their Get-Over peers. Once a new jack, actual or dramatized, emcee or murderer — or victim, like Scott La Rock — always a new jack. Even if L.L. tries to deny the street, as he does when showing his frustration in “The Breakthrough,” spitting out to a fanatical crack admirer, “I should take my gun and shoot you/ in your motherfuckin’ face!” — or Rakim tries shallow defection, saying in the December 1987 Spin, that he used to be “robbin’ and stealin’ and all that shit. Normal everyday shit,” when his rapper voice sounds like he’s still ready, like L.L., to “put that head out” — the new jacks won’t allow it, because rap music is their strong-arm negotiator in the world-at-large. It’s no wonder that the switchboard of Detroit’s ABC affiliate lit up like crazy after the July premiere of the Run-D.M.C. Adidas commercial. This telephone vote of gangster stylists proved that not only do clothes make the new jack, they reinforce his being.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713841″ /]

The Get-Over class in New Jack City understands that gangster style is both form and function. To have gangster style, you have to be “gettin’ paid” — making so much gusto (money) until it’s goofy. Then you can have an acquired taste by means of extortion, the ability to buy panache and aristocracy. But that’s what also unnerves me about the émigré’ of New Jack City, the way he flashes his green card. Whether it’s the kid who goes to Gucci to spend $3000 on a wardrobe displayed no further than the L.L. Cool J show, the crackhouse, or the “projects,” or the kid who comes home to a $200,000 cul de sac and a good night’s sleep after killing a rival crack dealer and two of his crew, and all the while mom and dad are in the den doing their taxes on the PC — it alarms me when the need to “show and prove” is that extreme. That’s how I know the teen bodies in the graves of Detroit and other major cities are not surrogates for racist whites or super-provoking parents. Citizenship in New Jack City comes with a very expensive price tag.

“Yo man,” the high-schooler said to me, “I know this one kid who makes $2000 a day. He’s a beastmaster — an enforcer. He’s a big kid, about six-three 230. He carries an Uzi, but he’s def with his hands, too. He just bought a Wagoneer jeep for $22,000, but he parks it two blocks away from his house so that his parents don’t find out. His family has some status and some money, you know, and they expect him to go to college. But he’s making too much gusto. All the skeezers (sexually active girls) are jockin’ him, too. He asked me one time, ‘Know how to catch a skeeze?’ I said no. He said, ‘You say, “Jeep-jeep-jeep-jeep-jeep …'”

We left the plaza. The throngs of crews grew thicker, like shadows coagulating into a nightmare. The street was drowned in cars and people; a police officer directed traffic. Just then, an old and dimpled Pontiac tapped the rear of a sleek Mercedes 300E. Three white guys — mid-thirties — got out of the Pontiac, and they were drunk. Four new jacks jumped out of the Benz, in multicolored sweatsuits and gold everywhere. Two beastmasters, About six foot six and six foot seven, grabbed all three white guys in choke holds. The cop didn’t move. One slim teen, about five foot eight, walked up to one of the white guys and reached for his stuff. The swelling crowd egged the new jacks on. I just knew the white guys were going to catch a bad decision. The cop didn’t move. I covered my eyes, but then I peaked through my fingers. A traffic jam formed and honking horns snapped the new jack out of his homicidal autism. He and his beastmasters jumped back into the Benz and zoomed off. The white guys coughed, choked, and slugged their way back to the Pontiac. The crowd moved on. The cop twirled his hands and blew his whistle. The high-schooler shrugged like a vet. “That ain’t nothin’,” he said. “I know another kid who was working for this crew on the east side, who said he ‘lost’ $75. Quiet as it’s kept, he tricked on crack, making 51s (a crack and reefer joint). When his lieutenant found out, he and his crew took the kid to the basement, took his shoes off, got some carpenter’s nails, a brick, and hammered his hands and feet into the floor. He was still alive when the cops found him a few hours later.”

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Why has murder become a religious observance on the streets of Detroit? How did crack become demonic sacrament? Why is gettin’ paid equal to deification to the new jacks? Dr. Jorge Fleming, chief psychologist at Southwest Detroit Hospital, says that “a lack of spiritual and moral values, values which the black family has historically instilled in their children, has in the last 30 years or so shifted to a heavy emphasis on materialism. When the plants were going full steam, and both mother and father worked in the plant and brought home a combined salary of $70,000, then the kids got anything they wanted. But when those parents were laid off during the auto slump, and when the money wasn’t coming in, there was no spiritual or loving foundation to fall back on, which caused a breach in the family. And the kids, who were used to getting everything, decided they were going to continue having the good things in life — even if their parents couldn’t provide it for them.”

And what does Mayor Coleman Young say? In office for more than 12 years and a wily politician, he has his pat answers. He said in the Free Press three years ago that the exodus of Hudson’s and other stores has caused the high unemployment.

No one can argue with that. But the consensus is that Mayor Young is more concerned with the gloss of downtown than the young bodies found on side streets and in dumpsters. Mayor Young has transformed himself from a man of the people — the unanimous choice after the riot — to a corporate power broker. If prestige has its privileges, though, it also has its problems.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724852″ /]

Between family ties and corporate loyalties, Coleman Young’s political base is draining away even quicker than the city’s tax income. One teacher told me that the mayor should be on the street in a flak jacket with a squadron of heavily armed police because that’s when the kids will know he’s serious. But he won’t do it, this teacher said.

So the new jacks continue to laugh at the advertisement over Woodward, and “wopp” like crazy. It’s the latest dance, a serpentine hump and jerk, a rhythmic self-dismemberment. They wopp-danced fast and fierce back in March, a few days after Lenny Higgins was shot. The occasion was the Motor City Mixer. Given by Dr. Carl Taylor and a few associates and held at the state fairgrounds, it was Taylor’s opportunity to see Aliens 2 up close.

“We thought that these kids were not given a fair shake in the media,” Taylor said, “and there were no outlets for them to have good clean fun. We also thought that a few bad apples don’t spoil the whole bunch.”

The new jacks came in force: mondo-moda sportswear, cellular phones, nines and .357s, pockets bulging with twenties, fifties, and hundreds. Six bucks at the door, and the cashier had a change problem all night.

[related_posts post_id_1=”727312″ /]

From the time the new jacks hit the parking lot to the time they got inside, no one was armed. The security force was 100 men strong.

But Taylor saw the dark side. “Yeah, we stopped the weapons, but we couldn’t stop the mind-set,” he said. After the crowd of 2400 got off of the floor — the deejay mixed in a machine gun sound effect — the party was jumping. “Throw That Dick,” a mixture of Chicago house and rap, began to play. The place went berserk. Fights broke out. A group of 15 boys circled around three girls and molested them. Another crew of 30 new jacks brutally kicked and beat one boy in a corner. While assorted members of Dr. Taylor’s team broke up the fights, the sexual assaults, and other melees, Taylor ran over and snatched the kid, bloody and bruised, to safety.

“I told him,” Taylor said, “I think you should leave. You are going to wind up getting killed if you don’t get out of here. And he told me, ‘Trick it man, trick it. I ain’t no ho. They just gonna have to kill me, ’cause I ain’t no ho and I ain’t runnin’.’ He was just so determined. I didn’t understand it. That’s when we had to pull the plug.”

Taylor said he didn’t understand the kid, but the next day — when all the kids were saying what a success the party was — his words rang loud and clear. It wasn’t so much what he said, Taylor told me, but what he wore. Remember what I said about clothes and the new jack? Well, here’s the motto paid in full. Aside from the new jack’s black color theme — sweats, trench coat, and Ellesse gym shoes — the kid had a black cap with a white stencil that said, Shoot me. I’m already dead.

1987 Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper about gun violence in Detroit

1987 Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper about gun violence in Detroit
1987 Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper about gun violence in Detroit
1987 Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper about gun violence in Detroit
1987 Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper about gun violence in Detroit
1987 Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper about gun violence in Detroit
1987 Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper about gun violence in Detroit

White Line Fever


Miami is one of those cities with its own peculiar odor and you smell it most distinctly during the hours before dawn. There is salt in the air, of course, a nod to the abiding presence of the southern sea. But on certain nights when a desultory breeze blows east from the Everglades, a more powerful essence soaks the dark air: the ancient memory of the swamp. It’s as if all the tar and concrete, all the gleaming hotels and banks and shopping centers, the tract houses, schools, churches, and restaurants are some dull afterthought. In those humid after-midnight hours, the modern city is overwhelmed by a primeval compost of decaying vegetation, rioting flowers, fetid water, the remains of beings that die with thrashing suddenness in the night.

And on almost all such nights, it does not take much imagination to detect something else drifting on the Miami wind: the sweet rotting stench of corruption.

No other American city has melded its natural odor so perfectly with the dailiness of its human activities. If you move around the city, you sense the pervasiveness of the corruption: the cop smoking a cigarette in a doorway, like a supporting player from Red Harvest; the chaotic sprawl of weather-stained commercial architecture, evoking deals and variances and the purchased approval of second-rate materials; young men driving Porsches and Mercedes and Caddies as if they owned the nightside streets. Corruption is most tangible, as blunt as an ax, in the bars, discos, marinas, that sleek urban scape so accurately reflected in Miami Vice. This world is not fiction; its treacherous glamour is an undeniable element of modern Miami. And the citizens of that world, adorned with Naugahyde-like tans and encrusted Rolexes, rubbing their eroding noses in unwilled salute, are walking symbols of the city’s deepest reality. The truth of a time and place is, of course, always illusive; but no historian can tell the story of Miami in the last decade without acknowledging one gigantic fact of municipal life: cocaine.

In the late 1970s, the Miami Herald estimated that drugs had become the largest single industry in southern Florida, accounting for a billion dollars a year. Today, in spite of numerous photo opportunities starring George Bush, increases in various antidrug budgets, and some hard dangerous work by the more than 800 state and federal antidrug agents, there is no reason to believe that anything much has changed. Drugs are to Miami what cars are to Detroit. As opium was for some Brits in the 19th century, cocaine has been the essential building block of great Miami fortunes. Narcobucks have erected shopping centers, financed housing developments, built vast mansions, stocked racing stables, paid for boats, cars, and more fleshy trinkets, created and maintained banks (some law enforcement people believe that there isn’t a clean bank in the state), and so worked their way into the fabric of life here that nobody will ever be likely to separate the clean money from the soiled.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719755″ /]

In almost every way, cocaine dominates the culture of Miami. It is part of the city’s power structure, the engine of its economy, the unacknowledged grease of its politics. In Miami, as Christine Evans of the Miami Herald has written, “drugs are cheaper, purer and more abundant than anywhere else in the country. Doctors use them. Lawyers use them. Data analysts use them. Rich kids get them from their parents’ secret drawers. Poor kids score cheap on the street.”

One recent study estimates that the citizens of Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties spend $1.69 billion a year on illegal drugs. Employers spend $744 million a year on health care for their druggies or for repairing the messes made by people who go to work loaded. Cocaine — 75 per cent of which enters this country through Florida — is at the heart of a vast capitalist enterprise, a rude democratic industry that follows the most primitive laws of supply and demand while promising great rewards to those willing to take risks. The odds are almost all in favor of the outlaw. Since its inception in 1982, the federal South Florida Crime Task Force has racked up more than 9500 arrests, seized tons of drugs. The result? Drugs are more available than ever before and cheaper by half at $30,000 a kilo. Few street-level dealers are ever touched because the courts and jails are jammed; crack houses operate openly almost everywhere. And the big dealers — the importers and wholesalers — are virtually immune in their Brickell Avenue condos and Coral Gables mansions. The drug business is a very successful American enterprise. Everybody knows this: ordinary citizens, reporters, politicians, schoolchildren.

But the cops know it better than anyone else. And in this world of dirty money and deep cynicism, it is no surprise that some of them have eaten the forbidden fruit. These notes are about some of those cops.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725621″ /]


The Miami River meanders out of the interior, sluggish and dense and hidden from view, crawling to the sea for 5.5 miles under the city’s bridges like a huge, flat worm. It passes through a wilderness of boat yards, docks, skiffs, houseboats; it eases past areas full of twisted, anonymous steel, past rusting gas pumps and sun-blasted soda machines, past tiny stores selling shrimp and cigarettes and cold beer, past bars where tattooed whores arrive before noon to service the fishermen. Miami is never thought of as a river town, but its river serves admirably as municipal metaphor: dirty, furtive, lawless.

Sometime after midnight on the river last July 28, six men were unloading 300 to 400 kilograms of cocaine from a beat-up old 40-foot scow called the Mary C. This was in itself not unusual; the river is sparsely patrolled by police, whose jurisdiction is split between Miami and the larger Metro-Dade police forces, along with 30 other agencies charged with its regulation (Dade County alone has a bewildering 27 separate police departments totaling 4500 police), and the river is frequently used by smugglers of everything from drugs to Pakistanis. The six men worked quickly, moving their precious cargo from boat to waiting van. It seemed like another smooth night’s work in Miami.

Then, at the entrance to the boat yard, an unarmed night watchman named Bob Downs was suddenly brought to attention by an urgent banging on his door. He was told to open up. He did, and saw at least six men, two of whom were wearing police uniforms and caps. They said they were police and that this was a raid. Downs let them in.

The new arrivals hurried into the yard with guns drawn. Someone among them yelled, “Kill them!” Panicked, cornered, afraid, the men who were unloading the drugs dove into the filthy river. Downs then was ordered to unlock the padlock on the cyclone fence gates, which he did, and the loaded van was driven away. Three of the men who leaped into the river — Pedro Martinez (described later as one of Dade County’s biggest coke dealers, with a fleet of five steel-hulled boats operating from the Bahamas to Florida), Adolfo Lopez-Yanes, and Juan Garcia — never were seen again alive. Their drowned bodies were fished out of the river the next afternoon.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725990″ /]

The following December, arrests were finally made: Armando Estrada, Roman Rodriguez, Osvaldo Coello, Arturo de la Vega, Ro­dolfo Arias, and Armando Garcia. All were young. All were Latin. All were, or had been, Miami cops.

Estrada, Rodriguez, and Garcia were arrested at dawn, each charged with three counts of first-degree murder; under Florida’s felony murder law, anyone who kills another in the process of committing a felony can be charged with first-degree murder. The others were picked up later. In addition to the murder charges, all five were charged with cocaine trafficking, racketeering, and aggravated battery; individual charges included armed robbery, conspiracy and solicitation to commit a felony, and possession of marijuana. Two of the surviving civilians who were unloading the boat were also arrested and charged. But the cops got all the attention. When four of them were brought to court, the whole country saw them blowing kisses, giggling, rolling their eyes, sniggering at their pictures in the newspapers. They flexed their muscles as they moved, looking like bags of bowling balls held together with steroids.

Within days, details about these men began to emerge. All were weight lifters, all made the disco scene, both in Little Havana and in the anglo joints out at the beach. They liked to adorn themselves with gold chains, spend money on expensive clothes, women, flashy cars, all the props of Miami Vice. And in police jobs paying $10 to $14 an hour, they apparently supported this lifestyle in the only way possible: through crime. They started small, taking drugs from motorists stopped for traffic offenses, and keeping them. A few openly muscled small-time peddlers. And eventually, investigators believe, about 10 cops bonded themselves together into a group the prosecutors call “The Enterprise.”

The major target of The Enterprise was the drug dealer. As cops, they would learn on the street (or from straight cops) who was dealing, when big buys were taking place, and then they would go in with shields and guns and take the goods for themselves. Some simply invaded the homes of suspected dealers at gunpoint, a variation of the old crap game stickup. Obviously, if you’re not supposed to be doing something, it is very hard to call the cops when you’re robbed. It’s even harder if the cops are doing the robbing.

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When they weren’t robbing drug dealers, the rogue cops were working for them. The key man was a short dapper 42-year-old Ma­riel refugee named Luis Rodriguez, who had gone from two 1982 arrests for possession of burglary tools and firearms, and four arrests in two years for possession of narcotics (for which he did no time) to the obligatory Mercedes, beeper, and cabin cruiser of the successful drug dealer. Like many drug dealers, he moved around a lot, seldom staying at his Coral Gables apartment, spending nights in various hotels, traveling on occasion to New York.

But Rodriguez was not exactly a master criminal, some Cuban wedding of Professor Moriarty and Meyer Lansky. In fact, he was pretty damned dumb. An example: on March 1, 1984, while driving south on the Jersey Turnpike, Rodriguez and another man were stopped by a trooper for driving 70 miles an hour. The trooper searched the 1981 Chevy and found two bags of cocaine, $14,000 in cash in the trunk, $5000 in the glove compartment, and $44,000 under the dashboard. Rodriguez pleaded guilty to cocaine possession then changed his mind, decided to fight the case, and went back to Miami to wait for trial. He obviously preferred the warm embrace of the Miami legal system to the chill vastness of the North. After his last period of probation in Florida, for example, Rodriguez asked the judge to give him back his 9 mm. Browning. I mean, what is a drug dealer without his piece? And Miami being Miami, Circuit Judge Ted Mastos agreed.

Rodriguez ran a joint called the Molino Rojo Bar, on 3084 NW 7th Street, where drug deals were often made (according to court documents) and where Rodriguez himself was once nabbed with two bags of cocaine. The bar was usually packed (even a brutal double homicide one night in December 1984 didn’t keep the customers away) and among those who came around were the young cops.

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Luis Rodriguez had a 49-year-old assistant, a hustler off SW 8th Street known as Armando Un. In the bar, Un got to know the cops and apparently he was a good judge of character; in 1984 he suggested they work for Rodriguez. And they were willing. In an affidavit, Un said that the drug thefts began in September 1984, the period cited by prosecutors as the beginning of The Enterprise. Soon the young weight lifters were moving drugs around the city for Rodriguez, often in patrol cars, sometimes peddling on duty. They didn’t always work in combination. Officer Estrada, Un said, once gave him a kilo of cocaine in mid-1985 and took a $2000 down payment; that sounded like a private deal. Some other jobs were small; The Enterprise even helped collect gambling debts, the public servant functioning as private muscle. But according to Un, in mid-1985 be helped plan a successful 300-to-400 kilo ripoff at the Tamiami Marina, with six cops doing the heavy lifting. And then they started going after even bigger deals. In the anarchic world of Miami drugs, business was good, although Metro-Dade homicide detective Alex Alvarez later told reporters that business wasn’t always very smooth; there were, for example, too many men involved — at least 10 — and they began to squabble. Said Alvarez: “Everyone wanted to kill everyone else.”

Immediately after the Miami River arrests, there were expressions of surprise and rage. But the Miami establishment should have known. The police brass. The politicians. The prosecutors. They should have smelled the rotting odor, drifting in the Miami night. Way back in February 1985, a banker whose own activities were under investigation said that three masked men broke into his Coral Gables home, robbed him of $100,000 in cash and jewelry, and threatened him with death. The thieves were “built like body builders,” and that April, after his own investigation, he told the cops that one of the three was a Miami police officer who worked out in a gymnasium near Bird Road. Coello and Garcia owned a gym on Bird Road. The cops investigated but did nothing. They were busy elsewhere.

On July 9 last year, a group of men invaded the home of a Miami weapons manufacturer, shot him to death, stole jewelry and a safe; neighbors said men who looked like “off-duty cops” had been seen casing the home. On the day of the Miami River deaths three men in a blue Cadillac flashed a police badge, kidnapped a woman, took her to her home and robbed her husband of $50,000; a car matching the description of the Cadillac was stopped two weeks later. Officer Osvaldo Coello was driving. He had borrowed the car, he said. Nothing happened. On August 17, two days after he resigned from the police department (after an investigation into allegations that he was using cocaine), Coello was stopped doing 120 miles an hour in a $59,000 red Lotus. He was carrying $4500. As a cop, he earned $10.40 an hour. He was not locked up. The police brass saw no evil. On August 26, two cops were arrested while trying to sell police badges, radio scanners, and automatic weapons to a drug dealer. On October 7, Miami police admitted that $150,000 had been stolen from a safe in the office of the Special Investigations Unit (the real name for the Miami vice squad) right in police headquarters. On October 10, a Metro-Dade officer was arrested for being part of a home-invasion gang; he specialized in posing as a mailman. A week later, two cops were arrested for possession of cocaine. The following month, two former Miami cops were charged with stealing (while still on the force) 150 pounds of cocaine from a 1000-pound seizure also made on the Miami River. In February, a cop was arrested while driving a stolen $40,000 Porsche. The next month, a cop was arrested for using a police car in the ripoff of a drug dealer and then planning the man’s murder. The cops in the Miami area were rapidly acquiring a substantial collective yellow sheet of their own.

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The most obvious questions were asked first: Who are these people? What kind of cops are they? The answers were sketchy.

All became cops in the aftermath of the bloody 1980 riots, when the Miami force was expanded from 630 officers to 1050 over three years. To reflect the changed ethnic composition of the city (42.3 per cent of Dade County’s 1,771,000 inhabitants are now Latin) about 80 per cent of the new officers were black or Latin. Some veteran cops insist that to attract the new officers, standards were lowered. And one result was that some bad apples ended up with badges and legitimate guns. Former Police Chief Kenneth Harms says, “Instead of taking the cream off the top of the barrel, we took the whole damn barrel.”

There are some indications that the contents of that barrel were drawn from a Miami generation to whom money was holy, its acquisition sacramental. This is, of course, in the grand American tradition. These, after all, are the children of immigrants, the same kind of people who — in the old days in a dozen American cities — made up the soldiers of the police and the Mob. Many came from the same neighborhoods. Two members of The Enterprise went to Miami High together. Three were in the class of ’81 at the Police Academy; all were known as “aggressive” cops, muscular machos who volunteered for tough assignments, actually preferring the high-action midnight shift. They also moved around with a certain swagger, letting everyone know they were hard guys — as hard as anyone else on the street. They worked at this, wearing muscles as if they too were a kind of uniform. Bodymasters, the gym owned by Coello and Garcia, attracted a lot of police officers; investigators now believe that while pumping iron at Bodymasters, members of The Enterprise also planned some of the drug ripoffs. But it’s not clear when these young men went bad.

Some Miami cops told me they believed the baddies became cops in order to enrich themselves, knowing that access to police intelligence and the gossip of informers would help them locate potential victims. Since the victims were also criminals there were few ethical problems. There might never have been ethical problems.

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“Look, there have always been bad cops,” one cop told me. “They’re usually cops for years and all they see is the scum of the earth and a court system that doesn’t give a rat’s ass and after a while they might say, ‘Hey, why don’t I get a piece for myself?’ In Miami, a cop can make a few grand by looking to the left instead of the right. But these young guys weren’t cops long enough to have that happen. I think they were bad from the day they went to the academy.”

If Rodriguez (through Un) was the corrupter, the relationship with the young cops didn’t last very long. At 5:30 p.m. on July 30, 1985, the day after the murders on the Miami River, in a field about a mile from the Dolphin Expressway, someone dumped a pine box that was three feet high and three feet wide. Inside the box was the body of Luis Rodriguez. He had been shot quite a few times. When the cops found the crate and opened the lid, Luis’s body popped out, and for a brief time his death was happily known to cops and reporters as the “Jack in the Box” murder.

Investigating the murder of Rodriguez, the cops heard that Officer Estrada had been around the night before the drug dealer disappeared, saying he would have to kill him. In a taped conversation after the killing, Un said to Officer Estrada: “I could care less if they killed Luis 40 times over. He had to be killed. If they had not killed him … ” On the tape, Estrada finished the sentence for him: “We would have killed him.”

Officers Arias, Garcia, and Estrada have been charged with conspiracy to murder Rodriguez, but nobody has yet been charged with the actual murder. The larger story of the Miami River murders (or, as defense attorneys call them, “suicides by drowning”) seems to have eclipsed the death of Luis Rodriguez.

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At some point, crime and politics always seem to intersect. This can be seen most clearly in the town of Hialeah. A stranger could cross from Miami into Hialeah without knowing that he has crossed any boundary; it’s like traversing the frontier between Brooklyn and Queens. But to those who know the place, Hialeah has its own special character these days. It is the second largest city in Dade County, with 180,000 residents (more than Fort Lauderdale). The city’s centerpiece is the once-lovely, now rather shabby racetrack that bears its name. In the old days, famous hoodlums came each winter to the track, carting along their fancy women, each northern don protected by a flying wedge of pistoleros.

In those days, there were almost no Latins in the town; those Latins who did live in Hialeah were third-rate jockeys, exercise boys, vendors, and petty hustlers who made a living off the track. Hialeah in the ’50s was a redneck town, full of hard-drinking shit-kickers who loved to batter each other on a Saturday night while Webb Pierce or Lefty Frizzell sang counterpoint on the jukebox. Then, after Castro took power, at first gradually and soon in a great rush, Hialeah began to change; vowels replaced consonants; Joe Cuba and the La Playa Sextet shoved Hank Williams and Merle Haggard off the juke. Today, Latins make up 80 per cent of the population and in 1983 finally took control of the city council. They have come to dominate an ugly, sprawling town, predominantly working class, whose main artery is 49th Street with its fast food joints and used car lots and grungy shopping centers. They have also inherited a ripe tradition of corruption.

“Politicians steal,” a Miami cop said to me. “That’s their business. But in Hialeah, they think they’re supposed to steal everything.”

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For years, the press and the prosecutors were after a Hialeah mayor named Henry Milander, citing various cases of alleged malfeasance. Milander brushed them away as if they were visiting fruit flies, until at last in 1970 he was convicted of grand larceny. Even that didn’t change Hialeah very much. The following year he was again elected mayor. Other pols, a visitor is told, made fortunes on developing the town, ridding the land of farms and open spaces, planting fields with warehouses and factories, jerry-building housing so unrelentingly ugly that it might even have offended Joe Stalin.

Into this fast-buck heaven have arrived many of the new-breed hustlers, and among them was a man named Alberto San Pedro. Born in Havana in 1950, Alberto was four years old when his parents brought him to Miami. In recent years, he called himself a developer, and hosted extravagant parties each December 17 in honor of his favorite saint, the wonderful San Lazarus, who is not recognized by the Catholic Church anymore but remains big among Cubans. The last two of these $50,000 parties were held at the posh Doral Hotel in Miami Beach, and among the guests were Hialeah mayor Raul Martinez, Representative Claude Pepper, Miami Beach mayor Alex Daoud, WSVN-Channel 7 weekend anchor and reporter Rick Sanchez, Miami police major Jack Sullivan, ordinary cops, political fundraisers, lawyers, various right-wing bravos, and a load of judges. San Pedro brought along a nine-foot statue of the saint, dressed himself in a tuxedo, was flanked by bodyguards, and posed with the assembled celebrities.

San Pedro’s father was a delegate to the 1984 Republican National Convention, and Alberto San Pedro was cleared for an audience with Ronald Reagan in Tampa in 1985. The son told all inquisitors that in addition to his activities as a developer, he was also a bookkeeper and salesman for his father’s business, the San Lazaro Racing Stables at Calder Race Track. These occupations obviously rewarded him handsomely: according to Jeff Leen of the Miami Herald, Alberto San Pedro’s six-bedroom mansion in Hialeah has eight and a half bathrooms and bulletproof windows.

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The windows should have been the tipoff that there was more to Alberto San Pedro than his own resume might indicate. He was, in fact, leading a far more interesting life than the one he presented to the public and seems to have studied for it with the same respect for basic texts that a seminarian would reserve for Thomas a Kempis. Leen, whose wonderfully detailed profile of Alberto for the Herald is the basis of many of these notes, also learned that Alberto kept a hardcover copy of The Godfather in the bathroom closest to his bedroom and a biography of Al Capone behind the desk in his office. It was in that same office that police set up a hidden microphone and learned many things about Alberto’s other, perhaps more characteristic, life. As we learned from listening to the Watergate tapes, the bulk of a hoodlum’s day is consumed by bullshitting with other hoodlums, and the San Pedro tapes — recorded in thousands of pages of transcripts — are a fascinating journey into the true underbelly of life in a corrupt town.

For these tapes, the police say, show that Alberto San Pedro was a major corrupter, a fixer, the classic cacique who works behind the scenes to secure power and wealth and enforces his presumed right to both with fear and violence. Among the institutions he is accused of corrupting is the Hialeah police department. It was a task he had trained for all of his life.

We don’t know if Alberto San Pedro’s reading of Mario Puzo moved him to see his life as a novel, but if so, the early  chapters followed the traditional pattern. In junior high school he learned that force can be rewarded. According to a Florida Parole and Probation Commission case analysis quoted by Leen, “Subject began extortion in the 9th and 10th grades, making the other students do his homework or work projects.”

By age 20, San Pedro, like so many other characters in this squalid story, was into weight lifting. And he began to take karate lessons from a Hialeah cop named Leo Thalassites. On the tapes, San Pedro says that he spent much of his youth beating up people for 50 or a hundred bucks (“that’s how I made my money”). By the time he was 21, his yellow sheet was lengthening: three arrests for aggravated assault, one for resisting a police officer, two for assault and battery, another for buying and possessing stolen property. In 1970, police reports said, after being flattened by a hard block in a sandlot football game, an enraged San Pedro stabbed the blocker, then went to his car, took out a machine gun, and sprayed the field. In all of these cases, he was either acquitted or had the charges dismissed. He wasn’t properly nailed by the law until 1971, when he took part in a drug rip-off and discovered that the subjects of his attention were undercover cops. He was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and given three years probation.

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

Even this didn’t convince San Pedro to go into a quieter line of work. In 1972, he was in trouble again, charged with armed robbery and assault with the intent to commit murder. His victim this time was a hooker’s John. There are clearly marked roads to heaven. But the customer wouldn’t testify and San Pedro got off. Three years later, he almost got off the earth when a hit man shot him five times. San Pedro survived. The hit man disappeared. And San Pedro began to give his annual thanks to Saint Lazarus. He also began to think more about the style of his life and the reach of his ambitions. On a July 26, 1985, tape, he says:

“I’m not a doper. I dedicate myself to my business. I was fucking broke when I was a kid and I got the shit beat out of me by the cops and by … the whole group. That’s what made me think there’s only one way to get around in life here. That’s politics and money.”

San Pedro was correct; the grand old American combination of politics and money is certainly not unique to south Florida. But there was something else going on in Hialeah. By last year, the police chief was a man named Cecil (“Whitey”) Seay, whose earlier career didn’t seem to shape him for extraordinary moral leadership. In 1970 he was accused by a drug dealer of trying to cut himself into a $150,000 marijuana smuggling plot (no charges were filed); he was indicted in 1971 after a Dade County grand jury investigation demanded by 70 Hialeah officers who said that nine officers, including Seay, didn’t meet ethical standards (he was accused of thwarting a burglary investigation, but when the chief witness against him changed his story the charges were dropped); in 1973, a teenage girl appeared before the city’s personnel board and claimed that Seay had forced his attentions upon her (no investigation was made). At the hearings that led to his choice as chief, Seay said: “Those guys who have a clean record have never done anything.”

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One of Seay’s most important officers was San Pedro’s old karate instructor and still his good friend, Leo Thalassites. He was now a sergeant. Leo suddenly found himself in the newspapers on January 30 when he threatened to kill two detectives named Eddie Preston and Tom Nevins. He made this threat in the lobby of the Hialeah City Hall in front of three other officers. Preston and Nevins were in the intelligence section of Hialeah’s police department, and Thalassites accused them of sending anonymous letters to various police organizations and the media accusing Leo and some other Hialeah veterans of corruption. Although the two cops denied this, Chief Seay and Mayor Martinez backed Thalassites. One fine morning, the two detectives found the locks on their office changed, with their personal possessions and pending cases still inside. They were then shifted to other jobs, one washing police cars, the other pounding a beat. Hialeah’s intelligence section was disbanded.

But the story didn’t end there.

The Metro-Dade police were already looking hard at Alberto San Pedro. An undercover agent, posing as a corrupt cop, had ingratiated himself with San Pedro and had a series of meetings and telephone conversations with the man. All were recorded. More than anything else, San Pedro told detective Nelson Perry, he wanted to get rid of the rest of the records of his youth so that he could obtain a full pardon for his youthful crimes and become a U.S. citizen. He planned to do this, he said, with money.

“Everybody’s got a friend and everybody needs friends,” he said on an August 30, 1985, tape. “Everybody likes to be loved and everybody wants to be loved. Money, everybody loves money. Everybody likes to spend it … And unfortunately, politicians are the worst motherfuckers in the world … They only look at one thing, how much can I steal as long as I’m there.”

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Among the records that San Pedro wanted destroyed were accounts of his dealing with a middle-level Gambino family hoodlum named Joseph Paterno. Police recorded conversations in April 1985 indicating that Paterno tried to buy from San Pedro two silencer-­equipped guns for use in the killing of two of his own cousins in New Jersey. San Pedro didn’t refuse; his price — $4000 for each piece — was simply too high for Paterno’s budget, according to Arthur Nehrbass, commander of Dade’s Organized Crime Bureau. Almost immediately after this conversation, Paterno was arrested.

The cops took a closer look at San Pedro. In June, he offered $5000 to a police informant to get the Paterno transcripts and tapes. The cops then sent their undercover man to San Pedro (setting up the meeting through San Pedro’s bodyguard) and listened to his various offers, and accepted sums ranging from $2000 to $11,000. Over a period of time, the cops fed San Pedro a combination of real and fictitious police material, and listened to his bragging, his philosophy, and his schemes. Those schemes were not empty; San Pedro was the real thing. They knew, for example, from the Hialeah records chief, Lieutenant Thomas Bardon, that San Pedro’s file had disappeared three times from that city’s police department. A narcotics intelligence file on San Pedro also disappeared. And his records were missing from the Dade Circuit Court clerk’s office and the State Attorney’s office. San Pedro was clearly attempting to create a new personal history through elimination.

Nelson Perry, who was president of the Police Benevolent Association (which began representing Hialeah cops in September 1985), says he started smelling the rot in Hialeah when he was approached by a 350-pound political press agent and community newspaperman named Don Dugan (later indicted in a separate case for being the bagman in a bribery case in Opa Locka). Dugan told Perry that he could earn “a personal profit” if he stayed out of Hialeah police affairs. This shocked Perry, who told his superiors of this; they assigned him to pose as a corrupt cop. He soon met San Pedro for the first time at the Treetop Restaurant in the Miami Springs Holiday Inn. They continued to meet for weeks. At two of Perry’s meetings with San Pedro, a Hialeah cop was also present. It was Sergeant Thalassites.

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When police overheard San Pedro in February talking about killing two men who owed him a total of $4000, and conspiring to sell a kilo of cocaine, they decided to move. On February 13, San Pedro was arrested on bribery charges, and rearrested March 2 for murder, conspiracy, and cocaine trafficking. Hialeah erupted. Within weeks, Chief Seay resigned. Thalassites went on paid leave. Some of the tapes were released, littered with the names of various politicians who were claimed by San Pedro as friends or property. TV reporter Rick Sanchez was heard discussing an exchange of favors with San Pedro; good old Alberto had found a job in Panama for Sanchez’s uncle; Sanchez, who served as a non-voting adviser to the board of the First American Bank & Trust, got a share of San Pedro’s business for the bank. (What a reporter was doing serving on the board of a bank — and sucking after customers on behalf of that bank — nobody could answer; Sanchez also was granted a paid leave but his superiors at the TV station said they saw nothing wrong with his connection to the bank. The ethics of Miami strike again.) It was then remembered that Sanchez had emceed the 1984 San Lazarus party and had led the group in prayer. Someone else noticed that Hialeah had a 29.6 per cent increase in crime during 1985 and the joke was that this was “not including cops.”

Then in mid-March, the Herald tossed a few more bombs into the discussion.

Reporters Leen and Sydney P. Freedberg discovered that in 1979, Florida’s former attorney general, Robert Shevin, and the state’s esteemed Congressman Claude Pepper had written letters to the Florida parole board extolling San Pedro’s character. They now claimed that they didn’t really know San Pedro, couldn’t remember him; since their letters claimed that they did in fact know San Pedro either the letters or the statements were lies. The former attorney general certainly should have known something about San Pedro. His law partner, a Democratic fund-raiser and adviser to Governor Bob Graham named Ronald Book, represented San Pedro during his 1983 application for a full pardon. Pepper and Shevin spluttered, suffered from amnesia, hung up the phones.

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Even more bizarre was the story of San Pedro’s access to Governor Graham himself. Last December, when there were cops all over Hialeah investigating San Pedro, a woman named Marcia Ludwig emerged to support San Pedro’s application for a full pardon. Marcia Ludwig was once Marcia Valibus and in 1957 she was queen of the Orange Bowl; in Miami there is always an element of the surreal. Later Marcia Valibus was a runner-up in the Miss Universe contest and had a screen test at Paramount Studios. She was also a classmate of Adele Graham, the governor’s wife, and over the years they had remained friends. For more than a decade, the Herald said, Marcia Ludwig has been an intimate friend of one Robert (Bobby) Erra, son of the late Pasquale (Patsy) Erra, who once worked for Vito Genovese. Marcia and Erra are often seen together, friends told the Herald, at the La Goree Country Club. More important, there are pages of conversations between Erra and San Pedro on the various tapes. On December 11, Ludwig sent a hand-written note to her friend, the governor’s wife:

“Dear Adele, This is a note for Bob’s mirror. A good friend of mine — Alberto San Pedro— has a case coming before Bob and his Cabinet on Dec. 18 … I appreciate you calling my words to Bob’s attention.”

On December 19, Adele wrote back to Marcia: “I placed the note on Bob’s mirror — so he’s aware.” This was the day after Graham presided over the hearing. During that session, he said: “Unfortunately, there continues to be this lingering question as to what might be in his background. I’m concerned that Mister San Pedro is sort of being cast under a shadow that he seems to be unable to extricate himself from and which shadow hasn’t yet, or after four or five years, moved to the substance of some action. It has been a long time since the criminal offense for which he’s requesting pardon was committed and he has an impressive statement of his community record.” Graham “reluctantly” moved to continue the case, stating that the next time San Pedro’s pardon was discussed, he would come to a decision. There is no indication that he checked with any of the cops; he certainly didn’t give San Pedro a flat rejection. What the hell: when you’re a kid in Hialeah it’s only natural to fool around with machine guns. Still, Graham didn’t say yes either. And his need to decide was made academic by San Pedro’s February 13 arrest.

The honest cops in Hialeah had long despised San Pedro and to some extent feared him. He was the shadowy man, the fixer, called upon for help by arsonist, hoodlum, dealer. On the day he was arrested, someone placed a note on the police department’s bulletin board. It said very simply: “The untouchable has been touched.”

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Obviously, every cop in southern Florida is not a crook. Most of the arrests have been made as a result of good tough police investigations along with continuing pressure from the Miami Herald. But it’s unlikely that corruption will soon vanish, the drug dealers joining the dinosaurs in the rot of the swamp. They won’t go away, and cops will continue to be corrupted because there is simply too much dirty money lying around. Cocaine will not soon be legalized: Americans won’t soon surrender their national lust for some form of chemical nirvana.

But if you wonder what happens to some of these men who briefly and luridly occupy page-one headlines, consider recent events in North Bay Village, another suburb of Miami. In 1971, a cop named George Staphylaris was fired from the Miami force for allegedly encouraging a police informant to rob a department store. He appealed the firing, was reinstated with a six-month suspension, then resigned. Six years ago he joined the North Bay Village force. He was soon known to many kids as Officer George, ran the drug education program at Treasure Island Elementary School, often took kids on trips to the Everglades, and had prepared a children’s seminar called “Just Say No To Drugs.”

On the North Bay force, he met another former Miami cop named William David Risk. He too was once fired, for battering a prisoner with a nightstick. He too fought his firing, was reinstated, and resigned in 1979. Last year, he was North Bay Village’s officer of the year, cited for his “superlative performance and dedication.” He was also a weight lifter.

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A third former Miami cop was on the North Bay force. This was Sergeant Fernando Gandon. He quit the Miami force in 1977 after being charged with aggravated battery. While interrogating a man on the street, the charges against him said, he shoved his pistol in the man’s mouth, rattled it around and broke some teeth. Five years ago, he arrived at North Bay and was again given a badge and gun.

On February 27, all three men were arrested by the FBI for selling protection to men they believed to be drug dealers. A Mob guy named Stephen Nahay told FBI agents (posing as drug dealers) in a recorded conversation that if they were moving drugs they should see the three North Bay cops. “They’ll help you out,” Nahay said. “In other words, if you want to kill a guy there … you just tell them the guy and they’ll kick him on to the coroner … ”

Clearly, redemption does not flourish under the southern sun. There are no second chances for such people, only the main chance. But nobody from New York can step back in self-righteous judgment at the sight of Miami police scandals. We have at least one such scandal in every New York generation since the mid-19th century. And late one night, sitting with a Miami cop in a place called Trainer’s, where judges and drug dealers both come to dine, I was asked, “How long can that mayor of yours last?” I wasn’t able to answer. The arrest rate at New York’s city hall hasn’t quite reached that of the Miami cops, but the crimes are about the same general thing: abuse of power for personal gain.

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In Miami, the corruption will go on and on, as long as millions of Americans maintain their passionate love affair with cocaine. Jesse Helms and his fellow yahoos should forget about corruption in Mexico for the moment and acknowledge the rot in a state that went fervently for Ronald Reagan. They might discover that drug dealers love conservatives in power; conservatives forbid things that racket guys can then sell. And while Americans keep buying expensive powders to shove up their noses, the bad guys will keep buying cops. How many. As many as they need.

A good number of Miami cops have the integrity to resist the lure of narcodollars. But just as surely, others will plunge into the swamp and rise covered with the kind of slime that will never wash off. They are there now, driving Chevies and longing for Porsches, dressed in baggy suits and lusting for Giorgio Armani, hearing preachments of denial, while drug dealers leave with the women, and the country at large throws roses to the greedy. They are men of the law but nobody in Miami would ever be surprised to see them leaving the sunshine in handcuffs. Their sweet decaying odor will not go away. ❖

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami


Married to The Mob

The Wise Guy Wannabes

Editor’s Note: Before last week’s racial killing in Bensonhurst, reporters Mark Bauman and Samme Chittum spent sev­eral months in the neighborhood. Here is their report. Some of the names and iden­tifying characteristics in this story have been changed to protect the identity of the participants. 

NICO AND FRANK sit on a bench, waiting for some of the ass­holes from 86th Street to drive by. This is 81st Street, an important neighborhood bound­ary in Italian Bensonhurst, and guarding it is the righteous thing to do. The pavement is already littered with freshly broken bottles from a nearby garbage can recently dumped over an offending Tans Am that dared to cruise the border without an invita­tion. “For some reason I’m up all the time,” says Frank, a lanky 20-year-old with black hair and brown eyes who seems immensely likable when he doesn’t have a bat in his hand. “I just like to abuse people. That’s all.”

“That’s it,” intones Nico, satisfied that Frank has provided the best explanation for their nightly presence in the lot on the corner of 81st Street and 18th Ave­nue in Brooklyn. What looks like a bar­ren inner city park — a patch of asphalt dotted with a few trees and benches — is really a prized piece of real estate, an outpost on the edge of the largest Italian neighborhood in New York City. While Frank and Nico share their nightly com­munion of Bud tallboys in the park, their girlfriends play bingo at nearby St. Agnes.

Most of the guys on the comer spend their time pining after city jobs. But a few diehards like Frank strive for a posi­tion in “La Cosa Nostra,” one of New York’s oldest and most respected firms.

They are Bensonhurst’s hard-core. Some of them will eventually grow up to be wiseguys. Most of them won’t. None of them, however, will grow up untouched by the antiquated style and casual vio­lence foisted on them by almost a century of Mafia tradition. Seldom discussed ex­cept in oblique references, the Mafia presence still pervades Bensonhurst, cloaking the neighborhood in ostenta­tious secrecy, like the tinted windows of the stretch limousines that line 18th Avenue.

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To ingratiate himself with the local wiseguys, Frank has worked protection in Chinatown. He has also twice broken into a local video store directly across the street from the park where he and his friends hang out; both times, he was caught in the act. Frank has a local wise­guy sponsor who looks out for his inter­ests if Frank is arrested — or, worse, in­curs the wrath of another wiseguy. (Frank divorced his previous sponsor, who had recruited him to hit up the video store but didn’t follow through for Frank when he was arrested.)

Tall, athletic, and aggressive, with dark eyes and a lean sculpted face, Frank is the undisputed leader of the corner pack. Whereas Nico has grown weary of “feel­ing like a punching bag,” Frank still en­joys piling into a car with friends and, as he puts it, “going over to the the Village to beat up some yuppies.” Oddly, Frank’s toughness comes across not as mean or hardened, but as unbridled animal ener­gy. He is often sweetly charming and eager to make friends. He is also one of the first to fling a bag of garbage when a Hispanic passes by.

Thanks to an uncle in the union, Frank has worked part-time setting up props for soap operas. But he doesn’t like the idea of marking time nine to five. “A couple of years from now I’ll be in the Mafia,” he predicts, adding, “You know what I seri­ously figure: If I get shot in the head, I ain’t gonna’ feel it. That’s it. You’re dead.”

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IN SPITE OF THE VIOLENCE that lurks just beneath the surface, Bensonhurst ex­emplifies, in some ways, the stereotype of an urban Italian neighborhood popularized in such films as Saturday Night Fe­ver. Up and down 18th Avenue, girls in tight skirts and pants strut along in small groups, their long, lush hair sprayed to baroque heights. They pass bakeries full of sweet Italian pastries and block after block of stores specializing in wedding regalia. Happy brides and grooms, re­splendent in middle-class finery, beam from large gilt frames in photographers’ windows. Silver-haired men, speaking in the rhythmic cadences of their Southern Italian dialect, gather on the corners. Up and down the main drag, the kids cruise in big American-made cars, their win­dows tinted like real Mafiosi. In the dis­tance, a car horn sounds; in short, flat tones, it plays out the first 12 notes from “The Godfather” theme. On the side streets, immaculate, miniature front yards boast plaster statues of the Virgin Mary.

The same pacific image of the Virgin also adorns the burly right forearm of one neighborhood tough known as “Hard Jaw.” Tatooed on his other arm is an ornate red and green cross. It reads simply IN MEMORY OF AUGIE, a friend who was killed in a police chase several years ago.

Sudden death from less than natural causes is not unusual in Bensonhurst. Early last fall, Robert Napolitano, 19, of 1659 West 10th Street, went for a drive with his girlfriend, Lisa Ciullo. While they were parked, an unidentified man fired five shots through their windshield. Napolitano died instantly. His girlfriend survived with a wound in her left leg. A few weeks earlier, one of Napolitano’s best friends, Marco De Fina, 19, was also killed in an execution-style shooting. His body was dumped on a dirt road in an isolated industrial park in Coney Island. Neither case has been solved. The two fallen teens, however, left behind a cadre of Bensonhurst toughs ready to take their places on the street.

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Most of the guys who hang out at 81st Street and 18th Avenue are young and unemployed. Although few of them know more than a curse or two in Italian, they can all name the old towns in southern Italy from which their families came and for which most of the social clubs in the neighborhood are named. A few blocks from their corner is the old bakery where the “Pizza Connection” heroin busts were made. At 74th Street and 18th Avenue is the Caffe Giardino, allegedly owned by Giuseppe Gambino, nephew of Carlo, who served as ”boss of bosses” in New York until his death in 1976. In Decem­ber, Giuseppe and nine others were ar­rested at the cafe on suspicion of heroin and cocaine trafficking. Law enforcement agents appeared at the cafe, took the mi­crophone from a newly imported Italian singer, and reportedly announced that some of the guests had danced their last dance.

The Mafia gave up its aversion to deal­ing in drugs decades ago, but drug use in Bensonhurst is still largely forbidden. Nico describes how he saw Sal, a young enforcer for the mob, put a sleeper hold — ­a tight lock around the neck that cuts off blood and oxygen to the brain — on a crackhead. “Sal grabbed him and just put him to sleep, dropped him on the ground. The kid was out,” Nico says. “They’re up to no good, these crackheads. We’re cleaning the neighborhood up.” The youth of Bensonhurst pride themselves on keeping out disorganized crime such as muggers and burglars. “This neighbor­hood is Top 10,” brags Joey, a corner regular. “I rate it nine out of 10 on safety. My mother could walk through here with a hundred dollars in her pocket.”

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Street crime is not the only thing locals fight to keep out. New immigrants from Asia and the Caribbean are now making their way into Bensonhurst. Their recep­tion often includes having garbage bags and eggs thrown at them. As the young men who hang out on the corner see it, Little Italy has been almost wiped out by Chinatown and the surging waves of Asian arrivals. And the few remaining Italian neighborhoods in the Bronx get smaller every day.

“You have a siege mentality [in Ben­sonhurst] now,” says Bob Massi, a Brooklyn legal aid attorney who grew up in the neighborhood, hanging out on street corners and polishing his knuckles on other people’s faces. “The Italians who are there now have moved there from other parts of the city. It’s white flight — the last Italian neighborhood.”

In their own view, the armed legions of Bensonhurst are playing out their neigh­borhood’s final stand. Fortified by their faith in the Godfather myth and armed with baseball bats, beer bottles, and pam­phlets calling for a boycott of local Chi­nese businesses, the youth of Benson­hurst have taken their battle to the streets. “This neighborhood has been Italian for 100 years and it’s not going to change,” vows Salis Reyna, a neighbor­hood loyalist.

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ALTHOUGH ONLY LOWER-LEVEL Mafiosi still live here, the big players do business in the small but exclusive cafes that line 18th Avenue. “These guys are heroes to [the neighborhood] kids,” says one detec­tive familiar with Bensonhurst. Benson­burst is still a place where rules of long standing must be followed, and where stepping on the wrong toes can get you “clipped.” “We pretty much answer to certain people around here, wiseguy peo­ple,” explains Nico. ” ‘Cause they’ll shoot you in the head and not think about it the next day.”

Nico, 23, is a plumber who works off the books for people in the neighborhood. He has a wife, a girlfriend, a $600-a-­month apartment, two cars, and a Pom­eranian to support. He hasn’t worked for two and a half months, but that’s no problem. There’s always money to be made on his own scams or doing favors for local wiseguys.

As the oldest corner regular, Nico is treated with deference. He is trim and good-looking, with small regular features (the kind of face girls would call “cute”) and brown hair cut short on top and long in the back, like a neat rocker. Nico dresses in casual chic — jeans and a waist­-length black leather jacket — and usually sports heavy gold jewelry. In a neighbor­hood where men have perfected the art of boisterous camaraderie, his manner is subdued. Nico gives the impression of being in control, although his brown eyes shine with wry humor.

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“They always said I was gifted,” Nico says. “And I was supposed to be admitted to a gifted school. But I didn’t really want to go. Fourth grade they pushed me ahead to fifth grade. Fifth grade they pushed me to junior high. Junior high pushed me to high school. And high school I dropped out” — dropped out and got married.

Almost before the conjugal sheets were dry, Nico’s teenage wife began an affair. Nico had a serious talk with his wife’s father and promised not to hurt the in­terloper if he agreed never, under any circumstances, to drive or walk down 18th Avenue or 81st Street. To help even the score, Nico took a girlfriend. Neither he nor his wife has sued for divorce. These days, Nico continues to see both his wife and his girlfriend. Tonight, he will go bowling with his wife.

As Nico relates his story, a middle-aged man with stooped shoulders slouches by. “Hey Pete,” he calls jovially. “How’s the wife and kids?” The man drops his head and limps on. “His wife left him two months ago and took the kids,” explains Nico with a wry grin. “It’s a big mental scar for him.”

It is Sal — who also happens to be Ni­co’s girlfriend’s brother — to whom Nico and Frank look to as their sponsor. Sal­ — who is also a low-level arms dealer — ­doesn’t have time to hang out. “He’s got connections,” says Nico. “He’s on the payroll. He takes care of things when they need to be taken care of — some­body’s got to be hurt, somebody’s got to be finished. You know, whatever.” In spite of the fact that Sal’s father works for a rival firm — the New York Police Department — Sal’s career and reputation are legendary.

Not long ago, Sal’s van was broken into, and suspicion fell on a trio of locals who used to hang out on the corner but got a bad reputation when they began using crack and stealing. “One crackhead robbed a van,” Nico begins the story, which he and Frank toss back and forth like a football. “They thought he robbed a van,” Frank corrects. “Sal found one of them. He got Miles.”

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“Sal hit him over the head with a bot­tle,” Frank says. “Then he grabbed him by the back of the head and stuck the end of the bottle in his face, right in the nose. Thirty-six stitches.”

“Still, he just wanted to get a word out of him,” amends Nico. “He just wanted to get names.”

“So the guy he stabbed in the eye gave up everyone else,” continues Frank.

“He said he had nothing to do with it,” prompts Nico.

Sal soon caught up with the next kid. “He stabbed him in the throat — slit him — 17 stitches,” Frank says. “The kid was layin’ on a bench, and he lifted his leg up. Sal was goin’ for his heart but he stabbed him in the leg, ripped and went through his leg. And he wanted to kill him. But the kid ran out on the highway. So he just watched. He figured it would be like the nigger that got killed on the highway” — a reference to the Howard Beach incident.

“But there was no cars comin’,” says Frank, throwing up his hands in a gesture of mock helplessness. “There’s no cars comin’,” echoes Nico, laughing.

“So he got away. Then he found out it wasn’t even those kids,” Frank says, con­cluding, with a laugh, “it was someone else! So they’re friends again. So you know what Sal says. He says, ‘I’m sorry!’ ”

“I’m sorry!” exclaims Nico, also laugh­ing. “And the kid’s so petrified of Sal, he says, ‘Okay. Everything’s all right.’ And he’s got a scar from here to here.” Nico runs his finger from his ear to his Adam’s apple.

Nico later admits that one of the crack­heads was Sal’s brother. “Sal was lookin’ to kill him. He was lookin’ for him for a long time. He finally got to him and put the gun to his head, but he couldn’t do it. Because he knows his mother would nev­er forgive him. And he’d never forget it himself.”

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THE VIOLENCE THAT UNDERLIES the neighborhood’s calm surface is revealed in small as well as dramatic ways. Even when the guys on the corner are not doing anything that might attract police attention, they play at being wiseguys. Most of them own BB guns. And on a really slow night they meander down to Gravesend Bay and shoot at rats — “tar­get practice” for more serious games.

Nico gestures at “Little Ralphie,” an­other corner regular, and says, “That cocksucker shot me in the ass,” a con­gratulatory tone in his voice. “That was a real professional hit.” Nico relates how Little Ralphie pulled up in his car and squeezed off several shots. “I said, ‘Okay. That’s all right. I’ll get him later.’ Meanwhile, it left a welt this big on my ass. So when I was ready to leave, I was sittin’ in the car. I loaded it up. I said, ‘Okay, Sal, I’ll see you later.’ I rolled down the win­dow. Boom, boom, boom.”

In Bensonhurst, such games still have a counterpart in real life. Nico recalls how Sal warned a neighborhood local who had gone into debt to the wrong people. “He shot the kid six times. I mean point blank from here to the tree. The kid didn’t die. But Sal was using target practice bullets in a .32 and they were just bouncin’ off his leather jacket. Like gettin’ hit with a bat. They chipped his ribs. But they didn’t hurt him. Then his uncle came down and gave Sal $20,000 [not to kill him].”

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In addition to acting as muscle for the mob, Sal has a lucrative little side busi­ness, with which Nico occasionally helps him out. “The hand grenades are going like water,” says Nico. “Sold two dozen already.” At $100 a piece, Nico is think­ing about buying one himself. He already owns a handgun that he purchased from Sal. It is part of a small, traveling arsenal in Nico’s trunk that includes two baseball bats, a lead sap, brass knuckles, a ma­chete, and a tangle of wires Nico says is a phone tap.

Although Nico and the older guys on the corner always have plenty of cash for cocaine and custom windshields, most say that what they really want is a city or union job. Nico gestures toward a muscu­lar young man with a round face who is holding court on the corner: Everyone wants to know what he thinks of the big name next week. His manner is low-key, like the strangely suburban Accord hatchback he drives, a practical purchase made with proceeds from his mob-sanc­tioned bookie job. “That’s Pino,” says Nico. “He’s afraid of guns. He’s the gam­bling part. They have nothing to do with violence. Nothing at all. But he knows the street laws. He’s a smart kid that way. He don’t make trouble. We’re both looking to get into Conrail. He wants the benefits, just like I do.”

Due to competition from Asian and Caribbean gangs, the Mafia has not ex­panded much over the last few years, but its potential labor pool has. Few opportu­nities remain in New York’s “last Italian neighborhood.” “A generation ago we were working in construction and the skilled trades,” says Bob Massi. “We were printers, bricklayers, longshoremen. Those jobs are not so well-paid now. Those industries are gone. The kids are up against an economic brick wall. The world is a computer that has no unions and all they have left is the neighborhood.”

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IT IS FRIDAY NIGHT. Frank and the rest of the guys are out in full force. A restless spirit has added a festive air to the evening’s activities. Eggs are being pur­chased in bulk. Before the night is over, several dozen will be thrown. As a likely looking car drives by, Frank winds up a long and powerful pitch that unleashes with athletic speed, slamming his fragile missile against the moving target.

But throwing eggs isn’t really satisfy­ing. It’s much better to pick a fight. Fighting is, after all, a legitimate, even redeeming, pastime in a world marked by tribal divisions. According to Frank, Brooklyn Italians hate Long Island Ital­ians, Long Island Italians hate Jersey Italians, and they all hate Staten Island Italians. Furthermore, Brooklyn Italians from different turfs are also obliged to knock heads. “If different Avenues are at a club, they always have to fight each other,” he explains.

If no more likely target is available, the guys may stoop to beating up a bum in another neighborhood. But most of the time they would rather fight. In fact, it is part of Frank’s purported frustration with some of the passing victims that they aren’t eager to take on the 81st Street crew. The few blacks, Hispanics, or Asians who wander into the neighbor­hood are rarely anxious to tackle 10 to 12 young men clustered on the corner. But the lopsided numbers don’t perturb Frank — the rule is, outnumber and catch the outsider. Frank would expect the same treatment if be ventured alone out­side his boundaries.

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This group harassment is now being directed not only at passing pedestrians, but also at minorities who have recently moved to the neighborhood. These people cannot avoid Bensonhurst after dark. They live here.

“You know, you’re not white, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the neighborhood,” says Gi, a Trinidadian immigrant to Bensonhurst who says he has twice been beaten and robbed by the local kids. After returning from a recent trip to the Caribbean, Gi says, his land­lord tried to evict him in favor of a white tenant.

Two young Hispanic men walk by the corner, both of them rather small. Frank cheers when Tim, an Irish-Italian corner regular, trots up behind them, an egg in one hand, and slams his fist into his victim’s face with a sickening crack. Yolk and shattered egg shell drip slowly down the young man’s chin onto the sidewalk. Frank applauds Tim’s efforts, but dispar­ages the victim: “The Mexicans are no fun. They don’t fight back.” Across the street, two Asian youths round the corner and Frank charges them, flinging a gar­bage bag at their retreating backs. “They walk through here like they got America by the balls,” says Tim, crying, in a mocking tone: ” ‘I got the green card. I got the green card.’ ”

Nico recalls an evening a few weeks earlier when he chased a young black couple down the street for “making out at the bus stop.” He casually admits to feel­ing bad when he found out they were retarded.

Across the street, a skinny 16-year-old named Angelo Berkowitz watches the egg-throwing but doesn’t join in. Angelo, who pleads guilty to being Jewish some­where back in his Italian lineage, stares out at the action from under a baseball cap pulled low on his forehead. “You know,” he says, taking in the scene, “they think they’re right, but they’re really wrong.” On the other hand, he argues with himself, “It isn’t such a bad thing, really. What if this neighborhood was Mexican and black and Chinese?” Would that be such a bad thing? “Yeah …” he replies, his voice trailing off.

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The evening winds down when a police car stops and two angry officers slam the doors, kicking half empty egg cartons out of their way. “You’d better knock this shit off,” snaps the tall, fair-haired one with glasses. “Haven’t you guys got any­thing better to do at your age?” The police pull away and Frank waves good­bye by grabbing his crotch. “I hate cops,” he says. “My dad hates cops too. He told me if I ever became a cop not to bother to come home.”

Breaking the neighborhood rules is not tolerated, but breaking the law is, espe­cially if it involves crime in a minority neighborhood. Nico freely admits to mak­ing money by working protection for a drug dealer in a nearby Puerto Rican neighborhood. A few weeks ago, he and a friend went to check out the drug dealer. “We figure we let him [the dealer] sit in the car for an hour and give him a little protection, a little whatever. Keep him warm. And he threw us some coke. The next thing we went back again and he gave us [some] again. He’s got this black guy who breaks heads for him. They’re all punks over there. It ain’t nothin’. I mean if we wanted to go over there and start takin’ over, it would be no problem.”

Like the real wiseguys, Nico also knows how to earn money the old-fashioned way: He extorts it. He says a woman friend of his is skimming money at a neighborhood grocery store. In return for not spilling the beans, Nico boasts, he pulls down several hundred dollars a week. In Bensonhurst, it’s called making a living.

From an early age, Bensonhurst kids are taught to look the other way when questionable business in progress in­volves their own. Dishonesty isn’t a crime, but giving up the wrong people is. Bob Massi recalls a childhood incident: “A guy my father knew walked out of his house. My father said, ‘Where’s Tony?’ I didn’t understand, so I said, ‘Right over there.’ He smacked me. ‘You don’t see nothin ‘,’ he said. ‘You never see Tony.’ ” ■

1989 Village Voice article, by Mark Bauman and Samme Chittum, about the influence of the Mafia in Bensonhurst - part of a Voice package about the murder of Yusef Hawkins

1989 Village Voice article, by Mark Bauman and Samme Chittum, about the influence of the Mafia in Bensonhurst - part of a Voice package about the murder of Yusef Hawkins

1989 Village Voice article, by Mark Bauman and Samme Chittum, about the influence of the Mafia in Bensonhurst - part of a Voice package about the murder of Yusef Hawkins


Do the White Thing

Fear Eats the Soul

[Spike] Lee is cagey and talented, but he’s a classic art-school dilettante when it comes to politics … His film … is more trendoid than tragic, reflecting the latest rifts in hip black separatism rather than taking an intellectually honest look at the problems he’s nibbling around . … All these subtleties are likely to leave white ( especially white liberal) audiences debat­ing the meaning of Spike Lee’s message. Black teenagers won’t find it so hard, though. For them, the message is clear … The police are your enemy … Whites are your enemy.
— Joe Klein, New York Magazine

I’D LIKE TO SHARE A STORY with Joe Klein. Though perhaps in light of the murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst, its moral may have al­ready occurred to him.

One summer afternoon in New Haven, a white friend went walking with her white boyfriend through the green across from Yale’s old campus. Most students had cleared out, leaving this economically depressed and predominantly black and Italian city to its own devices. Viv and Ned passed three young black men who were hanging out on a bench, cranking a radio, blasting a song called “Drop a Bomb On the White Na­tion.” According to Viv, the homies said nothing, maybe didn’t even notice them; but she sure noticed them. All of a sud­den, she said later, she was convinced they wanted to kill her. Why? Because she was white.

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Now, I understand fear and feeling en­dangered — that, unfortunately, is femi­nine intuition — but when this story was related to me I just laughed. It all seemed so obvious: Here’s this nice white student continuing on the road to economic as­cendancy — a very complicated given predicated on a racist, classist system. (Forgive the revolutionary tone.) Here are these young black men — statistically, their stars are not rising. They were just listening to the radio. What was she thinking? Her racial anxiety didn’t just shift, it flipped: subconsciously, she con­cluded that if we black folks aren’t mad at white folks, we should be. Repressing this conclusion, she arrived at a blind sense of threat. Others go further: Some of the best white supremacist rhetoric is couched in the language of self-defense.

I’m not a fan of reading movies as ambiguous and nuanced as Do the Right Thing as agitprop, or even thinking that a director has the special handle on his film; Spike has said some iffy things. Even so, when Joe Klein wrote that the film might lead to riotous behavior on the level of the Central Park Horror, he turned reality on its head. Instead, why didn’t he envision this, more common scenario: in a city tense about race issues, a gang of white youths hunt down four black men and kill one of them.

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Klein seems unable to accept that black moviegoers can become angry with­out rioting; he also ignores the possibility of backlash, of a reverse race riot. But while Klein is baffled by the complexities of what Lee put onscreen, the residents of Bensonhurst are unable to admit the simple reality of what happened on their streets. Witness the defensiveness of their responses: it wasn’t racism, it was a case of mistaken identity, or the age-old axe murder/rapist/molestor/batterer de­fense, “He couldn’t have done it, he was always a nice guy.” The fact is, you don’t know whether someone is racist until they come face to face with another race — or until they feel the need to justify the racist actions of a neighbor.

This past Sunday my brother, some friends, and I were having brunch. One person at the table was reading the cover of The Daily News, something about wa­termelons and a jeering crowd of young Bensonhurst residents out to rid the neighborhood of protestors. Watermelons and racist exhibitionists and another black death in New York City. Suddenly, it was all too cartoonish and hopeless. My brother just began to laugh his beau­tiful soft laugh, slightly hysterical. I joined in — our two friends, both white, just looked horrified. ■

Next: “This Land Is Your Land” by Joe Wood

1989 Village Voice article by Kathy Dobie about murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst

1989 Lisa Kennedy article for the Village Voice about the murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst and also Joe Klein’s obtuse review of DO THE RIGHT THING

From The Archives Neighborhoods NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized Violence

The Boys of Bensonhurst

A Neighborhood’s Rage — and an Eyewitness Account

I didn’t see nothing, and even if I did see something I didn’t see nothing.
— A Bensonhurst teenager

ON THURSDAY, when I arrived in Bensonhurst, neighborhood people, cops, and reporters were milling on the cor­ner where, the previous evening, Yusef Hawkins had been shot and killed by a crowd of neighborhood boys. In the apartments above the candy store and beauty salon, men, women and children hung out of the win­dows, watching. Gina Feliciano — the 18-year-old girl who had enraged the neigh­borhood boys by, presumably, dating a black guy — lives in one of those apartments and I wondered which one was hers, but I knew the window would be darkened, the blinds drawn. Around the corner, a wavering line of chalk marked the place where Hawkins, who was 16, had died — because he was black and be­cause he had tripped the wire of some­one’s “manhood.” Gina was in hiding — as if she had pulled the trigger — and a neighborhood was defensive and angry.

“My old man told me don’t say any­thing to reporters if I want to see my children. He’s 40 and he could still break my legs.” The speaker, a young man, works at a bakery; he’s wearing a white apron, white pants and a white tank top.

“I don’t trust nobody anymore,” a kid tells a reporter. “Why should I tell you anything? You just say what you want to say anyway.”

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“Well, then why do you come out here every day?” the reporter asks.

“‘Cause you’re here,” says one kid.

“Because we have to defend ourselves,” say another.

Neighborhood residents insist the Hawkins incident wasn’t racial. They blame the girl. “She provoked them,” they tell reporters, because, apparently, Gina had said her boyfriend and his friends were coming into the neighbor­hood and they were going to show the white boys something. “If she said I’m gonna bring my Irish boyfriend in to fight you, the same thing would’ve happened,” one man says.

Many of the kids don’t even think Keith Mondello — one of the five who had been arrested for the attack — was seeing Gina. “She’s a skag,” they say. “Let’s put it this way,” a recent high school gradu­ate told me. “A lot of boys have memories of her.” It seems she has been an outsider for some time. “She went bad,” says a mother who has known Gina since she was a little girl.

When Gina dropped out of high school and began to attend secretarial school, she made a lot of black and Hispanic friends. People on her block — including adults — had been telling her for awhile not bring those kind of people into the neighborhood anymore. Wednesday — the night of the killing — was Gina’s birthday.

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BY HIS OWN ADMISSION, Michael’s an anomaly. He stays out of trouble, does well in school and plans on going to college. He loves his neighborhood, and when I talk with him two nights after the murder, he’s struggling with that love. “I used to hang out there with these guys three or four years ago. I didn’t think they were capable of doing this. I really didn’t.” He’s sitting in the kitchen with his sister, Sheila and his mother, Rose.

Michael and Rose don’t believe the incident was racial, but they don’t defend the kids either. When a 24-year-old suspect was arrested, Rose said, “A twenty-four-year-old hanging out in the schoolyard!”

“Their set of morals are different,” Rose says. “They don’t think of death as a terrible thing.” Michael cuts in, “It’s another notch on their belts.” Rose says there are lots of young men who believe in a “distorted” picture of the mob and play at being gangsters. Rose asks if I’m Italian. No, I say. “How can I explain?” she sighs. Her parents came from “the other side.” They met in night school studying English, educated themselves, wanted to get ahead. “The ones coming over today don’t bother to learn the language, they don’t care about education.” She says they don’t know what their kids are doing in school because they can’t talk to the teachers. They lose track of their kids in the world.

“Different things are important to me,” says Rose. “School is important to me. Respect is important to me.”

“That’s what the kids wanted,” Mi­chael says to her. “Respect from the street.”

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“That’s not respect,” she retorts.

“Ma, open your mind!” Michael counters. “For them, that’s respect.”

Rose taps her cigarette impatiently. “You shoot somebody point blank with a gun and you didn’t think you were gonna end up in jail?”

“They didn’t think anybody would talk,” Michael says.

“They have to sleep with themselves anyway.”

The guy the cops are looking for — Joey Fama, the alleged murderer — is, Michael says, “a typical Guido.”

“A coward Guido,” Rose says.

“A brown-noser,” Michael says.

“Now who would he be brown-nosing?” Rose asks.

“I don’t know, Ma,” Michael says.

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BOBBY IS PUERTO RICAN and moved into the neighborhood when he was 16. About a month later, he was sitting with his little sister outside the house when four guys cruised by, calling him Puerto Rican this and Puerto Rican that. Bobby just turned and went inside. But the next day he got four carloads of his friends from the old neighborhood. They had weapons, but they didn’t fight. They just predicted the future — not too promis­ing — of the white kids if they touched a hair on Bobby’s head. Bobby was left alone after that. “My stepfather’s Sicil­ian,” he says. “And he always told me, ‘Stick with your own people. You can trust them a little more than others.’ ”

Bobby’s 28 now, married, with a kid, and works as a maintenance man for the local church, St. Dominic’s. He doesn’t have to fight anymore — not with his fists, at any rate. Bobby’s looking for a larger apartment because he and his wife want another child. “I went to all the realtors on 18th Avenue. Every place they sent me to was out of the neighborhood. They keep trying to move me to Coney Island. And they do it with a straight face!”

We’re sitting outside the church. The sun’s slanting low and the women are arriving for Bingo. Bobby calls the old ones baby, and they love it. He says the neighborhood kids hang out in front of the church at night. He imitates them, slouched, arms folded, their faces immo­bile — “like old men.” Bobby doesn’t get it. When he was their age he was seeing girls, going out dancing, playing pool.

Bobby say Father Arthur of St. Domi­nic’s, organized a basketball league and opened the gym at night for the neigh­borhood kids but they kept pulling shit like shutting out all the lights in the mid­dle of the game. So Father Arthur said, “Everything to you guys is a joke. Well I’ll how you what a joke is …” And he barred hem from the gym for the rest of the season. “He only lets the really young ones in now,” Bobby says.

Later that night, I meet a kid who says he can’t talk to me because one time, his friends thought he “ratted” on them and three of them jumped him. He’s husky, built strong, but he didn’t fight back just, ducked and blocked the punches as best he could because he thought they might run to their car and get their bats or maybe even a gun. He tells me about an 18-year-old neighborhood kid who was found handcuffed, both legs and arms broken, six shots in the back of his head. “The kids around here don’t do anything their fathers wouldn’t do,” he says.

ON SATURDAY, up until almost the mo­ment Reverend Al Sharpton and the pro­testers arrive, the crowds on 20th Avenue are calm. Nothing is going to happen, I’m told, “not with all the cops here.” I sit with a group of boys who joke about Gina. But when we get around to discuss­ing racism, the talk turns angry. One guy pulls down his shirt, revealing some heavy gold, and asks angrily, “Do you think I could walk through Bed-Stuy like this without getting shot?” “What about all the times a white person gets killed by a black person — why isn’t that racial?” “What about Central Park?” Then they discuss affirmative action — the white man’s on the bottom of the totem pole, they complain. “If I go to get a job at the Transit Authority, do you think I’ll get one?” An older man walks with me away from the crowd, sadly shaking his head. “They don’t think before they open their mouths,” he says. “They mix things up. They don’t understand that they could get a job at the TA. They could get out of here if they tried.”

Then the cops’ walkie-talkies are buzz­ing with news of the marchers’ location. Some neighborhood people have brought signs and hold them up for the TV cam­eras — WE ARE NOT RACISTS, and NO MORE TAWANA BRAWLEYS — and the crowd cheers. Then the sound of sirens, the sight of cars and a bus being whisked to the back entrance of the schoolyard. Everyone rushes over there, and as the protesters start pouring into the school­yard, the white kids push up against the chain link fence, girls getting hoisted onto their boyfriends’ shoulders. “Sharp­ton’s using you!” a blond girl starts yell­ing. A teenage boy says to his friend, “You know they got fear in their hearts.” And then, “Smell that stench in there.”

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One man is holding up a huge card­ board sign: WE ARE ALL GOD’S CHILDREN — DEATH HURTS US ALL. “Put that sign away,” a kid yells. “Yusef, Yusef,” the protesters begin to chant. “Fuck you, fuck you,” one white kid howls back. “Watch your mouth dude. We don’t want no trouble,” says another. “Jon Lester for  president!” from another part of the crowd. There’s a frantic “shush” from some quarters, laughter from others. The crowd twists against itself. “Don’t let them show us up,” one of the whites yells. “This is our neighborhood. What the fuck is this! Once again they’re kicking us out of our neighborhood.” A boy yells, “Fucking niggers!” and applause and cheers sweep the crowd, making it one.

Then the cops are standing in two rows at the schoolyard gate, channeling the protesters through. The marchers move out onto 20th Avenue, 10 to 12 people to a row, and the whites, mostly kids, teen­agers, and men in their early twenties, run along the sidewalk next to them. “We want the killer!” the protesters chant. “Go home monkey face!” the crowd re­sponds. “Break out the coconuts!” A black woman occasionally flips the finger at the howling boys, but does not look at them. A few blocks away from the school­yard and the calls of “nigger” propel one black man out of the lines. Whites and blacks rush in and cops push and hop into the middle of the scuffle, nightclubs raised. When the groups are separated again, a photographer says, “That was the best yet. No blows, but …” “Did you see that?” a white man says breathlessly. “They attacked us. Police brutality!”

“Our streets!” goes the new chant of the marchers. The white kids go crazy. “You’re losers!” “Go home to your crack-­infested projects!” A block later a white kid charges through the line of cops, straight to Sharpton, whose guards sur­round him immediately. The attacker is chased by cops. “They showed their true colors today,” Sharpton says. A young black woman, her face wet and eyes dazed, heads out of the ranks as if she’s sleepwalking, but before she enters the white sea, two protesters pull her back. “They want that house for free!” yells a neighborhood man. “They think freedom is a free house!” One marcher remarks to another, “They fought three wars with that shit in their blood.”

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After another scuffle, a neighborhood man calls, “Look, look!” He points to the ground. I look down and there’s his card­board sign — WE ARE NOT RACISTS — cov­ered with scuff marks, two cops planted firmly on top of it. “They won’t give me my property.” He’s frantic, weeping. “Re­verse racism!”

The return march from the police sta­tion seems calmer somehow. The march­ers begin to chant, “Poor white trash!” and black and white boys grab at their cocks, challenging each other to step over the line. “It takes two of yours to make one of mine,” croons a black man. “I got balls, I got balls, come on over here,” a white kid yells. “White pussy boy,” calls a marcher.

Once, there’s almost a conversation. “Malcolm X is a racist!” a white boy screams and the black protesters groan.

“Who’s more racist than you?” a black man answers.

“Sharpton’s using you!” the white man yells back.

“It’s not about Sharpton. He’s not im­portant. It’s about Yusef.”

“I didn’t kill Yusef. None of these peo­ple here killed Yusef.”

But then both crowds are shouting and the two men are drowned out and swept by their respective groups down the street.

When we finally return to the school­yard, the Bensonhurst kids are fenced out, and they start spitting through the fence at the protesters. One guy is sud­denly darting for something on the ground in front of me. Just then, the cops push everyone across the street. A black reporter reaches down for the same ob­ject the white kid was trying to get — a soda bottle — and with anger and disgust etched deeply into his face, he throws it hard to the sidewalk and it splinters into a thousand useless pieces.

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On the other side of the street we’re kept behind cars, crowded close together. When the kids see me writing, they start yelling things for me to jot down. A boy shoves a watermelon in front of me. “I went to Africa and brought a tropical watermelon,” he announces. “We’re not racist!” another boy says gleefully. “Write that down.” They’re tired of being good and sorry. They’re having fun. Then the kids start singing, “We Are the World.”

There will be a memorial service for Yusef Hawkins at the site of the killing the next day, and when the protesters have driven away, a tall man holding a baby announces a “baseball game” sched­uled for tomorrow morning. “Bring your bats,” he says. “This is our neighborhood, not theirs.” On the corner, another man is yelling at a police officer that he has his name and badge number. He’s furious because during the march the officer hadn’t let him go into a store to buy a soda. He screams, “You weren’t a cop today, you were black!” The kids are de­ciding what to do with the watermelon. You can tell they’d like to eat it but they can’t now. “Throw it on the ground,” one kid advises.

Roy Innis holds court outside a bakery, and neighborhood people are talking to him eagerly and more articulately than they do to the reporters. “Why does the media only talk to the kids?” an older man asks. “They’ll say anything, do any­thing because of the TV cameras — why do you think they had a watermelon? Looking like fools!” Innis tells them not to let the media back them into a corner. “Where are the reporters now?” someone says. “They start this whole thing up and then they leave.”

Three women talk on the corner. “I didn’t even know there was going to be a march today,” one says. “This is a shame,” says another. “Now my kid is using the word ‘nigger.’ ” Another says, “The problem is, we have no leaders.”

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AFTER THE MARCH, Tony is hanging around like someone with no place to go. He’s slight, brown-eyed, with a soft, expressionless face. That morning his mother had warned him to stay in the neighborhood today, to “stay where peo­ple know your face.” “I didn’t even know they were going to march,” Tony says. “Then I saw my friend and he said there’s gonna be a fight.” So he came right over.

Tony and I walk a few blocks away and sit on a stoop. “Do you know what a ‘baseball game’ is?” he asks me. “I figured it out,” I say, and ask if he’s going to be there. He says, “I’ll be there. I’ll park my car in the schoolyard.” Says it without any passion, like an obedient child.

Our conversation happens upon the murder by mistake. “They didn’t shoot the right one,” Tony says. “I was there. I saw him fall.” He stares out at the street. He doesn’t pour out the story, just an­swers my questions as if he would’ve an­swered anybody that had bothered to ask him. He calls Joey Fama “my friend” throughout the conversation. Says they had gone drinking at the Bay Lounge the night of the shooting. Drank vodka and rum. When they came to the corner, they bought some beer. “Then my friend was really zooted.” There were about five of them hanging out. He remembers Joey saying, “Wait. I’m going to the house and get my gun.” He says there were still only five guys hanging together on the corner when they spotted the four black kids heading down the avenue, but other neighborhood kids started following them. Kids started going to their cars — maybe there were baseball bats, Tony says, but no one got a chance to use them.

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Tony says Joey pointed the gun at one of the kids. “The black kid started getting really scared. He says, ‘Wait, wait, please wait.’ My friend says, ‘No, you fucker, you was fucking with my girl­friend.’ Then he pulled the trigger. Pop, pop. I didn’t know it was going to hap­pen, it just happened. When I got home I told my mother, and she said, ‘These are the kind of friends you want to pick? You’re gonna end up in jail.’ ” He waits for me to finish writing, patient as a dog.

“The black kid said, ‘I’m not the one. I don’t even know who your girlfriend is. I just came here to buy a car.’ My friend said ‘That’s bullshit.’ ” He started cursing at him. The black kid kept backing up. My friend said ‘Don’t back up anymore.’ He said ‘Okay, Okay. I’ll beg on my knees. Please, please …’ and he just shot him. That was it. He just fell. The way he shot him — blood came out in four differ­ent directions. I never saw nothing like this before. My heart dropped, my feet started running.”

Speaking of Yusef, Tony looks at me. “His parents were freaking out probably, huh? I saw his father on the news.” When a man who lives in the house comes out, Tony scoots quickly to the side of the step. “Hi. How you doin’?” he says polite­ly. The man looks at him once without any friendliness and nods his head. I of­fer Tony a cigarette. “I saw a kid get beat up by two men for letting out some infor­mation,” he says. It happened on the same candy store corner. “I’ll never forget that as long as I live.” He’ll never forget the black kid being shot either, he adds. “Were you surprised Joey did it?” “I knew he had it in him. I knew he had the heart to do it,” Tony says. “But I thought he was just going to point the gun and scare the guy. But everything turned out different.” ■

Next: “Do the White Thing” by Lisa Kennedy

1989 Village Voice article by Kathy Dobie about murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst

1989 Village Voice article by Kathy Dobie about murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst

1989 Village Voice article by Kathy Dobie about murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst


RFK, Two Minutes to Midnight: The Very Last Hurrah

Two Minutes to Midnight: The Very Last Hurrah
June 13, 1968

LOS ANGELES — It was, of course, two minutes to midnight and the Embassy Room of the Ambassador Hotel was rowdy with triumph. Red and blue balloons drifted up through three golden chandeliers to bump against a gilded ceiling. Young girls with plastic Kennedy boaters chanted like some lost reedy chorus from an old Ray Charles record. The crowd was squashed against the bandstand, a smear of black faces and Mexican-American faces and bearded faces and Beverly Hills faces crowned with purple hair. Eleven TV cameras were turning, their bright blue arclights changing the crowd into a sweaty stew. Up on the bandstand, with his wife standing just behind him, was Robert Kennedy.

“I’d like to express my high regard for Don Drysdale,” Kennedy said. Drysdale had just won his sixth straight shutout. “I hope we have his support in this campaign.” There was a loud cheer. He thanked Rafer Johnson and Rosey Grier (cheers) and Jesse Unruh (timid cheer) and Cesar Chavez (very loud cheers), and he thanked the staff and the volunteers and the voters, and the crowd hollared after every sentence. It was the sort of scene that Kennedys have gone through a hundred times and more: on this night, at least, it did not appear that there would be a last hurrah. Kennedy had not scored a knockout over Eugene McCarthy; but a points decision at least would keep his campaign going.

“I thank all of you,” Kennedy was saying. “Mayor Yorty has just sent a message that we have been here too long already” (laughter). “So my thanks to all of you, and now it’s on to Chicago …”

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I was at the rear of the stand, next to George Plimpton. Kennedy put his thumb up to the audience, brushed his hair, made a small V with his right hand, and turned to leave. The crowd started shouting: “We want Bobby! We want Bobby!” Plimpton and I went down three steps, and turned left through a gauntlet of Kennedy volunteers and private cops in brown uniforms.

We found ourselves in a long grubby area called the pantry. It was the sort of place where Puerto Ricans, blacks and Mexican-Americans usually work to fill white stomachs. There were high bluish fluorescent lights strung across the ceiling, a floor of raw sandy-colored concrete, pale dirty walls. On the right were a rusty ice machine and shelves filled with dirty glasses. On the left, an archway led into the main kitchen and under the arch a crowd of Mexican American cooks and busboys waited to see Kennedy. Against the left wall, three table-sized serving carts stood end to end, and at the far end were two doors leading to the press room where Kennedy was going to talk to reporters.

Kennedy moved slowly into the area, shaking hands, smiling, heading a platoon of reporters, photographers, staffers, the curious, TV men. I was in front of him, walking backward. I saw him turn to his left and shake the hand of a small Mexican cook. We could still hear the chants of “We want Bobby!” from the Embassy Room. The cook was smiling and pleased.

Then a pimply messenger arrived from the secret filthy heart of America. He was curly haired, wearing a pale blue sweatshirt and bluejeans, and he was planted with his right foot forward and his right arm straight out and he was firing a gun.

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The scene assumed a kind of insane fury, all jump cuts, screams, noise, hurtling bodies, blood. The shots went pap-pap-pap-pap-pap, small sharp noises like a distant firefight or the sound of firecrackers in a backyard. Rosey Grier of the Los Angeles Rams came from nowhere and slammed his great bulk into the gunman, crunching him against a serving table. George Plimpton grabbed the guy’s arm, and Rafer Johnson moved to him, right behind Bill Barry, Kennedy’s friend and security chief, and they were all making deep animal sounds and still the bullets came.

“Get the gun, get the gun.”

“Rafer, get the gun!”

“Get the fucking gun!”

“No,” someone said. And you could hear the stunned horror in the voice, the replay of odd scenes, the muffle of drums. “No. No. Nooooooooooo!”

We knew then that America had struck again. In this slimy little indoor alley in the back of a gaudy ballroom, in this shabby reality behind the glittering facade, Americans were doing what they do best: killing and dying, and cursing because hope doesn’t last very long among us.

I saw Kennedy lurch against the ice machine, and then sag, and then fall forward slowly, to be grabbed by someone, and I knew then that he was dead. He might linger a few hours, or a few days; but his face reminded me somehow of Benny Paret the night Emile Griffith hammered him into unconsciousness. Kennedy’s face had a kind of sweet acceptance to it, the eyes understanding that it had come to him, the way it had come to so many others before him. The price of the attempt at excellence was death. You saw a flicker of that understanding on his face, as his life seeped out of a hole in the back of his skull, to spread like spilled wine across the scummy concrete floor.

It was as if all of us there went simultaneously insane: a cook was screaming, “Kill him, kill him now, kill him, kill him!” I tried to get past Grier, Johnson, Plimpton and Barry to get at the gunman. The Jack Ruby in me was rising up, white, bright, with a high-singing sound in the ears, and I wanted to damage that insane little bastard they were holding. I wanted to break his face, to rip away flesh, to hear bone break as I pumped punches into that pimpled skin. Budd Schulberg was next to me; I suppose he was trying to do the same. Just one punch. Just one for Dallas. Just one for Medgar Evers, just one for Martin Luther King. Just one punch. Just one. One.

Kennedy was lying on the floor, with black rosary beads in his hand, and blood on his fingers. His eyes were still open, and as his wife Ethel reached him, to kneel in an orange-and-white dress, his lips were moving. We heard nothing. Ethel smoothed his face, running ice cubes along his cheeks. There was a lot of shouting, and a strange chorus of high screaming. My notes showed that Kennedy was shot at 12:10 and was taken out of that grubby hole at 12:32. It seemed terribly longer.

I don’t remember how it fits into the sequence, but I do have one picture of Rosey Grier holding the gunman by his neck, choking life out of him.

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“Rosey, Rosey, don’t kill him. We want him alive. Don’t kill him, Rosey, don’t kill him.”

“Kill the bastard, kill that sum of a bitch bastard,” a Mexican busboy yelled.

“Don’t kill him, Rosey.”

“Where’s the doctor? Where in Christ’s name is the doctor?”

Grier decided not to kill the gunman. They had him up on a serving table at the far end of the pantry, as far as they could get him from Kennedy. Jimmy Breslin and I were standing up on the table, peering into the gunman’s face. His eyes were rolling around, and then stopping, and then rolling around again. The eyes contained pain, flight, entrapment, and a strange kind of bitter endurance. I didn’t want to hit him anymore.

“Where the fuck is the doctor? Can’t they get a fucking doctor?”

“Move back.”

“Here comes a doctor, here’s a doctor.”


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Kennedy was very still now. There was a thin film of blood on his brow. They had his shoes off and his shirt open. The stretcher finally arrived, and he trembled as they lifted him, his lips moved, and the flashbulbs blinked off one final salvo and he was gone.

The rest was rote: I ran out out into the lobby and picked up my brother Brian and we rushed to the front entrance. A huge black man, sick with grief and anger and bitterness, was throwing chairs around. Most landed in the pool. The young Kennedy girls were crying and wailing, knowing, I suppose, what the guys my age discovered in Dallas: youth was over. “Sick,” one girl kept saying. “Sick. Sick. What kind of country is this? Sick. Sick.” Outside, there were cops everywhere, and sirens. The cops were trying to get one of the wounded into a taxi. The cabbie didn’t want to take him, afraid, I suppose, that blood would sully his nice plastic upholstery.

When we got through the police barricades, we drove without talk to the Hospital of the Good Samaritan, listening to the news on the radio. The unspoken thought was loudest: the country’s gone. Medgar Evers was dead, Malcolm X was dead, Martin Luther King was dead, Jack Kennedy was dead, and now Robert Kennedy was dying. The hell with it. The hatred was now general. I hated that pimpled kid in that squalid cellar enough to want to kill him. He hated Kennedy the same way. That kid and the bitter Kennedy haters were the same. All those people in New York who hated Kennedy’s guts, who said “eccch” when his name was mentioned, the ones who creamed over Murray Kempton’s vicious diatribes these past few months: they were the same. When Evers died, when King died, when Jack Kennedy died, all the bland pundits said that some good would come of it in some way, that the nation would go through a catharsis, that somehow the bitterness, the hatred, the bigotry, the evil of racism, the glib violence would be erased. That was bullshit. We will have our four-day televised orgy of remorse about Robert Kennedy and then it will be business as usual.

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You could feel that as we drove through the empty L.A. streets, listening to the sirens screaming in the night. Nothing would change. Kennedy’s death would mean nothing. It was just another digit in the great historical pageant that includes the slaughter of Indians, the plundering of Mexico, the enslavement of black people, the humiliation of Puerto Ricans. Just another digit. Nothing would come of it. While Kennedy’s life was ebbing out of him, Americans were dropping bombs and flaming jelly on Orientals. While the cops fingerprinted the gunmen, Senator Eastland’s Negro subjects were starving. While the cops made chalk marks on the floor of the pantry, the brave members of the National Rifle Association were already explaining that people commit crimes, guns don’t (as if Willie Mays could hit a homerun without a bat). These cowardly bums claim Constitutional rights to kill fierce deer in the forests, and besides, suppose the niggers come to the house and we don’t have anything to shoot them with? Suppose we have to fight a nigger man-to-man?

America the Beautiful: with crumby little mini-John Waynes carrying guns to the woods like surrogate penises. Yes: the kid I saw shoot Kennedy was from Jordan, was diseased with some fierce hatred for Jews. Sam Yorty, who hated Kennedy, now calls Kennedy a great American and blames the Communists. Hey Sam: you killed him too. The gun that kid carried was American. The city where he shot down a good man was run by Sam Yorty. How about keeping your fat pigstink mouth shut.

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At the approach to the Good Samaritan Hospital the cops had strung red flares across the gutter, and were stopping everyone. A crowd of about 75 people were on the corner when we arrived, about a third of them black. I went in, past those black people who must have felt that there was no white man at all with whom they could talk. A mob of reporters was assembling at the hospital entrance. The cops were polite, almost gentle, as if they sensed that something really bad had happened, and that many of these reporters were friends of the dying man.

Most of the hospital windows were dark, and somewhere up there Robert Kennedy was lying on a table while strangers stuck things into his brain looking for a killer’s bullet. We were friends, and I didn’t want him to die but if he were to be a vegetable, I didn’t want him to live either.

We drove home, through the wastelands around L.A. and the canyons through the mountains to the south. When I got home, my wife was asleep, the TV still playing out its record of the death watch. Frank Reynolds of ABC, a fine reporter and a compassionate man, was so upset he could barely control his anger. I called some friends and poured a drink. Later I talked to my old man, who came to this country from Ireland in flight from the Protestant bigots of Belfast 40 years ago. I suppose he loved John Kennedy even more than I did and he has never really been the same since Dallas. Now it had happened again.

“If you see Teddy,” he said, “tell him to get out of politics. The Kennedys are too good for this country.”

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I remembered the night in 1964, in that bitter winter after John Kennedy’s murder, when Robert Kennedy appeared at a St. Patrick’s Day dinner in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He talked about the Irish, and the long journey that started on the quays of Wexford and ended in Parkland Hospital. He reminded them of the days when there were signs that said “No Irish Need Apply” (and it was always to his greatest dismay that so many sons of Irishmen he came across in New York were bigots and haters). Bob told them about Owen O’Neill, an Irish patriot whose ideals had survived his martyrdom. Men were crying as he read the old Irish ballad:

Oh, why did you leave us, Owen?
Why did you die? …
We’re sheep without a shepherd,
When the snow shuts out the sky.
Oh, why did you leave us, Owen?
Why did you die?

I didn’t know. There was some sort of answer for John Kennedy, and another for Robert Kennedy. But I had learned that I knew nothing finally, that when my two young daughters present the bill to me in another 10 years, I won’t have much to say. I sat there drinking rum until I was drunk enough to forget that pimpled face cracking off the rounds into the body of a man who was a friend of mine. Finally, easily, with the sun up, I fell asleep on the couch. I didn’t have any tears left for America, but I suppose not many other Americans did either. ♦


An American Tale: A Lynching and the Legacies Left Behind

An American Tale: A Lynching and the Legacies Left Behind

One day, sometime during your childhood or adolescence, a Negro was lynched in your county or the one next to yours. A human being was burned or hanged from a tree and you knew it had happened. But no one publicly condemned it and always the murderers went free. And afterward, maybe weeks or months or years afterward, you sat casually in the drugstore with one of those murderers and drank the Coke he casually paid for. A “nice white girl” could do that but she would have been run out of town or perhaps killed had she drunk a Coke with the young Negro doctor who was devot­ing his life in service to his people.
Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream, 1949

I WAS AN ADULT BEFORE I ever saw the picture. But even as a girl I knew there’d been a lynching in Marion. That was my father’s hometown. And on one of many trips to visit my grandparents, I heard the family story: The night it happened back in 1930 someone called the house and spoke to my grandfather, whose shift at the post office began at three in the morn­ing. “Don’t walk through the courthouse square tonight on your way to work,” the caller said. “You might see something you don’t want to see.” There was laughter at the end of the story — which puzzled me. Something you don’t want to see. Then, laughter.

I now know that, in the 1920s, Indiana had more enrolled Ku Klux Klan members than any state in the union, and that my grandfather was one of them. Learning this after he died, I couldn’t assimilate it into the frail grandpa I’d known. Couldn’t really assimi­late it and for a long time, didn’t try. He had been an intensely secretive man, and certainly, there’d been other obfuscations. He always said, for example, that he was an orphan, that his parents had died in a wreck when he was three. I accepted this, but the grown-ups knew better. After grandpa’s funeral, my father dis­covered there’d been a safe-deposit box and hoped at last to find a clue to the family tree. Instead, he unearthed this other secret: a Klan membership card. All my father said was, “I never saw a hooded sheet. He’d go out. We never knew where he was going.”

So much of this story is about shame. My grandfather was a bastard, a fact that someone born in small-town Indiana in 1886 would rather die than discuss. And so he did. But if that particular humiliation seems foreign today, what about the other secret? A lot of us who are white come from… something, and it is not discussed. “That’s in the past,” we like to say, as if that did more than give us another hood to wear.

I remember, for example, when I first saw the picture a few years ago. Two black men in bloody tattered clothing hang from a tree and below them stand the grinning gloating proud and pleased white folks. I remember looking anxiously for my grandfather’s face. But of course, he hadn’t been there. I recalled the family sto­ry. There’d been something you don’t want to see. Then, laughter. And as I began to tell people this story, that became the detail I left out, because it shamed me: there was laughter.

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FOR YEARS NOW I’ve wondered if I should ever write about these things. Part of me thinks — why my family? I knew my grand­father well enough to feel sure that he was a follower, not a leader, not evil, not really different from other white men of his gen­eration. Would “removing the hood” illu­minate anything? Or merely cause pain? I discussed this with my brother, inconclusively, but shortly thereafter he sent a news­paper article he happened to see while visit­ing my sister. I seized upon these coincidences, made them a sign.

Because there’d been a third man lynched in Marion that night — and he’d survived. He was living in Milwaukee.

Somehow a survivor hadn’t made it into the family story. But the clipping my broth­er sent said that this man, James Cameron, had opened a museum devoted to the histo­ry of lynching. And I know it mentioned that Cameron’s book, A Time of Terror, would soon be reissued by Black Classic Press. I reread the article many times, then lost it at some point along the swing shift of my ambivalence. Even so, I knew I would have to meet this man or regret it for the rest of my life.

James Cameron came so close to dying in Marion’s courthouse square that he had rope burns around his neck from the noose. He’d been dragged from the jail and beaten bloody and carried to the tree where the other two men were already hanging. In those last moments — certain he was about to die — he had a vision. Then, miraculously, he didn’t die. The mob let him go, just let him walk away. He was 16, and he believes he was saved by divine intervention, sent back to us with news — our Ishmael. And I only am escaped alone to tell thee. 

Yet who would hear what he’d come back to tell? For over 45 years, Cameron tried to find a publisher for his story, prob­ably the only written record by a lynching survivor. Finally, in 1982, he mortgaged his house for $7500 and published A Time of Terror himself. Now he’s struggling to reno­vate his museum building, an old boxing school/fitness center donated by the city of Milwaukee. He doesn’t have a working boiler. He pays electric and phone with his Social Security. He figures he needs $200,000 for renovations, and he’s certain that this — more than the book, even — is the true work for which God saved him. But Cameron is worried. He is about to turn 80, and this time he won’t have 45 years to get it done.

But here I get ahead of myself. First, you must hear the story of the lynching — and the miracle.

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IT BEGAN ON THE EVENING of August 6, 1930. Cameron, 16, had been pitching horseshoes with a school friend, Tommy Shipp, 18, and an acquaintance, Abe Smith, 19. The three decided to go out for a joy­ride in Shipp’s car. As they drove past the Marion city limits and into the countryside, Smith announced that he wanted to rob someone to get money for a new car of his own. Cameron wavered inside; he immedi­ately wanted to get out, yet he didn’t get out. They drove to Lover’s Lane to look for a victim. Spotting one parked car, Smith pulled out a .38-caliber pistol, handed it to Cameron, and ordered him to tell the white man and woman inside to “stick ’em up.” Cameron didn’t even know Smith very well, and later he would tell the sheriff that he didn’t know why he’d followed Smith’s orders. But he did know: once more, he had wavered. While something inside him said “go back, go back” even as he approached the car, he had been pushed forward by someone with a stronger will. And it was a last but fateful moment that this would be true of him.

There he stood, pistol in hand, telling the driver and his girlfriend to get out. And when the driver did so, Cameron realized that he knew this man — Claude Deeter — a regular customer at his shoeshine stand, someone who’d always tipped him, some­one who’d always been decent to him. Now he knew he couldn’t go through with it. He handed the gun back to Smith, and ran. A few minutes later, he heard shots, and he wondered what had happened back there, but he never stopped running. As it turned out, Deeter had been mortally wounded.

Cameron arrived home with new eyes, because he saw the gulf that had opened between past and present. He saw his moth­er differently, feeling sorry for her for the first time in his life, though he lied when she asked him why he was so agitated. He couldn’t sleep. He kept telling himself he hadn’t really done anything wrong; he’d just been foolish. “The trouble was,” he wrote in his memoir, “this was Marion, Indiana, where there was little room for foolish Black boys.” Cameron hadn’t been in bed long when the police arrived — guns drawn, surrounding the house, raking it with searchlights. He could hear his mother getting up from the sofa bed to answer the pounding at the door.

Shipp and Smith had already been locked in separate cells on the first floor of the jail by the time Cameron got there. He remem­bers the three hours of interrogation, the kicks and punches delivered when it was over, the confession he then signed without even reading it. The officers tossed him into an upstairs cell block with 30 black men arrested for riding a freight train.

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By the next morning, rumors were circu­lating through Marion that the white wom­an in the car had been raped. She would later testify in court that she hadn’t been touched, but the spark had been lit. Camer­on writes that there was no particular “race problem” in the town, just the strictly en­forced segregation common to so many towns, just an everyday sense of limits, if you were black. “And once the boundary was crossed, anything might happen to the trespasser.… The realization dawned on me that I had crossed the boundary into the most sacred area of all, the world where white women lived.”

He noticed a crowd of white people gath­ering outside the jail right after breakfast, some pointing to the windows of the cell, some shaking their fists. He could feel the tension among his older cellmates, who’d abandoned their usual card games to pace. Small groups of white people kept coming up the steps to stare into the cell block. A white prisoner assured Cameron that “peo­ple in this part of the country wouldn’t lynch anybody,” but a black prisoner coun­tered that the white guy was “nuts.” Hadn’t Cameron been charged with the rape of a white woman?

The mob outside the jail grew steadily larger. Then, sometime during the after­noon, Deeter died. His bloody shirt was hung from a flagpole. As Cameron learned later, local radio stations announced that a lynching was imminent, and white people began to stream in from surrounding small towns, while entire black families fled Mar­ion. Around 5:30, a reporter from the Mar­ion Chronicle came by to interview Camer­on. He told the journalist his story, but he could see that he wasn’t being heard, that the truth didn’t matter. “Ask the girl,” Cameron finally implored him. But the re­porter just smirked, “You’ll never get out of this.”

In his book, recalling how he felt as that day built toward its violent climax, Camer­on can’t quite fit the dimensions of his fear into words. “At times, even now,” he writes, “I awaken in the middle of the night, reliving that whole day — and night… I can never return to sleep. I suf­fer headaches all through the night. I just lie there, thinking, praying, saying my rosary, hoping, reassuring myself that it all hap­pened a long, long time ago. I am not the same man. I am somebody else now.”

At dusk of that fateful day, August 7, Cameron could peer out from his second­-floor cell block and see white faces for as far as he could look in any direction. He could hear people demanding “those three niggers.” And they began to throw rocks at the windows of the jail. Some carried shot­guns. Some carried pistols. Some carried bats, clubs, crowbars, or stones. And among them, Cameron recognized people he knew: customers from his shoeshine stand, boys and girls he’d gone to school with, people whose lawns he’d mowed. He saw Klan members in robes and headgear, faces un­masked, who seemed to be monitoring the crowd. He sensed a carnival air. And there, laughing and talking with them all, were the scores of policemen ostensibly protecting the jail.

The assault on the building began at nightfall. Some men ran into the alley with gasoline cans and doused the brick wall, but they couldn’t get it to burn. Then, for the next hour, men took turns pounding with a sledgehammer on the steel door of the jail and the brick casement around it, while the mob chanted itself into a frenzy, and, as the frame began to give, people pulled bricks out with their bare hands and four men­ — adrenalized by hatred — lifted the entire door jamb out of the wall. Cameron could hear Sheriff Jacob Campbell ordering, “Don’t shoot! There are women and children out there!”

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The ringleaders burst in and pulled Shipp outside first. As Cameron wrote, “I could see the bloodthirsty crowd come to life the moment Tommy’s body was dragged into view. It seemed to me as if all of those 10 to 15 thousand people were trying to hit him all at once.” Clubbed and stoned and then garroted at the bars of a jailhouse window, Shipp was dead long before the hysterical mob ever got him to the tree. So was Smith. Someone rammed a crowbar through his chest, while souvenir hunters cut off Shipp’s pants and distributed the pieces. Shipp was then dressed in a Kluxer’s robe, and the crowd dragged both bodies over to the courthouse square and strung them up. Cameron couldn’t stop watching: the deliri­um, the sadism, and finally, a weird ecsta­sy. Over at the tree, “people howled and milled around the lifeless bodies, their voices a mumbo jumbo of insane screams and giggles.” He could see them posing for pictures with the bodies.

And then he could hear the men coming up the steps to get him. Cameron remem­bers what they carried — ropes, swords, ri­fles, a submachine gun. He remembers the chanting outside: “We want Cameron!” But when the ringleaders rushed into his cell block, they couldn’t pick him out. At first, none of the other prisoners would identify him either, but the white mobsters threat­ened to “hang every goddamn one of you niggers,” and Cameron watched in horror as about half of his black cellmates dropped to their knees groveling, “Don’t hurt us, Mister White Folks.” Finally, one old black man pointed him out.

He remembers the white men gripping him viselike, and the chorus of voices yell­ing “Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!” as they got him outside. He remembers the bricks and rocks and spit that hit him as they carried him toward the courthouse, and the crow­bar glancing across his chest, and the pick­ax handle hitting his head, and children biting his legs. “Once or twice, I thought I saw a kind face in the press around me. To each of them I called out for some kind of help.… But nothing happened.” Police be­gan clearing a path to the tree where the other two bodies were hanging, and some­one called out for the rope. Cameron felt numb, encased in ice, and as someone put the noose around his neck and snaked the other end up over a branch, he remembered what his mother had told him about sinners facing death, about the thief on the cross, and he prayed, “Lord, forgive me my sins. Have mercy on me.” In his mind and body and soul, he was dead at that moment, and he stopped thinking.

Suddenly a woman’s voice called out, sharply and clearly, “Take this boy back! He had nothing to do with any raping or killing!”

A silence fell over the mob, as Cameron remembers it. Or perhaps, it was part of his vision — because he recalls that the people around him were struck dumb, that every­one froze, and that he suddenly felt himself surrounded by what seemed to be a film negative and on it were the images of the people in the crowd, and he couldn’t tell anymore if they were black or white.

Then the spell broke. “And hands that had already committed murder, became soft and tender, kind and helpful,” he wrote. “I could feel the hands that had unmercifully beaten me remove the rope from around my neck. Now, they were ca­ressing hands!”

Then the crowd drew back. He saw that many bowed their heads. They couldn’t look at him as he staggered back to the jail.

In the years since the lynching, Cameron has spoken to many white people who were present in the square that night. And no one heard any voice. No one but him. “You were just lucky,” they tell him. But some­thing had stopped the rampage cold, and Cameron knows he didn’t imagine the voice. Sometimes, he can still hear it.

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AND AT WHAT POINT in that evening did someone call my grandfather? To tell him there was something out there he didn’t want to see. Perhaps that’s the problem: we don’t want to see. I was thinking about Cameron’s vision. And that’s my term for it, not his. For in this story of signs and wonders, why should there not be a “vi­sion.” I mean that moment of suspended animation when everyone around him froze and became an image, a negative, and he could no longer tell if those people were black or white. But why didn’t this “vision” appear to the white people — who needed to see it? Maybe it was something they didn’t want to see. Or maybe it had to be entrust­ed to someone whose life depended on it.

In the first hours, days, months following his narrow escape, however, Cameron had a heightened sense of black and white — as the blacks got angrier and the whites got more cruel, or more ashamed.

The four detectives who drove him out of Marion right after the lynching, to a jail in nearby Huntington — they were white. They ordered this beaten and traumatized kid to lie on the floor of the back seat the whole way, for safety, while they cracked jokes like “this nigger back here is as white as a sheet.” Then, in Huntington jail, there was the old man in the facing cell who began apologizing to Cameron — he was white too. He told Cameron he’d had a fight with his own son about going to Marion. The son wanted in on the lynching. “For all I know, he might have been one of the people in the mob. He might have been the one who put that rope around your neck, and caused that rope burn. He had me arrested and put in jail. Told everybody I was crazy. I am sorry, son, sorry to my heart.”

Next day, the white detectives drove him back to Marion. He lay down on the floor beneath a mat while they cruised the court­house, where part of the lynch mob re­mained on guard. The cops crowed gleeful­ly that “those niggers are still hanging on the tree” “and look how their necks have stretched.” One detective called out to a newsboy, bought the day’s paper, and pulled the mat back to show Cameron the front page. There he saw for the first time the infamous photograph of his dead com­panions surrounded by celebrating white people.

Copies of the photo sold briskly to sightse­ers that day for 50 cents apiece. And the bodies hung in the courthouse square till late afternoon when the state attorney gener­al, a notorious Klan opponent, arrived from Indianapolis and personally cut them down.

Cameron, meanwhile, had been delivered to the state reformatory, where white guards gathered around to laugh at his clothing, shredded during the beating, and to ridicule his ashen complexion. But then Cameron saw another group of white guards come in and stare from a distance, tears running down their cheeks. Sorrowful, immobilized, they were unable to be more than Greek chorus to the tragedy.

Sympathy was apparently in such short supply among white people in the Indiana of 1930 that Cameron has never forgotten those who gave it to him. Like those guards. And the old man in the Huntington jail. “They are etched in my memory, stamped upon my heart,” he would later write. But at the time, tears weren’t enough to ease his growing hatred of all whites. For months, Cameron felt sick with rage and wanted to kill a white man, any white man. His stepfather actually lived this out for him within a week of the lynching, going crazy to “kill some white folks,” and managing to shoot nine policemen (none fatally) during a nightlong battle. (He then spent a year in prison.) Naturally, the lynchers went free. A grand jury ultimately concluded that Marion authorities had acted “in a prudent manner” on the night of August 7. Cameron was never even asked to testify.

Granted a change of venue for his own trial, he moved from the state reformatory to a cell in Anderson, Indiana, a town about 30 miles from Marion. Word soon spread that Klansmen from Marion planned to storm the Anderson jail, lynch Cameron, and “break in” the sheriff who’d just taken office there. But Anderson’s new sheriff, Bernard Bradley, turned out to be the first white person in Cameron’s life to make a positive difference. First, he promised his young prisoner that if those Kluxers showed up, he and his deputies would shoot to kill. Bradley had patrols in the streets every night, for weeks. Rumor had it that he had even armed the town’s black residents. Cameron writes that that clinched it for the Klan leaders, who decided not to try anything.

Once the tension eased, Sheriff Bradley called Cameron to his office and announced that he was going to make him a turnkey trusty, which would allow him to leave jail during the day. The sheriff said he didn’t believe Cameron guilty of any rape or murder. “I want you to treat me like a father,” Bradley told him, “and I’ll treat you like a loving son.” Utterly shocked, Cameron studied the sheriff’s eyes and body language, “because no white man had ever spoken to me like that before.” But he decided that “my concentration, my scrutiny, could detect no deceit or falsity.” He came to love this sheriff, this anomaly who’d grown up in an all-white town near Anderson. Cameron could only conclude in retrospect that Sheriff Bradley must have been “a weird sort of person, because he was mysterious and apparently outside natural law. By his nature, he seemed to have belonged to another world.”

Then, one day while Cameron was out in the town of Anderson, he saw a man on a bicycle, riding with a little blond girl perched on the handlebars — both of them laughing. Suddenly Cameron realized that this was one of the raging men who had grabbed him in the Marion jail and pulled him out into the street. And he felt a flicker of intense anger, but mostly he felt confounded by the purely human mystery of it. How could it be that this “happy-go-lucky man with that equally happy child had been capable of doing the thing I knew he had done”?

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I COULDN’T HELP BUT notice that, after the lynching, many of the white people in Cameron’s story were either laughing or crying. As you’ll remember, I’m from the lineage of those who laughed. Though personally, I never got the joke. And when I think of my grandfather, who died when I was 16, I shared Cameron’s sense of bewilderment. I ask myself — how could it be?

Of course, how much can one know about a man who never even told his own family about the circumstances of his birth? All he ever said of his childhood was that he’d seen Buffalo Bill then. He had no family stories, while my grandma told so many. I remember once asking her about his parents, and she said, “We don’t talk about that, because it makes him very sad.”

One day when I was eight or nine, I found his mother’s obituary in a desk drawer. I didn’t know that that’s what it was. Just saw that certain lines had been cut out with a razor blade. Curious, I walked into the living room where everyone was seated, blurting out “Who’s Josie Carr?” No one spoke, but my grandpa got up and took the clipping from my hand. None of us ever saw it again. A search of every little news­paper in and around Marion never turned up another copy. Nor is there a record anywhere of her death. Or for that matter, her life. And certain lines had been cut out with a razor blade.

Now it’s been more than 25 years since I last visited Marion. Months after my grandpa’s death, my father drove us out of the town into farm country to see the little house where my grandpa had been born. Somehow my father had managed to find it again, after visiting once as a child. Sort of. My grandpa hadn’t shared this either, leav­ing my little dad at the end of a dirt road, telling him, “I want to see that house one more time before I die.” And my father remembered that while he waited, he could see a church in the distance with its graves. Now our car was parked at the foot of a rutted road from which we could see that church, its graves. And we were walking through knee-deep grass. Then we came to the little house. Or shed. Some horses were living in it.

My grandfather had a sixth-grade educa­tion. He hated cars, airplanes, speed — mo­dernity. He never learned to drive. There was still a shiny black hitching post out in front of the house. For a hobby, he studied railroad timetables, and knew which trains rode on what tracks all over America. He was always walking to the tracks to watch a train. He named my father after Eugene Debs, the Socialist and trade union man. He did not allow any liquor in the house. He wore a long-sleeved shirt with cuff links every day of his life, and he’d wear the same necktie until it wore out, before he bought another. Always parsimonious, he did the grocery shopping rather than give my grandma any money — buying tongue, green-fried tomatoes, mush, hominy, the fatty cuts of meat. And when he took the family on vacation, it was always the same thing: one day in either Cleveland or Chica­go to window-shop and ride the elevated.

He was part of the intolerance in the town, a narrow man. Yet I can also see him joining the Kluxers for the most painfully human reasons. The Klan made him re­spectable. For awhile there, all the “right people” belonged.

The Klan took over the Indiana Republi­can Party in 1924 and elected a majority of the state legislature. One open Klansman became governor, another the mayor of Indianapolis. Cameron thinks a prominent lawyer ran the Marion group. I read Kath­leen M. Blee’s Women of the Klan, because most of her research focuses on Indiana in the ’20s, where, she concludes, the Klan was an integral part of white Protestant culture: “Far from the popular media image of people with weaknesses of character or temperament or intellect as the Klan’s only adherents, the Klanswomen and Klansmen of the 1920s were more often­ — and perhaps more frighteningly — normal.” Scholars disagree on the number of enrolled members, but it ranges between a quarter million and half a million at a time when Mississippi (for example) initiated 15,000. The indisputable fact is that in the ’20s Indiana had more Kluxers than any other state, though it was 97 per cent white and Protestant.

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The Klan had developed over the years from a raw expression of hate to a more convoluted expression of hate. After the Civil War, it had been a purely terrorist organization. But in the ’20s, the Invisible Empire sold itself as a morality crusade redolent of today’s “traditional values” campaigns. The Klan claimed that Jews, blacks, and Catholics were purveyors of vice and social decay.

Possibly the only white writer to examine what it meant to be white in a segregated society, and this in the ’40s, Lillian Smith analyzed the signs and signifiers of the KKK, pointing out that no one could have dramatized the Return of the Repressed more vividly. These were men dressed in sheets and pillowcases, stalking through the darkness, intent most often on “the symbolic killing of a black male who, according to this paranoid fantasy, has ‘raped’ a ‘sa­cred’ white woman. It is a complete acting out of the white man’s internal guilt and his hatred of colored man and white woman.”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise then that the Invisible Empire in Indiana collapsed in a sex scandal at the end of the ’20s. Apparently, the state’s charismatic Grand Dragon, D.C. Stephenson, had long been notorious among the Klan elite for sexual harassment, attempted rapes, desert­ed wives, and late-night orgies. But his ex­ploits didn’t become public until 1925, when he was arrested for the rape and mur­der of a young woman. Once Stephenson was convicted, many Klan members never attended another meeting, and political in­fighting began to discourage many of those who remained. Again, scholars disagree on an exact figure, but by 1928 membership had declined to somewhere between 4000 and 7000.

The most bizarre stories I found in my research relate to the Indiana Klan’s fixa­tion with Catholics, who were much more of a focus in the Hoosier State than either blacks or Jews. “Escaped nuns” and former “priests” often appeared at Klan rallies to regale their audiences with tales of Roman­ist sadomasochism, kidnapped white Prot­estant girls turned sexual slaves, and “abor­tions forced on nuns by the priests who fathered their babies.” It’s almost funny­ — these porn fantasies of the rubes, but they are a reminder of another fact: everyday life back then was determined in ways we can’t imagine by phantoms, rumors, and myths. Many Klan members anticipated the imminent invasion of the pope, who, it was believed, already had a papal palace under construction in Washington, D.C. Given their loyalty to the “dago on the Tiber,” Catholics were simply not good Americans. Blee recounts this incredible story from an anonymous informant: “Some Klan leader said that the Pope was coming to take over the country, and he said he might be on the next train that went through.… Just trying to make it specific. So, about a thousand people went out to the train station and stopped the train. It only had one passenger [car] and one passenger on it. They took him off, and he finally convinced them that he wasn’t the Pope. He was a carpet salesman.”

My grandfather had a particular hatred for Catholics. I still remember the worried dinner conversations over the possible elec­tion of John F. Kennedy — who would most likely be turning the country over to the pope. Maybe this antipathy helped push him to join his local klavern. I’ll never have an answer to that mystery. When I first learned that he’d been a member, I remem­bered that his was the only one of my relatives’ homes in which I ever saw black people — women from my grandma’s Sun­day school class. And I remembered that my grandma herself was one-quarter Indi­an. But these are the paradoxes of Ameri­can racism.

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LAST AUGUST I WENT to Milwaukee to meet James Cameron.

It was a way to begin to find what had been hidden from me. At the time, I didn’t analyze it beyond that. Certainly there was nothing I could do about my grandfather’s choices, or about a lynching that took place decades before I was born, but somehow I felt I was still living the wages of that sin. A human being was burned or hanged from a tree and you knew it had happened. Or maybe you knew that someone you loved had even participated in it, or condoned it, or laughed at it. The moment embodied in that infamous Marion photograph was a tragedy for everyone there. And I didn’t see a way to set it right. But I could go to Milwaukee.

When I met Cameron, I would have to acknowledge my own connection to that defining moment in his life, and I consid­ered this with some apprehension. As I drove into the neighborhood near his muse­um, I realized I must also be near the paro­chial school where I attended kindergarten and first grade. I was born in Milwaukee, and back then, this area was undergoing “white flight.”

America’s Black Holocaust Museum sits on a quiet street between a public school and a soul food restaurant. Greeting me at the museum’s locked steel door, Cameron is more robust than I expect. He is a soft-­spoken man, a down-home Midwesterner who in many ways has lived an ordinary life. He puts in six days a week at the museum, by himself. As we sit in his small makeshift office, I ask him to talk about his life between the lynching and the present.

First came four years in prison, as an accessory before the fact to voluntary man­slaughter in the death of Claude Deeter. Ordered to serve his parole outside Indi­ana, he moved to Detroit, then returned to Anderson, and finally moved to Milwaukee in 1953, working a series of blue-collar jobs. He worked at a shoeshine parlor, the Delco factory, then a cardboard-box fac­tory. Went to night school to learn air con­ditioning and steam combustion. Worked at a big shopping mall. Retired. Then, went into business for himself as a rug and upholstery cleaner. He attends mass daily. In 1953, he converted to Catholicism, a faith he attributes to the example of Sheriff Ber­nard Bradley. He’s been married for 55 years and raised five children.

But mostly what he’s done for over 60 years is struggle obsessively to bear witness. He began writing A Time of Terror in pris­on, but authorities confiscated the manu­script when he was paroled. By early the next year, he’d written it out again. Once he’d moved to Anderson, he began going back to Marion to interview white people who’d witnessed the lynching. Cameron then rewrote the book about 100 more times as he accumulated nearly 300 rejec­tions before self-publishing. He pulls out pamphlets he’s produced on the Klan, the Confederate flag, the Thirteenth Amend­ment, slavery, Reconstruction, the first civil rights bill, the second civil rights bill… he’s written hundreds. The latest is “Definite and Positive Proof that Free Black Men Did Vote Right Along With Free White Men in the Formation of the Constitution of the United States of Ameri­ca.” Neither an academic nor an activist, he’s out of the loop in which these messages usually get advanced, self-publishing as much as he can afford at $20 per copyright.

He hasn’t even begun to renovate the ex-­boxing school. His exhibits have been packed away for over a year. But Cameron points into the gymnasium where I notice basketball hoops and piles of chairs: “That’ll be my Chamber of Horrors.” That will be the room with, for example, the photo taken in Marion’s courthouse square. Cameron intends to exhibit large pictures in the style of the Jewish Holocaust Muse­um. That’s what inspired him, when he visited during a trip to Israel with his wife, Virginia, in 1979. “It shook me up some­thing awful,” he recalls. “I said to my wife, ‘Honey, we need a museum like that in America to show what has happened to us black folks and the freedom-loving white people who’ve been trying to help us.’ ” He shows me where he intends to put his book­store, his contemplation room, his lecture and screening room. The spaces are still filled with old weightlifting machines, lock­ers, a pool table.

This building is his third location. With $5000 of his own money, he opened the museum in 1988 on the second floor of Milwaukee’s Black Muslim headquarters, then moved to a storefront around the cor­ner, but he never had room to exhibit more than 10 photos or to store many of his 10,000 books on race relations. And, to his utter frustration, he would sometimes go for days without a single person coming in. And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.

The approach of his 80th birthday has kindled a sense of urgency. “I got one foot in the grave and the other one got no busi­ness being out,” he chuckles, then sobers. “I wish that book would hurry up and come out so I can get some speaking engagements under my belt and then I can get my money to put that boiler in.”

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Cameron is part of that tradition of Afri­can Americans who would hold this coun­try to her ideals. He would like to replace the word “racism” with “un-American.” He pulls out a copy of Ralph Ginzburg’s 100 Years of Lynchings: “This should be in every home just like the Bible.” I ask him if he’s ever studied history — noting The Rhet­oric of Racial Revolt, The Negro Since Emancipation, Writings by W.E.B. Dubois and stacks of other books in his cluttered office. “Yes,” he replies, “I live in history.”

“My grandparents were from Marion,” I tell him.

“They probably remember it,” says Cameron.

This benign assessment of what I know to be shameful slows me down. “My father remembers it too, even though he was only seven when it happened.”

“Yeah, that made an impression on him. Sure.”

He begins to tell me his story, even though he has said that he doesn’t like to do this one-on-one. It’s still too emotional for him. Showing me a postcard of the Marion jail, he points out where Tommy was, where Abe was, where he was. Almost com­pulsively, he describes how they were beat­en, how he’d found out later that the Mar­ion sheriff, Jacob Campbell, was in the Klan, and how, when the mob was about to hang him, he prayed. “And then this voice spoke from heaven. It was from heaven. No human voice could have quelled the fury of that mob.” Then a great silence fell over the crowd, and he entered what seemed like a room made of film negatives, where he and everyone else was “petrified,” and he couldn’t tell anymore if they were black or white.

I tell him my family’s story, leaving out the cruel part — the laughter. “Then, after he died, we found out that my grandfather was in the Klan.”

“That happens,” he replies.

“All my father said was he never saw a hooded sheet.”

“You know what?” Cameron tells me. “During the roaring ’20s, Indiana had over a half million Klansmen and Marion had the first chapter. They were called the mother den of all the Klans in Indiana. It was an upgoing thing. If you weren’t in the Klan, you were nobody, and that’s what gave them the liberty to lynch black people with impunity. Sure.”

“My grandfather may well have known about the lynching and may well have ap­proved of it.”

“Sure.” He gets up, saying that he has something special to show me, a new arti­fact for the museum. Someone in Marion had sent him one of the Klan’s infamous “souvenirs.” The ropes used to hang Tom­my Shipp and Abe Smith had been cut into pieces and distributed as mementos. Now, from a business envelope, Cameron pulls a piece of nondescript and fraying rope. A handwritten document says that it was ob­tained from the original owner by the man elected sheriff several years after the lynch­ing, and that it was unknown which of the two ropes it came from. “I’m going to put that in a glass case with all kinds of pad­locks on it,” he says, handing it over for me to inspect. “You’re the first one to have seen this.”

In my conversations with Cameron, I found myself constantly astonished at things he mentioned in passing. I would stumble to rephrase a question, not sure I’d heard him right. Most of these little shocks related to his interactions with white peo­ple — not the brutal ones, the “nice” ones. Like the 200-plus white people Cameron found who’d been among the spectators at his near-death. The actual lynch mob prob­ably numbered between 25 and 50. But thousands more had watched. Those Cam­eron interviewed were all happy to see that he’d survived the beating (rumor had it he’d died), but none of them had lifted a finger to ensure that he would survive. And they now demonstrated neither a reluctance to talk nor a wish to apologize.

Then there’s the story about the mayor of Marion, who came to visit Cameron in jail the day of the lynching, bringing with him a red-haired man who had the bottom half of his face covered with a handkerchief. I think we can assume that the redhead was a ringleader, that he’d come to see which three prisoners they’d be taking from the jail, but he remained silent while the mayor asked Cameron how old he was and what his mother did for a living and had he ever been in trouble before. Then the mayor left town “on business” before the lynching be­gan. In 1980, Cameron visited the old may­or and together they looked at the infamous picture taken that night while the mayor named for him nearly every person in it. They were photographed while doing this, for Ebony magazine.

In an old article from the Marion paper, I read a vehement denial from Sheriff Camp­bell’s daughter about his allegiance to the Klan. Not only was he never allied with them, she asserted, but it was his voice that called out that night to save James Camer­on.

When I related this to Cameron, he said, “Isn’t that pitiful?”

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THESE HISTORIC CRIMES are the ghosts still flitting through all of our lives. Perhaps if we white people could take responsibility, reconciliation could happen. But how do we do that? The further we get from these stories and their contexts, the easier it is to say: I wasn’t there; I didn’t do anything. We ignore how much the new stories grow out of old rot. And we can’t acknowledge that we’ve done something that needs forgiving.

But in 1991, Cameron decided that he would ask to be forgiven. He wrote a letter to Indiana governor Evan Bayh, requesting a pardon “for the foolish role I played in the commission of a crime that resulted in the loss of three precious lives.” Cameron said the idea to request a pardon just came to him. He wanted to clear his name before he died. He wanted to “wipe this whole thing clean.” Bayh signed the pardon in February of last year, and Cameron went back to Marion. The mayor gave him a key to the city in a ceremony at a Marion hotel, and Cameron wiped away tears as the in­scription on his pardon was read.

“Now that the state of Indiana has for­given me for my indiscretion,” he told the overflow crowd, “I, in turn, forgive Indiana for their transgressors of the law in Marion on the night of August 7, 1930. I forgive those who have harmed me and Abe and Tom realizing I can never forget the trau­matic events that took place that night.”

See, he did it for us. Wiped it clean.

In a racist society, a white person can not feel “whole.” That was the conclusion reached by Lillian Smith, and I keep going back to her because she is one of the very few to consider what whiteness means, and what its tragedy might be. “Only a few of our people are killers,” she wrote in her analysis of lynching, but she noted the heightened level of violence, how usually the black man was killed several times over, becoming a receptacle for “dammed-up hate” and “forbidden feelings.” There’s a pathology there that leaks out into everyday relationships. Only a few of our people are killers, but we are dissemblers, dehumaniz­ers, averters of eyes, enforcers of a rift in our psyches, and all because we’re wearing the hood — to hide our guilt, our past, and our helplessness in the face of that past. This is why Smith analyzed lynching, in the end, as “a Sign, not so much of troubled race relations, as of a troubled way of life that threatens to rise up and destroy all the people who live it.”

I remember my childhood disquiet with that Bible verse about “visiting the iniqui­ties of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” It was so unfair, yet I worried that it might be true. I no longer know this as the curse of a wrathful God but as the curse we’ve brought on ourselves by refusing to look at our histor­ies. We white people don’t want to feel guilty, of course. And guilt isn’t useful. But, too often, we compensate by feeling noth­ing.

We can at least begin to tell the truth about the past. I decided to, hoping in some way to uplift my race. ■

A Time of Terror will be published next month by Black Classic Press, 410-358-0980. America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, 414-264-2500.


Photo of James Cameron who survived a lynching An American Tale the Village Voice


A Case for ‘Cruising’

I share in the homosex­ual rage sweeping New York — a rage too long dor­mant — against the cen­turies-old abuse of homosexuals. That anger is now directed at stopping the filming of Gerald Walker’s novel Cruising by William Friedkin.

Two main arguments have emerged for stopping the film. The first is that it may unleash a wave of violence against homosexuals. The second is that its con­centration on the elements of cruising, leather bars, and sadomasochism may result in a distortion of all homosexuals by focusing on a small segment.

My thoughts on violence and censorship — the issues involved here — are shaped by intimate encounters with each. As a homosexual, I have seen “queer­bashers” with chains ready to lash in cruising turfs; have seen faces of homosex­uals branded with lead pipes by hate-pocked “straight” attackers; have heard the curdling epithet “Queers!” and the accompanying crash of glass; have ex­perienced the frustration of failing to get cops to move into assaulted areas they invade only to arrest homosexuals.

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As a writer, I have experienced censorship too. Last year in England an anti-homosexual group effectively banned a nonfiction book by me by threatening the publishers with a suit before publica­tion, thus intimidating booksellers into not carrying it. That book, the group claimed, would pervert by presenting homosexuality in a “positive” light.

I do not question the homosexual anger in New York. It is the particular nuances of this matter, and possible hidden ramifications, that I believe should be explored further. Now, it would be naive to deny the special impact of films. It is also risky to predict that impact; and it may prove dangerous, based on such prediction, to move into the quagmire of prior censorship. Censorship continues to be a major factor in the oppression of homosexuals. For years, the motion picture code forbade any treatment of homosexuality. Showings of Genet’s Un chant d’amour and Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks — groundbreaking homosexual films — resulted in raided theatres. Until recently, photo­graphic and verbal presentations of homosexuality were ipso facto causes for censorship. Confiscation of homosexual magazines and books was routine, and jail sentences resulted. Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar was denied advertising space. Only last year, The New Yorker rejected advertising space to a staid homosexual publication.

Where shall the line now be drawn, and by whom? Is Roots offensive for showing violence against blacks? Holocaust against Jews? Shall television news clips exposing war atrocities — factors in ending the Vietnam war — be censored? And news stories of murders and kidnappings? What about Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Hard Core, both of which contain gross scenes of heterosexual brutality rendered even more offensive by posturings of morality and gratuitous anti-homosexual implications? And Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange?

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Granted that Friedkin’s intentions may not be noble; remarks attributed to him from years back sound at best archaic today. (One should point out, however, that his film of Mort Crawley’s play, The Boys in the Band, was very daring and sympathetic for its time.) Undeniably, the producer of Cruising, Jerry Weintraub, has been vulgarly offensive, insensitive to real issues. But can one determine from a script a film’s full meaning, which is also shaped by essential elements of per­formance, editing, even music? It is not only Cruising that is involved here: The precedent set by preventing its production will reach out to all other films — and may ricochet.

What are the long-term effects? Will any group demand to see a script in advance? May the same argument be used against a film made by homosexuals and opposed by heterosexuals? Shall we determine artistic expression by popular consent? May we not inadvertently be assuring that no director, no producer­ — not even homosexual ones — will dare to deal with homosexuality on screen at all? Anita Bryant attempted to silence our voices before it could be known what we would say. Our mere presence in schools, she asserted, would pervert children, even bring violence on them. She interpreted the impact of our behavior and, prejudg­ing it, moved to ban it.

Thomas Paine saw the trap of selected censorship: “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

If this film turns out to be odious, might we not turn it to our advantage, clarifying the elements it has, even if distortedly, exposed? Might we not point out that the violence against us is a result of sexual repression and other outside pressures inflicted on us — that the seamy places shown are those we have been shoved into by those societal strictures? Might we not use it to expose the indif­ference to violence against homosexuals, and the fact that one of the major outrages we face is the latent homosexuality of cops who stalk us and even turn into “queer­bashers”?

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Might we not, further, encourage pow­erful but uncommitted homosexual direc­tors and producers to counter the Friedkin film’s purported distortions by dealing with our own realities instead of hiding, as those directors and producers often do, in musical inanities and films brimful of social conscience toward everyone except homosexuals? At present, the troubling subject of violence toward homosexuals dealt with in Cruising, however sensation­alized its treatment may turn out to be, is virtually unknown to other than the victims of that violence.

It is exposure, not secrecy, that precedes the solution of a problem. When, a few years back, a cruising park in Los Angeles was ravaged by a wave of “bashings,” it was media silence and police apathy — not exposure — that allowed the attacks to continue unabated night after bloody night until murder inevitably occurred.

The second reason proffered against the filming of Cruising — that it presents a negative view of the homosexual world — also needs close examination. I firmly believe that not even implicit criticism of the homosexual world may be made that does not contain a greater criticism of heterosexual totalitarianism. But once that is emphasized, it is dishonest to deny that many homosexuals prefer certain subjects of homosexual life to remain hidden — especially that of sadomasochism.

Understandably, in view of the rabid homophobia, some of us want to conceal all that can possibly be determined as “ugly,” even when that ugliness is implanted by heterosexual bigotry. The re­sult is that we often become the only minority intent on showing our oppressors how happy they have made us. We affect that by insisting doggedly on presenting a so-called “positive” image — often a eu­phemism for heterosexual imitation — even to the point of denying the enriching spectrum of our experience, including an abundant sexuality, which needs no apology.

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Beyond the immediate context of what Cruising may or may not show, some questions should be asked. Would we allow any other film to deal with some of the elements we are objecting to in Friedkin’s? Or should we banish them totally from exploration? Only from heter­osexuals or even from our own? Will there be a leap to demand to see advance galley proofs of magazine articles and books?

Is there, in fact, an increasing fascina­tion with sadomasochism and leather, especially in our proliferating orgy rooms? Are the orgy rooms altering the pattern of homosexual behavior? Do those who fre­quent them comprise a small “freaky” segment, or a growing faction on the homosexual landscape? And if it is a disturbing faction, does it not require, exploration? Conversely, if it is “small,” does that exclude it from exploration?

And finally, why does every homosex­ual film or book — unlike a heterosexual film or book — have to represent our entire world, each and everyone of us, when we have so many diverse and rich voices?

We homosexuals cannot improve our world for ourselves and for those who follow us — and improving it is a duty we should all feel — if we ban the exploration of our problems. They will not go away if we shove them into the closets from which we have ourselves emerged. The homosexual energy now crackling in New York and elsewhere against oppression has too long been unreleased. Now that we homosexuals have rediscovered the spirit of the Stonewall Inn protest, the power must be used strongly. But critically. For the fight still clearly looms.

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Page 6 of 12.


Equality From The Archives Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Violence

Dead Boys: Fast Sex and Slow Suicide on the West Side Docks

Dead Boys: Fast Sex and Slow Suicide on the West Side Docks
January 30, 1990

AT TWO A.M. THIS BILIOUS TUESDAY, Pookie hops off the low wall of the pier and fastens a moistened forefinger to his ass. “Fsssssssss,” he goes, flashing his frog-eyed crack grin, “I’m hot like a full-time motherfuck.” On the instant, all the pretty cars come courting, making the hairpin turn at the north end of the dock. A black Saab swings by, a silver Volvo hard behind him, slowing to get a load of the short, plump kid with the sort of epicene beauty peculiar to boys of a certain age. At the back of the pack, the guy in the blue Town Car leans on his horn.

The Town Car pulls up; its passenger window whirs down. A broad, pink man with a polished skull peers out, composed as a corpse in his Chesterfield topcoat. “Aren’t you freezing in that little thing?” he inquires. “Aren’t you hot in that big thing?” says Pookie, popping his head in. “I don’t recall seeing you out here before.”

“And might not see me out here again, so best pick up while the iron is hot. Is your iron hot, love?”

The Pink Man’s eyes play up and down the boy. “How old are you, 15?”

“At least!” Pookie trumpets. “Plus tax.”

The Pink Man frowns and looks away awhile, performing his moral arithmetic. “Get in.”

Pookie jumps in. In the eight or 10 seconds it takes the Town Car to hit the exit. Pookie is across the seat and in the Pink Man’s embrace. “That’s a fuckin’ yo-yo right there,” sneers Georgie, who at 18 looks spent, his face cinched up like an old canvas bag. It is impossible to tell whether his is the voice of experience or envy. “I told him, ‘Stay in the loop till you know the game.’ Instead, he’s gonna bust right outta here with a stone-cold freak. I laugh if he come back here with a knife in his chest.”

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IF YOU ARE SITTING on that wall at two in the morning, the cold and damp on you like a molestation, chances are you aren’t one of the sleek-skinned kids who turns up here on weekends for the party off of Christopher Street. Chances are even better that you aren’t one of the buttoned-down 20-year-olds hustling a place like Rounds on 53rd Street, pre­senting your business card — Professional Escort — to the Aquascutum crowd. No, the chances are you are what they call a “dead boy” down here — a throwaway be­tween the ages of 16 and 20, homeless and hungry and, like as not, in ill-health.

According to Covenant House, the ex­perts by default, there are between 10,000 and 20,000 adolescents on the streets of this city: the kids from the Koch pest­-houses like the Martinique, the Prince George; the kids off the Greyhounds, flee­ing predaceous families; and the kids shot out of the foster care system, New York’s sprawling pathology factory. The most desperate of them eventually land with a thud on the docks, where not even the salt in the air can preserve them.

For the past several months, these kids have talked to me about certain johns who heal them up as a sort of postsex purgative; about the perils of sleeping amongst the crazies at the shelters; about the crackheads and dealers who ride herd on the scene, picking kids off on the fly. But in a sense all of this is overkill, because if you stack it up together and pile on things like polyaddiction and double pneumonia, the sum total will not finish off as many of the kids I spoke to as their numb indifference to AIDS. According to the CDC, the number of kids nationally between 13 and 19 with full-blown AIDS cases has more than doubled in the last two years.

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Everyone on the docks has a pocketful of condoms. Project First Step, the outreach arm of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, dispenses them nightly with the strenuous injunction to please use them. But pull a kid aside, out of earshot of the pack, and he’ll tell you that (a) he doesn’t need them, (b) the johns won’t wear them, and (c) a rubber these days is just a bargaining chip — “they’ll give you five, maybe 10 more bucks to let ’em do it skin-on-skin.”

“In the first place, I fuck, I don’t get fucked,” harrumphs Arnie, the tall, haggard kid to whom Covenant House intro­duced me. “In the second place, I get sucked, I don’t suck. Does it sound to you like I need to put on a bag?” Actually, I tell him, it sounds like he needs to put on two.

“Nah,” he sneers, sliding down in his seat. “I’ve been out here running game going on like six years now. And every time they test me…” he clucks, giving me his stagey grin. “Clean as the Board of Health.”

“Twelve per cent of the older kids who come into our system test positive for HIV,” reports George Wirt, Covenant House’s tireless VP of Communications. That figure is staggering, matched up against the national infection rate of 4.3 per thousand, but, as Wirt says, “You really can’t even go by the 12 per cent. Most of the kids who’ve been out there hustling for any length of time don’t even come into our system. The real number has got to be significantly higher.”

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Covenant House is itself a telling gloss on the problem. For all its celebrated good works — and even its detractors agree that life in this city would be un­thinkable without CH’s interventions­ — the agency is notorious for giving gay kids a hard time. At the crisis center on 41st Street, effeminate boys are thrown in with the hardass straights, with the predictable result that some “get raped, or beat up, or harassed to no end,” says the director of another agency who de­clined to be named. And Joyce Hunter, the director of social services for the He­trick-Martin Institute, a small but ex­traordinarily effective agency whose charter is the protection of gay and lesbi­an youth, tells the story of a kid who once called her in desperate shape. “I referred him to Covenant House. Where else could I send him? He said, ‘If that’s the best you can do, I’ll take the streets,’ and hung up. That call still haunts me now. It’s why we decided to start this agency.”

And even as Covenant House beats the drum about teenage AIDS, it stands on its refusal to hand out condoms. Instead of safe sex, it preaches abstinence to these kids, proving that Catholic obscu­rantism isn’t dead, it’s just gone private sector. This isn’t to scapegoat Covenant House, which recently opened up a floor for homeless kids with AIDS, and is re­viewing its policy of lumping gays in with straights. The point is that, outside of a cluster of small agencies, these are kids without a port in a perpetual storm.

“No one’s set up for what’s about to come down,” warns Wirt. “Nationally, there’s God knows how many kids infect­ed right now. You’re going to need a whole array of new responses once those cases incubate.”

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Certainly, the old responses aren’t working; Covenant House loses two of every three kids who come into its care. The up-at-six-lights-out-by-10 Boys Town lifestyle can’t begin to compete with the street kid’s “deathstyle,” as Tru­dy Peterson, the director of the Streetwork Project, calls it. Peterson, a vivid blonde woman in her middle forties who’s been working with these kids for almost 20 years, says that what they’re aggressively engaged in these days is a kind of “slow suicide. ‘I’m gonna take a bunch of drugs, and I’m wiped out, and my immune system’s crazy, and it’s five degrees out, and… I’ll get in this car with three guys, knowing they’re sadists and will abuse me…’ ”

Kids are, by definition, creatures of the moment, oblivious to their mortality. But on the docks, the denial is double-walled. Behind the customary teenage omnipotence is the thick shale of grief and rage. “Virtually every kid I see here is a badly abused child,” explains Elizabeth Mas­troieni, Covenant House’s straight-shoot­ing AIDS educator. “So many of them were sold, or seduced, or beaten by their parents, or just flat-out abandoned… For a lot of [the kids], hustling is really a reenactment of what they grew up with, only now they’ve got the control. Instead of lying in bed helplessly waiting for the parent to come in, now they’ve got the power to say yes or no — and get paid money to do the thing, on top of it.”

By CH’s estimate, there are a million homeless kids hustling sex in this coun­try. In New York, they happen to be largely black and Hispanic, but in Miami and Fort Lauderdale they are overwhelm­ingly white. And in L.A., reports Wirt, just back from a fact-finding trip out there, the kids are in flight from split-­level houses. “We’ve never seen anything like it. There are little cities of kids thing under the Santa Monica Freeway.”

Nor does the thing hang neatly on the peg of sexuality. For every boy on the dock who acknowledges he’s gay, there’s another who’s vehement that he’s “got a girlie in Queens, and a little baby on the way.” No, the only thing these kids can be said to have in common is that they’ve been sabotaged by the very people life appointed to protect them.

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I WILL LIVE TO BE a hundred,” declares Diego, a sweet, expressive kid who bends like an antenna against the breeze. “I won’t get no disease, no one can’t hardly hurt me, ’cause life already used up all its bullets on me. If it wanted to finish me off, it woulda did so when I was four.”

We are walking the dock this balmy October evening, enjoying the false blan­dishments of Indian summer. Around us, the johns are positively buzzing, brought on by the mild air and some hallucination about romance. Diego ticks off their pre­dilections as they go by. “That one likes to get beat up a taste, got his own little custom-made paddle.… The blue Regal, he wants you to fuck his ugly wife for him, then go out and eat Mexican food with ’em after. And this knucklehead, he’ll take anything he can get, but what he really wants is for you to piss on his windshield. From his lips to God’s mouth, I say.”

We had been talking about his child­hood a moment ago, so when I tell him that his thing is evasion, he laughs out loud. “Oh, I can skate alright, honey! I’m the black Dorothy Hamill!”


The story that he unfolds is like so many others you hear that you catch yourself wondering if these kids share notes. There was his airtight relationship with his adoring mother, “who was to me like a saint, an angel on earth”; the fa­ther, a mailman who was so mean “he used to bite the dogs”; and there was Diego’s own sense, “from as early as I can remember,” that he’d been singled out of the family for the old man’s abuse. “I’m sorry, but I have to laugh,” he says, not laughing. “You’re going to beat my ass with a broom handle for something as two-cents as slurping my milk — and then an hour later come in and lay down with me? I know it’s not polite to say something against your family — but for that man, they should’ve brought back lynch­ing, baby.”

And your brothers and sisters? I ask. Did they come out of it alright?

“Pshuh,” he snaps. “They’re as happy as larks. Far as they’re concerned, none of this ever happened.” He pauses, peering down at the bright pageant of Christo­pher Street. “I guess I had to take the weight for the good of the family.”

That isn’t self-pity, it’s guilt, and it’s the deadliest addiction down here — this attachment to the idea that you’re the proper target of life’s sadism. Why, for instance, aren’t these kids selling crack instead of their bodies? Because dealing is an act of violence perpetrated against others; hustling your body to men who won’t wear condoms is an act of violence against yourself, a carrying-out of the sentence handed down in childhood. “Why the fuck should I hassle ’em to wear a rubber?” shrugged Chris, a very stoned metal kid in heavy leather. “I’m gonna be dead in two years, anyway.”

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ONE NIGHT IN LATE September, perhaps my second on the scene, I was walking up the dock taking the lay of the land when I heard someone shout, “YO, YOUR BACK!” I wheeled and saw three kids coming straight for me, closing hard and fast as linebackers. I froze, bracing myself for the hit, when a second shout brought them up short. They veered off right, hurling glares over their shoulders, and hopped the divider onto the highway. I put my heart back inside my chest and went to thank my benefactor, a squat black kid in two-tone denims sporting a fat welt over one eye.

“Ah man, fuck you,” he sneered, “I shoulda let ’em jay you, only I don’t need no 20 cops down here. I got like 60-something cents in my pocket tonight.”

I explained what I was doing, and of­fered to buy him dinner. He asked to see my press card. “Oh, this’ll make someone a nice souvenir. But you bullshittin’, I know you got back-up somewhere. You ain’t really out here by yourself.”

I assured him that I was, and on foot, to boot.

“Look around you!” he guffawed, sa­voring my stupidity. “You see all these hardnut crackheads? They ain’t here to get laid, they’re here to get paid, if you know what I’m talking about.”

There were kids sprawled sullenly on the hoods of cars; kids roaming the piers in packs of three and four, or huddled like cabals around someone’s boombox. Only at the far north end could boys be seen standing by themselves, arms across their chests in desultory attendance. “This ain’t Shangri-la anymore, this is 42nd Street South,” said Aubrey. “Any­thing up there, you can buy down here now. Drugs, car stereos, a whole trunk­load of guns — anything you want, except for pussy… but check back for that on Friday.”

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The joke reverberated. Just that eve­ning, I’d been talking to a couple of retail­ers on Christopher Street, whose bitter suspicion was that the cops were quietly redlining the West Village, pinching all the pandemic sins of Times Square down here. “Doesn’t the Sixth Precinct ever patrol this place?” I asked Aubrey.

“To protect who?” he snorted. “Ain’t nobody out here but a bunch of fags and baseheads.”

And into which of the two groups did he fall?

“Neither, nor,” he declared. “I’m a man with a plan. One day real quick, I’m gonna just… disappear.”

There was some thunder in that word, too. Trudy Peterson, whose love for these kids suffuses everything she says, told me that the hardest thing about her work “is that these kids just disappear. We don’t know if they went down to Florida to hustle, to Puerto Rico and their grand­mothers, or if they’ve been taken up to some rooftop by a gang and raped.”

Aubrey did in fact disappear — on his own steam, I hope — but not before I ran into him again that Friday night. He was standing by himself, looking like hell in a red hood, skeed off his ass on a crack­-and-smack jam. “Come here,” he said, hugging me. “I wanna show you something freaky.”

We walked down to the second pier. He pointed to a crawlspace about 40 feet out, where a kid was sound asleep perhaps a yard above the tide. “I never in my life been that fucked up,” he marveled. “I hope whatever he do tonight, he don’t roll over. That’d be a wet dream-and-a-half, boy!”

He was still tittering about this 10 min­utes later, wondering whose life would pass before your eyes if you drowned out there, your own or Charlie the Tuna’s, when the laugh suddenly caught in his throat. “Ho, shit, here comes the fastest way to die.”

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He pointed discreetly with his chin to a baby Benz sedan. which was circling the dock slowly, in a sort of taunting, Dave Parker trot. Its windows were down, revealing three b-boys in black, fronting enough gold to float a municipal bond issue. They sprayed the scene with their 12-gauge glares.

“Which one’s the dealer?” I asked.

“What, are you gonna go interview him?” he sneered. “Yo, man, quit lookin’ at ’em! You got detec written all over you. If they see me even talking to you about ’em…”

We averted our eyes as the Benz made another pass, then peeled out onto the highway, serenading us with the gentle strains of NWA:

Fuck the police, and Ren said it with authority 
’cause the niggers on the street is a majority
A gang is with whomever I’m stepping
And a motherfuckin’ weapon is kept in
A stashbox for the so-called law
Wishin’ Ren was a nigger they never saw…

“That was Markie’s crew,” said Aubrey. “He’ll send ’em after you if you’re like even five minutes late — and those niggers don’t even play.”

“Does Markie run the show down here?”

“Not really, he stays on the uptown tip. But some of these hardnuts go up and get 50 bottles [vials] offa him, then smoke the shit and don’t come back with the $200. That’s how niggers get shot down here.”

“Are there a lot of kids getting shot?”

Aubrey fixed me with his ready glare. “All these motherfuckers they be pulling out the river — what do you think, they fell off their yacht?” He wagged his head sadly, then murmured, “Dag, but that Benz was slammin’, though. All the mon­ey I made out here… I coulda bought that car three times.”

“Where is it all now, Aubrey?”

Wise and world-weary and, like so many street kids, theatrical, he waits two beats before saying, supremely, “Me, I might be crazy, but I ain’t stupid. I pay homeboy in full.”

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“THERE ARE KIDS TURNING up dead all over the city,” says Covenant House’s Mastroieni. “Sometimes, when cops find a body in a lot or a construction site, they’ll know to call us first. We keep a file on every kid we see here… very often, we’re the only ones who can identify a kid — or care to.”

A kid running the docks, she points out, is terribly vulnerable, the perfect crime waiting to happen. “They work by themselves, they’ve got no I.D., [and] they’re high out of their minds most of the time.… If you’re a dealer and a kid stiffs you, you can make a quick example of him for $20. And if you’re a john and you want to take a kid to Jersey and bury him — well, it’s not like he’s got a partner jotting your license number down…”

“Please understand that we’re trying to maintain good relations with the police,” says Mastroieni. “And generally we do. There are some very honorable cops out there, cops who tip us off when they see one of our kids where he isn’t supposed to be. But most of them?” she sighs. “Most of them don’t give a damn about these kids. As far as they’re concerned, who­ever’s killing them is doing the Lord’s work.”

How does a skinny 17-year-old stalked by johns and dealers defend himself? By arming himself, quite literally, to the teeth. There isn’t a kid out there without a gun or a knife, or at any rate a single­-edge secured in imaginative places. Bob­by, a delicate kid sitting on the hood of a Dodge, showed me how to conceal a razor blade between cheek and gum (“Keep the sharp side down, and don’t smile too much”). He told me what had happened to him and his lover, Raymond. They were walking west on Charles, “drinking a beer and smooching to try and stay warm,” when suddenly they were set upon by a carload of kids. “I’m not saying they didn’t fuck me up good — they did­ — but I know at least one of those boys will never forget me. I cut his shit from yay to yay, and the blade was rusty, too.”

Raymond, however, came away so banged up he had to go back to Puerto Rico. “He was really a nice guy, and I never expected that… I never had no one treat me with that respect before. And between us, we had like a little room in Flatbush. It wasn’t much, but at least I wasn’t out here till no four a.m., trying to get someone to take me to his place so I could catch a shower.”

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IF IT’S FAIR TO CALL kids living from trick to trick slow suicides, what do you call the grown men who cruise them? Write a piece on the johns, implored one outreach worker after another, meaning by all means bash those bastards. But the request betrayed a certain curiosity as well — who are these men, and why are they out sniffing after kids — and sad, sick, addicted kids at that?

“Ninety to 95 per cent of [the johns] are married men with families,” says Pe­terson. “They’re Boy Scout leaders, store managers, executives — men with money… One kid said to me, ‘You know, they open up their wallets to pay me, and I see pictures of their children in there and I think, if they’re paying me to do this, what are they doing at home to their own kids?'”

At 3 a.m., when the exchange rate on the pier is a bottle of crack for a blowjob, it’s the john who like as not is supplying the crack; the john who spurns the kid’s choke roll of condoms; the john who boosts the ante from sex to sadism. Al­most every kid I talked to, from the piers to Port Authority to the loop on 53rd Street, said he has at least one regular who engages him to do the “wilder thing,” i.e., the sort of act that only the most unfettered mind could construe as carnal. There is Peter, the lantern-jawed kid in greasy jeans, whose “Friday guy” forks over $200 to be yoked to two poles in the back of his van and have his nip­ples pierced with an ice pick. There is Maurice, who gets paid “stoopid money” to shit on a hot dog roll and make his client eat it.

I want to make it thuddingly plain that we are talking about so-called straights here, men whose sexuality is the ticking bomb under their two-family colonial. “Some day,” Peterson worries, “some guy’s going to wake up with AIDS, and give it to his wife. Then he’s going to come over here with a gun and shoot 10 street kids.”

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Given the fixity of their death wish — ­there are johns buying boys with conspic­uous lesions on their arms — it is impossi­ble that “some guy” hasn’t already awo­ken to that discovery. But what Peterson is putting her finger on is the john’s ca­pacity for projection, driving the stake of his self-loathing through the hearts of these kids. “With the transvestites, you know, the johns like to punch them in the crotch,” says Mastroieni. “The kid’s roll­ing around in agony, and the john’s up there laughing, going, ‘Hey, I just wanted to make sure you were a boy.’ ”

The other fraction of the john popula­tion, out gay men, tend to be vastly more benign to the kids. Many form attach­ments to their “steadies,” bringing them home for several days or even a stretch of weeks before the thing craps out over drugs or house rules. They’ll take a kid out to dinner, or occasionally pick him up a shirt, no small favor for someone who’s been wearing the same thing all week. Whether it’s empathy or romance or a rescue fantasy, something quite the ob­verse of sadism seems to obtain here.

The kids I spoke to were by and large grateful for these affairs, but the experi­ence of being cared for was also terrifying to them. On the one hand, they’re hungry for it, no matter how long they’ve been out here; on the other, they’re clinging fast to their hard boy swagger, to that uptown street affect by which they sur­vive. “I do what I gotta do,” goes the dogma of West Street, “but I damn sure ain’t nobody’s toy-boy.”

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“I’M A PRETTY NORMAL person. I wouldn’t consider myself a sex fiend,” says Peter. “But when I’m on that pipe, all I can think about — bang! — is fucking. Fucking, smoking, and fucking some more. And I’ll tell you what — when that head comes over me, I gotta go some­where and beat my meat, ’cause otherwise I’m liable to kill someone.”

In the centrifuge of crack, everything flies apart: neighborhoods, families, per­sonalities. But the drug also has an insid­ious side effect that hasn’t been suffi­ciently well-documented. Smoked in even modest amounts, it can be just a crazy­-making aphrodisiac, wiping all the other imperatives off the board. It’s like an infusion of pure id every half-hour — and these kids aren’t exactly overloaded with superego to begin with.

“Because of crack,” says Peterson, “there’s more sex and more desperate sex: multiple-partners, orgy-type sex in crack houses.… The drug itself drives you to it. You don’t care how many arms and legs and asses — the more the merrier.”

“Look at these people out here,” Diego sniffs. “They don’t care what they look like, they don’t care what they smell like — crack whores, that’s all they are.… You come down here with 20 bottles, it doesn’t matter how old and ugly you are, you’re the Pied Piper of West Street.”

The only thing that’s dropped faster than the price of drugs in this city is the price of street sex. “I used to make good money out here, and I’m talking 50s, 100s,” says Diego. “Now, the johns drive up, they don’t even say hello. They just go, ‘Hey, you got a stem (a crack pipe) on you?’ And if you say yes, right then and there they know they got you… Three, four hits, you’ll be up in the back seat like a slave — you might even get out that car with no money. This boy Rickey talk about, ‘Oh, that man spent $300 on me.’ Really? I don’t see it. ‘Well, it was $300 in rocks.’ Oh. So you’re up in the room with him talking about six, seven hours, and when you came down you had to hop the turnstile to get back here,” Diego chortles. “I guess that’s why they call it dope.”

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Covenant House refers to this disas­trous tit-for-tat as “survival sex,” as if kids were blowing johns to keep a roof over their heads. CH ought to know bet­ter. Certainly, its outreach people do. Making the rounds in their baby blue vans, they see the same boys out there night after night — strung-out, exhausted, the odor of the subways upon them. The kids descend upon the vans in their em­barrassed way, ostensibly for a cup of cocoa and a peanut-butter sandwich, but also to talk to someone like Veronica DiNapoli.

A four-year outreach veteran, DiNapo­li’s blend of tact and tenderness often opens kids up on the spot. They hug her and hold fast to her hand or her sleeve as they pour out their sad packet of lies: Veronica, didja hear, I’m going away to college… Veronica, Herbie told you we found this fly spot in Queens? And she listens to it all, treading delicately around their claims, because she knows that’s all they have. On a particularly cold night, several of them will consent to come back to the residence, or take a ride to the hospital for the gash in their forearm. But these are children whose hope and trust have been ripped out like cables. In every blessing, they have been taught to suspect a beating.

“It’s so sad,” says Liz Russo, the tough, pretty former director of Hetrick-Mar­tin’s outreach team. “They get battered at home, they get battered in their neigh­borhoods, [and if] they’ve been kicked out by their parents, they get battered in the group homes… That’s why so many of them are down here in the first place­ — they actually feel safer on the docks.”

Even by the standards of this shame­less city, it is disgraceful that there is no sanctuary for homeless gay kids. In Los Angeles, a town not known the world over for its benevolence, there are several such places, notably Lois Lee’s group res­idence Children of the Night. In San Francisco, kids converge on Project Stepping Stone, a crash pad with staff in the Tenderloin. But in New York, it is either Covenant House or the East Third Street Men’s Shelter, where kids stand about as much chance as goldfish in a shark pool.

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What they need is a place that’s uncon­ditionally theirs, that welcomes them in all their pain and complexity. There’s been some talk among the loose consor­tium of small agencies about acquiring a space, but the thing is miles beyond their grasp. No, this is a matter for the next HRA chief, who can either start looking around for a facility downtown or laying in a supply of caskets for the new year.

In the meantime, the kids will go on wintering on the E train, or at a certain all-male theater in the West Village. Said one kid who’s passed his share of nights there, “You go in expecting to see a whole bunch of bizarre sex going on, and in­stead it’s all these young kids knocked out sleeping.… In the middle of February, you’ll be glad they let you stay there, but those seats get hard on your ass, boy.”

Ignoble as that is, it’s high living compared to last year, when kids slept in the backs of reeking garbage trucks, or in the Department of Sanitation’s salt storehouse on 16th Street. “They had the most casual rats in there,” Diego winces. “Big-ass ones that just walked right up to you and started chewing on your shit… If you count my father, I’ve slept with sick, dirty bastards for 13 years, but rats I cannot work with.”

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ONE NIGHT, THAT FIRST bitter stretch after Thanksgiving, I took a ride up to East 53rd Street. The Loop, as it’s known, used to be the Ritz of rough trade: clean, pretty boys, the majority of them white, available for the delectation of more discriminating palates. Enter crack, the great leveler. Such kids as have managed to steer clear of the pipe now do their business inside the bars, leaving the streets to the Dead Boys and the newly addicted. You see them staked out in doorways or phone booths, skinny and windburnt in their thin nylon jackets.

They tend, however, not to show up much before 3 a.m., working the docks and the ’Deuce for the earlybirds. So, just before midnight I walked the neighbor­hood looking for stragglers. I turned up 55th Street, marveling to myself at the high-speed sociology of crack, when I saw a kid skulking in the shadows. I’d been mugged just the week before, nailed as I left the piers by a bunch of kids yelling “Faggot!” so I broke left on instinct, cut­ting him a wide berth. As it happened, he was weeping. I came near, guilty and so­licitous, and saw a small Spanish kid with a flat, round face, hugging himself inconsolably.

“What happened?” I asked. “Did someone hurt you out here?”

Startled, he came out of his half-crouch and fixed me with a look that I will never forget. He had the heartbreaking eyes of an abandoned baby, wild and illingual in his pain and terror. He was convulsing in sections, his left and right sides going at cross-purpose spasms. He teetered against the building on stork legs. “Mau­rice!” he screamed at me. “Maurice, the motherfucker! I was ’sposedta been high from three hours ago!”

I backed up and look off down the street, looking for a cop, an ambulance. But the only thing that met me coming up Second Avenue was the wind making its announcement to Diego, and to Au­brey, and to Dead Boys everywhere, that winter, in all its maleficence, was here.