A tragic death sweeps in change. Fatal beating by police makes Texas town look within
CHANGE is not often swift in the red-earth ``piney woods'' of deep east Texas. But when a black man from nearby Louisiana was beaten to death in the local jail by law-enforcement officers in December, the little town of Hemphill and the county it sits in were changed for good. Some folks here fear the change they believe the killing of Loyal Garner will bring. But for others - some of whom have felt the heavy hand of a local law-enforcement system that appears to have reigned for years with few checks and balances - the promise of change is viewed like the coming spring.
``It's real bad what happened to that poor man,'' says Earl Hall, a young black man who says that last year he was handcuffed and then kicked and thrown on a jail cell floor for what he insists was a trumped-up drunken-driving charge.
``But seems to me only the good Lord can bring change. Maybe He was using [Mr. Garner] for a purpose,'' Mr. Hall adds, standing among the sagging houses of a poor black ``settlement'' he calls home, a few blocks east of the town's quaint courthouse square. ``This might make our little town better.''
Loyal Garner, who was arrested Christmas night along with three friends on a drunken-driving charge, was beaten and then thrown back into his cell. In the morning he was flown to a hospital in Tyler, Texas, where he died. Two Sabine County deputies and Hemphill's chief of police have been indicted on charges of violating Garner's civil rights. If convicted, they face five years to life in prison.
Hemphill (pop., 1,400) is the administrative seat of Sabine County, a rural area of east Texas that abuts Louisiana. With no Interstates, and only a piece of one major state highway to tie it to the rest of Texas, Sabine County and its 9,000 people have lived a life seldom disturbed by the outside world.
Many people in this county say its isolation allowed a law-enforcement system to flourish that harassed some, took money from others for fines on infractions that weren't reported to state records, and permitted physical abuse.
``It's been happening for a good bit, and going from worse to worse,'' says Narril Smith, a frail white man who remembers bitterly the night deputies, accusing him of drunken driving, pulled him from his car and then dumped the contents of his wife's suitcase on the ground.
``Anybody who isn't somebody here has had trouble with them,'' adds Mark Hanlon, a Chicago native who opened a propeller repair shop on Toledo Bend Lake because he liked its rural quiet.
``I thought I'd seen everything'' as a Justice Department employee in Latin America, Mr. Hanlon says. But after hearing his tourist-customers' frequent complaints of false charges and questionable fines - and then his own arrest, after which he says he was left bleeding in a cell overnight without medical attention or being allowed to make a phone call - Hanlon says, ``This place is as close to a totalitarian government as I've seen anywhere in the world.''
Residents here speak of Loyal Garner's death as if it was the last straw, the one act that finally made the unpleasant intolerable.
``I knew they did up a lot of niggers that way,'' says Mr. Smith, warming himself by the old wood stove in his house. ``They didn't have to beat that man the way they did, though.''
Yet it was Garner's death that brought the outside world to Hemphill and seems to have allowed the people of Hemphill and Sabine - black and white - to begin discussing something many of them have long been unhappy about.
Much of the state and national attention the incident has attracted has focused on the racial overtones of Garner's death. Almost everyone here, however, whether white or black, supporter or critic of local law enforcement, says it was not a ``racial incident.'' Critics of the sheriff's department say that, based on their past experience, the same thing could have happened to a white.
But the fact remains that Loyal Garner was black, and his killers were white. There are not now nor have there ever been any black deputies in Sabine County. Garner's assailants are the same white officers who black and white youths alike say warned them not to mix down at the local Dairy Queen, and who told Leonard Green, a black arrested one night for ``peeling out'' of a drive-in parking lot, ``We're gonna kill you, nigger.''
The question mark in the midst of Sabine County's turmoil is Sheriff Blan Greer, who has held his job since 1965. Sheriff Greer knew nothing of the Garner incident until he arrived at work the morning after Christmas and was told one of the prisoners was ``ill.''
But others say they consider it impossible that Mr. Greer did not know of other abuses that have occurred during his tenure. Asked about those claims of mistreatment, Greer labeled them ``incorrect.''
``They could report it to me if it's happening, and they could report it to so many others,'' he says. ``But if they don't, I have to assume it isn't happening.''
James Walker, a former Sabine County deputy who is now a local probation officer, adds, ``I'm in this jail every day, and if something's going on, I'd think they'd tell me about it.'' ``Where are the lawsuits? Why aren't they getting in touch with the FBI?''
Leonard Green, in fact, did report to the FBI in 1981 that he was beaten. After investigating, however, federal authorities concluded that Mr. Green's complaint was unwarranted.
Mr. Walker notes that Sheriff Greer faces two challengers in his reelection bid next month. He says voters who oppose Greer are repeating ``hearsay'' to ``get the sheriff down.''
Yet those who say they have been harassed contend that they have not spoken up for one simple reason: In such a small town, they fear the consequences.
``You don't want to tell off on them because everybody lives around here,'' says Earl Hall. ``You're scared they might catch you on the highway and do something worse than they done did.''
One downtown businessman said the deputies' targets were usually either ``fringe elements'' whom other citizens would tend to disbelieve anyway, or people just passing through with little incentive for filing complaints.
``They preferred to go out after the guy who was digging a ditch and had a few bucks in his pocket, but had little knowledge of the recourses open to him and how to go about them,'' Hanlon says.
Vollie Grace is one Hemphill resident who admits paying little heed to the rumors that he had been hearing for years. The black cement contractor says he tended to discount what he heard, ``because if somebody was mistreating me, you'd hear about it from here to Washington.''
But moved by Garner's death, Mr. Grace has formed the Concerned Citizens of Sabine County, a group with about 200 mostly black members. In its first few weeks, the organization worked to calm community tensions. But now it wants fundamental changes in law enforcement here.
``I'm as guilty as anyone that this thing happened,'' Grace says. ``I heard the little things, but like everybody else I turned my back and went on my way.'' The Garner incident was the necessary ``shock,'' he says, finally to get blacks and whites talking to each other about a common problem.
``Oh, yeah,'' says Grace, ``things are going to change.''