Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Black-White Divide Deepens Over the Thin Blue Line

Officers' trial in suburban Pittsburgh underscores racial tensions

In the wee hours of an October morning last year, suburban Pittsburgh police stopped a local businessman because the way he tapped the brakes of his car looked suspicious. A confrontation ensued, and minutes later, Jonny Gammage was handcuffed, lying on the ground with officers holding him down. He died during the incident.

His death, apparently by asphyxiation, would have raised eyebrows anywhere. But it has taken on an extra edge here because Mr. Gammage was black and the five officers at the scene are white.

About these ads

The episode is one more indication of how much race still matters in America, especially in police work. The officers' trial, now delayed up to four months because of a mistrial declared last Friday, has heightened the sensitivity here. But publicity from recent cases - black motorist Rodney King (beaten by white Los Angeles policemen) and black football star O.J. Simpson (acquitted of murder charges in part because the jury believed a white police detective could have framed him) - shows the pervasiveness of the black-white divide over the criminal-justice system.

At the heart of the issue, criminologists say, is that in America race is inextricably bound up with crime. On one side are whites fearful of crime that they often associate with blacks. On the other side are blacks who view the government as fundamentally racist and see police as the most visible symbol of that government.

"It's a potentially explosive situation each and every time a white policemen confronts a black suspect," says Jack Levin of the Program for the Study of Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University in Boston. "It's about time we recognize that and not pretend it's not true."

Such generalizations are overdrawn, and several criminologists say police departments have reduced racism in their ranks since the 1960s, when confrontations between largely white police forces and black protesters sparked riots across the US. They note, too, that some departments are now checking to ensure that they answer calls from minority communities as rapidly as those from the white community.

Nevertheless, the residue of racial distrust continues to turn routine police arrests into high-profile confrontations.

*New York City last year agreed to pay black van driver Carlton Brown $4.5 million because rough treatment by the police four years ago left him almost completely paralyzed.

*Last month, several hundred residents in Annapolis, Md., took to the streets in protest after a police officer shot and killed a black teenager in a public housing complex.

About these ads

*A multiracial group in Lebanon, Pa., says city police beat residents and indiscriminately sprayed mace into a crowd during two disturbances in May.

*Here in Pittsburgh, the American Civil Liberties Union earlier this year filed a class-action suit for 52 plaintiffs, largely minorities, who claim that police used excessive force and verbal abuse.

"It's widespread," says Christo Lassiter, a University of Cincinnati law professor. "It is, unfortunately in my research, something that pops up in big cities, small cities, all across the country."

The problem stems from both sides of the racial divide. "Historically, when we think about crime ... it doesn't get going until we put a black face on crime," he says. What galvanized attention on the long-standing problem of domestic violence? The Simpson case, where a black man was accused of killing his ex-wife. What sparked public attention of date rape? The trial of black heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson.

In poor black communities, meanwhile, feelings run strong that government is biased against African-Americans, Mr. Lassiter adds. "When people don't feel they are getting a fair shake from the government, you can see where [a police officer walking a beat] would become a lightening rod" of protest.

Police actions against Gammage have stirred protests here. Civil rights groups complained that only three of the five officers on the scene were charged with involuntary manslaughter. Some groups also complained that the jury was picked from a largely white county (because of pretrial publicity) rather than the more racially mixed local population.

When the first trial of two officers began last week, the prosecution juxtaposed policemen's claims that Gammage acted out of control with testimony from a tow-truck driver who said that police beat Gammage after he was restrained and on the ground. The coroner testified that Gammage was held down so tightly he couldn't breath and that the fatality was caused by asphyxiation.

Other comments by the coroner, however, caused Judge David Cashman to declare a mistrial. The judge now has four months to restart the trial of the two officers, which may allow the trial of a third officer to take place first.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.