The Streets of Kansas City

In 1985 I left the desert for a job in Kansas City, Missouri, a city that had long been racially divided. I moved to have the chance to live closer to my family in St. Louis and take an interesting job. 

Two years later, I was offered a position as director (and sole employee) of a day drop-in center for street people. Thankfully, I was able to get an assistant about a year later.  

It was a late spring afternoon in 1988, long before the Black Lives Matter movement began.

I was walking from my downtown office at the Homeless Center to a nearby social service agency. 

Suddenly a young Black man dashed across a vacant lot with four policemen in pursuit. Three of those men were white, one I thought might be Japanese. 

Suddenly, the young man’s shoe slipped off, and he knew it was over. He stopped, raised his hands, and turned to face his pursuers.

I’d paused to watch, of course. But I was shocked when the first cop to reach the man began to beat him with his club. The victim covered his head and he was hollering, “No, man! No! I stopped!”

Without even thinking, I ran over and hollered at the cops to stop. They did. Not because I’d told them to but because they were surprised at my interruption. 

One of the white men walked toward me and said I had to leave or I’d be arrested for interfering with police business.

I walked away but continued to watch, standing there as they handcuffed and hauled their captive back across the lot and around a corner.

I didn’t follow them, but today I wish I had.

What I did do was write a letter to the editor describing the event. I told the paper I wanted my accounting printed anonymously, but they refused, saying the paper required that my name be on the letter.

I had to think about that for a bit. Kansas City police were well known at the time for basically doing whatever they wanted to do. But ultimately, I agreed to having my name printed.

The next morning, my assistant opened the Homeless Center and I came in maybe twenty minutes later. There were a dozen or so men already there.

When I walked in, one of them waved the newspaper and they all began to cheer and applaud. One guy borrowed my scissors so he could cut out the article and put it on the wall. Suddenly, I was a hero.

Within an hour, I got a call from the Chief of Police. He wanted to know if my letter was true and I told him that of course it was. He asked if I thought I could identify the policemen, and I said I believed I could.

I walked same route as I had a few days before, this time passing the social service agency and nervously entering the police station. The captain himself met me and escorted me to a room that had a few dozen photos posted.

I identified all four who’d been there, first telling him who’d swung the billyclub and next which one had threatened me with arrest. Then I quickly pointed out the other two. The whole ID process took me under a minute. The men’s faces had burned into my brain.

I was notified about a week later that all four men had been put on leave and the one who’d swung the club had been demoted.

I have no idea if the man who’d been beaten was satisfied with the outcome, but I was. I wondered if the Black man had been surprised by my intervention. I also wondered if the police had beat him more later because of it. 

Since it was Kansas City, I was truly uncomfortable for several months afterwards. I never sped. I made complete stops and always used my turn signal. I waited at crosswalks until the light was green and didn’t even consider jaywalking. 

I didn’t want anyone in the department to have even the hint of an excuse to ticket or arrest me for anything.

All was well at the Center until mid-summer when one morning one of the guys came tearing in, running through the big main area and heading out the back. I dashed out of my office to see what was going on and almost collided with a cop in pursuit. I remained in front of him as he screeched to a halt.

I chewed him out for chasing through the Center and told him he was welcome to visit but that our space was off limits for chasing and arresting. 

By then he’d lost whoever he was after, so he just snarled at me and left through the front door. 

There was a good crowd there that day, over twenty guys. They first roared with laughter and then cheered me again. 

That story circulated for days, and guys who came in only occasionally dropped by to thank me. Some gave me a hug. 

Interestingly, after that, the regular beat cop (not the one who’d been chasing a client) came in one day and said he’d like to drop by now and again. He said he wouldn’t be looking for anyone nor be there to arrest anyone. He just wanted an occasional friendly presence.

I about fainted but decided to trust him. I told him it would be okay. The guys weren’t real pleased, but over time, they got to know that cop and true to his word, he never gave anyone a hard time when he dropped in. The guys adjusted and even found they could talk to him, ask him questions.

A simple intervention on a vacant lot and stopping a chase culminated in a bridge-building between the guys I worked with and at least one man, one tiny piece, of the Kansas City Police Department.

Never doubt that one small action can have a profound effect. 

Bisbee Says Black Lives Matter

British colonists arrived on the shores of what is now the United States in 1607. In 1619, a short 12 years later, the first black people were kidnapped from Angola and delivered by a ship known as the White Lion to the shores of Virginia.

Two years later, the Indian Wars began. Over the next few decades, neighborhood patrols were established in some areas to watch for Indians, and in other locations patrols were established to track and capture escaped slaves.

White privilege on this continent had been firmly established.

Privilege can only exist if its lack also exists. Therefore, it’s in the best interests of those with privilege to hang onto it, and that means those who have it must keep denying it to those without.

Four hundred years after that white privilege was established, the first known death of COVID-19 in the US happened on February 6.

About two weeks later, Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, was out jogging. He was killed by a former policeman and his son. Although there was no protest at the time, there was a large outcry and the men who murdered him were eventually arrested.

The virus began spreading, and on March 16, San Francisco Bay Area’s stay at home order began. Three days later, the order was instituted throughout the state of California.

Just a few days before that, however, on March 13, as the virus was building and spreading, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor of Louisville lay asleep in her bed. Breonna was an EMT. She was shot and killed by the police who burst through her door, executing a no-knock warrant on her boyfriend in search of drugs.

There were no drugs.

Again, there was no immediate protest but there was a large outcry against no-knock warrants.

Black people know they have a 2 1/2 times greater chance of being killed by police than white people do. Black people also know they have died from COVID-19 at three times the rate white people have.

A report by CBS News on May 7 showed 38% of Whites had been laid off from their jobs. 44% of Blacks and 61% of Hispanics had been laid off.

All this frustration was in place when George Floyd was murdered on May 25th in Minneapolis.

George had paid for a pack of cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. I have no idea if he even knew it was counterfeit. But in under 20 minutes, policeman Derek Chauvin had George handcuffed and was kneeling on the Black man’s neck.

George repeatedly asked for help and told Chauvin he was unable to breathe. People observing this called out to the police, telling them George had not even been resisting and was clearly incapable of resisting. Three other policeman stood by and did nothing to stop the murder.

Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck even after he was unconscious. He remained on his neck for 8 minutes, 46 seconds.

High school student Darnella Frazier videoed George’s murder and posted it online.

With that, frustration in the Black community reached its limit.

Protests begin the following night and soon they spread to over four hundred US cities and towns in all fifty states as well as in eighteen other countries.

People were sick and tired of Black people being treated as though their lives did not matter. Black lives matter. And that certainly is not to say that no one else’s life matters. It is a reminder. It is a demand. Black people must be treated as though their lives matter as much as everyone else’s.

On Monday, June 1, a young woman posted in a Bisbee community Facebook page that we should have a protest. Most commenters agreed with her but some said there shouldn’t be a protest because there could be violence and damage done downtown.

As one who has gone to marches and protests in this town for more than forty-five years, that concern sounded absurd. I was delighted a young woman had decided to organize this.

We assembled on Tuesday, most of us masked, at 6 in the evening at what’s called Grassy Park in downtown Bisbee. The official park name is the Copper Queen Plaza Park, but I’ve never known a single person to call it that. It’s Grassy Park.

Members of the local police department had been invited to attend to march with us but none of them showed up. In fact, none of them even showed up to monitor the event because they were as unconcerned about violence as the rest of us.

In Grassy Park, names of Black people killed by police were read, and soon 75 to 80 of us were marching through town a half mile uphill to the Iron Man statue.

I found even the statue was well masked.

As marchers gathered around the Iron Man, a Bisbee man read names of the twenty people who’ve been killed in Arizona by police so far this year. Of that twenty, eight were minority men. That’s 40%, when the minority population in our state is about 23%. Others spoke of racism and privilege and police brutality.

After the speeches, the group returned to Grassy Park.

Photo by Bisbee resident John Allen.
Photo by Bisbee resident John Allen.
Another photo by John Allen

As of today, Derek Chauvin has been arrested on charges of second degree murder. I feel it should be first degree. To me it became premeditated the moment Chauvin stayed kneeling on George’s neck when he was subdued. It certainly became premeditated when he continued to kneel on George’s neck once he was unconscious.

Tou Thao, J Alexander Keung and Thomas K. Lane, the officers who looked on as George died, have been charged with aiding and abetting murder. They watched for the entire eight minutes and 46 seconds Chauvin strangled George Floyd.

George Floyd’s life, taken because of a $20 counterfeit bill.

Photo by Bisbee resident John Allen.

It is time for white-privileged people to understand. Black lives matter.