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Published in Print: November 1, 1998, as The Color of Justice

The Color of Justice

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When a black kid gets roughed up by a white cop, his teacher and classmates get a lesson they'll never forget.

As soon as I rounded the corner, I knew something was wrong. The students were on the sidewalk in front of Seward Elementary School, just as they were supposed to be, but there was an eerie lifelessness about them. After all, these were 12- and 13-year-old basketball players and cheerleaders waiting for a bus ride to a league championship game. Their prepubescent hormones and insurgent nervous energy should have had them climbing the school's red-brick walls. But they were just standing there, rigid, hands in pockets, their bodies spaced oddly apart, as if they had just gotten the collective wind knocked out of them. I pulled to the curb and got out of my car. Joanne Macias, a teacher's aide at Seward and the cheerleaders' sponsor, walked toward me, face flushed.

"What's going on?" I asked.

"It's Reggie," Joanne said. "He just got attacked by a cop."

I remembered the first time I met Reggie Gibson, two years before, when he was in 6th grade. He had been sitting glumly in lead teacher Rhonda Hoskins' tiny office, shoulders slumped, hands hanging limply between his legs. His eyes were fixed on the floor, and a trail of dried tears marked his face.

"Oh, sorry," I had said as I entered the office. "I'll come back later."

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Rhonda stopped me. "That's OK, we were just finishing. Reggie's getting ready to go back to his class, aren't you, Reggie?" He nodded, zipped up his book bag, and got up to leave. "Reggie, do you know Mr. Michie?" He shook his head.

"Hi," I said.

"Hi, Mr. Michie," Reggie replied in a voice so soft I could barely make out the words.

"We'll talk about this some more tomorrow, Reggie," Rhonda said. "Just try not to let what they say get to you, OK?"

Reggie's eyes met Rhonda's briefly. "OK," he said. "Thank you, Ms. Hoskins." He turned and walked down the hall, his thin torso bent slightly sideways under the weight of his book bag, which he carried over his shoulder like a sack of laundry.

"What's happening with him?" I asked Rhonda.

"I don't know, exactly," she answered. "He's been getting in trouble with his teacher lately, acting out in class, playing around. Nothing major. I think he's just doing it to get some acceptance from the other boys. Some of them have been giving him a hard time. Name calling, that kind of thing."

"Racial?" I asked. I knew that Reggie was the only African American kid in his class. In fact, he was the only black student in the upper grades and one of only three in our school of 900 K-8 students. This kind of homogeneity is not uncommon in Chicago grammar schools, many serving neighborhoods that remain racially segregated. Reggie's neighborhood, north of 47th Street, was almost all Mexican American, with a sprinkling of Palestinian and leftover Polish families. But Reggie's mother, Arzetta Gibson, had moved her four children there four years earlier, to escape an area of Chicago's West Side that she felt had become too dangerous.

"Some of it's racial," said Rhonda, who is black. "A few of the boys have been calling him the 'N' word. But some of it is just the bully thing. They see he doesn't fight back, so they pick on him. Reggie has very low self-esteem already, and hearing all that junk isn't helping him any."

"So how are you dealing with it?"

"I'm going to have a talk with the other boys, but I want to do that separately," Rhonda told me. "I've been bringing Reggie up here for 30 minutes or so every day just to give him a chance to get things out, but he's very quiet. Not assertive at all. That's probably one of the reasons they're doing him like they are. Reggie's too nice for his own good. He's an easy target."

Attacked? By a cop? Joanne filled me in as I followed her across the street to where the kids were standing. The cheerleaders were dressed in their uniforms and holding pompoms at their sides, the players in their maroon team jackets with "Seward Lions" emblazoned across the backs. I finally spotted Reggie in his team jacket and a Chicago Bulls ski cap, standing alone under a first-floor window.

"Reggie, are you all right?" I asked as I jogged toward him.

"Yeah," he said softly. "Hi, Mr. Michie."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah," Reggie repeated, looking to the ground with a forced, embarrassed smile. It was a smile I had seen on Reggie's face many times before, and I knew exactly what it meant. He was hurting but didn't want to let it show.

"Do you want me to take you home?" I asked.

A boy who witnessed the incident said the car drove by and then made a U-turn, tires screeching. One of the cops got out and went straight for Reggie. He was a big guy, and his eyes were bulging.

He thought about it. "I still want to go to the game," Reggie answered. "It's the championship. I want to be there with the other guys." Satisfied that Reggie was not badly hurt, I gathered up some of the kids who had witnessed the incident and asked them what had happened. I would hear the account dozens of times in coming months, and other details would be filled in, but this is how I remember first hearing it from Richard Neely, one of the students who were next to Reggie when the patrol car drove up:

"We were standing right here on the corner, waiting for the bus. Reggie, Leo, Paulo, Fareed, and me. The five of us were in a little group, talking. So this cop car passes by, real slow, looking at us, and then makes a big U-turn, screeching tires and everything, and stops right next to us, at the curb. The guy in the passenger side gets out and goes straight for Reggie. He was a big guy, big arm muscles, and his eyes were bulging. So he goes up to Reggie and pushes him and says, 'What the fuck are you doing in this neighborhood?' And Reggie just put his hands up right away, to show the guy that he didn't have a weapon. But the guy keeps pushing him back, calling him a 'motherfucker' and a 'punk-ass nigger' and telling him to get out of the neighborhood. Then he pushed Reggie down over by the gate, and he kicked him in the side and told him, 'Get the fuck outta here!' And Reggie just got up and started running toward his house. Ms. Macias came over to try to tell the guy we were all from Seward, and he just goes, 'Mind your own fucking business!' So then he goes back to the squad car, and we're yelling, 'What's your name? What's your name?' And he says, 'My name's Bulldog, and don't you forget it.' "

Dave Coronado, Seward's basketball coach, arrived a few minutes later, and we agreed to report what had happened as soon as possible. When we arrived at the field house, I used a pay phone to call the police department. I said I needed to report an incident of police brutality and gave my secondhand account of what had taken place. A woman gave me a report number and assured me a complaint had been filed. She said I would be hearing from the Office of Professional Standards soon. This seemed sufficient to me, but Dave, a lifelong Chicago resident, was skeptical. After the game, he took Reggie and his mother, teacher's aide Joanne Macias, and two student witnesses to the precinct station to file a report in person. "Just to be sure," Dave told me. "Hey, this is Chicago."

Between the time I met him in Rhonda's office and the time of the "Bulldog" incident, I had gotten to know Reggie Gibson pretty well. At the beginning of his 7th grade year, I selected him for one of my language arts pull-out classes. Rhonda and I thought the small-group setting might give him a chance to gain some confidence.

Observing Reggie in class, I soon saw that it was not just the color of his skin that set him apart from the other kids at Seward. Almost everything about Reggie was distinctive. Every child is unique, of course, but groups of teenagers often share certain mannerisms, slang, fashion, and interests. Reggie seemed to move in an orbit all his own. He was an unusually polite kid, always considerate of others. I never heard him criticize or belittle a classmate, publicly or privately. His unassuming, timid nature masked his emotions; his laughter, like his anger, was subdued. He was a '90s kid with '60s sensibilities, and nowhere was this more evident than in his musical tastes. Whereas most kids at Seward listened to rap, freestyle, or Mexican banda, Reggie preferred the "old school" rhythm and blues that his mother played at home: Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, and especially Earth, Wind & Fire.

Music allowed the two of us to make our first connection. When I learned from one of Reggie's essays that his favorite band was Earth, Wind & Fire, I mentioned that I had almost all the group's albums at home. Gratitude, one of their early '70s classics, had been one of the first records I ever bought. As a teenager, I used to put a speaker in my bedroom window and play songs like "Shining Star" and "Serpentine Fire" as my friends and I played basketball in the driveway.

This amazed Reggie: A teacher liked the same music he did. Before long, I was making him tapes of old Earth, Wind & Fire albums, and we were comparing notes. He was particularly fascinated with the voice of Philip Bailey, one of the group's two lead singers. "I wish I could sing like him," Reggie would say.

One day as I was leaving school, Reggie rushed up to my car, bursting with excitement. "Hey, Mr. Michie. I've been practicing. I think I've got it down."

"Practicing what?"

"'Fantasy.' Wanna hear it?"

"Fantasy" was Reggie's favorite Earth, Wind & Fire song, a 1977 tune in which Philip Bailey's incredible falsetto voice dips and floats around a gorgeous melody.

Reggie's mother knew that incidents of police brutality were often swept under the rug.

"Sure. You want to sing it right here?"

Reggie looked around. A few younger boys were playing soccer across the parking lot, but no one else was in earshot. He began to sing, swaying his head and gesturing with his arms like a pint-sized Luther Vandross: "Every man has a place/In his heart there's a space/And the world can't erase his fantasy. . . ."

I was astonished--not at Reggie's voice, which struck me as neither especially good nor bad, but at his seeming lack of self-consciousness. This kid who would barely look me in the eye a year before was now singing a cappella in the middle of a parking lot.

Reggie's mother, Arzetta, was notified in a letter from the Office of Professional Standards that the department would conduct "an immediate and thorough" investigation. When she pressed officials for a precise time frame, they acknowledged that the process could take several months. To Arzetta, this sounded like stonewalling. She knew that incidents of police brutality were often swept under the rug. In other instances, investigations were delayed for so long that the victims gave up.

Dave, Joanne, Rhonda, and I told Arzetta we would help in any way we could. Our best hope, it seemed, was to get the word out, to make sure people heard the story. In this regard, I knew the news media could be our greatest ally.

A few days after the attack, I called the offices of the Chicago Defender, one of the country's oldest black-owned newspapers, which is still widely read in the city's African American community. The paper has a long history of speaking out against racism and injustice, so I hoped the story would pique the editors' interest. Sure enough, within an hour of my call, they had a reporter at the school, interviewing Reggie and the witnesses. The article, headlined "Students Shocked by Beating: Police Officer Allegedly 'Brutalizes' Teen," ran on page three the next day.

That Friday, I happened to be at the studios of WMAQ-TV, the local NBC affiliate, chaperoning a student video crew that was interviewing Renee Ferguson and Silvia Gomez, two WMAQ reporters, on the subject of television violence. After the kids finished, I pulled Ferguson aside and told her what had happened. She, too, was immediately interested. The following Monday, she came to Seward with a camera crew to tape interviews and shoot footage at the scene of the attack. The report aired later that day.

Calls started coming in from reporters and other media people who had read the Defender piece or seen the WMAQ report. A radio station wanted Reggie and Joanne to be guests on an afternoon call-in show. Fox News and WGN wanted to send crews to the school. A Tribune reporter interviewed Joanne, Reggie, and me. The media frenzy quickly became a distraction at school, but our principal, Marcey Reyes, supported us.

Then-Chicago Sun-Times columnist Vernon Jarrett took up Reggie's cause in an op-ed commentary. It began:

"The youngsters at Seward Elementary School are not ready for college yet. But at least 20 of them have learned a shocking lesson from an old, unofficial textbook titled Cops and Racial Animosity 101. These youths now know that to irritate some Chicago police officers, a black male need not 'look dangerous,' 'resist arrest,' drive beyond the speed limit, nor resemble Rodney King.

"The basic requirement is to display the wrong complexion in the wrong neighborhood. That's enough to get you banged around by some of the very gentlemen who are hired to serve and protect you--including a 'likable' black boy who is 'low key, soft-spoken, almost shy' and was waiting for a bus to take him and his Hispanic and white teammates and cheerleaders to a championship basketball game."

Soon after the news reports hit the streets, we received a call from the Office of Professional Standards. Officials there were now eager to begin an investigation. They wanted to come to Seward the next day to interview Joanne and the student witnesses. We asked for an extra day so we could send home permission slips to the kids' parents; because the students were under 18, they couldn't be interviewed without parental consent. Somewhat begrudgingly, the head investigator agreed.

We called a meeting the next morning in Dave's art classroom with the kids who had been at or near the school when the incident occurred. Craig Futterman, an attorney Reggie's mother had retained to represent Reggie, briefed the students on what to expect from the investigators. He stressed two points. First, the kids should tell everything they knew about what happened, trying not to leave out any details. He warned that some of the questions might be vague and that the kids should fill in the particulars even if they weren't specifically requested. Second, they should answer every question honestly. The most important thing in Reggie's case or any other, Craig told them, was the truth.

Vol. 10, Issue 2, Pages 25-28

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