The Color of Justice

November 01, 1998 12 min read
Soon after the news reports hit the streets, we received a call from the Office of Professional Standards because they were now eager to begin an investigation.

Needless to say, we didn’t have much faith in the OPS investigators. Though OPS is “independent” in the sense that it is staffed by civilians, it is still a unit of the Chicago Police Department; its chief administrator reports directly to the superintendent. OPS’s own statistics show that only 8 percent of complaints result in disciplinary action against the accused officer. In the rest of the cases, either the complaint is ruled “unfounded” or an inquiry finds “insufficient evidence.” In other words, the accused cop gets off 90 percent of the time.

As Craig had predicted, the OPS sessions were tense and solemn--not scary exactly, but also not the kind of thing I would want to sit through as a 12-year-old. In the sessions I attended--an adult was allowed to be present with each child but had to remain silent--the investigator, a young Latina, took basic information from the child and then asked a few open-ended questions about the incident, such as: “What did you observe at approximately 6 p.m. on March 31 at the Seward School between Reggie Gibson and a Chicago police officer?” The children told their version of events while the investigator typed. It was a nerve-wracking ordeal, watching as the kids tried to recollect and reconstruct the precise sequence of events. When confused, many looked to me for help, but I couldn’t do anything. I looked them in the eye and hoped they remembered Craig’s advice: Just tell the truth. Tell the truth.

Most of the news reports had highlighted the fact that Reggie was an honor student. It was true--Reggie had raised his grades enough to make the two most recent honor-roll lists--but I was bothered by the emphasis on this particular fact. The implication seemed to be that if Reggie had been a student with poor grades or, worse, a dropout, then the cop’s attack might have been more justifiable. The beating was wrong, the reports seemed to suggest, because it happened to a “good” kid. What if the incident had happened during Reggie’s 6th or 7th grade years, I wondered, when his grades had dragged the bottom? Would anybody have cared then?

But by the spring of his 8th grade year, Reggie had made great strides at Seward. Two things facilitated this change: In the fall, he had been assigned to Bob “Mr. Z” Zarnowski’s homeroom, and he was chosen for Seward’s basketball squad. Bob was an ideal teacher for Reggie because he created a close-knit, supportive atmosphere in his class. He was adept at making every child feel special, like an important member of the classroom family. He observed kids carefully, listened to them, and treated them as individuals.

Bob’s philosophy was different from those teachers who say, “Oh, I’m very fair. I treat all my students the same.” It was just this kind of pseudo-equity that had left Reggie feeling left out in previous years. Bob knew that each of his students had insecurities that needed attention and talents that needed encouraging. Each kid was not the same--each kid was different. He was aware that, in the past, Reggie had had difficulty fitting in, and from the first day Reggie was in his class, Bob made a conscious effort to draw him into the group. It was just what Reggie needed.

What Reggie wanted most, however, was to make the basketball team. When tryouts were announced in early October, Reggie came by my room, permission slip in hand, and asked if I thought he should give it a shot. I said yes without hesitation.

“But what if I don’t make it?” Reggie wanted to know. “I’ve been practicing, but I still can’t dribble all that good.”

“If it’s something you want to do, go for it,” I advised. “Hustle. Do your best. If you don’t make it, you don’t make it. You’ll still be Reggie Gibson. You won’t walk out of there with anything less than you walked in with.”

Coach Dave ran the kids ragged during the four-day tryout period. As always, he wanted to see not only who had the most talent but also which kids worked hardest and showed the most potential. As I had done in years past, I sat in on the last tryout session and gave Dave my advice on who should make the team. I kept an eye on Reggie. He ran hard and played tough defense, but he also fouled a lot and didn’t have much of a shooting touch. It was going to be a close call.

By the end of the day, Dave had settled on 11 names to fill his 12-person squad. The last slot was always the hardest to fill. “Emilio, Andres, and Reggie--I can only take one guy out of those three,” he told me.

“I can’t help you,” I said. “I’m biased.”

“Reggie, right?” said Dave, smiling.

“If they’re even talent-wise, I say Reggie. He needs it. It’d be good for him.”

“Yeah, I know. But it’d be good for all of them. That’s what makes it so hard.”

The team roster was announced on the intercom at the end of school the next Monday, and Reggie’s name was the last one called. He came by my room after school to make sure I’d heard. The kid couldn’t stop smiling.

Weeks passed, and we heard nothing from OPS. When we called to check on the investigation’s progress, officials wouldn’t tell us anything. The probe was ongoing, they said. They had more people to interview. We wondered whom. How long would it take? These things take time, they said. Don’t call us; we’ll call you.

The head of Citizens Alert, a police watchdog group, advised us that the best way to keep up the pressure on the police department was to attend the monthly meetings of the governing body.

Things began to get confusing. In addition to the OPS investigation, the office of the state’s attorney opened a preliminary probe to determine whether to criminally prosecute Bulldog and his partner. This was unlikely, we figured; Jack O’Malley, the state’s attorney for Cook County at the time, had been a Chicago police officer and was seen as having little interest in bringing charges against other cops. But the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago had also shown an interest in the case; it was possible that the officers could be brought to trial on civil rights charges. Reggie and his parents, meanwhile, had filed a suit in U.S. District Court, seeking a little more than $100,000 in damages from the city and the two policemen.

Mary Powers, head of a police watchdog group known as Citizens Alert, advised Dave, Rhonda, and me that the best way to keep up the pressure on the police department was to attend the monthly meetings of its governing body, the Police Board. On her advice, we attended the May meeting. Several camera crews and print reporters were already present when we arrived. Rhonda, Dave, Tiombe Eiland--another Seward teacher--and I each made statements expressing our outrage at Reggie’s mistreatment. More than a dozen other people also spoke passionately on Reggie’s behalf, demanding that the officers be appropriately punished. The board members listened impassively as each speaker stepped to the podium. They seemed unfazed, as if they’d heard it all before. But as I was leaving, one of them caught up to me. “Don’t give this up,” he said. “I know it seems like nobody’s listening, but you just have to keep pushing.”

At Seward, we were becoming concerned that OPS might not resolve the case by the end of the school year. We thought it would be damaging to the kids, especially Reggie and the other graduating 8th graders, to leave the issue unsettled. It would cast a shadow over their end-of-the-year activities. In early June, with graduation only two weeks away, I asked some 8th graders if they wanted to circulate a petition around the school. Many were eager to help. We decided to direct the petitions to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and State’s Attorney O’Malley--Daley because the police officers were ultimately under his charge, O’Malley because his office was still dragging its feet on bringing criminal charges.

The students took the petitions to all of Seward’s 5th through 8th grade classrooms. They asked students and teachers to sign only if they strongly agreed with the text; some 295 people--nine pages worth--did. A handful refused. “Why are you getting all mixed up in this thing anyway?” one teacher who wouldn’t add her name to the list asked me. “You should just be glad it didn’t happen to you and forget about it.”

After the petitions had made the rounds, Dave, Rhonda, and I took a busload of 40 students downtown to deliver them. We decided to stage the protest without Reggie. He had been interviewed, photographed, and videotaped relentlessly since the ordeal began, and all the attention was beginning to take a toll. He had felt uneasy about being in the spotlight all along and seemed eager to get the whole matter behind him, if that was even possible. Due to Reggie’s absence, only one TV station, the local Fox affiliate, showed up to cover the protest. I had called other stations about the demonstration, but they had balked at committing a crew. One assignment editor told me flat-out, “If Reggie isn’t going to be there, it’s not news.”

The demonstration turned out to be anti- climactic. Daley was away at a meeting, so we left the petitions with his secretary. O’Malley was in his office, but a deputy met us in the lobby and said that O’Malley could not meet with the kids because what they had to say “could prejudice the outcome of the case.”

But the kids were not deterred. We went to the press room where several students read their prepared statements to the deputy state’s attorney and the lone camera:

“State’s Attorney O’Malley and Mayor Daley:
“I’m Alma Navarro, a student at Seward School. It brings tears to my eyes that the injustices caused by two of our Chicago police officers are going unpunished. Furthermore, they are being overlooked by the higher officials, such as yourself, which saddens me even more. How can we sleep when we cannot even trust our law enforcement officers? Are the words ‘to serve and protect’ being lived up to?
“Don’t get me wrong, there are many officers who wear their badges with honor and surely deserve them. But then again, I remind you of what happened to my dear friend, Reggie Gibson, who was both verbally and physically harassed by one of our city’s ‘peace officers.’ We ask that you do something to speed up the discipline process for these officers. We have done enough waiting. We want to see justice now!”

Two weeks later, as Reggie and his classmates filled Seward’s gym on graduation day, I was left wondering if our efforts had been in vain, or perhaps even counterproductive. Despite all our work, we had not achieved any real results. The civil suit was still in its early stages, months away from any settlement or courtroom arguments. No findings had been announced by OPS, the state’s attorney’s office, or the Justice Department. The media’s typically short attention span had been exhausted. What did it all mean to Reggie and the kids, I wondered? Had they learned lessons about fighting injustice and speaking with a collective voice or just been made to feel more powerless? I wasn’t sure.

When Reggie crossed the stage, his classmates cheered and whistled, an acknowledgment of his courage. it was a show of unity, a warm embrace for a kid the students now saw as one of their own.

But something unexpected and wonderful happened when Reggie’s name was called and he crossed the stage to receive his diploma. One of his fellow graduates let out a cheer. Then a few others began to clap. Slowly, spontaneously, the rumble grew louder, gaining in strength until soon many of the 8th graders had joined in--some whistling, some applauding, a few yelling out Reggie’s name. It was not a cheer of victory but an acknowledgment of the struggle itself, of the courage Reggie and the witnesses had shown in taking a stand against the police. It was a moving show of unity, a warm embrace for a kid whom, it was clear, the students now saw as one of their own.

It was not until the following February, almost a full year after Reggie was accosted, that this ordeal finally reached some closure. As expected, Jack O’Malley’s office never filed charges against either officer, saying there was not enough evidence. OPS, on the other hand, recommended disciplinary action against Bulldog; its report acknowledged that the officer had engaged in inappropriate behavior, including verbal abuse and excessive force. This recommendation went to the Police Board, which, after additional delays, approved a 30-day suspension without pay. Bulldog’s partner was exonerated of any wrongdoing. The civil suit was settled out of court, with the city agreeing to pay Reggie $60,000 in damages. Of that sum, $20,000 went to well-earned attorney’s fees, and the remainder was placed in a trust fund to be used solely for Reggie’s education. Dave Coronado was named executor.

About the same time, I heard that Earth, Wind & Fire was embarking on a reunion tour and would make a stop at Chicago’s Arie Crown Theater. I called Reggie’s mother to ask if I could take him. She put Reggie on the phone.

“Earth, Wind & Fire in concert? And Philip Bailey’s gonna be there? I can’t believe it,” Reggie said.

The vibe that flowed through the concert hall that evening was one I rarely feel in Chicago’s daily rush. The interracial audience brought to mind such outdated terms as “togetherness” and “brotherhood.” The crowd looked a lot like the ones I remembered from the Earth, Wind & Fire shows I’d attended as a teenager, except there were fewer platform shoes and leisure suits, and everybody was much older now. Except for Reggie; I think he was the youngest one there.

Reggie was on the edge of his seat most of the evening. When the keyboardist launched into the recognizable opening notes of “Fantasy,” he looked at me with a smile so wide it made me laugh out loud. By the end of the song, the whole place was deep into the groove, and Reggie sang along with Philip Bailey right down to the last line: “I am free, yes I’m free, now I’m on my way.”

In a sense, Reggie was free--free of the demon that had haunted him for the past year. But in another way, he never would be free. As I turned onto his street to drop him off after the concert, a police car slowly pulled up behind us. Our conversation halted, and we both grew tense. I adjusted the rearview mirror, downshifted, and pulled to a stop in front of Reggie’s house. The squad car, after a brief pause, drove on. I could guess what must have been going through Reggie’s mind. I doubted he would ever be able to look at a police car again without stirring that harrowing jumble of memories. I know I can’t.