Skin in the Game: An American Gothic, in Black and White

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Sometimes, it seems as if American history is measured out in dead black bodies.

In September of ‘83, scarcely more than a year after I graduated from college in L.A. and a month after moving to New York, the city was jolted by the suspicious death, while in police custody, of a young black man, a graffiti artist named Michael Stewart.

Transit officers caught Stewart “scrawling” graffiti (as virtually every Times story put it) on a subway station wall around 3 A.M. on September 15. Half an hour later, cops delivered their prisoner to Bellevue hospital, hogtied, bruised, and comatose. He never regained consciousness. MTA authorities claimed Stewart, whose autopsy revealed alcohol in his system, “struggled and had to be subdued.” Apparently, the “necessary force” required to subdue the slight, 25-year-old Pratt Institute student was heroic. The city’s chief medical examiner thought “police restraint and ‘blunt force trauma’“ likely factors in Stewart’s death; another expert, a cardiologist, believed he was killed by “a blow to the chest or side”; the medical examiner of Massachusetts favored asphyxia caused by “force to the neck.” A Parsons student who watched officers scuffling with Stewart testified that he saw Stewart face down on the sidewalk, a kneeling policeman using his nightstick to administer a chokehold: “He was pulling on the stick upward. The man’s head on the ground was going up.” Under cross-examination, his testimony unraveled; the defense picked apart the discrepancies in his account.

On November 25, 1985, an all-white jury acquitted the six transit police officers—all of them white—of charges related to Stewart’s death. In an act of contrition (or damage control, or both), the New York City Transit Authority hired Harold Tyler, a former federal judge, to investigate “the conduct and procedures of the Transit Police” in the matter of Michael Stewart. In January, 1987, Tyler concluded that officers had “acted excessively”; that the arresting officer, John Kostick, lied when he claimed that Stewart was still breathing on arrival at Bellevue; that “hog-tying” the prisoner’s wrists and ankles was “inappropriate and offensive”; and that Transit Police Chief James Meehan turned a blind eye on “existing procedures,” doing “nothing to investigate the tragedy, or to see that anyone else did.’” MTA Chairman Robert Kiley found Tyler’s verdict “deeply disturbing,” which, for a public servant, is about as far into the red as the needle that registers sympathy noises goes.

Bound, by the dictates of individual conscience and social justice, to loose the fateful lightning of its terrible swift sword, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board acted as such boards usually do, which is to say, by doing next to nothing. It declined to censure the then-chief of transit police or to discipline 10 out the 11 officers implicated in Stewart’s death. (The board offered up Kostick as a small sacrifice on the altar of public outrage by agreeing to prosecute him for perjury, a charge it later dropped). Meanwhile, in front of M.T.A. headquarters, the true victims of the Stewart killing paraded their grievances: several hundred off-duty transit police massed in the street, brandishing signs demanding “End the Witch Hunt” and “When Are We Finally Innocent?”

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The dead press in on every side.

Michael Griffith. Yusef Hawkins. James Byrd, Jr. Amadou Diallo. Oscar Grant. Some, like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis (another black teenaged male, also 17 and shot to death, unarmed, in Florida, almost nine months to the day that Martin was killed), stand in the front ranks, having just taken their places in the numberless crowd. Other, more familiar faces, like Medgar Evers and Emmett Till, are deep in the throng, which stretches from here to the historical horizon, a distance measured not in leagues but in years.

Much of the crowd is a windfall of horror: the bloated, crow-pecked fruit of the hanging tree. In the wave of racial terrorism that swept mostly Southern states between 1882 (the earliest date for which we have reliable records) up to the shockingly late date of 1968, lynchings took the lives of 4,743 people that we know of, the overwhelming majority of them black, murdered because they were black. Of course, as James Harmon Chadbourn points out in Lynching and the Law, “hundreds of undocumented lynchings and racially motivated killings took place, especially in the rural south, from 1882 through the 1960s.” Homicidal hate crimes “were common in the rural south, and often went unreported, unrecorded, or uninvestigated. Coroners and other officials often recorded the deaths of lynchings victims as suicide or other accidents.”

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The North won the war, but the South pushed back against Reconstruction, and pushed back with a vengeance in what Eric Foner, the preeminent historian of Reconstruction, calls a “wave of counterrevolutionary terror.” Whites beat or murdered blacks for attempting to vote, for neglecting to step off the sidewalk, for speaking to their betters without sufficient deference. Of the thousand African-Americans murdered by whites in Texas alone, between 1865 and 1868 alone, writes Randall Kennedy in Race, Crime, and the Law, “one victim ‘did not remove his hat’; another ‘wouldn’t give up a whiskey flask’; one white man ‘wanted to thin out the niggers a little’; another wanted ‘to see a d—d nigger kick.’”

In her autobiography, The Heart of a Woman, Maya Angelou opens the American family album to give us a peek at a gothic snapshot, a grisly close-up of the welts left on the mind by years of everyday degradation, in a land where the threat of violence, maybe even death—for not yielding the sidewalk, not answering right quick with a yassuh, not tipping your hat—is ever-present. Billie Holiday is visiting Angelou; every night, she sings a lullaby to Angelou’s 12-year-old son, Guy, and on the last night of her stay she sings “Strange Fruit,” incredibly, the damning indictment of lynching culture that was one of Holiday’s signature songs. Struck by the phrase “pastoral scene,” Guy wonders what it means.

Billie looked up slowly and studied Guy for a second. Her face became cruel, and when she spoke her voice was scornful. “It means when the crackers are killing the niggers. It means when they take a little nigger like you and snatch off his nuts and shove them down his goddam throat. That’s what it means.”

The thrust of rage repelled Guy and stunned me.

Billie continued, “That’s what they do. That’s a goddam pastoral scene.”

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