As manager of the Norris Sports Complex, it was my responsibility to run a sports facility used for basketball, soccer, volleyball and the run/walk programs held each night for the general public. The rhythms were fairly well established. Between 40 and 100 basketball players arrived each night to sign up and play pickup games. There was a team coordinator who took names and arranged games. The rules were simple: win two games straight and you got to sit out a game.
Runners from all over the region visited the facility to run on the indoor track. We created a detailed sign that outlined how many laps constituted a mile in each lane. Walkers and runners had their own lanes. Usually from 25 to 50 people came to run and walk each night, a welcome way to work out during the cold winter months in Illinois.
Managing crowds of people
That meant there were between 175 to 250 per night coming through the doors of our facility. There were very few problems other than the occasional injury on the basketball court now and then. One night a player tripped and stumbled headlong into the rock-hard soccer boards. It split his scalp open and the blood poured down his body as he sat leaning against the board, stunned but otherwise conscious. A broad red pool formed around his body and play came to a halt. I walked out to check on the guy at the request of the other players and my first instinct on seeing him was, “Oh boy. Here’s my first dead guy.”
But he wasn’t dead. In fact he wanted to get back up and play. I told him that was out of the question. We called emergency and he got to visit the hospital and get stitched up.
We always kept an eye on the heart patients doing their prescribed exercise at Norris. Sometimes if the desk duties were quiet I’d get out and run or walk with people. That built friendships that would last 30 years in some cases. I still see my Norris runners and walkers at races or around town.
I got to know the basketball crew pretty well too. Having played in high school and actually improving my game through college, it was fun to join in pickup games on occasion. It helped me get to know the guys and gals who came to play.
Of course they all loved to challenge me in a variety of ways because I ran the place. One night I signed up to play and it happened that one entire team from nearby Elgin consisted of black players. I knew them all well except for one small guard with wire-rimmed glasses. They were careful for some reason to have him guard me when they set up on defense. That was so that I’d have to guard him myself. And when “Doc” as he was known came down the court the first time he put on a hard fake to my right and then soared clear over my left shoulder for a dunk. The place just erupted.
I knew I’d just been had, and the game broke down for minutes with laughter and congratulations at having watched the facility manager just get schooled. From then on I guarded Doc with extreme care and he no longer dunked over me. But the guys on the team kept reminding me with jokes that Doc had gotten the best of me.
There were some people in the conservative community of St. Charles who felt there were too many black players allowed at Norris Center. Some would whisper complaints to me. Others even filed requests to close the facility down to people from outside of town. Most of our black players came from nearby Aurora and Elgin.
And then things happened that made the prejudice against black players much worse. A group of three black men organized a theft operation in our locker room. Two posted by the doors while a third armed with bolt cutters made quick work of the locks in the locker room. They made off with wallets and other personal valuables.
That set the community on edge, and there was genuine talk of closing the facility to all but St. Charles residents. I protested on behalf of the many good people using the facility, and for all the right reasons.
In fact I had long been bending the rules to accommodate one black family from Aurora. The father had been a guy I knew from high school, a track star from Aurora. He had a large family of boys and girls who would turn out to be some of the most dominant athletes in the state of Illinois for years to come. But at the time they were tiny children in little shorts and shoes, and dad was teaching them how to run by bringing them to the track. I would charge him the standard admission fee but his many children were allowed to enter the facility for free. I’d meet him at the door one night a week and we’d usher the kids in the door and onto the track.
Once they had grown to high school age it made me feel good to see their names in the newspapers. They were all great kids, leaders in their community and their last name became synonymous with good character and athletic success.
But then another burglary took place, and as I did the first time, I called the police department as soon as we detected the illegal activity. The officer that showed up was a friend of mine from high school. He carried a big black night stick and a pistol of course. He pulled me aside and said some things about the population that night at Norris that made me extremely uncomfortable.
These were my customers, clients and friends he was talking about. His commentary about cracking heads was shocking, and his references to other people in the community wanting to “clean up” the facility were not welcome.
Then came a fight or two on the court. The timing could not have been worse. Tempers often flare in basketball and most fights wind down very quickly because other players stop them immediately. They don’t want their privileges revoked because a pair of angry jerks can’t control their tempers. Once at another area facility that was primarily used by white players, a local black player known for his temper threatened another player by picking up a chair in retaliation for what he considered a hard foul.
But it happened that one of the guys on the court was a large lineman from a football team. He stepped in front of the guy wielding the chair and said, “Go ahead and hit me. Because it’s the last thing you’ll ever do.”
The chair was dropped and so was the incident. The threatening player was told to leave and not come back. But that was a situational instruction, not a racist decision. Some actions are clearly justified regardless of race.
It’s interesting to me that too often in this world the ugliest attitudes about race come from the more conservative, institutional perspectives that draw from fear. More human differences are resolved through positive association than through discriminatory dictate. Banning black players from a sports facility because of a burglary incident committed by black perpetrators proves nothing. Having a mind big enough to understand that crime and violence are simply an aggressive response to the disenfranchised status of so many people in this world is far more important.
People who are cynical towards people trying to effect genuine change on race issues may think they are forming a necessarily hard line against crime and violence by using race as a determining factor in law enforcement and public policy. But that approach thus far in America has produced nothing more than prisons jammed with young black men. There is no rehabilitation there, nor compassion.
The cop who wanted to come to my facility and “crack heads” did not have compassion on his mind. There was a vendetta in his attitude, a presumption of guilt toward all those he suspected of ill motives. Many of those he suspected seemed to have been black.
Ultimately we prevailed in protecting the facility from shutting its doors to players from other towns. We were all the better for it. We enhanced our methods of checking people at the door so that thieves could no longer get such easy access to the locker rooms. There was never again any need to call the officer who wanted to show up and “crack heads.”
I’m reminded of all that every time I read about the Ferguson incident with Michael Brown or the Eric Garner case. Now these types of cases are coming to light on what seems like a daily basis. It’s obvious something’s broken in our law enforcement system, and among our law enforcement officials and police there is need for change.
Or perhaps it’s long been that way and we’re finally getting around to dealing with it in some form of honest way. Here in Chicago there is a long history of police abuse including that by Jon Graham Burge. His tale is that of a man with apparently strong convictions formed in military service including the military police. He was ultimately convicted of torturing more than 200 criminal suspects using methods such as throwing people handcuffed to chairs down flights of stairs to force confessions. His methods put innocent people on death row and resulted in lives being taken by the state, leading former Illinois Governor George Ryan (himself a convicted criminal!) to ban the death penalty in Illinois.
When does it become obvious that while many police serve with honor and dedication, there is strong a pattern of institutionalized racism and suspicion for people to assume that even highly trained (and even decorated) officers can be susceptible to the influence of fear and anger through their job experiences? Add in the component of intolerance or racism and you have a formula for abuse.
War on the streets
All these difficulties are only magnified by the war on the streets these officers now face when confronted by the fact that there are military grade weapons and tons of guns owned by regular citizens all over the country.
Yet we never, as a nation, seem to get the fact that the very people commissioned to protect us are under constant siege from the proliferation of guns flooding society through an unregulated militia.
We need a persistently educational (and unflinching) response to the consistent racial discrimination propagated in America. That is our first requirement as a country to become more civilized.
This needs to start from the top down, where attitudes toward our President Barack Obama by conservative Congressional leaders and political pundits has set a tone of public disrespect bordering on treason. The rest of America has modeled its attitude around these abominations, including Fox News with its so-called “fair and balanced” approach that is little more than raw conservative ideology and dog-whistle racism gussied up as fact. It has to stop for America to catch its breath and heal from years of angry rhetoric abided and embraced by people who consider themselves innocent of such things while supporting those who do evil, plain and simple.
Wrong versus right
Racism and police brutality is not a case of liberal versus conservative ideology. It is a case of wrong versus right, of chronic abuse versus civil rights guaranteed by our Constitution. That includes freedom from religion as well as freedom of religion. It includes the rights of people of all genders and orientation to participate freely in all the privileges of society. No exceptions.
Wherever we find these discriminations and sniff them out in media messaging, we must run them over with the righteous feet of indignation and in defense of the weak and needy. Let’s face it, we’ve all seen first hand what it means to be mistreated in life. But some people get mistreated every day just because of their appearance, the color of their skin or their religion, their orientation or their simple want (or need) to be different and be themselves.
It’s nuts. But if you’re more concerned with cracking heads and taking names than showing compassion and finding the human connection in all this, then you’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.