Reflections about a childhood friend after the news from South Carolina
Tonight, watching the Rachael Maddow show about the latest police shooting, this time in South Carolina, I was reminded of my childhood friend Danny Smith. When I was in junior high, he lived two blocks away on Grant Street in Fort Morgan. He was tall, as was I, and had blondish hair, as did I. He had a sister, Kim, and she was a chatterbox. It was the mid-60s, and we all listened to a top-40 radio station in Denver called KIMN. “Would you turn on KIMN,” I once told Danny. “Turn her on? We can’t shut her up,” he said.
His father was tall and dark. He had a husky voice and was working on construction of the new high school. He smoked, and at night he would sit on the front porch, drawing on his unfiltered cigarettes, the red glow caused by his inhalations puncturing the darkness.
Later, Danny’s family moved to the panhandle of Nebraska, and he graduated there, not in Fort Morgan. We were friends, but not best of friends. In college, we reconnected a bit, as we had several classes together. By then, he was married, to a girl who had been a cheerleader one year our elder. He was getting a degree in political science, and one of the classes we took together was with a professor named Duane Hill. The professor was brilliant, in flashes, and I think about what he said to this day about it being easier to move mountains than to change political institutions. He paced in front of the class, chain-smoking, looking slightly wild-eyed, and we students, perhaps half of us, smoked, too.
The first time Danny saw me light up a Marlboro, he looked at me with disbelief. His dad had died of cancer. “Well, it’s your life,” he said.
I don’t know what happened after that time, except that he graduated, on time, and I did not. I got my college degree 30 years after my high school diploma. On the other hand, I sort of used my college training, working at newspapers, writing about local government. Danny ended up back in Fort Morgan, and I didn’t know what had happened with his life until after his death. That was in the early 1990s, and he had been delivering cookies or some other food item on a route among local towns.
One night, a local cop killed Danny. My father told me he had been pulled over by the cop. “Danny bolted,” he said. The cop ran after him and shot him in somebody’s back yard. I knew the address. For a couple of summers of high school, I had mowed the lawn of our family doctor, Dr. Olsen, across the street from the yard where Danny was shot. He paid well, $2.50 or so. As for Danny, he had been behind a bush. A gun must have flashed with a red glow, piercing the night’s darkness.
I used to spend summer nights running round the block, because I was a runner and I could. My father warned me against it. The cops might think I was running from something, he said. He also said that if Mexicans – all Latinos then were Mexicans – were trying to flee from cops, the cops would shoot. Whites, probably not, unless they were clearly bad guys.
What made Danny bad enough to shoot? That was always the mystery. Later, I heard a rumor that Danny, who was separated from his wife, had been having an affair with the cop’s wife.
I don’t know if the cop ever served time for killing Danny. From what I read, I also never understood what threat Danny posed such that the cop chased him into a backyard and shot him. He wasn’t armed,I don’t think.
The videotape shown on Rachael Maddow’s show tonight was originally posted on the New York Times website. It shows a man running, and from a distance, a cop shooting him. The man stumbles and collapses onto the ground. Then the cop walks over and turns him over.
This refutes the story told by the cop after the shooting. He said the 50-year-old man had tried to grab his Taser, and he feared for his life. The telephone video, shot from a distance, shows the cop picking up a black object after the shooting and then carrying it to the body and dropping it. This presumably was the Taser.
After the video was posted, the cop was charged with murder. Watching the family’s press conference, I was struck by the composure of the victim’s brother, Anthony Scott. Echoing what the family’s lawyer had said, he noted that without the proof in the video, the cop’s story probably would have stood. Not all cops are bad, he added. Most are good, upstanding people. There are just a few bad apples.
How do you figure out the bad apple before handing him or her a gun and badge? In my years hanging around police stations, I generally admired those who worked there. They are peacekeepers who must constantly be vigilant, hoping for the best in their fellow human beings but expecting the worst. It’s a dangerous job, and keeping that perspective of skepticism without becoming moored in cynicism requires mental toughness. I’m not sure that even those who I admired always succeeded. Too often I heard about “pukes,” the all-encompassing word for bad guys. It was a black-and-white world in a place of all Caucasians. And then there are bad apples who get into police work for all the wrong reasons.
Last summer, after watching the video of the young man in Ferguson, Mo., rough up an innocent store clerk, I wondered how this could be represented as a black-and-white story. I mean that not just in the racial sense, but also in the sense of right vs. wrong. The evidence that the cop was lying was never compelling. The victim never seemed entirely a victim.
The case from North Charleston, S.C., appears less nuanced. The cop had the gun, and the victim was clearly running away. The brother who I watched on the televised press conference told the New York Times that his brother may have been fleeing because he was behind on child-support payments. For that, he got shot.
Why Danny got shot, I still don’t know and probably never will. What I know as my high school class this summer prepares to have its 45th reunion is that I smoked and he did not, and I am alive and he is not.
Somebody asked me to draw conclusions about justice. The statement by Martin Luther King Jr. comes to mind: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
I perfervidly believe in that statement. But for Danny and this fellow in South Carolina, it didn’t bend quick enough.
— Allen Best