Jonny Gammage died on the night of October 12, 1995, in front of Frank and Shirley’s pancake parlor, just three miles from my home. Jonny was a black man, a cousin and business partner of Pittsburgh Steeler Ray Seals, and he died in the custody of five white suburban policemen who had pulled him over for a minor traffic violation. Gammage’s last words, according to Whitehall police Sgt. Keith Henderson, were the unforgettable words of a man who feared for his life. “Keith, Keith, I’m only 31,” he begged as he lay prone on the ground, the officers holding him down. A few minutes later he was dead of suffocation from the pressure applied to his neck and chest.
Sgt. Henderson testified that Gammage came out of the ear swinging, and that had he been the arresting officer he would have shot Gammage. An eyewitness tow truck driver, sitting in Frank and Shirley’s parking lot, refuted the officer’s testimony, saying that a Brentwood policeman initiated the altercation, attacking Gammage from behind. One of the cops had a suspicious violent act in his past, and Jonny Gammage had a couple alleged incidents, inadmissible in court, where he had been belligerent to police officers in Syracuse.
Though there is no agreement on what really happened that night, two things are certain. Gammage shouldn’t have died during a routine traffic stop, and the mutual demonization process that smolders between blacks and whites—especially between black men and white cops—created an explosive situation.
Fortunately, as we go to press, violence has not followed the acquittal in November of one of the white police officers charged with wrongdoing in Gammage’s death. The Reverend Jesse Jackson did call Gammage’s death a “lynching,” and demonstrators outside the county courthouse did protest the all-white jury that acquitted the officer, but so far the city has escaped the kind of rioting seen recently in St. Petersburg, Florida.
The “officer dragged case,” as it’s known in Pittsburgh, is equally explosive. It involves John Wilbur, a police officer who was dragged through the city streets by his hand by a car full of black juveniles careening at speeds of up to 71 m.p.h.
Officer Wilbur had first approached the stolen car because three black teenagers were stopped in the middle of the street, sleeping at 1:50 A.M. at a green light. Wilbur opened the rear door of the champagne-colored Honda Accord after he saw one of the boys pop something into his mouth, which Wilbur correctly thought was drugs. The teenager slammed the door on Wilbur’s hand. “I knew my hand was stuck in the door and I was going with this car whether I wanted to or not,” Wilbur testified later from his wheelchair.
Dragged bouncing through the streets, Wilbur described the terror of traffic whizzing by in the opposite direction and the red flashes of police cars chasing behind him. The pain in his hand, his feet and his leg—which was scraped to the bone—was horrendous, but with three giant steps Wilbur vaulted himself atop the trunk of the car, reached for his gun with his free right hand and blindly fired at the occupants, killing two of them. The third, the driver, stopped the car and fled into the night.
Luckily for Wilbur, there were several witnesses to the incident who contradicted the accusations that spewed from the black community. Of the many verbal assaults on Wilbur, perhaps the worst was from Homewood resident Adama Taylor. “Wilbur deserved to get dragged up the street,” she yelled at a police civilian review board meeting, “and I wish like hell his legs were broke the hell off. For real!”
Incredibly, despite the testimony of eyewitnesses backing Wilbur’s account of the incident, four out of six of the jurors at the coroner’s inquest said Wilbur should be arrested. The three black jurors said Wilbur should be charged with manslaughter for the deaths of the two youths, and one white juror wanted Wilbur held for homicide. The remaining two white female jurors thought Wilbur’s actions were justified.
Allegheny County District Attorney Robert Colville refused to charge Wilbur, despite the findings of the coroner’s jury, saying: “The law is clear. Anybody being dragged at 71 m.p.h. down the street for almost a mile has and should have the right to protect himself against those people.”
The Gammage and Wilbur cases illustrate the atmosphere of racial demonization that permeates American culture. Although blacks have been the historical victims of racial demonization, today the demonization of whites in America has evolved to the point that black juries are increasingly finding black skin an entitlement to victim status, whether one has dragged a cop through the streets or cut off a woman’s head.
Valerie McDonald, an African-American on Pittsburgh’s City Council, responding to black reactions to the “officer dragged case,” said she was glad Pittsburgh got to “hear the outrage” from the black community. “I’m happy that you felt discomfort, very edgy on your seat,” she stated, her voice rising. “You needed to hear the anger that’s going on in the community. Not everybody in Pittsburgh is happy.”
Ms. McDonald also recently defended Pittsburgh’s drug dealers, claiming that these boys are just selling drugs to put “meat and potatoes” on the family table. Just in case young black males need any additional encouragement to deal drugs, carjack, or drag policemen through the streets by their hands, there’s always a hallelujah chorus who will provide the excuses and lead the cheers.
It is understandable that McDonald and others who care about young black males would want to blame someone outside the community for the destruction and chaos in their lives. It is understandable, but definitely not helpful to these boys who are in ever-increasing numbers ending up murdered, addicted, or in jail—not because of racist cops, but because of the crime spree in which they are so heavily involved.
“One black male graduates from college for every 100 who go to jail,” stated General Colin Powell at a recent graduation speech. In a nation where young black males comprise less than three percent of the population and commit nearly half of all homicides and two-thirds of all violent crimes, mostly against each other, it’s time for less rhetoric and some serious soul searching.
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