Law Enforcement in African American Communities Have a Long and Troubled History
“We ain’t riotin’ agains’ all you whites. We’re riotin’ agains’ police brutality, like that cab driver they beat up the other night. That stuff goes on all the time. When the police treat us like people ‘stead of treatin’ us like animals, then the riots will stop.”
William Furr, 1967
– speaking to reporter Dale Wittner and photographer Bud Lee, before he was fatally shot in the back by police.
Memories have their own personality. Some are noisy, always getting your attention and never leaving you alone. Others are shy, only surfacing during the oddest of times and seemingly at random. Some are so faint you wonder if the memory is of something that actually happened or was it a dream, or maybe something you were told or heard. Those memories live between all possibilities and are like ghost. I’ve had a memory of an image that haunted me for years that I could never get rid of. Thanks to the digital revolution, I was able to research and add some texture to that memory.
Whenever I see black civil unrest on television, (something we have seen a lot of in the wake of black men being killed by cops), I think about a Life Magazine cover from 1967, and how things seem to have gone backwards from the achievements we’ve made since that time. I think one of the reasons this cover photo has burned into my memory is that the boy in the photograph seemed to be my own age. I was 10 at the time. The picture is of a young black boy, shot by a cop and lying and bleeding in a Newark street.
Was it something in my head or was it real? I only say it once, but that was enough. It seemed like the photo had vacated, not only my own consciousness, but the collective consciousness of America. It is just like the falling man photograph taken during the Twin Towers attack of 9/11. That photo of a man falling, somewhat gracefully, was only published once, but no one who saw it could ever forget it. But the media, under the rare instance of self-censorship, decided that it was best for the public to not see images of people jumping from the towers. The public did not take kindly to the photo of the falling man.
It seems during our present times, that someone would have pulled up that old magazine cover photo of the bleeding boy and use it to illustrate a point that police shooting black males is not a new or a current fad. They could prove that the interaction between black males and law enforcement was never a cozy relationship. With the recent police shootings, I thought about this magazine cover again and I decided to do something about it. I knew the Internet would give me the answer; just a few weeks earlier, I already did research on another Life Magazine article, Gordon Parks’ 1948 photo easy on a young Harlem gang leader. It was not hard to find. I wanted to see if this was really something I had seen. My faulty memory told me I picked up the magazine while in a barber shop. The photograph shocked me. I put it down but could not stop looking at it.
It didn’t take long at all after a Google search. I was able to see my memory served me well this time. Several Websites had images of the magazine and more than a few of them showed other photos taken at that time that disturbed me even more than the cover photo. I viewed the photo slowly, trying to take in all the details. It seemed he was dead. He laid on his right side, slightly bent, as if to make a bow of his gangly body. A patch of deep red blood collected on the sidewalk under his raised, dangling elbow. For some reason, I remember his shoes the most. He had a very dirty pair of white Converse All-Stars, the most popular shoe in my Bronx neighborhood. The shoes, and the fact that he was black and about my age may have been the reason the photographs has haunted me for so long. That could have easily been me. It seemed he was alone in the middle of the street, dead, without a soul near him. But after looking at all of the original photos taken that day, I found that he was not totally alone. At one point at least, there were several people around him. The Life cover’s logo also hides the shoes of some on-lookers.
The late sixties were tumultuous for America. I was only slightly aware of the events that were happening around me. The Viet Nam war, civil rights marches, the rise of black nationalism, hippies, drugs and music, were prominent among media and in our society. Even though there was a lot of social upheaval during that time, I was sheltered from most of the turmoil. It was not that my grandmother consciously or purposely kept those things away from me. It was mostly that for me, watching the news was an incidental occupation. If any adult happened to be looking at the news while I was in the room, that was the only time I would care to see or hear the news. I certainly did not have a deep understanding of what I did see and heard on the news. Must of the stuff I did see on television, was just that, stuff I’d see on television. I never witnessed rallies or marches, no one ever rioted in my neighborhood, hippies and anti-war protesters were nowhere to be found. There was the real world, and the world of media such as television, movies, magazines and newspapers. They all depicted events from another planet and had little to do with my Bronx world.
This was the backdrop when I picked up a Life Magazine to browse while I waited for a haircut. And the color photograph of a young black boy lying in the street and bleeding after being shot by police during the Newark riots made me realize there were some very important things going on outside of my bubble. The photograph seeped into my world, bringing with it an element of danger and assaulted my idea of being safe. If it could happen to that kid, it could happen to me and all of my friends. Though I have never experienced what was going on in Newark, Detroit and other cities across the United States, it all felt familiar to me somehow.
From the angle of his body, it definitely looked like he was dead. Even looking at the photographs now, he still seems to be dead, but he survived the shooting. The kid in the photograph was twelve-year old Joe Bass Jr. He was a shoeshine boy who caught a couple of pellets in the neck and thigh from one of the policemen who was shooting at a looter. Other photographs show a cigar-chomping cop, carrying a shotgun and walking pass Bass as he was lying and bleeding on the sidewalk. Another photo shows a police wagon parked next to his body with no one in sight to help him.
When William Furr was shot and killed after running away from cops, that’s when Joe Bass was shot and was labeled as an inadvertent victim. Furr, as stated above was speaking with the Life Magazine, photographer and reporter before he was shot after taking a case of beer out of an abandoned store. The photographer actually took photographs of Furr looting the store. When he refused to stop after running away from police, he was shot in the back and died shortly after. The same pellets from the shotgun blast that killed Furr, are the same that wounded Bass. Furr was just one of 26 people who were killed during that riot, which lasted from July 12, to July 17, during a summer that produced 159 race riots across the America.
Where is Joe Bass today? I searched but I could not find anything on him. He, just like his cover photo, seemed to have disappeared. He’s not even listed as one of the victims at the Rise Up Newark Website, which goes into detail about the Newark Uprising. He would be a senior citizen today, maybe with kids, or grandkids even. Regardless of what became of him, that photograph of him will last forever. It’s a reminder the issues in our inner cities are older than all of us. There is a myriad of issues that plague us still and we need to address these issue straight on. It is the usual suspects, jobs, education, drugs, crime, etc. Even Trump knows we are in danger. We are so fucked-up that he asked us what do we have to lose if we elect him. We can’t wait for politics to solve any problem, let alone the problems for people of color. We have to make sure to continue to solve these issues and hopefully we will not produce new images that will haunt us for our entire lives.