IT WAS JUST AFTER 2 A.M. ON OCT. 12 when Jonny Gammage died, handcuffed, ankles bound, facedown on the pavement of a dark roadside on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. About 20 minutes earlier, Milton Mulholland, a police lieutenant in suburban Brentwood, Pa., had spotted the midnight-blue Jaguar that Gammage was driving repeatedly speed up and slow down as it moved along Highway 51. Mulholland flipped on his lights and called for backup. When Gammage pulled over, four more cops converged on the scene. An autopsy later revealed the cause of death: Gammage—5’7″ and 187 pounds, unarmed and black—had suffocated, a cop’s knee and baton pressed against his back and neck. Struggling for his last breaths, he had gasped a desperate plea to the one officer whose name he had caught: “Keith, Keith!” he cried. “I’m 31!”
Nearly three months later, her son’s dying words still haunt Narves Gammage, 54, who is at a loss to grasp how a routine traffic stop turned into a fatal confrontation. “There was no crime at all,” she says. “I don’t understand it. I guess I never will.” If Gammage’s death has resonated among civil rights advocates nationwide—Jesse Jackson has called it “a lynching”—it is not only for its brutality, but because so many African-American men feel they are routinely stopped without cause by police, often by officers suspicious of blacks who seem to them to be in the wrong place—or the wrong car—at the wrong time. Not only are such encounters degrading to the black men involved, there is also the gnawing fear that, as in the Gammage case, a routine event may somehow escalate into tragedy. As became clear after O.J. Simpson’s acquittal, the starkly contrasting reactions of black and white Americans to the verdict stemmed largely from their different perception of law enforcement. “When I see police coming,” says former U.S. assistant attorney general and civil rights activist Roger Wilkins, “I’m on my guard. Because chances are, it’s going to be an antagonist.”
A DEADLY TRAFFIC STOP
Since graduating from college in Buffalo in 1986, Jonny Gammage—a Syracuse native with three sisters—had worked as a substitute teacher, a drug counselor and a social worker. But when his cousin and close friend Ray Seals, 30, signed on as Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end in 1994, Gammage joined him to help run his sports-marketing company and coordinate the athlete’s charity work. “He was all about business,” says Seals, who lent his cousin his 1988 Jaguar.
That was the car Gammage was driving after visiting friends on the morning of Oct. 12. Lt. Mulholland, 56, of the Brentwood police force, said the car’s driver seemed to be riding the brakes, so he flashed his lights. Gammage, he says, failed to pull over, running three red lights before stopping 1½ miles later. When officer John Vojtas, 39, the first of four assisting cops to arrive, ordered him out of the car, Gammage grabbed something—a cellular phone, it turns out—which Vojtas knocked out of his hand. Vojtas says he thought it was a weapon. It remains unclear how that initial scuffle became violent; police say Gammage grabbed one of their flashlights. Struggling to subdue him, the five officers beat Gammage with a flashlight, a collapsible baton and a blackjack. Vojtas, Mulholland and Michael Albert, 31, a Baldwin officer who put his foot on Gammage’s neck, have been charged with involuntary manslaughter. An autopsy showed no drugs in Gammage’s system (a small amount of marijuana was later found in the car he was driving), and his blood-alcohol level was found to be well below the level of intoxication. His relatives say the normally mild-mannered Gammage must have been provoked. “I believe this happened with the intent to kill,” says Seals. “They should all pay the price, because the amount of force they used was excessive.”
FOR ALL THE WORLD TO SEE
Last June 21, Brian Moody, a 36-year-old circulation executive with the Wall Street Journal, had taken his mother, Mary, 69, to see the Broadway matinee of Having Our Say, the story of two African-American sisters reflecting on their long and eventful lives. “Little did I think,” Moody says, “that the racism mentioned in the play was about to affect us, too.” As the pair entered the subway around 4:15 p.m., Moody put a token in the slot, but the turnstile jammed. He tried a second token and passed through the turnstile with his mother—”so it looked as if we paid only one fare,” he says.
In seconds, two plainclothes police officers arrested them. “Do we look like thieves?” asked Moody, who was dressed, as usual, in a suit. “Right there, they proceeded to handcuff my mom and me, our hands behind our backs, like dangerous criminals.” The cops frisked them for weapons, handcuffed Mary Moody to a bench and
placed Brian in a nearby holding cell. When Moody explained that the turnstile had jammed, the cops laughed, he says. “They took us out and paraded us across the street for all the world to see,” recalls Moody, who lives in Manhattan with his wife, Terri Thrash, co-owner of a software company. The Moodys were driven by police to a midtown jail, where they were fingerprinted, photographed and put in cells. At 11:30 that night, mother and son were again handcuffed and taken to the Midtown North precinct, where they were placed in cells with drug dealers, muggers and hookers to await a court appearance the next morning. Moody pleaded with officers—saying his mother had high blood pressure—to no avail. “All night,” he says, “I sat on a wooden bench in a cell, nodding off and on.” At 9:30 a.m., the pair were frisked and brought to a holding area—Mary in handcuffs, Brian chained to 10 other prisoners—to meet an attorney. At noon, they finally saw a judge, who dismissed all charges, in part because of Mary Moody’s age.
“Nothing I’ve seen gives any indication of race being an issue,” said New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton. But Moody disagrees. “Just when you think you have arrived and made it,” he wrote in the Journal, “someone is always there to remind you that this country has not really changed as much as you would like to believe, and many see you as just another black man in America.”
A COMMUTER’S NIGHTMARE
When Earl Graves Jr. was growing up in an affluent New York City suburb, his father—the publisher of Black Enterprise magazine—always told his three sons that his greatest concern was that one of them might not make it home one night. “Not because of a car accident,” Graves Jr. recalls, “but because some cop pulled us over and decided it was OK Corral that night.” When the younger Graves—a Yale and Harvard Business School alumnus and a Black Enterprise vice president—had his brush with the law last spring, it wasn’t fatal, but it still left him angry and humiliated.
At 7:30 one morning last May, Graves, dressed in a suit, briefcase in hand, had just arrived at Grand Central Terminal from the Westchester County suburb where he lives with his wife and their 3-year-old son. “Suddenly, I felt someone touch me at the elbow, then the other elbow,” he says. Two plainclothes police officers flashed their badges. “I knew immediately what would happen to me if I resisted,” he says, “so I stayed calm.” The cops asked Graves if he was carrying a gun, then patted him down as he stood, spread-eagle, facing a wall. “It was a spectacle,” he says. “I was facing the wall, my arms up in the air. Anybody could have seen me.”
When he asked what the cops were looking for, they said he fit the description of a suspect—a black man with short hair. “Well, that narrows it down to about 2 million people in the city,” he said. “You guys have got to be kidding me.” The two-minute incident left Graves livid. “What they did,” he says, “well, they would have never done it that way if I had been white.” The officers had acted on an anonymous letter received a week earlier from a passenger who claimed that a black man—about 5’10”, with a mustache—regularly carried a concealed gun on the train. Graves, who once played basketball for the Cleveland Cavaliers, is 6’4″ and clean-shaven. Though the railroad’s president personally apologized—as did the railroad, in several newspaper ads—Graves remains shaken. “I’m black,” he says, “and that’s all they saw.”
A BUST THAT WENT BUST
Arthur Colbert had little idea the events of Feb. 24, 1991 would unmask a major police corruption scandal, leading to the conviction of six Philadelphia cops in 1995. “I thought people would think I was exaggerating,” says Colbert, 29, who grew up in an integrated middle-class Detroit neighborhood. Around 8 p.m. that Sunday, Colbert, then a Temple University senior, was on his way to pick up his date at her home in Nicetown, a rundown north Philadelphia neighborhood. Unfamiliar with the area, he got out of his car to take a closer look at an address. It turned out he had stumbled on a crack house, and two police officers—John Baird and Thomas Ryan—were watching. They stopped him, searched his car, then let him go. After he picked up his date on the next street, the cops, who had trailed him, stopped him again, sent the woman home and once more searched him.
“They accused me of carrying a false ID and said I was really a drug dealer named Hakim,” Colbert says. The police drove him back to the drug house, where they strip-searched him, put a gun to his head and hit him with a metal flashlight, yelling racial epithets and choking him. “I thought I was going to die that night,” he says, “and I knew they were trying to make me react so they could pin something on me.”
When Colbert didn’t resist, the two handcuffed him, put him in a police van and drove him to Philadelphia’s 39th Precinct, where they locked him in a room for 45 minutes. Taking the key to his apartment, they searched it—unsuccessfully and without a warrant—for drugs and cash. Five hours after stopping him, and realizing he was the college student he claimed to be, with no criminal record, Baird and Ryan let him go. Colbert’s reaction: “I was outraged, no doubt about it, but at the same time, I was terrified.”
The next day, he returned to the precinct station to file a grievance. It was his luck that the duty officer, Lt. John Gallagher, listened. That complaint helped spur Philadelphia’s district attorney and the F.B.I. to launch a major investigation, leading to the city’s biggest police corruption case in a decade. Six current and former cops—including Baird and Ryan—have been indicted by a federal grand jury for violating the civil rights of more than 40 accused drug dealers. The cops’ admission of guilt for, among other things, planting evidence, has so far led to the overturning of 56 criminal convictions. As Colbert—who now counsels troubled youth in the Detroit area—wrote in the police report after the incident: “It seems as though the people who are supposed to be protecting my civil rights are the ones who are violating them.”
BLACK & WHITE IN 90210
Last Mother’s Day, Pat Earthly, 29, a janitor at Beverly Hills’ All Saints Episcopal Church and an aspiring songwriter, had just arrived at work when a police car pulled up behind his 1977 Plymouth and an officer got out. “He rushed over to me and said, ‘Get back in the car,’ ” Earthly says. When Earthly continued walking toward the church, the officer ordered him to lie on the ground. “I wasn’t going to do it, because I was going to get all dirty and dusty,” he says. When Earthly refused to comply, the cop asked to know what brought him to Beverly Hills. Earthly told him: his job. With that, the officer issued him a ticket for a burned-out taillight. Members of the congregation watched the confrontation. “It made me feel belittled and humiliated and terrible,” says Earthly, whom Beverly Hills police have stopped seven other times—once, he says, aiming a gun at his head—with no citations.
Late last year, Earthly and seven other African-Americans filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Beverly Hills, alleging that a racist police force has a policy of harassing young African-American men without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. One of those filing suit is Jerry Lafayette, 17, a cocaptain of the Beverly Hills High School football team and a student body representative who lives with his maternal grandmother, an Innervisions Church of Religious Science minister. Police have stopped Lafayette 12 times—once in his own driveway—without issuing a citation. His grandmother Audrey Bowen says he was so humiliated in front of his white friends by one 1994 incident that he didn’t want to drive anymore.
“Beverly Hills has absolutely no policy of discriminating against anybody, period,” says lawyer Skip Miller, who is handling the case for the city. Yet the charges detailed in the suit are difficult to ignore. Richard Hill, 52, a landscaper, says police assaulted him in a parking garage when he was picking up his wife, Andrea, at the doctor’s office where she works. Moacir Jones and Brandon Nash, both 15, and Jomo Kenyatta, 16—all on the high school football team—were walking to a video store last January when cops stopped, searched and handcuffed them, interrogating them for 45 minutes. “We knew this would happen; we just didn’t know where or when,” says Jones’s mother, Cheryl, a chef who moved to Beverly Hills about two years ago with her husband, Ralph, a music teacher. “As a black man in America, he was going to be stopped by police.”
MARIA EFTIMIADES in Syracuse, HUGH BRONSTEIN in Pennsylvania, RON ARIAS in New York City, SHAWN LEWIS RAMIREZ in Detroit, GAIL SCHILLER in Beverly Hills and GLENN GARELIK in Washington