the potentially hostile environment we were in.” He had tried to put the whole thing behind him. But when his own daughter died in an accident just a couple of years before our meeting, he learned firsthand what it was like to lose a child. I spent one long evening with Carl Baker’s mother, Evelyn Jean, and I learned what strength was. During a three-year period, from 1979 until 1982, she lost two children and a husband; another of her children is retarded. “If Carl had just gone with me to Waco that day,” she said as we sat in her curtained living room, Carl’s mortarboard from Mexia High School, Class of 1980, ‘still up on the mantle, “he the law,” trying to make as many arrests as possible in order to prove his machismo and make his mark. That view of Elliottwho left the area shortly afterward but is still in law enforcement, in Brazos Countywas seconded by Patrick Simmons, the County Attorney at the time, who recalls that he was viewed as “a wild man” and not well liked by fellow officers. For his part, Simmons remains bothered by the repeated assertion that two of the boys were good swimmers. “There was a bright moon out that night, I do know that. And if you knew where you were, where you were going, it seems you could swim to shore. But if you were scared or disoriented, Well, there’s no instances what he said is true, but not in matters of race. Too often we either hear about another case of racial profilingbe it in the affluent enclave of Mercer Island, Washington, or along Interstate 95 in New Jerseyor of some other problem erupting between the police and the black community where, to put it mildly, the police have overreacted. Cincinnati and York, Pennsylvania have replaced Howard Beach and Bensonhurst as the new frames of reference. The specter of James Byrd, Jr. being dragged to his death in Jasper,Texas, won’t be replaced by anything, nor should it be. At the end of my last book, a book that had its deep roots in the Mexia 1.1111-1.1 c wouldn’t have been out there that night.” Her abiding faith in God and her capacity to forgive notwithstanding, if there was one thing that galled her more than anything else, it was this: In all the years since. the drowning, not one of the officers had ever spoken with her personally, had ever extended himself in any way. One of the two nen who recovered the bodies talked to me about something I had never heard of before, or had at least. not heard phrased in such a way In his opinion, the young inexperienced deputy in charge that night, Kenny Elliott, was struggling, as so many young officers do, with “badge weight,” with trying to assert that “I am ‘telling what can happen when panic sets in.” No hard evidence ever came forward that the handcuffs were on the boys as they drowned. Various “eyewitnesses” offered opinions, but nothing conclusive. “The evidence that is not there is hard to note,” Judge P.K. Reiter, who presided over the court of inquiry, said to me. “Everyone tried to: raise somebody else’s hand, but no one raised their own hand.” He then paused before adding, in an apparent effort to inject some good ol’ boy humor, that “a little paranoia is probably good for your health.” I found his last remark more chilling than humorous. Perhaps in some drownings and looked at race in America through ‘ the prism of Milwaukee, I found myself concluding with questions. “If daily life is trying enough,” I wrote, “why, frankly, should blacks have to constantly watch their step? Why should they constantly be subjected to a different set of bells and whistles merely because they are black?” Juneteenth, arguably our true Independence Day, strikes me as being as appropriate a day as any for usall of usto reflect on and fully address those questions. Jonathan Coleman’s most recent book is Long Way to Go: Black and White in America. 6/22/01 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 31
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