by Paul Street
Iowa City, Iowa went wild for Barack Obama in '08, earning a reputation among it's more conservative neighbors as “The People’s Republic of Johnson County.” But when a white deputy sheriff shot to death a homeless Black man at the urging of a local white drunk, the “liberal” oasis behaved much like any racist backwater town.
True Crime: White Privilege and a Police Killing in an Obama-Mad College Town
by Paul Street
“Obama’s victory could perhaps be stoking the fires of an ugly white backlash.”
Imagine, if you will, a small, predominantly white city with growing poverty and crime in a small, highly segregated black section of its South East side. Imagine that a black university professor in the city warns the local newspaper that “a black man will be killed this summer by a local police officer, probably under unclear circumstances.” The professor also predicts that the town’s “citizens will be insufficiently enraged” by the shooting.
Later in the same year, on a warm evening near the end of July, an older white university custodian has too much to drink at a tavern near the city’s central business district. As he and his wife leave the bar, the custodian spies a drunken 26-year-old black man fumbling with some bottles in a parking lot across the street. The black man is one of the city’s many homeless people who collect cans and bottles for recycling at five cents per container.
The 63-year-old facilities worker crosses the street to verbally harass and physically assault the young black man for spilling some bottles. As a different university professor (this one white) will note later, the white janitor appears to think that he has been specially “deputized to monitor inebriated young black guys and make sure – using physical force if necessary – they clean up their littler.”
The custodian insists on forcing a confrontation with the black man despite his wife yelling at him to leave. A bloody commotion ensues. After the white man begins his attack, the black man pulls out a short pocketknife and stabs the white man in self-defense.
“The white janitor appears to think that he has been specially “deputized to monitor inebriated young black guys.”
A deputy with the local county sheriff’s department happens upon the scene. The deputy is a white male, 45 years old. He specializes in evictions, not violent altercations. Still, he carries a deadly .40 Glock pistol as he rushes from his car.
The officer displays his badge, identifies himself as a deputy, and points his gun at the black man. He orders the two men to separate. The janitor violates the order, knocking the black man to the ground with a single shot to the head. Keeping his Glock pointed at the black man, the officer tells the white man to “run away.” The janitor screams at the officer, telling him to shoot the black man.
The officer tells the black man to stay down on the ground. When the drunken black man staggers to his feat and allegedly “lurches” toward the officer, the deputy blows him away with a single fatal shot. The black man dies in a matter of minutes.
The white janitor is taken to the hospital to be treated for his pocket- knife wound. He is never charged with assault or anything else. His blood alcohol is not tested. His role in provoking the terrible incident goes uninvestigated.
“The janitor screams at the officer, telling him to shoot the black man.”
The local city police department tells the local newspaper that the shooting was justifiable. The killing resulted, the paper dutifully reports, from a terrible assault on a local “citizen” by a menacing “transient.” The official police statement, repeated by the local press, reads as follows: “The deputy confronted the knife-wielding transient. The transient ignored the deputy’s repeated commands to drop the knife... Instead, the armed transient advanced threateningly toward the already injured city resident and was shot by the deputy.” There is no mention of how the white custodian disobeyed the officer’s orders and continued to assault the black man.
But a very dissimilar take on the killing appears within days on the front page of a different newspaper, based in a larger municipality thirty miles north. Here are ten paragraphs from a story based on the testimony of two telecommunications workers (who I shall call Telcom A and Telcom B) who witnessed the shooting from inside a car parked in direct proximity to the incident:
“‘There was no knife, there was no lunging,’ Telcom A said. ‘I saw a cop shoot a guy in cold blood.’ Telcom Worker B, 22, and Telcom Worker A, 40, who both work for a [local] telecommunications company, got off work at 7 p.m. Friday and drove with another co-worker to [a local bar] to have a drink. As their vehicle was coming out of the alley next to City Electric, which was blocked by bags of cans and bottles and some broken glass, they saw the episode unfolding to their left and turned off the radio so they could hear what was going on.”
”A skinny black man was lying on the pavement with his head against the tire of a car about 40 feet away. He was missing teeth, his clothes were dirty and he had blood on his torso.”
”The deputy, wearing civilian clothes, had a gun pointed at the man, and a third man -- whose side was covered in blood [that would be the custodian] -- was standing next to the deputy telling him to shoot, Telcom A and B said.”
“I saw a cop shoot a guy in cold blood.”
”The homeless man on the ground appeared to be drunk, they said. The deputy told him not to get up, or he would shoot, Telcom A and B said.”
”‘I don't give a f---,’ the homeless man responded. The deputy repeated the threat, and ordered the man to stay down.”
”Again, the homeless man said he didn't care. Then he stood up, spread his arms, and stumbled a few feet to the side before the deputy shot him in the chest from about 15 feet away, Telcom Workers 1 and 2 said.”
”The two men insisted the homeless man had no knife when he was shot.”
”In fact, Telcom B said, the homeless man was wobbling, and, though he disobeyed the deputy, he never made a threatening move.”
"It wasn't aggressive," Telcom A said. ‘He was just drunk.’"
“… ‘He could hardly stand,’ Telcom B said of the homeless man.”
The Telcom workers do not tell their story directly to the police for an obvious reason: fear. People who believe they have just witnessed a police murder are not generally excited at the prospect of reporting it to the police.
The Telcom workers are served subpoenas by the local police. They reluctantly testify on what they saw.
Other witnesses never testify because of fear.
A few days after the shooting, the aforementioned black professor convenes a meeting of concerned local residents at the local city’s public library. About forty people, at least half of them black, show up to discuss recent events and what to do. Black citizens and one white lady (the mother of two bi-racial young men) stand up to tell harrowing tales of local police harassment.
“People who believe they have just witnessed a police murder are not generally excited at the prospect of reporting it to the police.”
Half way through the meeting, a local white university liberal suggests that everyone walk over to meet with the city police. During a meeting with a police lieutenant, the professor expresses the group’s desire for a full and comprehensive investigation of the shooting.
No such investigation occurs, really.
Under existing law, the state’s attorney general’s office is required to issue a “finding of facts” related to cases in which citizens are killed by police officers.
The homeless black man is buried. The deputy is placed on administrative leave – standard procedure after an officer shoots somebody. The custodian refuses to talk to anyone.
Nearly two months go by. Then, quite suddenly, the attorney general’s review (the “AG report”) of the incident is issued, with remarkably short notice to concerned citizens, in late September. To nobody’s surprise, the AG report amounts to a complete exoneration of the deputy. The killing was justified, the report claims. The white deputy gets a pass. So does the white custodian, who created the horrible episode in the first place. The Telecommunications workers’ testimony is completely disregarded. In the press conference where the report is released, officials discuss the possibility of investigating those workers for false testimony.
A number of black residents and concerned white citizens express anger and concern at the press release. But the AG report, like the shooting itself, elicits little outrage among the local populace, consistent with the black professor’s prediction. Released on a Friday, it does not even get mentioned in the local paper’s weekend content, which is obsessed with a major university football contest.
“The killing was justified, the report claims.”
Two weeks after the report, the paper prints a column by a local white criminal justice instructor. The report hails the deputy who killed the young black man as a “hero. He was able,” the instructor claims, “to accomplish in his career what few peace officers will ever do: He saved the life of another human being. For this he is to be highly praised by all of us. Thank you deputy.”
After stating that he “could not believe the fast response times of the local city police and the county ambulance service” in the incident, the instructor ends his column by suggesting that “criminal and civil proceedings” should he brought against the telecommunications workers who “gave false information, under court order, to the police.”
The instructor criticizes the “set minds” of “the racists who interject race into every event that involves different racial or ethnic groups.” He says in essence that you are over-generalizing racist if you think racism was involved in the killing that took place.
Meanwhile, the local city council responds to rising crime and racial tensions in and around the city’s small black ghetto by passing an “anti-loitering” law modeled on similar ordinances in larger cities with bigger black populations. The law forbids people from congregating on streets or sidewalks “in such a way as might hinder traffic.” It is a useful device to permit escalated arrests of young blacks.It will not be used very much to hinder mass gatherings around predominantly white students in and around the local area.
Now, as it happens all of this took place. None of it is made up. There’s no imagination required.
“The anti-loitering law is a useful device to permit escalated arrests of young blacks.”
Where did it all occur? Not, as many Americans would probably guess, in a southern town in the 20th century. It took place rather this year in a “liberal,” “progressive,” and northern university town that is immensely proud of itself for its role in helping make Barack Obama the nation’s first black president.
The first local newspaper mentioned – the one that initially reported the police version of the killing practically verbatim – is the Iowa City Press-Citizen, owned by the national Gannet chain.
The second paper mentioned – the one that published the counter-narrative from the workers I called “Telcom 1” and “Telcom 2” – is The Gazette, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The Gazette story told of a “cold-blooded” police murder of an innocent black man: “Deputy Shot Man ‘In Cold Blood’: Witness,” The Gazette, July 26, 2009, 1A.
The local university mentioned is the University of Iowa.
The 26-year old black man who was killed was named John Deng, a Sudanese refugee who lived on the streets of Iowa City.
The officer who killed Deng is Terry Stotler, a deputy with the Sheriff’s Department that is attached to what local Republicans absurdly refer to as “The People’s Republic of Johnson County” (an attempt to claim that the predominantly Democratic country containing Iowa City is “leftist”).
The custodian who started the fatal incident is John Bohnenkamp, a long-term employee of the University of Iowa.
“Iowa has the worst black-white disparity in terms of comparative incarceration rates in the U.S.”
The black professor who predicted a police killing of a black male to be followed by local indifference, is Dr. Vershawn Young, who teaches rhetoric at the University of Iowa.
The white criminal justice instructor who praised Stotler as “a hero” and called for the criminal investigation of Telcom 1 and Telcom 2 is Greg Roth, an ex-policeman who teaches at Iowa City’s Kirkwood Community College.
The state whose attorney general’s office issued the report exonerating the deputy is of course Iowa. That state has the worst black-white disparity in terms of comparative incarceration rates in the U.S. – this in a nation with more than 2 million prisoners, more than 40 percent of whom are black even as blacks comprise just 12 percent of the country.
I am not going to give the names of the telecommunications workers who reported a “cold-blooded” police murder or of other individuals who witnessed a very different version of the events than what was suggested in the initial local police and press reports and in the “final” AG report.
The bar from which Bohnenkamp existed before assaulting Deng is named “The Hawkeye Hideaway.” It is located a block west of Gilbert Street on Prentiss Street in Iowa City, Iowa, across the street from The Electric Supply Company, whose parking lot provided the setting for Deng’s death.
The white university professor quoted above is named Cliff Messen, who recently noted the following in a courageous Press-Citizen column:
“Deng, who probably died a frightened man who thought he was defending himself against a raging drunk, is buried.”
“Meanwhile, the residents of Johnson County look on in silence:”
“The white ones quietly appreciating their privilege;”
“The black ones learning that they cannot be caught even littering.”
“Where are the white community leaders who will stand up and say, ‘This is simply wrong?’”
“One lesson of Barack Obama’s election is that there is curiously little to be concretely gained by most black Americans.”
No such leaders have been found in Iowa City, where it is one thing to claim to be anti-racist because of your willingness to caucus and vote for a “black but not like Jesse” candidate and president who has bent over backwards not to offend white sensibilities. It is another thing to confront the real daily privileges afforded by white supremacy and the living legacy and ongoing reality of anti-black racial oppression in American life.
For what its worth, the difference between (A) electing a bourgeois president (or mayor or governor) who happens to be black (if thoroughly enmeshed with the predominantly white corporate and imperial elite) and (B) undertaking a serious engagement with deeply entrenched social disparities when it comes to attacking the problem of racism, is well understood in much of the black community. For many black Americans and for anti-racists of all colors, one lesson (already clear to many beneath but fading excitement over the emergence of a technically black chief executive) of Barack Obama’s election is that there is curiously little to be concretely gained by most black Americans, and more perhaps to be lost (see below) from (A). Only (B) carries serious promise of advancing racial equality.
Here is a message I received from a teacher of black students in the Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) last February:
“Today, I asked a class for which I was subbing (high-school English students, about a dozen, all-black, at one of CPS's actually nice high-school facilities) what they thought of Obama. Their initial reaction was one of, for lack of a better way to say it, pride and joy.”
“But upon closer inspection, this turned out to be a rather shallow sentiment. For when I asked them if they expected any real changes under Obama, they all said no.”
“So while they are (currently) happy he is in the White House, they know full well that he will be no different from any other president -- and it's not something they only know ’deep down.’ They know it pretty close to the surface.”
I am reminded of the teacher’s reflections as I review the John Deng episode in Obama-mad Iowa City.
“The Obama ascendancy could be translating into change for the worse.”
It strikes me, though, that “no change” might be an understatement. For many African-Americans, the Obama ascendancy could be translating into change for the worse insofar as the election of a technically black president reinforces the longstanding conventional white illusion that racism has disappeared and that the only obstacles left to African-American success and equality are internal to individual blacks and their community – the idea that, in Derrick Bell’s phrase, “the indolence of blacks rather than the injustice of whites explains the socioeconomic gaps separating the races.” “It’s hard,” Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown have noted, “to blame people” for believing (falsely in Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown’s view) that racism is dead in America “when our public life is filled with repeated affirmations of the integration ideal and our ostensible progress towards achieving it.” In a similar vein, the black scholar Sheryl Cashin noted years ago that “there are [now] enough examples of successful middle-class African-Americans to make many whites believe that blacks have reached parity with them. The fact that some blacks now lead powerful mainstream institutions offers evidence to whites that racial barriers have been eliminated; the issue now is individual effort.”
And what could trump the attainment of the U.S. presidency – the most powerful office on Earth – in feeding and locking in that belief? The black Urban Studies professor Marc Lamont Hill said it well in an important CounterPunch critique in early February of 2008: “For whites, an Obama victory would serve as the final piece of evidence that America has reached full racial equality. Such a belief allows them to sidestep mounds of evidence that shows that, despite Obama's claims that ‘we are 90 percent of the way to equality,’ black people remain consistently assaulted by the forces of white supremacy.”
At the same time, Obama’s victory could perhaps be stoking the fires of an ugly white backlash that gets taken out on defenseless people like the late John Deng. The arrival of a smooth-talking black president gets one kind of reception from white upper-middle-class AcaDemocratic liberals in a “progressive” town like Iowa City. It may elicit a very different sort of feeling from less privileged white people like John Bohnenkamp, Terry Stotler, and Greg Roth.
Paul Street in an author in Iowa City, Iowa. He is the author of many books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York, 2007).