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Forty-five years later and ‘The Godfather’ still haunts us

February 8, 2017 Leave a comment

Forty-five years later and ‘The Godfather’ still haunts us

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

Forty-five years ago “The Godfather” first hit screens and it immediately became embedded in American pop culture consciousness. Its enduring impact has defined the parameters of an entire genre, the mob movie, with its satisfying blend of old and new filmmaking. It’s also come to be regarded as the apogee of the New Hollywood even though it was very much made in the old studio system manner. The difference being that Coppola was in the vanguard of the brash New Hollywood directors. He would go on to direct in many different styles, but with “The Godfather” he chose a formalistic, though decidely not formulaic, approach in keeping with the work of old masters like William Wyler and Elia Kazan but also reflective of the New Waves in cinema from around the world.

I actually think his “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now” are better films than “The Godfather” and “The Godfather II” because he had even more creative control on them and didn’t have the studios breathing down his neck the way he did on the first “Godfather” film.

But there is no doubt that with “The Godfather” and its sequel he and his creative collaborators gave us indelible images. enduring lines, memorable characters, impressive set pieces and total immersion in a shadowy world hitherto unknown to us.

'The Godfather' Trilogy's Greatest Quotes for Entrepreneurs

Image credit: Silver Screen Collection | Getty Images

 

I think it’s safe to say that while any number of filmmakers could have made a passable adaptation of the Maria Puzo novel then, only Francis Ford Coppola could have given it such a rich, deeply textured look and feel. He found a way into telling this intimate exploration of a crime family pursing its own version of the American Dream that was at once completely specific to the characters but also totally universal. Their personal, familial journey as mobsters, though foreign to us, became our shared journey because the layered details of their daily lives, aspirations and struggles mirrored in many ways our own.

In many ways “The Godfather” saga is the classic tale of The Other, in this case an immigrant patriarch who uses his guile and force of personality to find extra legal ways of serving the interests of his people, his family and the public.

Coppola was ideally suited to make the project more than just another genre movie or mere surface depiction of a colorful subculture because he straddled multiple worlds that gave him great insights into theater, literature, cinema, culture, history, this nation and the Italian-American experience. Growing up in 1940s-1950s New York, Coppola was both fully integrated into the mainstream as a second generation Italian-American and apart from it in an era when ethnic identity was a huge thing.

The filmmaker’s most essential skill is as a writer and with “The Godfather” he took material that in lesser hands could have been reduced to stereotypes and elevated it to mythic, Shakespearean dimensions without ever sacrificing reality. That’s a difficult feat. He did the same with “Patton,” the 1970 film he wrote but that Franklin Schaffner helmed.

Of course, what Coppola does in the sequel to “The Godfather” is truly extraordinary because he goes deeper, more epic yet and still never loses the personal stories and characterizations that anchor the whole thing. In “The Godfather II,” which is partly also a prequel, he establishes the incidents, rhythms and motivations that made Don Corleone who he was when we meet him in the first film. Of course, Coppola subsequently reedited “Godfather I and II” to create a seamless, single narrative that covers the genesis and arc of the Corleone empire in America and its roots in Italy.

“Godfather III” does not work nearly as well as the first two films and seems a forced or contrived rather than organic continuation and culmination of the saga.

The best directors will tell you that casting, next to the script and the editing process, is the most important part of filmmaking and with the first two “Godfather” films, which are hard to separate because they are so intertwined, Coppola mixed and matched a great stew of Method and non-Method actors to create a great ensemble.

The depth of acting talent and pitch perfect performances are staggering: Brando, Pacino, Caan, Cazale, Duvall, Conte, Hayden, Keaton, Castellano, Marley, Lettieri, Vigoda, Shire, Spradlin, Rocco, De Niro. Strasberg, Kirby, “Godfather I and II” arguably the best cast films of all time, from top to bottom. One of the best portrayals is by an actor none of us have ever heard of – Gastone Moschin. He memorably plays the infamous Fanucci in Part II. And there are many other Italian and American actors whose names are obscure but whose work in those films is brilliant. Coppola is a great director of actors and he beautifully blends and modulates these performances by very different players.

 

 

   The Godfather - enough said.
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Al Pacino, The Godfather.  Betrayal hurts
"The Godfather." The movie "views the Mafia from the inside. That is its secret, its charm, its spell; in a way, it has shaped the public perception of the Mafia ever since." (<a href="http://rogerebert.com" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">rogerebert.com</a>)  March 15, 1972: The Godfather opens On this day in 1972, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather — a three-hour epic chronicling the lives of the Corleones, an Italian-American crime family led by the powerful Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is released in theaters. Photo: Talia Shire (Talia Rose Coppola) and Marlon Brando dance in the wedding scene. (Mondadori Portfolio by Getty)

Coppola’s great way into the story was making it a dark rumination on the American Dream. He saw the dramatic potential of examining the mafia as a culture and community that can exist outside the law by exploiting the fear, avarice and greed of people and working within the corruption of the system to gain power and influence. Personally, I’ve always thought of the films as variations of vampire tales because these dark, brooding characters operate within a very old, secret, closed society full of ritual. They also prey on the weak and do their most ignominious work at night, under the cover of darkness. drawing the blood of the innocent and not so innocent alike. While these mob creatures do not literally feast on blood, they do extract blood money and they do willfully spill blood, even from colleagues, friends and family. No one is safe while they inhabit the streets. Alongside the danger they present, there is also something seductive, even romantic about mobsters operating outside the law/ And there is also the allure of the power they have and the fear they incite.

“The Godfather” set the standard for crime films from there on out. It’s been imitated but never equaled by those who’ve tried. Sergio Leone took his own singular approach to the subject matter in “Once Upon a Time in America” and may have actually surpassed what Coppola did. Michael Mann came close  in “Heat.” But Coppola got there first and 45 years since the release of “The Godfather” it has not only stood the test of time but perhaps even become more admired than before, if that’s even possible. That film and its sequel continue to haunt us because they speak so truthfully, powerfully and personally to the family-societal-cultural-political dynamics they navigate. For all their venal acts, we care about the characters because they follow a code and we can see ourselves in them. We are equally repelled and attracted to them because they embody the very worst and best in us. And for those reasons these films will always be among the most watched and admired of all time.

‘The Bystanders’ by Kim Louise takes searing, moving look at domestic violence as a public health issue

May 10, 2016 2 comments

Last night I had the privilege of experiencing as searing and moving a piece of live theater that I have seen in a long time. It was a staged reading of a new play, “The Bystanders,” by Kim Louise of Omaha. It tells the story of four friends who hear an incident of domestic abuse in the apartment next door. They are split on what to do next. The play asks – What would you do? The play is touring this week as part of the Metropolitan Community College Theatre Program’s Spring Tour. The program annually features a play written by an MCC student playwright in a staged reading format produced and performed by theater professionals. Kim’s “The Bystanders” is this year’s featured work. She first got inspired to write the piece some years ago and she has more recently developed it under the guidance of MCC theater program instructor Scott Working, who directs the production. The playwright, whom you may know as Kim Whiteside, is a much published author and veteran writing workshop faciliator under the pen name Kim Louise. She has writen a powerful piece whose heavy truth is impossible to ignore and to forget.

Some leading local theater talents comprise the cast:

Victoria – Beaufield Berry
OthaJean – Pamela Jo Berry
Benet – TammyRa’ Jackson
Ashland – Felicia Webster
Carla – Doriette Jordan
Cullen – Developing Crisp

 

Some pics of the cast and playwright after the May 9 evening show at MCC’s Fort Omaha campus (photos courtesy Deborah Steele):

Deborah Steele's photo.
Deborah Steele's photo.
Deborah Steele's photo.
Playwright Kim Louise with Deborah Steele

 

 

Performances are free and open to the public, but you only have two chances left to see this staged reading:

Wednesday, May 11th at 11:00 am in the Conference Room of the MCC Sarpy Center, 9110 Giles Road.
Thursday, May 12th at 12:30 pm in ITC Building Room120 at MCC’s South Omaha Campus, 27th and Q Streets.

What the play utilmately confronts us with is the fact that domestic violence is a public health issue that none of us can stand by and allow to happen without speaking out against or taking action to prevent it from happening again. Otherwise, we are as complicit in the situation as the person who commits the violence and the person who lives with the violence. This is a community problem we all have a share in. As witness, as advocate, as friend, as advisor, as safe house, as 911 caller, as whatever it takes or whatever we are prepared to do. Just don’t stay silent or do nothing. That’s how battered women end up traumatized or dead.

MAY9

May 9 – May 12 · Omaha, NE
18 people interested · 14 people going

 

Crime and punishment questions still surround 1970 killing that sent Omaha Two to life in prison

March 30, 2016 1 comment

The Omaha Two.
Rice and Poindexter.
Black Panthers.
Larry Minard.
House bombing.
Cop killers.
Those loaded words and names were burned in my memory beginning when I was 12-13 years old and living in North Omaha. The same rhetoric that played a factor in one of this city’s most debated cases also engendered fear and suspicion in what was then the mostly white neighborhood my family resided in at 45th and Maple. Omaha’s most infamous cop killing happened in 1970 when Larry Minard died from a homemade bomb that exploded while he responded to a phony 911 call. Black Panthers David Rice and Edward Poindexter were found guilty by a nearly all white jury. Rice maintained his innocence until his death earlier this month. Poindexter’s never wavered about his own innocence. Supporters point to discrepancies in testimony and evidence used to convict the men. When Rice and Poindexter exhausted most of their appeals by the end of the ’70s and were still only in the first decade of their life sentences, I had graduated Holy Name High School and started at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, but I still lived at home. The neighborhood had become racially mixed. At the end of the ’80s I was still living at home in that same neighborhood which by then had become mostly black. It was around that time that I first became aware of factors not originally known or reported during the Rice-Poindexter trial that cast doubt on the men’s guilt and conviction. In the last decade or so I have met a number of individuals who believe strongly in the men’s innocence. These supporters are certain the men received an unfair trial and were wrongfully convicted. Some believe the pair were outright framed. One of these acquaintances of mine, Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson, got to know the men very well and did extensive interviews with them. She is co-authoring a book about the Omaha Two. New words about the case began to enter my consciousness, such as political prisoners.  Until now, I had never written about the case myself. And in truth this article for the April 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) is not so much about the case as it is about two journalists with Omaha ties who have written about it: Elena Carter, for the first time and quite recently, did an exhaustive piece for BuzzFeed; and Michael Richardson has written repeatedly about it for a decade or more. Richardson is writing his own book about the case from a particular angle involving the complex saga of the FBI’s covert COINTELPRO program and its persecution campaign against the Black Panthers. My small contribution to the vast amount of writing done about the case is largely broad brush strokes contextualized around the personal and professional mission that Carter and Richardson made their reporting. Therefore, I really don’t go into the details of the case. Perhaps I will in a future story.
Elena  Carter

Michael Richardson

Crime and punishment questions still surround 1970 killing that sent Omaha Two to life in prison

Mondo we Langa’s recent death in prison leaves Ed Poindexter still fighting for his freedom

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the April 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

From Elena Carter’s BuzzFeed piece

 

 

 

When Mondo we Langa died at age 68 in the Nebraska State Penitentiary last month, he’d served 45 years for a crime he always maintained he did not commit. The former David Rice, a poet and artist, was found guilty, along with fellow Black Panther Ed Poindexter, in the 1970 suitcase bomb murder of Omaha police officer Larry Minard. With his reputed accomplice now gone, Poindexter remains in prison, still asserting his own innocence.

Poindexter and we Langa have been portrayed by sympathetic attorneys, social justice watchdogs and journalists as wrongfully convicted victims framed by overzealous officials. The argument goes the two were found guilty by a nearly all-white jury and a stacked criminal justice system for their militant black nationalist affiliations and inflammatory words rather than hard evidence against them. Supporters call them the Omaha Two in reference to a supposed population of American political prisoners incarcerated for their beliefs.

The crucial witness against the pair, Duane Peak, is the linchpin in the case. His testimony implicated them despite his contradictory statements. we Landa and Poindexter dispute his assertions. Today, Peak lives under an assumed name in a different state.

Two writers with Omaha ties who’ve trained a sharp eye on the case are Elena Carter and Michael Richardson. Carter, an Iowa University creative writing graduate student, spent months researching and writing her in-depth February article for BuzzFeed. She laid out the convoluted evidentiary trail that went cold decades ago, though subsequent discoveries cast doubt on the official record of events. Just not enough to compel a judge to order a new trial.

 

Larry Minard, ©Omaha World-Herald

 

 

Richardson has written extensively on the case since 2007 for various online sites, including Examiner.com. He lives in Belize, Central America.

Both writers have immersed themselves in trial transcripts and related materials. They visited we Langa and Poindexter in prison. Their research has taken them to various witnesses, experts and advocates.

For Carter, it’s a legacy project. Her father, Earl Sandy Carter, was with the VISTA federal anti-poverty program (now part of AmeriCorps) here in the early 1970s. Richardson, a fellow VISTA worker in Omaha,  says he “came of age politically and socially,” much as Carter did, during all the fervor” of civil rights and anti-war counterculture. Ironically, they did things like free food programs in the black community closely resembling what the Panthers did; only as whites they largely escaped the harassment and suspicion of their grassroots black counterparts.

Earl Sandy Carter edited a newsletter, Down on the Ground, we Langa and Poindexter contributed to. Richardson knew we Langa from Omaha City Council meetings they attended. With their shared liberal leanings, Richardson and Carter teamed to cover the trial as citizen journalists, co-writing a piece published in the Omaha Star.

Elena Carter grew up unaware of the case. Then her father mentioned it as possible subject matter for her to explore. Intrigued to retrace his activism amid tragic events he reported on, she took the bait.

“The more I read about it the more I wanted to look into this very complicated, fascinating case,” she says. “Everything I read kept reinforcing they were innocent – that this was a clear wrongful conviction. Until now, my writing has been personal – poetry and memoir. This was my first journalistic piece. This was different for me in terms of the responsibility I felt to get everything right and do the story justice.”

That sense of responsibility increased upon meeting we Langa and Poindexter on separate prison visits. They were no longer abstractions, symbols or martyrs but real people grown old behind bars.

“It was a lot more pressure than I usually feel while writing, but also a really great privilege for them to trust me to write about them,” she says.

 

Mondo we Langa (left) and Ed Poindexter. Courtesy Mondo we Langa

Poindexter (left) and we Langa in their high school yearbooks. North High School, Creighton Prep

 

 

 

She visited we Langa three times, the last two in the prison infirmary, where he was treated for advanced respiratory disease. Though confined to a wheelchair and laboring to breathe, she found him “eccentric, super smart, optimistic, exuberant and still in high spirits – singing, reciting poems,” adding, “He wasn’t in denial he was dying, yet he seemed really determined to live.”

She says, “He was on my mind for a year and a half – it did become highly personal.” She found both men “even-keeled but certainly angry at the situation they found themselves in.” She adds, “Mondo said he didn’t have any anger toward Duane Peak. He saw him as a really vulnerable kid scared for his family. But he did express anger toward the system.”

Richardson, who applied for Conscientious Objector status during the Vietnam War, never forgot the case. Ten years ago he began reexamining it. Hundreds of articles have followed.

“The more I learned, the more I doubted the official version of the case,” he says. “I reached the conclusion the men were innocent after about a year of my research. It was the testimony of forensic audiologist Tom Owen that Duane Peak did not make the 911 call (that drew Officer Minard to a vacant house where the bomb detonated) that made me understand there had been false testimony at the trial. My belief in their innocence has only grown over the years as I learned more about the case.

“Also, my visits and correspondence with both men helped shape my beliefs. Mondo was unflinching with his candor and I came to have a profound respect for his personal integrity. Their stories have never changed. Their denials seem very genuine to me. The deceit of the police agencies has slowly been revealed with disclosures over the years, although much remains hidden or destroyed.”

 

Poindexter and we Langa. ©Michael Richardson

 

 

There are as many conspiracy theories about the case as folks making it a cause. Everyone has a scapegoat and boogeyman. Richardson and Carter don’t agree on everything but they do agree the men did not receive a fair trial due to mishandled, concealed, even planted evidence. They point to inconsistent testimony from key witnesses. They see patterns of systemic, targeted prejudice against the Panthers that created an environment for police and prosecutorial misconduct.

The murder of a white cop who was a husband and father and the conviction of two black men who used militant language resonates with recent incidents that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.

Considerable legal and social justice resources have been brought to bear on the case in an effort to have it reopened and retried.

 

Duane Peak’s mugshot. ©Omaha World-Herald

 

Poindexter and we Langa in custody, ©Rudy Smith, Omaha World-Herald

 

Blasting Caps n2pp.info

2867 Ohio St after the bombing.

n2pp.info

 

As Elena Carter wrote, “we Langa and Poindexter’s case has penetrated every level of the criminal justice system, from local officials to former governors to the FBI to the Supreme Court.” Yet, we Langa languished in prison and died there.

Carter reported we Langa’s best chance for a new trial came in 1974, “when he filed an appeal in federal district court, arguing the dynamite and blasting caps recovered from his home during a police search for Duane Peak should never have been received in evidence” because the officers who entered his home “had no probable cause Duane was there.” Contravening and contradictory court rulings affecting that decision have apparently had a chilling effect on any judge taking the case on.

She and Richardson surmise no judicial official in this conservative state wants to overturn or commute a convicted cop killer’s sentence.

“Sadly, when you talk to people about a dead policeman and Black Panthers, the conversation sort of stops,” Richardson says.

“I don’t think enough people know about this case,” says Carter. “Why this case hasn’t been taken as seriously as it should perplexes and frustrates me.”

She and Richardson believe the fact the Omaha Panthers were not prominent in the party nationally has kept their case low profile. The Washington Post did report on it decades ago and Carter says, “I feel like that’s the only time a serious national publication had put it out there they could be innocent.” Until her story.

A documentary examined the case. Noted attorney Lennox Hinds has been involved in the defense effort.

Locally, Ben Gray made the case a frequent topic on KETV’s Kaleiidoscope. Other local champions have included State Sen. Ernie Chambers. Then-Gov. Bob Kerrey was prepared to pardon we Langa, but the prisoner refused on the grounds it would be an admission of guilt. Nebraskans for Peace and others keep the case before officials.

“I would say the Omaha Two case shows the critical need for the news media to monitor the police and courts,” says Richardson.

No major exoneration projects or attorneys have adopted the case,

“I’m not entirely sure why that is after all these years,” Carter says. “I don’t know what their reluctance would be looking into this case more.”

Most observers speculate nothing will change unless or until someone comes forward with dramatic new evidence.

Carter hopes “something more could be done for Ed (Poindexter) at this point.” Barring action by the Nebraska Board of Pardons or Gov. Pete Ricketts, the 71-year-old inmate likely faces the same fate as his late friend given the history of denied appeals attending the case.

“Mondo told me he was paying a debt he did not owe,” Richardson says. “Poindexter deserves a fresh look at his case. I believe in their innocence. They were guilty of rhetoric, not murder.”

View Carter’s story at http://www.buzzfeed.com/e6carter/the-omaha-two# and Richardson’s stories at http://www.examiner.com/topic/omaha-two-1.

 

Alex Kava Bestselling Mystery Author Still Going Strong

November 3, 2015 2 comments

OK, so I’m getting old and I can’t remember so well all the stories I have in the pipeline from even a few months ago.  This feature on best-selling mystery author Alex Kava is one of those I forgot to mention when I posted about stories of mine to look for the last part of 2015.  It’s odd I forgot this one though because I had long wanted to interview and profile Kava and I found her a delightful subject.  Anyway, here is that short feature about her for Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/).  She has a new book out titled Breaking Creed.

AlexKava1

Alex Kava Bestselling Mystery Author Still Going Strong

October 30, 2015 by 
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Appearing in the Nov.-Dec. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Sure, Alex Kava is a best-selling mystery author, but as an aspiring writer she faced insecurities. Even now, with a six-figure contract from Putnam, there are uncertainties in this brave new world of publishing.

Growing up in rural Silver Creek, Nebraska, her working-class parents considered writing frivolous. Word-struck Alex secretly spun stories from her imagination and committed them to the back pages of used grain co-op calendars, squirreling away the scrawled tales in a shoe box under her bed.

Convinced writing fiction couldn’t support her, she followed an advertising-marketing-public relations career path that, while successful, left her unfulfilled and burned-out. It didn’t help when her first novel-length manuscript received 116 rejection letters.

Kava may never have become the author of the long-running Maggie O’Dell and new Ryder Creed series had she not left her PR job to commit herself to writing at 38.

“There was too many hours, too many meetings. I really was at a crossroads in my life and I decided that while I’m figuring out what it is I want to do with the rest of my life, I’ll try writing. I told myself if I wasn’t published by 40 I would give it up.”

While completing the book, expenses for home and car repairs mounted. She went through her savings. She took a paper route to make ends meet.

She just squeaked under the self-imposed deadline when, three days before her 40th birthday, she signed advance reader copies of her debut novel, A Perfect Evil. Her 2000 portrait of a community traumatized by a serial killer was extrapolated from the actual terror that befell Bellevue and Papillion in the early 1980s when John Joubert murdered two boys there. Kava worked for the Papillion Times at the time.

“What surprised me,” she says in revisiting those events years later, “was that I could remember those feelings of panic that had taken over that community.”

Her stand-alone One False Move was another instance of real-life crime influencing her work. When the 2002 Norfolk, Nebraska, bank robbery gone fatally bad eerily followed a plot she was developing, she used evidence from the actual crimes to inform her novel.

Forensics expert and profiler Maggie O’Dell was among multiple characters on the case in A Perfect Evil, but Kava’s publisher pushed to make O’Dell the subject of a series. Kava resisted. A dozen O’Dell books later, she and Maggie are fixtures in the mystery-thriller genre.

Kava admits she didn’t like O’Dell at first. “We’re both very stubborn and slow to trust.” On the advice of a go-to expert, former Douglas County prosecutor and now district judge Leigh Ann Retelsdorf, Kava gave O’Dell shared interests in dogs and college football.

“Those two little things actually made it easier for me to relate to her,” Kava says. “The series grew, and I grew, and Maggie O’Dell grew. I love that character. She and I have been through so much together.”

Her new protagonist, Ryder Creed, is a K-9 search and rescue dog handler. He teams with investigators like O’Dell to help crack cases.

“I love Ryder Creed because he has this passion for dogs and I can really connect to that.”

Kava says it’s a relief after “so many years writing about something I don’t know—murder,” to write about her four-legged friends. She’s dedicated books to her pets, Molly and Scout, the latter named after Kava’s favorite literary character, Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird.

Kava’s steeped herself in the CSI-law enforcement milieu, even presiding over her own “crime scene dinner club” of attorneys, detectives, and techs who voluntarily plied her with case file details.

“I really do love the research. I’ve never had any problem with people opening up. I’m not sure why they do.”

She admires her expert sources.

“I’ve always looked at law enforcement officers in awe. I could never do what they do and stay sane.”

She’s toured the FBI’s Quantico facility in Virginia, interviewing behavioral science wonks there. She’s turned down opportunities to visit crime scenes and view autopsies. “Some of those things it’s best for me to leave to my imagination.”

Kava, who did a spring book tour for her latest work, Breaking Creed, is grateful for her success. But in this new age of ebooks, publishing mergers, and tenuous contracts, nothing’s guaranteed.

“There’s so much more for readers to choose from, and I think that added choice is great. At the same time it makes it more of a challenge for us as authors to figure out how to get those readers and stay in front of them. I’m now writing two books a year so I can stay in front and say, ‘Here’s the next one, and I’ve got another one coming out, and another one after that.’ You don’t want them to
forget you.”

AlexKava1

Beto’s way: Gang intervention specialist tries a little tenderness

October 28, 2015 1 comment

Alberto “Beto” Gonzales could have easily stayed in The Life of drugging, fighting, abusing, and manipulating that used to be his M.O. as a gangbanger, but he found the courage to change and that transformation has led him to help countless others stop the madness, get clean, and go straight.  For years now he’s worked as a gang intervention specialist, a position he holds today as a civilian employee with the Omaha Police Department.  He’s much respected for his work in the South Omaha community, whose barrios he grew up in.  There were many harsh experiences he initiated.  He did things he regrets and has made amends for.  But he’s done all he can to move on and to be a productive citizen and he’s been exceedingly successful at that.  This profile for Omaha Magazine ((http://omahamagazine.com/) is my second opportunity to tell his story and I’m glad to have had the chance to share his life and work with readers.

An Omaha man on the front line of gang prevention is now the subject of a book.

 

Beto’s way: Gang intervention specialist tries a little tenderness

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the Nov.-Dec. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Omaha Police Department gang intervention specialist Alberto “Beto” Gonzales grew up in a South Omaha “monster barrio” as an outsider fresh from the Texas-Mexican border.

Working out of the South Omaha Precinct and South Omaha Boys & Girls Club, he knows first-hand the suffering that propels at-risk kids to join gangs. He grew up in a dysfunctional home with an alcoholic father. By 13 he was a substance abusing, drug dealing, gang-banging illiterate and runaway. For a decade he conned and intimidated people. “The beast” inside ran roughshod over anyone, even family. He ruined relationships with his rage and alcohol-drug use.

“A lot of people got hurt behind me being that hurt kid that felt hopeless,” he says.

Charged with assault and battery with intent to commit murder, he faced 30 years in prison. Shown leniency, he used that second chance to heal and transform. He got sober, learned to read and found the power of forgiveness and love, dedicating himself to helping others.

He credits the late Sister Joyce Englert at the Chicano Awareness Center (now Latino Center of the Midlands) with setting him straight.

“She took me literally by the hand and coached me. There were days where I just didn’t feel like I could do it and I tossed up a storm with her. But she never gave up on me. Sister Joyce was no joke. She was incredible.”

At her urging he became a counselor.

Beto, who’s spoken about gangs to high-ranking U.S. lawmakers and law enforcement officials. is the subject of a book by Theresa Barron-McKeagney, University of Nebraska at Omaha associate dean in the College of Public Affairs and Community Service, His message to those dealing with people in crisis is “patience – you can’t give up on them, you have to have that energy, that willingness to sacrifice to work with them.” He says he’s living proof “no matter what challenges you have you can make it – all you gotta do is find what your purpose is in life and go for it.”

This former menace to society “never ever could have imagined” working for OPD. “They took a risk in hiring me because of all the baggage I carried. They’re watching me. I’m under the microscope. But all the officers make me feel welcome. It’s a good fit.”

sur de omaha, Latino Center of the Midlands, Mi Rincóncito en el Cielo, Alberto

His street cred enables him to go where OPD can’t.

“If they do walk into some of the places I walk in it’s a shut down – nobody’s talking.”

He has people’s trust, including prisoners and ex-cons.

“They feel safe opening up to me, they know I’m there for them, I’m not going to give up on them. Whatever it is, we try to work it out. You can’t measure this, all you do is continue your relationship with someone and if you build that trust that relationship will be there forever. I’ve been in a lot of these men’s and women’s lives for years.

“Sometimes I don’t see them for four or five years but they know they can always come back.”

Not everyone’s cut out for this work.

“The burn-out is real/.”

Not everyone wants recovery. Relapse and recidivism is high.

But Beto’s a firm believer in second-chances.

“Somebody gave me a chance.”

Intervention and prevention is “my passion,” says Beto, who can spot a troubled child or adult in an instant.

“If we don’t get to a kid in time, if he doesn’t find a mentor, if he doesn’t get in to some kind of sport activity, if his mom and dad don’t do some kind of healing, that’s a lost child.”

He often tells his own story at assemblies. It’s still cathartic at age 57.

“I share it all the time with hundreds of kids and believe me every time I share it I can feel that pain in my heart. It’s still there. There’s no getting ready of it. It’s a part of who you are, the fabric of your soul.”

He can only do so much. “There’s a lot of kids out there hurting I can’t get to. The other frustrating part is when we lose kids to murder or prison. I’m just so focused on trying to save one life at a time, one family at a time.” As a society he feels, “we better wake up and invest in more counselors – we’ve got to educate, educate, educate.”

Happily married with kids, he has serenity he never had before.

“I wish everybody had that.”

He’s made peace with the fact his job never really ends.

“Even when I retire, people are going to be knocking on my door. I already know that.”

The challenge is as near as a neighboring three-generation gang family he’s counseled. They all respect him except for a teen boy.

“I asked him, ‘Why do you hate me, man?’ He just shrugged his shoulders. ‘How many times did you feel like killing me?’ He finally looked me in the eye and said, ‘Every time I see you, I want to kill you.’
‘What keeps you from killing me?’ ‘Because my nephews love you, my auntie loves you, my uncle loves you, so I’m just going to leave you alone.’ Fourteen years old. He’s just another Beto.”

He holds out hope. “Anybody can change, anybody, I don’t care what condition you’re in, as long as you want to find that peace in yourself.”

2nd District Congressional race gives voters two distinct styles in incumbent Lee Terry and challenger Brad Ashford

October 31, 2014 Leave a comment

The Reader Oct. 30 - Nov. 5, 2014

 

I rarely write about politics.  Here is an exception.  It’s a cover story for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/) about the two men vying for Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional seat in the U.S. House of Representatives: Republican incumbent Lee Terry and Democratic challenger Brad Ashford.

 

2nd District Congressional race gives voters two distinct styles in incumbent Lee Terry and challenger Brad Ashford

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

 

 

 

At the end of the day, voters want a choice. If nothing else, the tight Nebraska 2nd Congressional District race pitting incumbent Lee Terry against challenger Brad Ashford gives voters a distinct option.

Pre-election surveys indicate a neck-and-neck battle between these local boys made good from high profile Omaha families. Politicos have long viewed Terry as a vulnerable target. He nearly lost to John Ewing in 2012. The GOP poured millions into his campaign and even though the national Democratic Party declined to support Ewing, the challenger lost by only two percent of the popular vote. Ashford is getting some support from his national party headquarters in this race but his campaign’s still being outspent thanks to the Terry camp’s deep coffers and the GOP sinking big money into the race.

Terry is the 52-year-old hard-line Republican whose eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives give voters a 16-year resume to consider. This Boomer weaned on the right wing philosophies of his father, former Omaha television anchor and commentator, Lee Terry Sr., and shaped by the doctrine of his political hero, Ronald Reagan, tows the traditional Republican Party line.

“I have a basic pro business, job creation conservative view and I’ve always stayed pretty loyal to that philosophy,” says Terry, who worked as a private practice attorney and served on the Omaha City Council before entering Congress in 1998.

Terry, with endorsements from law enforcement and veterans groups, is a staunch law and order guy and big military advocate. Given his father’s strong GOP leanings, Terry doesn’t have to look far for influences.

“My father’s a huge influence. But for my father I wouldn’t be in Congress or probably even care about politics,” he says. “As a kid my parents were very active in political work. I remember handing our fliers at polling places probably in the first grade and getting political lectures from my dad about how Ted Kennedy was going to hurt small businesses with his whatever legislation. That was our dinner table talk,”

“My dad knows his stuff, he does his research and he develops very strong opinions. When I was growing up he would tape his Sunday morning political show on Saturday and I would always go down to the station when they would film it.”

At one taping Terry met Sen. Roman Hruska, R-Neb. Hruska’s autograph went up next to Evil Knievel’s on his bedroom door at home.

Meeting Hruska, under whom Ashford served as an intern, was big but Terry says “someone that is legendary to me is Ronald Reagan.” Though he never met the two-term President he says the 1984 Reagan presidential campaign offered him a job but he turned it down to pursue a law degree at Creighton University.

 

 

Like Terry, the 64-year-old Ashford is a CU law grad. His wife, Omaha attorney and businesswoman Ann Ferlic Ashford, was a law classmate of Terry’s. The two men go back and they once shared the same party in common, though in sharp contrast to Terry, Ashford’s unbound by party affiliation. For this race though he’s a Democrat after previous forays as a Republican and Independent.

Where Terry was steeped in conservative Republican values, Ashford was immersed in his Republican family’s’ progressive social views. His grandfather Otto Swanson started the now defunct family business, Nebraska Clothing Company, and co-founded the National Conference of Christians and Jews (now known as Inclusive Communities) to counteract a boycott of local Jewish businesses. This social justice legacy became more than an anecdote for Ashford.

“It was a big part of how we were brought up,” he says. “We were tutored on how to watch for discrimination and intolerance. We didn’t live it in the sense that we suffered from it but we certainly were schooled in it and told that was a high value proposition – that when you see it you should try to find out what’s causing it and try to eradicate it.”

He grew up in Augustana Lutheran Church, which moved from conservative to liberal in the aftermath of the documentary A Time for Burning that focused on the rupture within the congregation when its new pastor attempted interracial fellowship there.

Ashford’s rising-tide-lifts-all-ships attitude formed from his family’s principles and business practices.

“For everybody to do well everybody has to have a bite at the apple. The economic growth of the country after World War II did pervade in society and today it’s not the case. You have very few people gaining economic power and most everybody else kind of struggling along. That’s really what’s happening. People have to have a better shot at success and there’s all sorts of obstacles to that, like student loans that are higher than mortgages and the banks getting bailed out while the middle class didn’t.

“Government has a role in evening out the inequality a little bit, making sure the middle class isn’t left out. If they’re left out than you can’t buy a tie and shirt from the clothing store and then the clothing store goes out of business and all the people that work there are unemployed.”

 

 

His 16-year record in the nonpartisan Nebraska Unicameral includes building coalitions that created tax credits for corporations when Omaha was at-risk of losing big business, advocating for intervention resources to help at-risk youth and crafting juvenile justice reforms.

Ashford’s prison reform work, including expansion of mental health programs and vocational training and finding community-based alternatives for nonviolent offenders, has been a target of Terry and his supporters. Pro-Terry ads by the National Republican Congressional Committee have raised ire for linking Ashford’s support of the good time law with the murders Nikko Jenkins was convicted of committing shortly after his early prison release in 2013. The tattooed face of Jenkins, an African-American, and blunt references to his horrific crimes strike many as exploitative. The ad’s been sharply criticized as being in poor taste, even by some prominent Republicans.

Terry’s own campaign is running ads with Jenkins’ image that suggest Ashford’s prison reform actions lead to “assault, robbery and murder.” Ashford is deeply offended the Terry camp has taken a reactionary approach playing on people’s emotions.

“I don’t understand how he cannot disavow such racially-charged ads,” Ashford says. “I mean, he’s really taken us back to the Bush-Dukakis race and the Willie Horton ads. In a town like Omaha that’s trying so hard to overcome decades of racial issues, he’s trying to mine the fears of people. That’s a hard one for me to accept. Why would we want to revisit those days? And that’s what he’s doing.

“I can’t imagine ever doing an ad that would cause people to be fearful
or I would never stand for such a thing.”

Terry says he does disapprove of the NRCC ad: “That’s a horrible ad, I hate it, I wouldn’t have done that. I totally disown that Nikko Jenkins ad.” Despite calls from outside his campaign for it to be removed, it’s kept running. Terry offers no apology for his own ads that use similar loaded images and language that blame Ashford for violent crime.

“Everything I’ve brought up in my commercials has been about his record. We’ve used good time but if you go back and look at my ads that I paid to produce and put on the air, we never mention Jenkins’ name and we never talk about that crime, and that’s out of respect for the victims’ families as well as the fact I didn’t want to glorify a mass murderer.

“But we always talk about how he (Ashford) bottled up good time and bad consequences occurred. That’s fair to talk about.”

Ashford believes it’s a crass strategy to distract voters.

“He’s trying to divert attention away from his lack of productiveness into trying to create fear among the electorate with his ads. He’s trying to convey that the laws of Neb. allow violent criminals to walk out willy nilly, which is absolutely not true. That’s a complex issue. It’s hard to answer that in a 30-second ad, so what we’re trying to say is we do have a good record on public safety.”

Ashford, who often uses “we’ to mean “I,” defends his own record.

“Certainly prison reform, the one issue they’re criticizing me on, is probably one of our greatest successes. We took an issue the governor had literally turned his back on and created a series of bills that will I think for a generation set the course for a prison system that’s smarter on crime and that will keep the public safer. That was very hard to do in the wake of Nikko Jenkins but we had actually started prior to that.

“When someone says you’re soft on crime it really doesn’t matter if you are or aren’t because if they have enough money to say you’re soft on crime than people will say, “He’s soft on crime.’ We’ve had a very balanced approach in the Legislature, we’ve been tough on gang crimes and sexual predators but we’re trying to find a way to get non-violent offenders into community-based services so they won’t get further into the system.”

 

 

When it comes to their respective records in public office, Ashford feels his achievements as a Neb. lawmaker far surpass anything Terry’s done as a congressman, saying of his opponent. “He can’t touch me.”

“Lee is not an effective representative. He has a very slim record.”

Ashford gained an unusually strong endorsement from the Omaha World-Herald that could have been written by his campaign.

“Well, they’ve been watching me,” he says of the paper. “One thing about the Legislature, we’re under the microscope of the press every day. We’re a very open, transparent kind of place unlike Congress where so much is done behind the scenes. So my record’s pretty much out there. I enjoy working on issues and I stick with issues. I don’t like taking partisan votes unless the partisan vote is something I believe in.

“Terry doesn’t have a record of any real consequence. The only thing he has is to attack. He’s a party guy. That’s the game he plays. I think that’s the main difference – I don’t care about parties. I don’t care really at all about parties other than I realize it’s a mechanism to get elected. I agree with the Democrats on lots of issues, certainly social issues, gay rights, immigration, but I’m sure I won’t agree with them on everything.”

 

 

Ashford almost goes so far to say Terry is a Republican mouthpiece.

“You can take a guy like Lee Terry who’s totally ineffective and get him elected simply by dumping $3 or 4 million into a place like Omaha and trashing the opponent. That’s what he’s done for two or three elections that I’ve followed closely.”

Terry takes exception to suggestions he’s done little in office and is strictly a party man.

“I handed an 18-page paper to the Omaha World-Herald showing all the things I’ve been able to accomplish, including pass six bills out of the House this year. Sometimes being effective means not letting a bill go forward. There’s two instances in the last session where the leadership wanted to bring up a bill and when I went in and educated them on how bad each bill really was they pulled the language out. One was Medicare supplemental and the other one was cyber security.

“Sixteen years ago I wouldn’t have had the credibility or the relationship or the knowledge to be able to just walk into the Speaker’s office or the Majority Leader’s office and say, ‘Here’s where you’re wrong.’ Not only did I walk in, but I also brought it up in conference in front of everybody and took on the Majority Leader in front of all my colleagues. Now I didn’t run to the press and brag about that because I also believe in Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment – Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”

In terms of crafting legislation Terry, who’s chairman of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, says much of what he’s done “started as a bill but ended up an amendment to a different bill or to a bigger bill of the same theme.” As committee chair he and Democrat Jan Schakowsy from Chicago pushed through the Global Investment in American Jobs Act of 2013. The bill tasks the Department of Commerce to lead an interagency review and make recommendations to Congress on ways to make the U.S. more competitive in attracting foreign investment.

“When people say I don’t get along with the other side, well I worked with the most partisan, liberal person on our committee and got a bill done, negotiated, passed through committee, passed through the House. It’s sitting on (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid’s desk right now.”

Ashford has pledged to be led by what his local constituents say rather than be swayed by special interests and to build coalitions with colleagues from both parties as a wedge to help break gridlock.

“What I’m trying to tell people is that it is possible to make change by making government more responsive. That linkage between people and their government has been interrupted by special interests on all sides of the political spectrum. It’s really cut off individuals from their government.”

He says he’s interested in “developing policies around what’s going to help the entire society.” Even though he feels the Democrats were wrong “to push the Affordable Care Act through the way they did” he advocates fixing glaring problems with Obamacare and knocks Terry for repeatedly voting to repeal the law, which he says “only perpetuates the problem.” Terry, who like Ashford favors universal access, concedes he’s voted for ACA’s repeal but he says most of his votes concerning the law have been to amend it.

 

 

 

 

Ashford considers immigration reform an issue that will help the entire society “because it will bring more dollars into circulation,” adding, “Immigrants are hard workers, they’ll pay taxes, they’ll lend their efforts to the general prosperity of the country.”

He favors a stepped approach to immigration reform.

“You have to build a bill from the ground up in a bipartisan way, like the Senate bill on immigration reform, which identifies different classes of immigrants. Each class of immigrant would have certain legal status and with that status comes certain rights and responsibilities. So a DREAMer would have certain rights and obligations that are different from adults, for example, that would clearly show what they have to do to gain legal status. The same with adults and with people that just want to get work permits. I think it has to be very carefully constructed.”

Terry says his own view has evolved from forced expulsion to a more stepped approach that leads to citizenship for some and work permits for others, for example.

“In the last year or two since there’s been a lot of discussion and we now realize there’s a great deal of overlap and it’s not as divided as it appears or appeared in the past.”

On the other hand Terry says “there are four or five issues where it is really tough” to find bipartisan consensus on “because we are principally completely different. Like raising taxes just so you can bring up more revenue so you can spend more. I’m not going to support that. Now if you say, OK. let’s find a way to a balanced budget and let’s put everything on the table,’ then we could probably come up with a plan to get us to a balanced budget. But when you sit there and say we need more revenue and we need to increase taxes, you’re right, I’m going to differ with that and I’m just going to say no.”

The 2nd District foes agree that movement on big issues will only come when elected officials stay out of their ideological silos long enough to hear what the other side says and make necessary concessions.

Terry says, “We have to be able to get together on these. Reasonable people from both sides of the aisle can sit down and come to an agreement on these big deals, and the only way to get us to a balanced budget and really secure Medicare and Social Security for the future is if both parties are at the table.”

“In any of these issues in order to make change you have to convince your colleagues of the basic assumptions and if you can’t get people to do that you’re not going to be effective in making legislation,” says Ashford, who feels global warming is a good example. It turns out he and Terry share similar views on the subject.

“It does exist and we in Neb. should be extremely worried about it,” Ashford says, “because our economic driver is ag and agriculture relies on the environment and as the environment changes our ability to produce products, crops, whatever it is, also is impacted. There’s so much to learn about it. You have to be open-minded about it and
understand there is no one answer.”

Terry says, “I’m not the naysayer, I do believe there is climate change.
I do believe mankind has responsibility in this. I will not go to man-is- 100-percent” responsible. Now I am not in the camp that says we should just shut off fossil fuels. I do think we should be more energy efficient. I think we should use less of our resources and use resources like natural gas which have less emissions than gasoline.”

With the Nov. 4 election looming large each candidate is dealing with campaign fatigue, his own and voters’.

Ashford is upbeat, encouraged by a surge of Democrats who voted early. “It’s a close election, it’s expensive, my opponent has more resources than we do. But I think our message is getting out there. We have a chance to win, I’m hopeful we’re going to win, I believe we’re going to win.”

Meanwhile, Terry isn’t even considering the possibility he won’t be returned to office by voters. “I refuse to even think about it. The reality is my gut’s telling me things are going our way. When I’m out and about there’ an urgency in the feedback I’m getting of you’ve got to get out there and do this. The last three weeks I’ve really felt a shift.”

Should he not win re-election, does he have any plans? “No, there is no plan. My plan is to work my ass off and win.”

Justice Champion Samuel Walker Calls It as He Sees It

May 30, 2014 1 comment

UNO professor emeritus of criminal justice Samuel Walker is one of those hard to sum up subjects because he’s a man of so many interests and passions and accomplishments, all of which is a good thing for me as a storyteller but it’s also a real challenge trying to convey the totality of someone with such a rich life and career in a single article.  As a storyteller I must pick and choose what to include, what to emphasize, what to leave out.  My choices may not be what another writer would choose.  That’s the way it goes.  What I did with Walker was to make his back story the front story, which is to say I took an experience from his past – his serving as a Freedom Summer volunteer to try and register black voters in Mississippi at the peak of the civil rights movement – as the key pivot point that informs his life’s work and that bridges his past and present.  That experience is also juxtaposed with him growing up in a less then enlightened household that saw him in major conflict with his father.  My cover profile of Walker is now appearing in the New Horizons newspaper.

 

 

Samuel Walker

 

Justice Champion Sam Walker Calls It as He Sees It

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons

 

And justice for all
You could do worse than label UNO professor emeritus of criminal justice Samuel Walker a dyed-in-the-wool progressive liberal. He certainly doesn’t conceal his humanist-libertarian leanings in authoring books, published articles and blog posts that reflect a deep regard for individual rights and sharp criticism for their abridgment.

He’s especially sensitive when government and police exceed their authority to infringe upon personal freedoms. He’s authored a history of the American Ciivil Liberties Union. His most recent book examines the checkered civil liberties track records of U.S. Presidents. He’s also written several books on policing. His main specialization is police accountability and best practices, which makes him much in demand as a public speaker, courtroom expert witness and media source. A Los Angeles Times reporter recently interviewed him for his take on the Albuquerque, NM police’s high incidence of officer-involved shootings, including a homeless man shot to death in March.

“I did a 1997 report on Albuquerque. They were shooting too many people. It has not changed. There’s a huge uproar over it,” he says. “In this latest case there’s video of their shooting a homeless guy (who reportedly threatened police with knives) in the park. Officers approached this thing like a military operation and they were too quick to pull the trigger.”

As an activist police watchdog he’s chided the Omaha Police Department for what he considers a pattern of excessive use of force. That’s made him persona non grata with his adopted hometown’s law enforcement community. He’s a vocal member of the Omaha Alliance for Justice, on whose behalf he drafted a letter to the U.S. Justice Department seeking a federal investigation of Omaha police. No Justice Department review has followed.

The alliance formed after then-Omaha Pubic Safety Auditor Tristan Bonn was fired following the release of her report critical of local police conduct. Walker had a hand in creating the auditor post.

“Our principal demand was for her to be reinstated or for someone else to be in that position. We lobbied a couple mayors. We had rallies and public forums,” he says.

All to no avail.

“The auditor ordinance is still on the books but the city just hasn’t funded it. It’s been a real political struggle which is why I put my hopes in the civic leaders.”

After earning his Ph.D. in American history from Ohio State University in 1973, the Ohio native came to work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He met his life partner, Mary Ann Lamanna, a UNO professor emeritus of sociology, in a campus lunchroom. The couple, who’ve never married, have been together since 1981. They celebrated their 30th anniversary in Paris. They share a Dundee neighborhood home.

Though now officially retired, Walker still goes to his office every day and stays current with the latest criminal justice research, often updating his books for new editions. He’s often called away to consult cities and police departments.

He served as the “remedies expert” in a much publicized New York City civil trial last year centering around the police department’s controversial stop and frisk policy. Allegations of widespread abuse – of stops disproportionally targeting people of color – resulted in a lengthy courtroom case. Federal district judge Shira Scheindlin found NYPD engaged in unconstitutional actions in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. In her decision, she quoted from Walker’s testimony about what went wrong and what reforms were needed.

 

 

Counter notes
Walker’s work is far more than an exercise in academic interest. It’s a deeply personal expression of beliefs and values formed by crucial events of the ’60s. The most momentous of these saw him serve as a Freedom Summer volunteer in the heart of the Jim Crow South at the height of the civil rights movement while a University of Michigan student. Spending time in Mississippi awakened him to an alternate world where an oppressive regime of apartheid ruled – one fully condoned by government and brutally enforced by police.

“There was a whole series of shocks – the kind of things that just turned your world upside down. The white community was the threat, the black community was your haven. I was taught differently. The police were not there to serve and protect you, they were a threat. There was also the shock of realizing our government was not there to protect people trying to exercise their right to vote.”

His decision to leave his comfortable middle class life to try and educate and register voters in a hostile environment ran true to his own belief of doing the right thing but ran afoul of his father’s bigotry. Raised in Cleveland Heights, Walker grew up in a conservative 1950s household that didn’t brook progressivism.

“Quite the reverse. My father was from Virginia. He graduated from Virginia Military Institute. He had all the worst of a Southern Presbyterian military education background. Deeply prejudiced. Made no bones about it. Hated everybody, Catholics especially. Very anti-Semitic. Later in life I’ve labeled him an equal opportunity bigot.

“My mother was from an old Philadelphia Quaker family. It was a mismatch, though they never divorced. She was very quiet. It was very much a ’50s marriage. You didn’t challenge the patriarch. I was the one in my family who did.”

Walker’s always indulged a natural curiosity, streak of rebelliousness and keen sense of social justice. Even as a boy he read a lot, asked questions and sought out what was on the other side of the fence.

As he likes to say, he not only delivered newspapers as a kid, “I read them.” Books, too.

“I was very knowledgeable about public affairs by high school, much more so than any of my friends. I could actually challenge my father at a dinner table discussion if he’d say something ridiculous. Well, he just couldn’t handle that, so we had conflict very much early on.”

He also went against his parents’ wishes by embracing rock and roll, whose name was coined by the legendary disc jockey, Alan Freed. The DJ first made a name for himself in Akron and then in Cleveland. In the late 1940s the owner of the Cleveland music store Record Rendezvous made Freed aware white kids were buying up records by black R&B artists. Walker became one of those kids himself as a result of Freed playing black records on the air and hosting concerts featuring these performers. Freed also appeared in several popular rock and roll movies and hosted his own national radio and television shows. His promotion contributed to rock’s explosion in the mainstream.

As soon as Walker got exposed to this cultural sea change, he was hooked.

“I’m very proud to have been there at the creation of rock and roll. My first album was Big Joe Turner on Atlantic Records. Of course, I just had to hear Little Richard. I loved it.”

Like all American cities, Cleveland was segregated when Walker came of age. In order to see the black music artists he lionized meant going to the other side of town.

“We were told by our parents you didn’t go down over the hill to 105th Street – the center of the black community – because it was dangerous. Well, we went anyway to hear Fats Domino at the 105th Street Theatre. We didn’t tell our parents.”

Then there was the 1958 Easter Sunday concert he caught featuring Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis headlining a Freed tour.

“My mother was horrified. I think my generation was the first for whom popular cultural idols – in music and baseball – were African- Americans.”

In addition to following black recording artists he cheered Cleveland Indians star outfielder Larry Doby (who broke the color barrier in the American League) and Cleveland Browns unning back Jim Brown.

More than anything, he was responding to a spirit of protest as black and white voices raised a clarion call for equal rights.

“Civil rights was in the air. It was what was happening certainly by 1960 when I went to college. The sit-ins and freedom rides. My big passion was for public interest. The institutionalized racism in the South struck us as being ludicrous. Now it involved a fair amount of conflict to go to Miss. in the summer of ’64 but what I learned early on at the most important point in my life is that you have to follow your instincts. If there is something you think is right or something you feel you should do and all sorts of people are telling you no then you have to do it.

“That has been very invaluable to me and I do not regret any of those choices. That’s what I learned and it guides me even today.”

[© Ellen Lake]

Photo caption:

Walker on far left of porch of a Freedom Summer headquarters shack in Gulfport, Miss.

 

Mississippi burning

He never planned being a Freedom Summer volunteer. He just happened to see an announcement in the student newspaper.

“It’s a fascinating story of how so much of our lives are matters of chance,” he says. “It was a Sunday evening and I didn’t want to study, I wanted to go to a movie. I was looking in the paper and there was no damn movie. Instead, I saw this notice that Bob Moses (Robert Parris Moses) was to speak on the Mississippi Summer Project. It sounded interesting. Moses was a legend in his own time. He really was the guiding spirit of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.”

Walker attended the March ’64 presentation and was spellbound by the charismatic and persuasive Moses, who also led the Council of Federated Organizations that organized the Freedom Summer effort.

“If you heard him speak for 10-15 minutes you were in, that was it, it was over. He was that eloquent. He was African-American, Northern, Harvard-educated, and he could speak in terms that white college students could relate to. It was just our language, our way of thinking.
So it was really just a matter of chance. If there had been a good movie that night my life would have been different.”

Walker applied to join the caravan of mostly white Northern college students enlisted to carry the torch of freedom in the South.

Applicants went to Oberlin (Ohio) College to be screened.

“They didn’t want any adventure seekers. We had to come up with $500 in reserve as bail money in case we got arrested. I had that, so I was accepted.”

He says his father “was absolutely furious” with his decision, adding, “We had fallen out the year before and so this was no surprise.” Meanwhile, he says his mother “was quietly supportive.”

Walker joined hundreds of other students for a one-week orientation at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio.

“The training was very intense.”

He learned about the very real risks involved. As Northerners intruding into a situation white Mississippians considered a sovereign state rights issue, the students were considered troublemakers, even enemies. Most whites there held deep resentment and contempt for outsiders attempting to interfere with their way of life and order of things.

“Intellectually we knew the danger, that was explained to us, and we had ample opportunity to bail out. There were some people who were accepted who apparently did not show up. I’m not sure I could have lived with myself if I chickened out.”

In June Walker and three others set out in a station wagon belonging to one of his Eastern compatriots.

“It had New York plates and of course that was a red flag we were outside agitators. We went down through Ala. and then crossed over…I have a vivid recollection of crossing the line into Miss. that morning on this clear soon-to-be hot June day. I was assigned to Gulf Port, next door to Biloxi. Gulf Port was the ‘safest’ area in the state. Not far from New Orleans. Tourism. There’s an U.S. Air force Base down there. So they were accustomed to having outsiders.”

Nothing Walker witnessed surprised him but seeing the strict segregation and incredible poverty first-hand did take him aback.
Volunteers stayed with host black families in humble shanties.

The men in the family he boarded with worked as longshoremen. There were separate white and black locals of the International Longshoremen’s Association and having a union voice gave the black workers some protections many other blacks lacked.

Walker variously went out alone or paired up with another volunteer.

“We would go up these unpaved roads to these shacks and try to convince people they should register to vote. Only 7 percent of potentially eligible African Americans were registered. I was going door to door talking to people and looking them in the eye and seeing the fear. They would say, ‘Yes sir, yes ma’am,’ and it was plenty evident they weren’t going to make any effort. They knew we could leave and they knew they were going to be there stuck with the consequences.

“It gave me a sense more than anything else of the human price of segregation and all the terror that supported it.”

While the stated objective was not achieved the initiative helped break some of the isolation blacks experienced in that totalitarian state.

“The goal was voter registration and we registered almost no one. It wasn’t until the Voter Rights Act a year later any progress was made. But we had to do it. The major accomplishment was we established our right to be there. It changed the political-legal climate of Mississippi.”

Temporary Freedom Schools were formed, convened in black churches, homes, even outdoors, as resources to teach literacy, basic math, black history and constitutional rights to youths and adults alike.

Walker personally witnessed no violence and never encountered any direct threat.

“I don’t remember being scared at any point.”

The one glint of intimidation came while going door to door when a white man in a pickup began cruising up and down the road. On another occasion, he says, “we did get some people to go down to the courthouse and march and some people were arrested.”

The danger was real though. Within days of his arrival three young civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner went missing. Goodman had been in one of Walker’s training sessions. The worst was feared and later confirmed: murder.

Walker says, “When we heard the news three people were missing it came as no surprise and we knew they were dead even though they didn’t find the bodies until 44 days later. We just knew.”

The terror campaign went far beyond The Mississippi Three to include beatings of residents and volunteers and the burnings of dozens of black homes, churches and businesses.

As disturbing as this was it didn’t give him any second thoughts.

“You couldn’t retreat in the face of death. They were not going to chase us out even at the cost of murder. We were there and we were going to stay and finish this.”

 

One of many public protests against NYPD’s stop and frisk policy

 

Police watchdog
Walker was committed enough that he returned to Miss. early the next year and stayed through much of 1966. The experience was foundational to setting the course of his life’s work. “Absolutely, totally and completely. We began to see things through the prism of race.” It also made him aware of disparities in his own backyard. Even today, in the middle of a thriving Midwest economy, he says, “There are really two Omahas.” One of privilege and the other of poverty.

His activism resumed upon returning to Ann Arbor, where he participated in civil rights fundraisers and protests. He actively opposed the war in Vietnam. The military draft was in full swing to feed the war machine. He’d been classified 1-Y for medical reasons.

“On April 3, 1968 I turned in my draft card as part of a mass rally in Boston. Hundreds also did that day in Boston, and I think it was thousands across the country. The cards were all sent to the Justice Department. And that is how I acquired my FBI file.”

Like many activists, he accepts his FBI file as a badge of honor for fighting the good fight in the tumultuous ’60s.

By training he’s an expert in ethnic violence of the 19th century, and he thought he had an urban studies job lined up at UNO in the newly formed College of Public Affairs and Community Service only to discover the position disbanded. Then someone told him the university had received a big criminal justice grant. Walker talked with then criminal justice dean Vince Webb, who hired him.

“I got a job and the job became a career and I never looked back. Pure chance.”

Walker says his urban history expertise translated well to examining the urban racial violence of the 20th century.

“Once in policing my focus gravitated to police community relations.– this wasn’t too many years after the riots – and from there to citizen review of police and then to what I now define my field as – police accountability.

He says policing’s come a long way.

“The world of policing has changed. There’s been some genuine improvement. The composition of police forces is very different in terms of African-Americans, Latinos and women. Police thinking in the better departments is much more responsive to their local communities. The reform impulse has really come from the community, from the ground up, from people complaining about incidents, people lobbying city councils and mayors. Lawsuits, even if they don’t succeed, raise the issue and create a sense there’s a problem that needs correcting. At various points along the way the better police chiefs say, ‘Yeah, we have a problem here.'”

Walker says the control of deadly force is a good example.

“There were some police chiefs who said, ‘We can’t just send our people out there with guns and no instructions,’ which we used to do prior to ’72. They’d get hours and hours of training on how to clean the damn thing and no instructions on when you should shoot and when you should not shoot. It was, ‘Use good judgement.’ That was it. The fleeing felon rule was in effect, so if an officer saw someone he believed had committed a felony, a burglary let’s say, even though the person was unarmed, that officer could shoot to kill and could in fact kill that person within the law. There’s been a whole change there because of the community policing movement.”

In his work Walker says, “I’ve learned much more about how police departments work internally in terms of holding their officers accountable. That’s my expertise.”

In the case of the NYPD’s overly aggressive stop and frisk policy he says officers were required to have a reasonable suspicion someone had committed a crime or was about to. The overwhelming number of detentions were of people of color and Walker says “well over 80 percent of the time there was no arrest nor a ticket, so the officers guessed wrong. They had a heavy hand.” He says one of the main rationales officers put down in their reports was “high crime neighborhood,” which Walker found inexcusable. “A neighborhood is a place, not a behavior. It’s where you live, it’s not what you’re doing. They were making you a criminal suspect for living where you live.”

He says the most common reason given for stops was “furtive movement,” which he found far too ambiguous.

“It was a runaway profiling policy. This went on for 14 years and sparked several lawsuits. The police commissioner and the mayor did not listen to the complaints and protests. They dug their heels in and didn’t look at the evidence.”

He says his “fairly straight forward testimony” recommended a new policy on how to conduct stops. better training, a mid-management accountability system and a broader early intervention system with a computerized data base to track officer performance. He laid out remedies enacted in other police departments.

 

 

He believes the case could encourage legal challenges of profiling in other states but he cautions, “The difference is the NYPD turned it into a massive program, which is more easily challenged. In most departments, it is used, but not on a massive basis and a matter of official policy. This makes it far more difficult to challenge.”

(NOTE: Last fall a federal appeals court blocked the ruling that altered the NYPD astop and frisk policy and removed Judge Shira Scheindlin from the case.)

He says. “Theres a very real connection between Miss. in 1964 and being on the witness stand in New York in 2013 and race is the connection. It’s the lens through which I saw that and understood it.”

In this pervasive video and social media age police incidents are increasingly captured on camera and shared with the masses, as happened with some Omaha incidents. Walker says despite the prospect the whole world may be watching alleged police misconduct still occurs “because the habits are so deeply engrained that among some officers this is just second nature. Officers label someone a bad guy, so he’s not worthy of respect, and they do what they want.”

At its worst, he says, problematic attitudes and behaviors become systemic, accepted parts of police culture. The longer they go unchecked, without consequences, the more engrained they become.

“If it happens on the street, who’s to know,” he says. “Changing a large department after it has declined and certain habits have become engrained is a serious challenge. You need clear policies of all the critical incidents – deadly force, use of physical force, domestic violence, high speed pursuits. And then the training has to be very clear as to what those policies are. The supervision is really the critical thing. Everybody knows on the street supervision is where it’s at. A sergeant over 8 to 10 officers – that’s the heart and soul right there. When there’s some incident a sergeant has to say, ‘I don’t like the way you handled that, I don’t want to see it again.'”

He says no police department should feel itself immune from oversight.

“We know what the problems are, we know what to do. There are experts on particular subjects around the country and they can come in and help with things like use of force and domestic violence policies.”

He says police reform efforts should include public forums where all players can express their views. City governments, community groups and police departments can draw on best practices for policy guidance.

 

 

 

His work in words
The second edition of his book The New World of Police Accountability just came out in December. “I had to redo the whole thing, so much had changed in just a few years and my understanding of things had changed. It’s an exciting challenge to stay current.”

He says his his book The Police in America has been the best selling textbook on policing since it came in 1983. “I did a textbook on the police because there wasn’t a decent one.”

He did the book The Color of Justice with two colleagues. “It was really the first decent textbook on race, ethnicity and criminal justice. A lot of people wonder how is it there’s this huge racial disparity on who goes to prison. It’s a lot more complicated than people think. First, we’ve got some basic social inequalities. The short version of it is there’s a racial bias in policing. Then when you get to plea bargaining and sentencing and probation that’s accentuated a little further and so the end result is the accumulation of these incremental things .”

He says his book In Defense of American Civil Liberties is “probably the best thing I’ve done.” It took him five years. “I learned so much from it just about the history of this country. I knew some of the tent poles of major controversies – the Japanese American internment, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate – but it was a very rewarding experience and I still get inquiries from people based on it 24 years later.”

His new book Presidents and Civil Liberties reveals some surprises and contradictions in the records of Oval Officer holders.

With his national reputation Walker could have moved long ago to a bigger university but he says “being involved in the community is very much a part of my life and so that’s a reason for staying.” His involvement includes spending much of his free time seeing movies at the downtown art cinema Film Streams, where he annually curates a repertory series. Then there’s the extensive collection of vinyl records, album cover art, sheet music and political posters he’s accumulated. An exhibition of his jazz album covers by illustrator David Stone Martin showed at UNO, which also hosted a display of his political posters.

He’s a devoted fan of jazz, R&B and folk music Duke Ellington is a favorite. He and Mary Ann are also known to drop everything to go see Bruce Springsteen in concert.

Though the university and city he came to 40 years ago are “much transformed,” he’d like to its see leaders strive for higher standards.

As the events in Miss. 50 years ago are never far from his mind and inform so much of who he is and what he does, he’s proud to relive them. He attended a 30th anniversary of Freedom Summer in Jackson and a 40th anniversary of the orientation in Oxford, Ohio. In June he’ll return to Jackson for the 50th anniversary of when freedom rang.

 

 
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