On Dec. 4, the 44th anniversary of Black Panther Fred Hampton’s assassination, and eight days before his own 60th birthday, Chicago bluesman Larry Taylor got into a dialog with two policemen who pulled him over on his native West Side.
Tension was thick in the air. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel had just gotten Police Chief McCarthy to resign and now was under pressure himself to resign. Rahm’s administration, and States Attorney Anita Alvarez, had tried for a year to cover up a video of the cold-blooded police shooting of a young Black man, Laquan McDonald. When activists outed the video just before Thanksgiving, people were furious. On Black Friday, Black Lives Matter and diverse allies efficiently blocked store doors in the ritzy Golden Mile shopping district on Michigan Avenue.
A week later, even more cops than usual had descended on the Black neighborhoods of the West Side. Retaliation, folks were saying. A pair of police accosted Larry near the corner of Jackson and Pulaski. They said he’d failed to signal for a left turn. He told them no, he had signaled, but pointed out they were unable to observe, since they’d been cruising up the alley.
Then they told him to put his hands on the hood of the police SUV. They searched him and the car. They found no drugs, no guns, and no money. Money is something many musicians, fact of business today, do not have much of.
“You got no probable cause to search me,” he reported telling them. “The only reason you’re even stopping me is, profiling me for being Black. And that could get you into a lawsuit.”
“Well, this is a high drug area,” said the cops, both younger white men.
“Why don’t you go arrest someone on that corner a couple blocks over? You know that’s a drug spot. But you won’t. You afraid those guys could pull out a gun and shoot you. I’m not armed. I don’t want to carry a gun. But here you are, taking up your time, picking on me.”
“You know a lot,” the cops admitted.
“You think Black people don’t know nothing, just because a lot of us are poor? I’ve been on all of the streets in Chicago for way more years than you have.”
The officers, he said, looked surprised. Larry has a way of talking up without making them mad. We don’t know if cops on the street are really trained to hear the views of various people in our democracy. In that total-stress job, they might see everyone they meet as criminal or crazy.
“We only go after the bad guys,” said one of the men in blue.
“You assume all Black people are bad,” Larry retorted. “But most of the time you don’t pick on the White people who come to the West Side to buy drugs. You’ll just take their stuff and send them home and tell them, don’t come back again.”
The cops didn’t dispute that, Larry said. Instead, they brought up, “Who killed that nine year old boy and other Black kids? It was other Black people.”
“Officer, I hate to see kids get killed. I got kids, and grandkids. I want them to live and grow up. But for years the police didn’t bother to investigate when a Black kid was murdered. Now all the sudden it’s a big political thing, black-on-black crime. Don’t make a racial thing out of it. White people kill white kids too.”
Larry moved to straighten up and take his hands off the hood of the police car, since the officers had searched and found nothing dangerous on him.
“Put your hands back on the car!” they ordered. “Aren’t you afraid to be on this street?”
“No,” Larry said. “I’ve lived on the West Side all my life. These are my people. We’re all poor Black people. What do I have to fear from them? They’re more afraid of you bailing out of your cruiser and pointing guns at them. Just ask any of these people.” He pointed to his neighbors along the street. The cops, probably wisely, declined his challenge.
Community policing is dead,” the bluesman went on. “The mayors messed it up. Rahm and Daley Jr. Now you all are being trained as militarized police.” Larry could have spoken of the Homan Square detention center, and the reopening of the Armory at North and Kedzie. He could have pled with them about the need for more jobs and better drug treatment, and possibly even legalizing drugs if the trade is too big for the government to fight. But, still bent over with his hands on the car, he didn’t want to push it. He just said something like:
“You’re supposed to serve and protect all of us. If you break laws and violate people’s civil rights and human rights, going after bad guys, how can you tell us to obey the law? If you break the law, there is no law.”
The cops didn’t say they agreed. But they told Larry, “This is your lucky day. We didn’t find any guns or drugs. You can go.” Larry straightened himself up and found his car keys. He was relieved. But shaken. It could easily have gone bad.
What these men debated for 20 minutes on the street corner, we can all talk about. What’s the role of police? Who are they responsible to? How can we make the streets safer for both civilians and police, where all are free to walk, visit, and do legitimate business?
For sure, the officers found one subversive item in the car: a handful of pluggers for Larry Taylor’s 60th Birthday Blues Bash, next Sat. Dec. 12, from 7:30 p.m. to 2 a.m., at the Water Hole, 1400 S. Western Av., Chicago IL 60608. Larry, a singer and a drummer, channels the spirits of the great Howlin’ Wolf, Johnnie Taylor, Muddy Waters and James Brown. Admission $5. Cash Bar. Over 21. Food by Ellie’s Cafe from the Southwest Side. Besides Larry, two unforgettable guest singers: Little Johnny (“I’ve changed..”) and Ms. Rodeo (“Party, we gonna party y’all!”)
We hope you can join us. The West and South Side musicians will play the blues and create good vibes, so we can open doors to making this a city we can all live in.
About Larry Taylor: www.larrytaylorchicagoblues.com