One of the greatest cultural differences between kids in the suburbs and kids in the inner city has been how they see the police. Little white kids like me in the 1950s were taught — via our Dick and Jane readers, even — the police were our friends.
We believed it so deeply we were shocked when some of us got whacked around during Vietnam-era protests. I’m not sure what little black children were taught, but if they had Dick and Jane, they also had life as a reality check.
Lamar Grable, born in 1975, was an aspiring writer and no dummy, but he labored under the illusion that if he kept his nose clean and stayed out of trouble, he’d be all right.
Unfortunately, he evidently ended up in the wrong place. “He had just started a new job at a Kmart in the suburbs, but his muffler was dragging on his car, you know, and he knew he couldn’t be riding around in the suburbs like that at night,” his mama, Arnetta Grable, remembered over coffee at the Cass Cafe.
For her, it could have been yesterday. Lamar took off to find a friend to help him tie the muffler up. That was the night of Sept. 21, 1996, and the next thing his parents knew, he had been shot twice in the back, three times at close range in the chest, and twice elsewhere.
Waiting anxiously at Detroit Receiving Hospital, Arnetta was stunned to learn the police had shot her baby. “He didn’t have any record. Nobody ever saw him with a gun. He was happy — he had a new job; he had no reason to want to shoot anyone.
They gave the cop who shot him a distinguished service award for bravery, after he claimed Lamar tried to shoot him.
Grable might have easily been forgotten; one of thousands of young men, mainly black, who become casualties of the streets. Except his momma never believed it, and she never gave up trying to get justice.
She did give up her small catering business to devote herself to working, first for Lamar, then for other young people who had died from police bullets.
Living on savings, a little help from her friends and an odd job here and there, Arnetta helped form the “October 22nd Coalition,” dedicated to stopping police brutality. They put together a book, Stolen Lives, that covered the phenomenon nationwide.
And she took on the seemingly hopeless task of suing the police. Slowly, people began noticing that cops in Detroit were killing people at a rate higher than in other cities. And the buzz centered around one Eugene Brown, a former U.S. Marine who has been involved in nine shootings, more than any other Detroit police officer.
Three of the people he has shot have died. One was Lamar Wayne Grable. Last spring, Metro Times and the Michigan Citizen, followed by Detroit’s daily papers, began reporting on allegations of police brutality. Reports found that even the police had concluded the story Brown told about Lamar’s death just didn’t hold up. There was no gunpowder on Grable’s right hand and none of his fingerprints were on the gun.
Arnetta’s suit got more serious attention. Early last year, the police offered her $750,000 to settle. No way, she said. Take the money, her lawyers urged; you’ll never get more. Then she said the police offered her $2.25 million.
“But it isn’t about money. I want a trial,” she explained. “My lawyers then tried to have me declared incompetent,” and force an acceptance of the settlement.
Arnetta fired them; got new lawyers, fought in probate to keep control of the case. She won; her civil suit against Eugene Brown and the Detroit Police Department is now scheduled in Wayne County Circuit Court March 26.
Should she win any money, some will go to help educate Lamar’s 5-year-old daughter Brittney. But Arnetta also wants to publish a novel Lamar was writing, revive a group her son was starting for young entrepreneurs, and aid folks like herself.
According to her statistics, 2,023 people were shot to death by the police across America during the past decade. Not that all those deaths were murder. There are bad guys, and people who are poor and black need reliable and decent law enforcement more than anybody.
Arnetta is anything but anti-police; her brother is a lieutenant.
“I have a niece who is an officer too, who for a short time had to ride with Eugene Brown,” she said, chuckling bitterly at the irony. “She got a transfer. She said he was way too much of a hot dog.”
Hot dog or not, Brown deserves justice. So do the people he killed. I don’t know why Lamar died that night, though the evidence suggests mistaken identity; Brown was evidently chasing a thief who had gotten away.
But I’m not sure even a car thief merits eight slugs.
Benny Napoleon needs to explain why, after so many incidents and so many questions, Brown was left on the street. Cops have faced filing cabinet duty for years for less.
Detroit cops are often called upon to be heroes, every day. But ordinary people in Detroit need to see them as their champions, too. That isn’t the case now, and we need to find out why, and fix it, fast.
What you can do: Contact The Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, 313-527-6463, or check the Web at www.october22.org. Incidentally, Arnetta is going to Washington for the inauguration, though the Shrub probably won’t ask her to dance. She’ll be marching with the coalition, who worry what kind of justice they might get from an Attorney General John Ashcroft. Somehow, I think they’re not alone.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]