Racial bias in policing. I’m glad that debate was settled 40 years ago!

Forty years ago, I got a lesson in biased policing while I was a student in a criminal law class at Ohlone College near San Jose.

The professor, a retired San Francisco officer, was talking about the use of discretion. He used as an example failure to signal before changing lanes. He pointed out that it would foolish to make a stop every time you witness such an offense and asked for examples of when you should and shouldn’t ignore it.

Most students offered similar examples. “If you see someone a half mile ahead of you on a nearly deserted freeway change lanes without signaling, who cares?” “You should pull them over if they cut someone off,” etc. (All dialogue here is paraphrased, but the consensus was “no harm, no foul.”.)

But then one earnest young white cop said he pulls people over when they are chicano, the term in widespread use at the time. The reason, he explained, is that almost every chicano he encountered was up to no good. Their offenses included drugs, theft, assault, and traffic violations. Half the people he gave tickets to were chicano, he said, because they are lousy drivers. Continue reading

My paean to the Fourth of July

The following is an excerpt from Wheels on the Bus: Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Life in 1974, Copyright 2010 Ken Bilderback.

The Michigan of my memory was a dingy place. I remember the black, crusty snow along the curbs in late winter. I remember walking home from junior high school in dank weather, terrified of the beatings I might face from the neighborhood bullies. The beatings in reality didn’t happen all that often, but 40 years later I still have physical and emotional scars from those that did.

Wheels on the Bus

Wheels on the Bus

I remember finding safety in the cold, musty basement of my parents’ house, huddled with my cat, Bandit, and surrounded by piles of books, magazines and newspapers “collected” over the years by my hoarder mother. I remember huddling down there painfully aware that my paranoid schizophrenic father might erupt again at any moment. When he did erupt he would lock himself in his bedroom and curse and stomp his feet and his tirade would resonate through the heating vents suspended from the ceiling of the basement as I buried myself in a National Geographic, dreaming of far off cities.

My first memory of my father, in fact my first memory of anything, happened when I was a toddler. When I was young, my father would leave on long, unexplained trips. I know now he was looking for jobs and someplace to start over, but back then I didn’t know what he was searching for. I just knew he was gone, and that was good enough for me. So my life’s first memory is my mother telling me he was coming home that night from one of those trips. I screamed in terror. That’s my first memory of my life.

My safe little corner of the basement was dominated by my electric train set, mounted on a table with an ever-changing cityscape, often modeled on a picture from those National Geographics. I built the towns with discarded 2×4 blocks I scrounged from construction sites in our area of suburban Detroit, which was growing like wildfire in the 1960s, fueled by lower-middle-class whites fleeing the city. One 2×4 block was good enough for a gas station, but it might take two for the fire station, three for city hall and four or five for the hospital and school. One little wooden block was special and was a centerpiece of any scene. I had carefully drawn windows and doors on this block, along with a crude drawing of a man smiling and waving by the front door, standing under the sign identifying the business as “Kenny’s Builders.” Kenny was the general contractor for all the buildings in town, which, I remember now, included only commercial buildings and never any homes. Despite all his imagination, apparently Kenny didn’t know how to build a home. When my father would hurl coffee mugs at my beloved Bandit or sit in his bedroom cursing at the misery of knowing in his heart that I was not his son, I would imagine the train pulling out of my safe little imaginary town, headed to an even safer imaginary city that existed only in my mind.

But the Michigan of my memory also was the launching pad for what has been a happy life. Without the hours spent huddled in the safety of that unhealthy basement building imaginary towns and reading books and magazines about faraway places, I might never have overcome my fears. Or, to put it another way, I didn’t overcome my fears; I just decided my fear of the known was greater than my fear of the unknown.

At 17 I found myself sprung from high school a year early after being skipped from the middle of ninth grade to the middle of tenth. The last two years of high school had been comparatively happy times, filled with friends stuffed into my 1967 Camaro enjoying the heyday of Motown and Detroit rock ‘n’ roll. The bullies of the past already had become the pathetic losers I always knew they had buried not so deep inside of them.

Yet even those happy years carry memories of a psychotic father and dark, damp seemingly endless winters. When it came time to start my freshman year as one of the first men at the previously all-female Marygrove College in Detroit, I wondered if being one of a handful of boys in a sea of girls was worth the trade-off of being so close to my parents’ house just 18 miles up Van Dyke Avenue. I pictured making my way up through those 18 miles of black, crusty snow every Christmas for the next four years and wondered if college really was worth it. I showed up for orientation at the beautiful campus with its happy, friendly staff and faculty, but I didn’t show up for classes on the first day.

Instead of starting college, I worked seven nights a week at a little family owned pizzeria. I did all kinds of jobs around the place, but my favorite was delivering pies in my Camaro to places Domino’s wouldn’t go, especially the apartment of the big, laughing black guy who would tip me $20 for a $4 pizza. The tips sometimes came on the condition I take the cash from the mouth or panties of one of the writhing, half-naked black women who always surrounded him, but I had no problem with that.

After all, in those days gas was less than $1 a gallon and you could get a cheap hotel room for $3 or $4. I figured I could get a long way from Detroit on the tips I was making. Of course his largesse was balanced by the white folks who tipped 25 cents for my efforts, so the winter of 1973-74 was a long one before I had enough money stashed away for my escape.

When I did, I drove my Camaro to Ann Arbor and left the keys with my brother, who was in school there. I went to the Greyhound bus station and bought an Ameripass, a Greyhound Bus promotion that allowed unlimited travel anywhere in the United States for a set period of time. Had Greyhound offered a 30-year pass I would have coveted it, but I couldn’t afford even the 60-day pass, so I settled for 30 days.

I looked at the route map that came with the pass and plotted out a rough course. From Detroit I would head to the Florida Keys, then to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, across the South to San Diego, up the Coast to San Francisco and … Well, that’s about as far as I got in planning. Mostly I just wanted to get to the bus station and get started.

In the early 1970s, bus travel was waning as a mode of middle-class travel. It was no surprise then that when I got to the Detroit station and looked around the crowded waiting room most of the faces were black and ran the gamut from obviously dirt poor to only relatively affluent. The white faces, by contrast, seemed to fall pretty neatly into two groups: Young college-age travelers and older, sad-looking poor people. Many of the black faces looked happy to be going to wherever it was they were going, as did some of the college-aged white faces. I don’t think any of the other faces were quite as wide-eyed as mine was, however, as I eagerly waited for the bus that would take me down Interstate 75 to Florida.

There must have been something else showing in my eyes that day, too, because I was startled when a couple and their young daughter approached me. “Are you going all the way to Cincinnati?” one of the parents asked. When I said I was the father drifted off and the mother asked me if I would watch over their daughter, who looked to be about 10 or 12 and who was traveling alone to visit her grandmother in Ohio. The family was dark-skinned, although probably not as dark as I thought they were at the time. In the subsequent 40 years I’ve learned to appreciate the many subtle tones of skin color more than I did then. Back then they were black. All that set this family apart from the other black faces were the matching head scarves worn by the mother and daughter. So why, I wondered, did they approach me instead of one of the many black people in the room? Why would they approach me, the one person at the station who was almost as frightened as their little daughter?

I must have muttered that I would watch the girl because the mother handed me a slip of paper with the grandmother’s contact information and assured me that she would be waiting in Cincinnati when we got there. Either I forgot to ask the little girl’s name or missed it in my confused state, but I boarded the bus with the little girl and sat next to her protectively as my adventure began. She sat tall in the seat next to me with her hands folded on the lap of her clean and ironed dress. The ride through the length of Ohio is a long one, and relatively boring. The little girl said little if anything until we got to Dayton. “Is this Cincinnati?” she politely asked. I assured her it wasn’t, but then looking at the map and Dayton’s proximity to Cincinnati I found myself worried that maybe the two towns shared a bus station and felt compelled to check with the driver, who rolled his eyes and assured me that Cincinnati was still an hour away.

So we rolled on down I-75 out of Dayton. I didn’t know then that in a few years I would be living there, going to the University of Dayton and working as a journalist at the Dayton Daily News. In a few short years I would be able to drive this route with my eyes closed, but on this trip I never closed my eyes, nervously watching for our approach into Cincinnati. A sense of fear had started to grip me. I wasn’t afraid for myself. I was afraid for the little girl, wanting to make sure she got to her grandmother safely. In fact my fear for myself already had almost disappeared, replaced with a sense of myself as the protector, not as potential prey.

When we arrived at the Cincinnati bus station my fears were realized, if only briefly. “Do you see your grandmother?” I asked my little friend. She did not. So here I was, responsible for a little girl in a strange city, a little girl who had slipped her tiny hand into mine as we stood in the depot. My mind raced and I dug out the slip of paper with the grandmother’s phone number and dug out change for the pay phone. What if she’s not home, I wondered, and I have to call the police? Would they arrest me? I had just turned 18. Would that make a difference? But fortunately I never had to call either the grandmother or the police, because the little girl’s eyes lit up at the sight of her grandparents entering the station from across the lobby. The grandparents stood out in a crowd far more than the little girl’s parents had in Detroit. The old man stayed at the other side of the lobby as the grandmother came and embraced the child. She, too, wore a long scarf draped around her head, and she covered her mouth with one of the dangling ends when she spoke to me in an accent her daughter in Detroit did not have, saying nothing more than “Thank you” and that her daughter had called her to tell her I would be watching over the little girl. She happily fussed over her granddaughter and kept repeating “Yes, yes, yes.” The grandfather made a gesture that I interpreted to be some sort of religious blessing. Then this strange family was gone. Relieved of my responsibility, my adventure could begin in earnest.

My excitement was earnest now, too. I flushed with a sense of pride and strength. Not that I had fought off attackers or saved her from a burning bus or anything, but what I had done I had done on my own. I had made it through the first leg of my journey protecting not only myself but someone else. I even had received what I took to be a blessing from some unknown but surely exotic religion. As I look back I think about that man’s blessing not only because he gave me one but also because it pains me to remember that I never received a blessing from my own father. Not when I finished school a year early, not when I embarked upon this adventure, nor when I graduated from college or launched a successful career. This blessing from a strange old man I didn’t even know would have to suffice for now. From the vantage point of age, I also realize one of the reasons I was proud of being this child’s protector: I had just accomplished something my father never would have done.

So I had left Detroit dreaming of an adventure full of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, although I doubt I really imagined it would actually turn out that way. It did, but I’m getting ahead of myself. This happy memory would do for now, and I was off to Florida.

Terror on two wheels

The following in an excerpt from Walking to Forest Grove, Copyright 2015 by Ken and Kris Bilderback. All rights reserved.

The Times favored that new-fangled wheeled conveyance, the bicycle. On July 6, 1899, the paper noted that a dirt path from Forest Grove to Hillsboro “would be pretty good if it were not so bumpy in spots.” The path, it seems, turned to mud in the winter, then hardened into a rollercoaster ride under the summer sun. The paper noted another obstacle for cyclists: “The cow that roams the lanes is no respector of paths.”

walkingcoversmallStill, the Times saw bicycles as the future of transportation, and after a bright day in February 1900 brought out the town’s cyclists, the paper’s editors started a campaign. Many townspeople considered bicycles to be dangerous, and ordinances had been passed to keep them off the sidewalks. But this beautiful day illustrated the problem with the ordinance; although the sun was shining, it still was February, which meant that most of the streets were muddy morasses, rendering bike riding nearly impossible except on the sidewalks.

Some townsfolk wanted bicycles banned altogether, but where others saw only problems, the Times saw opportunity. An editorial suggested creating bicycle paths into and out of town so people wouldn’t have to walk to Forest Grove. The first paths, the editors suggested, should go north a couple of miles into the bustling community of Greenville and to the Catholic Church in Verboort, but others could extend to other towns.

“There are some difficulties in the way of keeping these paths up, of course” the Times acknowledged, “but none serious.” The paper urged community leaders to go to the county Courthouse to demand action, but Forest Grove didn’t get its fancy bike paths for about a century, when a resurgence in interest made bicycling more popular than ever.

Ernie Harwell’s sunny voice drowned out riots and assassinations

The following is an excerpt from an autobiographical novel, Wheels on the Bus: Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Life in 1974, Copyright Ken Bilderback 2010.

Lakeland was the first city I really wanted to see, because it was the Spring Training home of the Detroit Tigers. Actually it was much more than that, thanks to the calm, soothing voice of Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell. Listening to Harwell on my little plastic transistor radio in Detroit, his voice always created vivid images in my young mind.

Wheels on the Bus

Wheels on the Bus

Wherever he was broadcasting from sounded like Heaven on Earth. He would talk about the clouds and the breeze and the happy families and dads catching foul balls in the stands for their adoring sons. Harwell was the calm voice of reason during the riots and assassinations of the late 1960s. In the ’60s and ’70s, the Tigers had a couple of young black players named Gates Brown and Ron LeFlore who had been discovered in reform schools or prisons. Today, Brown and LeFlore would be criticized endlessly on talk radio, but to Harwell they were just good human beings, like everyone else who crossed his path. My father never saw anything but the bad in people. Harwell was his happy antithesis, and I hung on his every word.

Ernie Harwell’s voice was most magical in the early Spring. While back in Detroit we still were sloshing through the black crusty snow of late winter, Harwell was in Lakeland for Spring training. Late winter for me meant huddling in the basement away from school bullies and my father. Harwell’s voice, beamed to my little transistor radio from Lakeland, always was the first harbinger of better days ahead. Lakeland sounded magical. Sometimes still shoveling snow, I would listen as the warm breezes through the palm trees cooled the families sitting in the stands enjoying Tiger squads that were destined to have great seasons in warm, happy summers at Tiger Stadium. Lakeland sounded more magical than anyplace Harwell broadcast from, except perhaps the golden cities of California. When he was broadcasting from the Golden State I couldn’t listen to the whole game because of the time difference, but I was amazed to think that as I huddled under the covers of my bed with Bandit, the sun was shining brightly on California.

Wailing in the woods, Cherry Grove edition

The following is an excerpt from Creek With No Name: How the West was Won (and Lost) in Gaston, Oregon, Copyright 2011 Ken Bilderback.

People doubted the Bigfoot rumors from the start, but over time as evidence mounted, more and more people became concerned there really might be a monster in their midst. A story in the Forest Grove News-Times recounts an eerie, fog-shrouded night in March 1964. “Unnervingly,” the News-Times recounts, “came a hideous scream that knifed the heavy night air. It could have been a prank or even just a dream, residents told themselves, and went back to sleep.”

Creek With No NameThe next night was equally shrouded, equally eerie and equally shrill as once again the screams startled residents from their slumber. After four or five nights of this, Cherry Grove residents demanded action from the sheriff’s office, either out of fear or annoyance. But without a body, without a missing person, without a known victim of any kind, deputies told the sleepless citizenry there was nothing they could do.

Then, about a week into the drama, the situation took a new turn. A group of teenagers out investigating the screams came across gigantic footprints in the March mud. The prints measured 18 inches by eight inches, and the stride of the monster placed the prints a full eight feet apart. The tracks suggested the monster had walked out of a field and into the woods … and right through a sturdy wooden cattle fence, now reduced to a pile of splinters in the dewy grass. Continue reading

Is this a monument to government overreach or salvation?

Perhaps the two most-striking images from the Great Depression are soup lines of unemployed workers in the big cities and caravans of “Okies” fleeing the Midwest Dust Bowl. Few people can conjure images of places such as Harney County, Oregon. The visitor center at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is one of the few that remains, and it is testament to both struggles.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Since the days of the earliest pioneers, Harney County has been subjected to a series of economic busts, with the federal government coming to its rescue each time. The first bust came during the days of the Oregon Trail in the 1840s and ‘50s. Settlers gobbled up the fertile farmlands of the Willamette and Tualatin valleys, but few wanted the mountains and high-desert sagelands that cover most of what now is the state of Oregon.

The area around what today is the Malheur refuge was a bit of an exception to that because of its lakes and abundant natural springs. The federal government set up Fort Harney to protect the few intrepid souls who took Donation Land Claims. Some hoped to tap the springs for irrigation, while others took “reclamation” claims to drain the lakes. No one found much success. Continue reading

That time armed men seized an Oregon county and its federal land at gunpoint

This is an excerpt from Law and Order at the End of The Oregon Trail, Copyright 2015 Ken Bilderback and Kris Bilderback.

Few things rile cattle ranchers quite like cattle rustlers. Some folks in the Wild West considered rustling to be a crime on par with murder, and more than a few rustlers found themselves hanging from a tree without benefit of a trial. If there was anything that riled ranchers even more than poaching, it was disputes over grazing land. The land was free to most of the pioneers, given to them as gifts from the federal government under the Donation Land Claim and Homestead acts. Regardless of how they acquired their land, however, some pioneers were willing to fight to the death to protect their claims.

Book cover

The story of race and crime unfolds in our new book.

With that in mind, townspeople thought that they knew who killed pioneer A.H. Crooks and his son-in-law on March 15, 1882, near Prineville. Suspicion immediately focused on Lucius Langdon, who owned a ranch next to Crooks, because the two had been feuding for years over a 40-acre parcel of grazing land. The folks of Prineville had a long history of taking the law into their own hands, according to historian Jim Yuskavitch in Outlaw Tales of Oregon. In the mid-1800s, the sheriff was 100 miles north of Prineville, in the county seat of The Dalles, which was a journey of several days on horseback. Perhaps swayed by the adage that justice delayed is justice denied, the ranchers were not keen on waiting that long for the law to make an appearance. The Crooks murder was a case in point, as rancher Bud Thompson quickly organized a “vigilance committee” to capture Langdon. Langdon eluded the wrath of Thompson and his gang, which allowed time for cooler heads to gather in Prineville. Rancher Jim Blakely notified the nearest deputy sheriff of the murder, then formed a second posse to find and capture Langdon before Thompson’s gang could lynch him. When Langdon heard that the trustworthy Blakely was looking for him, he surrendered peacefully and as promised, Blakely delivered him safely to the deputy sheriff. Langdon’s ranch hand accompanied his boss to help insure his safety until he was delivered to The Dalles for trial. With no jail in town, the trio retired for the evening at a small hotel. Continue reading

When the federal handouts end, some lost children go bad

This an excerpt of Law and Order at the End of The Oregon Trail, Copyright 2015 Ken Bilderback.

William Barrett was lucky. He had shared in another man’s land claim when he married Eliza Purdin. But not every land baron was so magnanimous. As the children of the early settlers matured, some were sent off to make their own way in the world, just as their parents had. By now, however, there was no free land left to be claimed, and the people with money, the landowners, still didn’t need to hire many helpers. Agriculture remained small-scale. There was not yet much demand for commercial lumber, and the few mills and factories were family operations. Accustomed to a life free from want, some of these castaways turned to crime to continue to live in the manner to which they had become accustomed.

Book cover

The story of race and crime unfolds in our new book.

The combined Barrett-Purdin family looked as though it would avoid such a fate. Even the offspring who didn’t inherit land built lives of their own, such as Eliza’s cousin, Charles Purdin, who became a decorated Spanish-American War hero and successful Portland businessman. Unfortunately, in 1921, Charles would make the Purdin name famous in a spectacular murder trial, but for most of his life he was an upright citizen. One of William and Eliza Barrett’s boys, also named William, would outshine even Charles Purdin. This Bill Barrett did not want to be either a farmer or carpenter. He opted to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps by studying law. He made his way through the Tualatin Academy and then Pacific University in nearby Forest Grove. When he graduated, he apprenticed under Thomas Tongue, a Congressman and one of Oregon’s foremost attorneys, and then a famous judge. Sadly, the name Bill Barrett would become internationally famous for a very different reason. Continue reading