383 A victim of police murder I knew

The murder of George Floyd kindles Schwartz’s nightmarish memory of the killing of a person he knew who died at the hands of the police. In all their differences, both are dramatic instances of lethal abuse by a US policeman against an unarmed victim. With shocking images.


That people of color are much more likely to be killed by law enforcement agents than “whites,” not only in the US, is an ongoing tragedy and an indictment of the civilization to which we belong. I would like to believe that the mental and social sets behind this injustice can be countervailed, even if they are hardwired into our precious humanity. We are presently blind to so many distinctions in nature and in our surroundings that it should be possible for us to become color blind as well.

I knew one person who was killed by a policeman, Ron Burkholder (1944-1977). He was a sallow paleface, skinny and skittish. Ron was a mild-mannered ambulant psychotic, with hallucinations and other pathological quirks that did not keep him from bagging a National Science Fellowship for his studies in biochemistry at Johns Hopkins University. That is where I met him and his wife Nancy, in 1963 or 1964. They rented the downstairs rooms from me at 3033 Greenmount Avenue in Baltimore. I lived in the two stories above them, under the upstairs flat of the saintly Irish Iroquois Mary Jones and her extortionate alcoholic son, whose early death, forgive me for saying so, was a blessing to us all. Our landlady, Mrs. Goldfarb, who we never saw, lived in a respectable Jewish neighborhood in West Baltimore. Greenmount Avenue was less than respectable.

Let me introduce Nancy with a paragraph that I had been reserving for the start of a short story.

Nancy Burkholder had a sweet girl-next-door dimpled apple-cheek smile, a bouncy, coltish gait, and a fistulous Meckel’s diverticulum. Recalling this 55 years after seeing her for the last time, I wonder whether the dimples were not related to the fistula. They are both dents in the derma, aren’t they? The only difference is that the dimples do not penetrate to the inside of the body and the fistula does, through the navel, though from the inside out.

How did I know this? Ron and Nancy told me about it and even showed it to me. They were touchingly open, coming for avuncular advice – they were 20 and I was 24 – about their marriage. Nancy asked me in confidence whether I thought it was normal for a man always to ask his wife to take a bath before he would make love to her. I tiptoed around that question, but I was strict on interdicting the sexual possibilities Ron wanted to explore in Nancy’s extra orifice.

Ron Burkholder in the Antarctic, 1964. In Baltimore he did not have the beard.

The marriage did not last long. Nancy was falling in love with the dentist in whose practice she was an assistant and who was much more suited to her than Ron. It helped things along when Ron took on a six-month assignment to a penguin research project in Antarctica. Penguins were to be wired with transmitters in order to track their movements. There was a technical snag involved. The batteries for the transmitters quickly lost juice in the Antarctic cold. They could be kept warm, someone on the team thought, if they were shoved up the penguins’ backsides, and that was to be Ron’s job. He was willing to do this for a double-agenda reason of his own. He was in radio contact with extraterrestrials, he told me matter-of-factly, but reception was poor in the overcrowded ether of Baltimore. He hoped to get better contact in the Antarctic, to help him fulfill his intended role as mediator for the aliens’ peaceful landfall on Earth. He was worried about what might happen if they just showed up on their own.

So it did not surprise me, some fifteen years later, to hear that at 5:30 in the morning of 4 August 1977 Ron walked out onto Main Street in Venice, California, stark naked, with a bleeding wound on his upper arm, to try to make a call from a telephone cell. It also made a kind of sense that when he was approached by a police officer, he walked toward him with his arms sticking up and his hands flailing.

What would also not have surprised me had I been keeping abreast of Los Angeles police behavior, was that after a bit of interaction and jostling, during which Ron took the policeman’s nightstick away from him but according to an eyewitness never touched the officer himself, Sgt. Kurt Barz put six bullets into Ron, making him the 33rd victim of LAPD homicide that year. The defense, which was accepted by the district attorney, is that Barz, six feet tall, weighing 195 pounds and in possession of a nightstick and a pistol, was acting in self-defense against Ron, five feet nine and 158 pounds, naked and with nothing in his hands. Ron made terrifying kung fu motions at Barz; he was obviously high on something; he was so strong that the LAPD brass thought he possessed some kind of bionic power; how else could he have taken Barz’s nightstick away from him “like candy from a baby”?; and despite warnings he continued to walk toward Barz with his arms raised and his hands flapping in a pose not of surrender but of dire threat.

The police later released this photo of the body, taken in the morning.

A detail shows some of the gunshot wounds.

How can I not think of my friendly tenant Ron Burkholder when I hear about police murders in the US? His fate influences my reaction to the equally vicious and arbitrary killing of George Floyd. It also makes me think about race and police murder. What happened to Ron tells me that, even given the extreme disproportion of murders against blacks, you don’t have to be black to get killed by a policeman. But the rest of his story also tells me that if you’re not black, your death has a better chance of jolting the authorities.

Ron’s new partner, Maria Herbst, his mother, friends and L.A. activists (Ron himself was in anti-Vietnam and civic rights activist groups) took up the case. They got stories placed in Newsweek and the L.A. Times, leading to sufficient outrage so that

the coroner convened the first inquest into a police shooting in six years. […] The events of 1977 proved to be a turning point for both the public and the police. […] In 1977, the mayor-appointed police commission rewrote LAPD gun policy, outlawing the shooting of nonviolent fleeing felons and mandating that “deadly force” could be used only to protect a police officer or citizen threatened with death or serious bodily injury. (From Susan Stern and Richard Cohen, “Killer cops: in Los Angeles the police are an occupying army. Standard procedure is to shoot first and, if pressed, ask questions later,” Inquiry Magazine, 10 November 1980. Richard Cohen made a documentary about the killing of Ron Burkholder in 1980: “Deadly force.” The photos above are from the film.)

The demonstrations that followed the killing of Ron Burkholder were aimed against police violence, but the main organizing body was the Coalition Against Police Abuse, which comes up for the defense and rights of “marginalized groups such as the poor, homosexuals, blacks, and Latinos” (Wikipedia).

In the demonstrations sparked by more recent killings of black men by white policemen, the emphasis has shifted from police brutality as such to the denunciation of racial discrimination. This must be due in large measure to the powerful impact of Black Lives Matter, which I can only applaud. But it would have quicker effect, for black victims as well, to get the authorities to beef up the violence code of the police (and to really punish infringements) while pursuing the very long-term aim of rooting out racism. This is what happened in Minneapolis, when the protests forced the authorities to bring homicide charges against the killer of George Floyd. Let’s take if for a sign of progress that the murder of a black man can now bring about change. May it be systematic.

Keeping the police from shooting first and asking questions later would also help us survive when the aliens land.

© Gary Schwartz 2020. Published on the Schwartzlist on 5 June 2020.

6 June 2020: The original title of this column was “You don’t have to be black.” The opening lines read like this: “You don’t have to be black to be killed by the police. Schwartz tells about the one person he knew who died that way.” Because this suggested to readers that I was insensitive to racial discrimination in police homicide, I have revised both to correct that impression. I also added a clause to this sentence: “What happened to Ron tells me that you don’t have to be black to get killed by a policeman.” It now reads: “What happened to Ron tells me that, even given the extreme disproportion of murders against blacks, you don’t have to be black to get killed by a policeman.”

26 September 2020: Clipping found when cleaning up papers:


Last Tuesday, June 2nd, Loekie and I ordered admission tickets to the Rijksmuseum on its second re-opening day. Look at this:

At the blockbuster Bernini-Caravaggio exhibition.

Experiencing more than the usual feeling of privilege at the opportunity to visit a great museum. Go for it, if not at the Rijks then at your local museum.


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18 thoughts on “383 A victim of police murder I knew”

  1. As heartbreaking as Ron’s story is, to tell it at this moment deflects from what hundreds of thousands are protesting all over the US and here in Europe on the occasion of George Floyd’s murder,: systemic oppression of black people. To me, your title sounds like a provocative response to “Black Lives Matter.”

    1. Dear Gary,

      You don’t have to be black to be killed by police–but it sure helps! I’m afraid being black is almost a crime in this country. Although the story you told is a sad one indeed, it does deflect from the sistemic racism that afflicts the USA.

      As someome said recently (forgot who), it’s not enough not to be a racist; one must be an anti-racist. These past two weeks have been so painful–but at the same time I’d wager that not even during the Viet Nam war did so many people take to the streets in protest (including Marty and me, sometimes with the children). Maybe this time the protests will lead to change? How I fervently hope so!

      Although racism was endemic long before Trump, he has abbetted it, and we must get rid of him first and then steadily and continuously push for changes in police activity and accountibility, education, health care, and working conditions, including wages.

      1. Dear Anita and Marty,

        Your comment came in as I was responding to Otto Karl Werckmeister, on the point in your first paragraph.

        About the rest, I could not agree with you more, and I share your fervent hopes.

        In writing the piece, I looked up the incidence of intentional homicide in the US (4.96 per 100,000) and the Netherlands (0.59). I don’t know whether this makes me more or less sensitive to the overwhelming unrighteousness of murders committed by enforcers of law.

        With warmest greetings,
        Gary

    2. Dear Otto,

      Surely there’s room for more than one kind of response to this tragedy. If I am taking it differently than people who are moved to protest against the systemic oppression of black people, it is not, as I hope I said, because I do not stand behind their cause.

      I had two other themes to bring in:

      One, the way in which a police killing touched me. As I wrote, how can I not think about this? I don’t see how writing about it for my readers can deflect from the protests.

      And two: the feeling that to use the massive outrage in order to effectuate real progress it might be better to seize on a concrete issue that lawmakers and politicians have in their power to change, like punishing policemen who break the law, rather than a relative abstraction like racial discrimination, concerning which there is little they can do that is not already on the books. These are intertwined themes, along with the theme of systemic oppression of black people, and I was trying to separate the strands.

      So I thought it was great that the protests did lead to felony charges against Derek Chauvin and the policement that stood beside him, and that George Lloyd’s brother too put his finger exactly on this issue.

      In Los Angeles in the 1970s, policemen NEVER faced criminal charges for violence against civilians, and it’s still the exception. That can be changed.

      Your old buddy,
      Gary

  2. Dear Gary, I am interested in bibliography on the so-called ” Rembrandtframe”, Thank you for that tragic account you described. Colin

  3. You Gary and all the press and most commentators call this latest murder by what looks like standard and acceptable terminology; a tragedy. To men this suggests faults on both sides, or the intervention of accident, fate or some natural force.

    1. Dear David, What I call “an ongoing tragedy and an indictment of the civilization to which we belong” is not the murder of George Floyd but the higher incidence of black people being killed (there is murder, in the same sentence) by law enforcement agents. What is wrong about calling this a tragedy? I do not think that what I wrote suggests faults on both sides, accident, fate or some natural force. Where do you see that?

      Good to hear from you. Next time you’re in the Netherlands, you’ve got to come see us again.
      Gary

  4. Instead of my personal comment, this is much stronger and more poignant.

    Southern trees / Bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves / And blood at the roots / Black bodies Swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hangin’ / From the poplar trees / Pastoral scene /
    Of the gallant south / Them big bulging eyes / And the twisted mouth / Scent of magnolia / Clean and fresh / Then the sudden smell / Of burnin’ flesh / Here is a fruit / For the crows to pluck / For the rain to gather / For the wind to suck / For the sun to rot / For the leaves to drop / Here is / Strange and bitter crop.

    This anti-lynching poem was written by Abel Meeropol, a teacher, songwriter, and member of the American Communist Party. He published it in a union publication in 1937 and then set it to music. It was most famously performed by Billy Holiday, who first sang “Strange Fruit” in 1939. After the conviction and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for espionage in 1953, during the early Cold War, Abel Meeropol and his wife Anne adopted and raised the Rosenberg’s two sons, Michael and Robert.

    1. Yes, yes, yes. Once you hear that song and the meaning of the words hits you, you never forget it. I didn’t know about the writer and am happy to know about him. Thank you, dear Srebrenka.

      1. Dear Gary,

        Several years ago I was interviewed by the French National Radio (FranceInter to be precise) in a programme called Strangers in Paris. I could choose some records and I chose Billy Holiday singing “Strange Fruit.” At that moment in French politics it was, for me, the song to be played. It still is, sad to say. I too did not know its origins and am happy to know them now. I will pass this knowledge on to my interviewer. The other two songs were Jacques Brel’s “In the port of Amsterdam,” sung in English by David Bowie, and “Monsieur le Président” by writer and composer Boris Vian. How do I contact ms Bogovic to thank her?

        Thanks again, Robert

  5. Apples and Oranges.
    A mentally ill man is killed in the 197os. So too were many African -Americans for the same reason and so were Jews and this continues to the present moment.
    But to be born black is to be born as less than human. So said our constitution. Enslavement was normative. Even Ben Franklin owned two slaves. Thomas Jefferson launched the exploration of the West from St Louis (Ferguson nearby suburb) to see what could be seen, that is, which lands could be settled and where cotton could be grown. Cotton was our big cash crop. It was a global product. How to get manpower to harvest it, enslaved persons. While it became illegal to import slaves to the colonies in the early 1700s, they could be brought from the West Indies and bred for labor. Jefferson looked west for land to grow cotton. He wanted more and more, as did his contemporaries. And the peoples who populated those lands, those who did not die of new diseases -viruses and bacterial infections-could be pushed ever farther from their lands. Racism is endemic here. Even all the laws that might be passed cannot remove the inculcation of beliefs absorbed at the very earliest moments of life. Why not start as THE text book with S. J. Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man. But all the science, all the knowledge that exists cannot undo what grows as a malignancy in this nation. Now more than ever, given the precarious nature of the usa. Our police are being transformed into an occupying force. Take a good look. Tragic, tragedy. Look at the choreographed murder of Eric Garner. Look at the recent spate of murders of black men, women, and children. Nine minutes kneeling on the neck of a man will certainly kill that person. And the policeman knew that.
    So please, do not confuse apples and oranges.

    1. Dear Susan,
      Ron Burkholder was an unarmed man killed by a policeman. George Floyd was an unarmed man killed by a policeman. Seeing the two of them in that context, Ron was not an apple because he was white, and George a pear because he was black. They were both victims of police murder. As I see it, the combating of racism and the combating of police terror are intertwined but distinct issues, and the latter is easier to deal with on a political and administrative level than the former. But please do not think that because I wrote this I am insensitive to the dehumanization of blacks.

      Since the title of the column may have suggested this, I am changing it to “A victim of police murder I knew” and rewriting the opening and a sentence in the text. I’m sure we don’t disagree and hope that this meets your objections and those of some others who have commented on the column.

  6. Oranges and Apples

    1977
    1978, The murder of Harvey Milk on November 27, 1978. Context matters

  7. If you can obtain a copy, you may be interested in The Ghosts of Johns Hopkins, a recent book by Antero Pietila that details the role of the university and hospital in the segregation of Baltimore housing, the decay of neighborhoods, and the racism that led the city to revolt against a police murder five years ago: insurrectio praecox.

    1. Many thanks, Richard. It is upsetting to hear about the behavior of Johns Hopkins in that regard, but unfortunately not surprising. I’m sure that real estate management by banks, municipalities, businesses and institutions like universities and hospitals all over the country had the effects you describe. If neighborhood values, anti-discrimination and protection of the poor and underemployed are not built into policy, that is what you are going to get. And since real-estate managers think that policy of that kind saps financial returns, it is not instituted very often. The hope is that enough decision-makers come to see that healthy, integrated housing for all pays for itself so that it becomes the preferred norm. I like to think that is happening more and more, that it will reduce racism, and that it will not take race riots to improve life in U.S. cities.

      I visited Baltimore with my bride Loekie on our honeymoon at the end of April 1968. Mary Jones was still living in my old house on Greenmount Avenue. She told us, and we could see it for ourselves, that in the riots following the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. a few weeks before, there were burnt-out houses up to three blocks from where she lived. That too was an event that was supposed to change history. Like the riot you refer to of five years ago, and like the demonstrations of today. In the words of the song: Maybe this time.

      Gary

  8. I was friends with Ron in the seventies. I first met as he was making beautiful stained glass mushrooms. He also was working on laser technology to use in a xray laser printer. I had a laser light show in a night club not far from his lab so we had something to talk about. He was astonishing brilliant in science, but his downfall was not the police. He was the victim of the hallucinations of the drugs that he took. He thought he was the reincarnation of Leonardo Davinci and that using drugs like PCP would give him more of Davinci’s artistic abilities and intelligence. His death was a great loss to the world.
    George Floyd was another death due to the drugs he had taken. Yes, the police had other options to restrain him besides the knee on the side of his neck, but he wouldn’t have been in that situation if he hadn’t been on meth, fentanyl, and pot. Please watch the entire bodycam video to see that George Floyd was saying that he couldn’t breathe when they tried to place him in the back seat of the patrol car, way before he was on the ground. What might have saved his life is when the police asked him and the people he was with what drugs George was on, they should have told them.
    Anyone wanting to see less police homicides has to understand the drug abuse problems that cause so many of them. Only if we acknowledge this is the root cause of the problem can we fix it.

    1. Many thanks for this valuable and poignant response, Todd. I’m sure you’re right that Ron and George Floyd were victims of drugs. But I’m not sure that the drugs that influenced their behavior caused the police to kill them or that drugs are the root cause of the problem of police homicides. Still, I agree that their deaths call for indignation not only over police brutality but also over drug use.

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