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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