It was 1969, and Dr. Harry Edwards (a former classmate of mine and the man who had tried to organize a black boycott of the Olympics the previous year) was addressing a meeting in San Francisco. He was talking about the racial divide in the United States and how deeply it cut into various communities. To illustrate this, he repeated this expression. Here’s how those words originated.
According to Edwards, a young African American boy was trying to cross a busy street in the middle of the city. A white police officer, who was walking a beat, noticed the problem and took the boy’s hand. Then he held up his own hand to stop traffic and led the boy across the street. As the officer patted the boy on the shoulder, the boy turned his head and said, “Thanks, Pig.”
I’m retelling this story because I think it illustrates a long history of animosity between black communities in many cities and their police departments. Assuming that the story were true, there probably was no reason for a small child to harbor ill feelings against the San Francisco Police Department, but perhaps he had listened to tales passed down from his parents, or uncles, or grandparents.
Perhaps, too, the S.F. Police Department had changed over the years. But, the stories would linger for generations.
Moreover, the racial divide would have been reinforced by events at the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City. There was a memorable incident during the medal award ceremony for the men’s 200-meter race. Black American athletes Tommie Smith (who won the Gold Medal) and John Carlos (who took the bronze) stood on the platform without shoes to symbolize the poverty of African Americans. When the national anthem was played, they raised their fists in black gloves in support of the Black Power movement.
As a result of the demonstration, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned Smith and Carlos from all future Olympic Games. Peter Norman, a white Australian who finished second, wore an American “civil rights” badge to support “the cause.” His punishment was to be excluded from Australia’s 1972 team. Norman died of a heart attack in 2006, having never been allowed to participate in any activity associated with the Olympics, but Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at his funeral.
The 1960s were a decade of unrest, marked mostly by racial tensions. For example, initially South Africa (which then had a system of apartheid — racial separatism) had been admitted to the Olympic Games on condition that the country end its segregation and discrimination in sports before the 1972 games. However, as protests against apartheid mounted, the IOC capitulated, saying, “It would be most unwise for South Africa to participate.”
Within Mexico, itself, the Olympics led to domestic problems. There were numerous protests by Mexican labor unions regarding preparation for the games. Demonstrations were met with increased economic and political suppression by the government. President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz ordered the occupation of the National Autonomous University by federal troops. As the opening date for the Olympics approached, students gathered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas (Three Cultures Plaza), chanting, “!No queremos olimpiadas; queremos revolución! (We don’t want Olympics; we want revolution!).”
In response, Ordaz ordered 5,000 troops and 200 tanks to surround the plaza. Hundreds of protesters were killed and more than 1,000 were arrested. The Ordaz government claimed that its actions were necessary to suppress a “violent student uprising,” but it was later revealed that the protest was peaceful and that the army acted recklessly.
The decade of the ’60s was marked by a succession of riots in many of this nation’s urban centers. In 1964, New York police lieutenant Thomas Gilligan shot and killed James Powell, an unarmed black man. The incident immediately set off rioting that lasted for six consecutive nights in the Harlem section of Manhattan and the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, both primarily African American neighborhoods. Most of the violence was directed against the police. Later studies indicate that this act of civil disobedience touched off similar events in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Jersey City.
The following year (1965), Marquette Frye, a 21-year-old African American, was pulled over by a motorcycle cop for drunk driving in the Watts area of Los Angeles. As Frye and the officer waited for a black-and-white patrol car to pick up the suspect, a crowd gathered. Because several police vehicles approached the area, people began complaining about over-reaction by the police. As the riot gained momentum, 4,000 members of the California National Guard were called up to support the L.A.P.D. Like the New York incident, looting, assault, property damage, and killings persisted for six days.
In 1966, there were riots in Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In 1967, Buffalo, Newark, and Detroit. In 1968, Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas City, Louisville, and Cleveland. Every case pitted African Americans against police. As the country edged into the decade of the 1970s, civil rights demonstrations merged with the anti-war movement. But, it was still police departments that had to confront the protesters.
During the aftermath of the police shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the assassination of police in Dallas, Texas, by Micah Johnson, and the killing of Philando Castile by an officer outside Minneapolis, Minnesota, the nation has once again engaged in a discussion about relations between police departments and communities.
In Madera County, Police Chief Steve Frazier and Sheriff Jay Varney have actively pursued various outreach programs in order to cement relationships between officers and constituents. They have utilized vehicles, such as the Citizen’s Academy, Neighborhood Watch, and Coffee with a Cop, to open channels of communication with the community. The result, according to citizens, is the development of a mutual respect between our law enforcement authorities and the general public.
In his article on community outreach in Wednesday’s Madera Tribune, Donald A. Promnitz wrote, “Despite the Dallas incident … and the demonstrations carried out in other cities across the country, Madera police remain confident in the trust of their community, and in the emergency systems in place.” I believe that’s true, and I feel safe living in our city.