Detroit’s first Black mayor, Coleman A. Young, rarely gets the credit he is due for keeping his campaign promise to eliminate STRESS (the notorious “Stop Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets” police unit) and employing affirmative action to add Black people to the ranks of uniformed police officers and firefighters. But even during the Young administration, excessive force and unlawful conduct sometimes persisted at the hands of certain police officers, as was demonstrated in a Detroit case that bears similarities to the George Floyd case.
Most are pleased with the guilty Chauvin verdicts, but many still anguish over so many unanswered, unrequited, un-prosecuted killings of Black people in America by those who vow to protect and serve.
The George Floyd murder case is reminiscent of a case in Detroit that took place In November 1992. At that time, I was the executive of the Detroit NAACP, and 35-year old Malice Green had been killed at the hands of Detroit police officers on the corner of West Warren and 23rd Street.
According to witnesses, Malice Green had been quietly sitting on the passenger side of a parked car, unarmed, not committing any misdemeanors, felonies or any other offenses.
While sitting in the car, Malice Green was approached by three officers: Walter Budzyn, Larry Nevers and Robert Lessnau, who, without citing probable cause, demanded that Malice Green produce his ID. Malice gave them his driver’s license without protest, and then the officers demanded that he exit the vehicle. As he stood outside of the vehicle, the officers searched him, and then began to hurl profanity and indignities at Green.
Reportedly, without warning or provocation, they began to assault Green on the head and body with large flashlights, landing lethal blows. A crowd began to gather, as Green was not resisting their blows – only throwing up his hands in vain attempts to protect himself while repeatedly pleading, according to sworn testimony, “Why are you all doing this to me? I haven’t done anything!”
By the time the three officers finished their assault on Malice Green, his lifeless body lay in the street in a pool of blood.
The NAACP office began to receive calls from neighbors and by-standers soon after the incident, and I rushed over to the scene to investigate.
Upon arrival, I was horrified.
My initial thoughts were, “If someone is to be charged for an offense, arrest him! No police officer should assume the role of judge, jury and executioner! This has been happening to Black men throughout our tenure in America! This is exactly why Mayor Young got rid of STRESS!”
During this era, I was not only an NAACP official, I was also a talk show host on WCHB, with a morning drive program called “Wake Up Detroit!” Following this incident, I began to use the airwaves of my program as an organizing tool, urging my listeners daily to apply pressure on then-Wayne County Prosecutor John O’Hair to file charges against the three police officers involved in Green’s death.
As a result of a tremendous outpouring of community concern, citizens began showing up at Prosecutor O’Hair’s office. A diverse group of activists rallied and demonstrated for days, amidst great media coverage, until the prosecutor finally indicted all three officers. The charges did not happen easily, nor quickly, and the community deserved all the credit.
I went to the preliminary hearing of the Malice Green murder trial, and subsequently monitored the courtroom trial every single day. Early in the trial, the NAACP office was unexpectedly visited by Wayne County Medical Examiner Kilal Jiraki, who advised me that great pressure had been applied on him by “people in high places,” demanding he rule that Green had died from a drug overdose. The truth, he said, was that the autopsy revealed that Green’s death was caused by excessive blows on his head which produced blunt trauma on his brain.
Also, during the trial, I was advised by Mayor Young’s office that credible threats against me had been intercepted from people connected with domestic terror groups as a result of media statements I had made in this high-profile case, and that security would be placed around my residence for an indeterminate period.
Ultimately, Larry Nevers was convicted of the murder of Malice Green, and sentenced to prison. At the time, I was told that it was only the second time in U.S. history that a law enforcement officer was convicted and sentenced to serve prison time for killing a Black man.
So, there are many parallels between the two cases, although the bottom line remains that both Malice Green and George Floyd remain dead — and they were neither protected nor respected by the law enforcers who became their executioners.
The United States has a sad, sordid history of policing Black people in this country — and we should be ever mindful that the first law enforcers in the U.S. were charged with the duty of tracking down any Africans who escaped enslavement.
Because there have been centuries of no accountability, no indictments, no convictions, no jail time for the murder of unarmed, innocent Black people by police and others, it is well documented that the culture of law enforcement has failed to protect and serve Black citizens.
Thus, the Derek Chauvin verdict, like that of Larry Nevers, was an anomaly — not the norm. It is high time that federal laws be enacted to provide safeguards, reforms, fairness and justice to honor the Constitution and all citizens who deserve equal protection under the law.
President Joe Biden has called for Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act by May 25, the Anniversary of George Floyd’s murder — however Congress will almost certainly miss that deadline.
How long, Lord? How long?