As one of only a few students of color in the working-class community of Edison, NJ, back in the 1970s, I only had one schoolyard fight with a bigoted bully. I still vividly remember it 50 years later.
It was the spring of 1973. I was in 5th grade, and it was on the playground at Lindeneau Elementary School. I fought a bully named Joe P. He was in 6th grade. He had pushed and called me the ‘n-word‘ earlier during gym class. Joe was a tall, skinny white boy with long, black, stringy hair and acne. I was a short, chubby black kid with a Soul Train style afro.
After school and just up the hill from the school, the kids made a circle around the two of us. I remember Joe wildly swung at me. I ducked, and he missed. I balled up my fist and hit him as hard as I could in the face, and knocked him to the ground. Some of the kids clapped and cheered. I remember someone shouting, “Don’t mess with Glenn!”
Joe got up in a rage, with his red face and red neck, and his hair was in his eyes; he lunged toward me; I leaned to the side and stuck out my fat little black leg, and Joe tripped and fell to the ground again. By this time, the gym teacher rushed to the playground and broke it up. He made us shake hands and told Joe to apologize for calling me the ‘n-word.’ Joe never bothered me again, and neither did anyone else.
In 2010, I ran into a former classmate who remembered me and that infamous day at the school playground. As it turns out, he was one of the kids in the circle and had cheered me on. I asked him whatever happened to Joe P. He said, “Joe became a cop.” For one of the few times in my life, I was speechless. Without going into specifics, the classmate said Joe’s career in law enforcement was “troubled.” Once again, the journalistic instinct that I was born with took over, and later, I did some snooping, digging and asked a lot of questions and found out what I was told was true.
Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but think about when I read and wrote news stories about my beloved home state of New Jersey being at the center of a national controversy about the police. Flashbacks of the controversial law enforcement targeting tactic of “Driving While Black,” came to mind. And I remember gasping when I saw a photo of former governor Christine Todd Whitman frisking a black motorist on the busy New Jersey Turnpike during the 1990s.
And last week, the Department of Justice (DOJ) released a daming report about widespread discrimination and racism against people of color in Louisville, KY. Among other things, the report cited countless examples of people of color being called racial slurs, being harassed, and being arrested at alarmingly high rates. In Louisville, Breona Taylor was shot and killed by the police during a botched police investigation three years ago this month.
Lastly, my interactions with the police over the decades in New Jersey and elsewhere as both a journalist and a man of color have been mostly uneventful and surprisingly upbeat. Yet, in some weird way, I am still sad. I remember the bigot and bully I fought years ago in grade school. I can not help but wonder if he still spews the same racist rhetoric and hateful remarks he did all those years ago. I’m also sad because thousands of other officers like him are still patrolling the streets.
Rest in Peace and Power Eric Garner, Carl Dorsey, George Floyd, Philando Castile, Patrick Lyoya, Andre Hill, Daunte Wright, and too many others to name…