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Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2008 05:06 am

Still waiting for the first step

If the city administration is sincere about addressing racism, an apology is in order

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Untitled Document I recently attended a celebration in honor of the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. It ended, as many such celebrations do, with the audience members linking arms and singing that hopeful anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”
I’ve belted this tune a million times. But on this occasion, my mouth simply wouldn’t make the words, especially the part where the lyrics say, Deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome (or live in peace, or walk hand in hand, whatever the verse may be). I mean, I had just sat through a week of the Black Guardians trial, and, even worse, read the “readers’ comments” section on the State Journal-Register’s Web site. Overcome? We shall for sure? Who do you think you’re kidding? I’m not talking about the verdicts (one win for outspoken Shaft-wannabe Rickey Davis, all other counts in favor of the city). Despite the neat symmetry depicted in trials on TV, I don’t believe a verdict necessarily proves anything, one way or the other. I’ve spent too much of my life riding courtroom pews to fall for the fantasy that justice prevails. In many cases, the verdict is more a reflection of the skill of the attorneys, the pizzazz of the witnesses, and the weekend plans of the people sitting in the jury box. Race cases are especially difficult. As the plaintiffs’ attorney, Shari Rhode, told me: “It’s like trying to prove the moon is yellow.” Sometimes it’s really obvious, other times it depends on where you happen to be standing. No, the thing that really bugs me didn’t actually materialize in the trial. It was a list of witnesses and exhibits city attorneys submitted in case they wanted to argue to the jury that Renatta Frazier never should have been a cop. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that statement — never a question or an opinion, mind you, always a declarative certainty (à la “We Shall Overcome”) — I could have retired to the south of France already. Sure, maybe that was the professional opinion of the experts at Illinois State Police. But guess what? Frazier wasn’t the first Springfield Police recruit the ISP academy declined to endorse, nor was she the last. The others just happened to be white men. But I’m not even suggesting that’s some kind of racist conspiracy. The reason this rumor gets circulated about Frazier and not the allegedly incompetent white guys is because Frazier stuck out like a sore thumb, in no small measure due to her status as only the third black woman ever hired in the history of SPD. What I want to know is: Did this supposed deficit on her part justify what was done to her? I don’t have to rehash the story; if you read this paper, you already know. Basically, the administration of the Springfield Police Department misled the media, the public, and most of all Frazier herself into believing that she somehow failed to protect a teenage girl from getting raped by two men — an accusation that turned out to be utterly false. Who deserves this kind of slander? What was so bad about Frazier that she needed to be tortured by this enormous sense of guilt? And why hasn’t anybody officially apologized to her? Sure, a few heads rolled when the truth came out. A couple of senior police officers had to retire. Then-Chief John Harris disappeared, along with then-Mayor Karen Hasara and then-assistant city attorney Bill Workman. No one ever pretended these departures were penance for the travesty committed against Frazier. In fact, Hasara left office to “spend more time with her husband,” Harris left because the new mayor wanted to hire his own police chief, and Workman was sent packing for being a Republican in a Democratic administration. The new city officials, who had nothing to do with the Frazier scandal, eventually and reluctantly made a settlement deal with Frazier for $650,000. But let’s face it: That was more like hush money than anything resembling remorse. The SJ-R, which promoted the fib in the first place, also never apologized to Frazier. In fact, in articles documenting the recent BGA trial, the SJ-R describes the Frazier scandal as SPD’s failure to correct “a story,” as though the yarn was published once, maybe on page 33. It actually appeared in the daily paper 19 times before the truth was uncovered by this tiny rag. Don’t misunderstand: It’s not that Frazier wants or needs an apology. She has the comfort of right on her side. No, the true beneficiary of an apology is often the one who gives it. A heartfelt apology has a way of cleansing the soul. Since the Frazier fiasco of 2002, SPD’s 250-badge force has managed to hire only one black female officer. She arrived with none of the qualification issues that haunted Frazier, yet she found the department so unwelcoming that she quit [see “Opt out,” Nov 8, 2007].  
Isn’t the first step in solving a problem admitting that you have one? No city official at the BGA trial seemed to think so.
Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com
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