40th Anniversary of Brutality
October 19th 2012 · 4 Comments
It will be forty years this month that I was beat up by Clinton Police Chief Walter Schmidt. That was 1972 and at the time I was a junior at Kirkland, the then prestigious women’s college coordinate with Hamilton College across the street.
I had never been in trouble with “the law” and until that time lived under the misguided impression that the Police were there to “guard and protect” me as a citizen.
It was a devastating event. Basically, I was arrested for ‘driving while being Black.’
The way I tell the story now is the same way I told it then, because it is the truth.
I had visited my best friend, Spears, who lived off campus in the village. Just before I left her apartment, a call came in for her landlord, Robin Kinney, who owned a haberdashery at One East Park Row. I was on my way to the New Hartford Shopping Center and this being the days prior to cellphones, I offered to stop by the shop to tell Robin that ‘Cathy’ had called for him.
When I pulled up in front of the store, I left my car running, left my purse in the car and was half way up the stairs when I head a car horn. I looked back to see a patrol car alongside my car headed in the opposite direction. The officer inside snarled at me to move my car.
I was stopped in a no parking zone. I called back to the officer that I was just going to run in to give Robin a message.
My thought at the time was that if he heard that I wasn’t going to stay, I knew the owner of the shop by name and was a pleasant person, he would give me the OK. That didn’t happen. He yelled at me that if I didn’t move it he would tow it.
I said, “OK. OK. I’ll move my car.”
My experience with police to that point in my life had been friendly encounters with police officers on the streets of downtown Utica. The 60s had been tumultuous throughout the nation but somehow Utica was spared the violent clashes that rocked so many cities.
Cops in downtown Utica would chase us off of the steps of Grace Church or from out front of Woolworth’s if too many kids piled up doing this new thing called ‘panhandling’ or making too much noise playing guitars and shaking tambourines. Cops weren’t the enemy. So the response from this Clinton officer was foreign to me.
I went back to my car, got in and drove around the corner. As I pulled around the corner, the officer, whom I had never seen before, drove by glaring at me. I bit my lip and rolled my eyes at the hateful stare he sent my way. Why I didn’t just forget about telling Robin Kinney about the call from Cathy I’ll never know.
Forty years ago, the space that is now the Clinton Florist was then a garage area. I pulled into the slip, again, left my purse in the car and started walking up the street back up the hill to the front of the store.
Looking up the hill I was surprised to see the cop stop his car in the middle of the road and get out, putting on his hat. I knew this was not good.
Robin Kinney owned a big St. Bernard named Charlie who used to roam around the village. Charlie was coming my way so I called to him, thinking somehow that this officer would see that I was indeed a member of the community, knowing the dog and his owner. I thought I could just walk by him and go to deliver my message. Not so.
Officer Schmidt strode up to me and said, “What did you call me?”
I answered, “I didn’t call you anything!”
He said, “Give me some ID.”
I replied, “I don’t have any on me.”
At that, Schmidt grabbed my blouse with both of his hands, and snatched me towards him. I was stunned and terrified.
I said, “What are you doing? Let me go. Am I under arrest? What did I do? Let me go!” And the struggle began.
I think at that time I weighed about 120lbs but let’s say, I did not go easily. I was panic-stricken. I did everything in my power to get away from him. I didn’t fight him or strike him, I just tried to get away as steadily as he tried to get me in the car. I began yelling, screaming, “Help, Robin!” Help me!” “Fire!” “Rape!” Anything to attract attention.
At one point I put my leg into his vehicle and blew the horn with my foot.
By this time a crowd of children coming home from grade school were stopped on the street with their mouths open watching the policeman struggling and fighting with me. Then suddenly there were four other men who came to assist the officer. They dragged me off of the car that I had wrapped myself around and threw me to the ground.
I was hysterical. I looked up from the ground to see the city bus had stopped at the top of the hill where Kellogg meets Fountain and Park Row. I had become a spectacle. My shoes were torn off, my red and white checked blouse was torn open,
I was screaming and crying as five men held me down. One had a knee in my back. One bent my leg up behind me to the outside. Another bent my arm up behind my back.
At one point during this chaos, another Kirkland College student, who happened to be Black as well, was brave enough to run up to the fracas and say, “What did she do? Let her go.” I think her name was Linda Butler, and she was also from Utica.
She was threatened that if she didn’t just walk away, she too would be arrested. She wisely left the scene.
The officer handcuffed me behind my back, then they picked me up by the handcuffs and a foot and threw me into the back seat of the patrol car and closed the door.
It would have been over then if not for the cowboy movie I had seen once where the captured good guy, as I was, sat on his hands, drew his knees and legs through and escaped, which I did.
Unfortunately, or actually maybe it was fortunate, I ran right into the arms of a mountain of a man who grabbed me and threw me back into the car. The cop then got in, locked the doors and drove me to the Sheriff’s department where I was booked, fingerprinted and bailed out by Spears and Kinney.
Thinking back, if I had managed to run, the clearly irrational officer might have drawn his gun and shot me in the back.
So that’s how the thing came down. I think if I were to dig up my deposition from the time it would be virtually the same. It was a shameful display of abuse of power, police misconduct and police brutality.
I was charged with Resisting Arrest and Disorderly Conduct. When I refused to accept a plea bargain, two more charges were added, Failure to Comply and Harassment.
I had just turned 21 but was wise enough to know that the US Legal Justice System would chew me up and spit me out if I did not handle this terrible situation the right way. I would need a lawyer and not just any lawyer. I had heard too many stories about Black folks being sold down the river even after paying good money for legal counsel.
The attorney I chose turned out to be the man I married 7 years to the month after this incident occurred. That man is Steve Lockwood and I was his first civil rights case. Steve has since built a career and reputation around prosecuting Civil Rights Actions involving Police Abuse.
The criminal case went forward with four charges against me because I refused to accept a plea bargain. My response was that, “I would rather rot in Hell before I copped a plea to something I didn’t do.” My position was that I resisted an illegal arrest and that I was disorderly in the process.
The resulting jury trial ended in a mixed verdict. I was convicted of Failure to Comply and Harassment, the two things I did not do. The officer told me to move my car and I did. He accused me of calling him foul names. I did not call him anything. I was found not guilty of Resisting Arrest or Disorderly, which is counterintuitive. But had the jury convicted me of the misdemeanor there might have been jail time and they knew in their hearts that I did not do the things that the prosecution accused me of.
The all-White, well over thirty “jury of my peers,” was willing to convict me of Driving While Black but didn’t want me to do jail time for it. The Civil Case against the Police Department yielded a better result. I was awarded a small settlement which included my attorney’s fees and as one of the conditions, my criminal record was expunged and my finger prints and photograph taken at the Sheriff’s Department were returned from the State’s system.
So forty years later, Steve Lockwood and I will soon celebrate our 33rd wedding anniversary and look back with concern over how we met and what continues to be a serious problem in American Society.
The United States of America persists as the country that incarcerates more of its ethnic minority than any other country in the world. It is a hidden process which accomplishes this incarceration. There is a book by Michelle Alexander entitled, “The New Jim Crow” which explains the current process. It is a necessary read.
Though I was targeted by a member of the Clinton Police Department, justice was ultimately served. Not only did I prevail in the Civil Trial but Officer Schmidt did not live to a ripe old age. Apparently at one point he was out in the woods cutting down trees. One fell on him and killed him dead.
I like to think I have friends in high places.