[Sidebar] May 4 - 11, 2000

[Features]

Black and white

The conflicting responses to Johnnie Cochran's arrival in Providence show that justice and healing mean different things to different people

by Ian Donnis

[] EVEN BEFORE JOHNNIE L. Cochran Jr. uttered a cadenced word during an April 26 news conference at a Providence church, news of his arrival caused predictable fissures. Some say the flashy Los Angeles litigator will sow division just as a grand jury has cleared two white police officers of criminal responsibility in the January shooting death of Sgt. Cornel Young Jr. Certainly, the timing wasn't appreciated by Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr. -- who said Cochran and his $20 million claim in a wrongful-death and civil rights suit came as Providence was beginning to "heal" from the pain of the tragedy. "If anything, he'll inflame things," Cianci said. "We're not going to let him divide this community."

The fact, however, is that Providence -- like virtually every city in America -- was divided long before Cochran came to town. Although Rhode Island's capital has become a symbol of urban rejuvenation, celebrated subliminally in NBC's Friday night soap drama Providence, long-standing concerns about racial inequities and police-community relations were ignored until Young's death galvanized a storm of grassroots activism. As put by Clifford Montiero, president of the Providence chapter of the NAACP, "There was polarization before the shooting, but it was quiet polarization. Now, we have loud polarization."

The filing of a civil suit was always a strong possibility if, as it happened, the grand jury cleared Officers Carlos Saraiva and Michael Solitro III, who shot and killed Young after mistaking him for an armed suspect when he interceded while off-duty in a late-night fight. And for those, like Young's mother, who still have unanswered questions about the slain officer's death -- such as why Young's colleagues didn't recognize him and whether or not he identified himself as a police officer (the police say he didn't) -- Cochran represents the best hope for an open and independent review of an event that remains clouded by racially charged doubts.

THE DEATH of Young, the son of the highest-ranking minority officer in the Providence Police Department, was a tragedy that transcended race in Rhode Island. It mobilized a multi-racial coalition of clergy, activists, and community groups that has influenced the state's political agenda (see "Stand and deliver," News, April 14). Last month, Governor Lincoln Almond created a commission -- seen as credible by minority leaders -- that will examine race and police-community relations. US Representative Patrick Kennedy has also taken an active interest in the situation (albeit not without infuriating the Providence police union by saying, in calling for an independent US Justice Department review, that Young was "gunned down").

But because the grand jury process is closed and confidential, the details of Young's death remain unknown beyond a small group of people. The indelible image of Cochran, of course, is for his role in remaking the O.J. Simpson murder trial as a referendum on race. Although Cochran is justifiably known for courtroom theatrics and, in some instances, shameless race card-playing, this consummate trial lawyer, and the subpoena power that comes with a lawsuit, will bring welcome public exposure to circumstances that remain shrouded in secrecy.

This wouldn't still be an issue if Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse had appointed -- as requested by Leisa Young, her former husband, Maj. Cornel Young Sr. (who isn't part of the civil claim), and scores of supporters -- a special prosecutor to investigate Cornel Young Jr.'s death. Whitehouse, a possible Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2002, steadfastly rejected these calls, contending that local investigators and prosecutors were best qualified to handle the case.

Although Whitehouse's integrity remains unquestioned, Rhode Island's history of political chicanery, the insular nature of the state's law enforcement community, and the inclusion of six Providence police officers on the nine-member investigative panel inspired a lack of confidence among those who have a backlog of historical grievances with the police department, including the lack of diversity, and charges of excessive force and civil rights violations. That's why Cochran, addressing a packed crowd of reporters and congregants during the news conference at Allen AME Church in the West End, pledged to "get justice," and triumphantly said, "We represent the outside probe you were looking for."

Bill Fischer, Whitehouse's chief of staff, is correct to note it's Rhode Islanders who have to take responsibility for solving concerns about racial profiling, troubled police-community relations and the like. But it's precisely because these concerns were dismissed for so long that some people -- particularly those who are most affected by racism -- are pleased by Cochran's involvement.

"I don't think anyone has taken organizations like the civil rights organizations seriously," Montiero said. "The NAACP has a massive boycott in South Carolina over the Confederate flag, and they're still negotiating after a 15-year fight. If Johnnie Cochran goes in there and sues them, guess what? It won't be a 15-year fight."

ASKED DURING the news conference how he knew that Young's death wasn't anything other than a terrible accident, Cochran said he anticipated a very thorough investigation -- "let the chips fall where they may." But when pressed by the Providence Journal's M. Charles Bakst, Cochran said he believed, "if [Young] were white, he'd be alive."

Maybe it wasn't a surprise coming from the man who "seized on the Simpson case as the paradigmatic civil rights issue of the day," and whose Los Angeles law firm in the early '90s "worked with great zeal to exploit the city's racial climate for profit," according to The Run of His Life, New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin's account of the Simpson trial.

And maybe it wasn't a surprise coming from a lawyer who began taking the infamous LA police to task for misconduct and civil rights cases in the '60s, ultimately exacting more than $40 million in damages in little over a decade, long before anyone heard of Mark Fuhrman or the ongoing corruption scandal that's expected to cost taxpayers more than $200 million in lawsuits.

Regardless, Cochran's "if he were white" quote came as the latest volley in the central question surrounding Young's death at age 29. From the start, Cianci (who later backed away from this initial view) and the late officer's colleagues dismissed the possibility that race was a factor. But others questioned whether Saraiva and Solitro were quicker to shoot because they saw a black man holding a gun. It's a question that will uncomfortably linger until the details of Young's death become public.

It's possible, as police have maintained, that it was a terrible accident. The off-duty officer was getting a take-out sandwich at the Fidas diner shortly before 2 a.m. on Friday, January 28, when a fight erupted and moved outside as one participant pulled a gun. Rushing outside with his service pistol drawn, Young was shot six times by Saraiva and Solitro when he didn't comply, the police have said, with commands to drop his weapon.

Once the facts are aired, "I don't think anyone will question the reasonableness of the officers' actions that night," said lawyer Joseph F. Penza Jr., who represents Saraiva. "This was not a racial situation. The officers were confronted with a man with a gun in his hand coming of the restaurant. The gun became the focal point, not the man's skin color."

It's also possible, as Cochran suggested, that Saraiva, who was in the same police academy class as Young, and Solitro, a rookie who'd been on the streets for a week, were faster to shoot because Young was black. As pointed out by Peter Neufeld, one of Cochran's partners, the victim is almost always black when an off-duty or undercover police officer is mistaken by a colleague for a criminal. (A Boston Globe article detailed 12 instances since 1992 in the largest US cities, in which undercover or off-duty officers were shot by other cops after being mistaken for criminals; 10 of the victims were black.)

Leisa Young, who has remained a picture of dignity since she lost her only child, said her primary goal in hiring Cochran is simple: "I need to know what happened." Such a step is necessary, she said, for her own healing and efforts to prevent similar tragedies. The $20 million civil claim also cites an objective of systemic change in the Providence Police Department, whose chief, Col. Urbano Prignano Jr., has remained unwilling to adopt a real commitment even to the widely accepted mode of community policing.

At the same time, in explaining her decision to hire Cochran, Leisa Young remained keenly aware of the inference that she is disrupting the communal healing process.

"What's the going fee that's acceptable for your child?" she asked during the April 26 news conference, battling to hold back tears. "Insult on top of injury is what I'm hearing. Is it so wrong of me to just ask what happened?" And then, picking up on the antagonism that some have for Cochran -- and the subtext of whether healing for some is just a euphemistic call for others to roll over -- she added, "If I have to be a bad guy today, I'm officially a bad guy today."

Regardless of the circumstances of Cornel Young Jr.'s death, it's impossible to dismiss the influence of racism in the criminal justice system. A national US Justice Department study, reported on the front page of the New York Times on the same day that Cochran held his Providence news conference, found that black and Hispanic youths are treated far more harshly than white teenagers for comparable crimes in every step of the juvenile justice system.

And as far as race in America, serious change doesn't occurs unless there's a crisis, and oftentimes not even then. As Julian Bond, the '60s civil rights veteran who chairs the national NAACP, told me before visiting Rhode Island in February, "As a people, as a nation, we do not like to talk about racial discrimination, because the implications are too awful. Every white American -- whether or not their ancestors owned slaves, no matter when their forebears arrived here -- is a beneficiary of discrimination against racial minorities, to a lesser or greater degree. We cannot acknowledge that, because to do so poses a real threat to the status . . . that white Americans have in society."

When it comes to the concerns raised by Cornel Young Jr.'s death, Johnnie Cochran might be a flawed agent of change. But he's an agent of change nonetheless.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@phx.com.

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