Listen, defuse the rhetoric

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

December 18, 1990|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Listen . . .

Just listen.

There is an important lesson to be learned from the Terrence G. Johnson story if people will only listen.

Terrence G. Johnson was a 15-year-old when he was charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of two Prince George's County police officers in 1978.

Police claimed Terrence G. Johnson was an arrogant, young hothead, a time bomb waiting to explode who had no respect for authority.

They said Terrence G. Johnson was being questioned about a minor crime at the Hyattsville police station one hot summer night when he grabbed an officer's service revolver for no apparent reason and shot him dead. Then he burst into another room and shot and killed a second police officer before he was finally subdued.

Terrence G. Johnson, however, claimed he was being beaten by an officer and that he grabbed the gun in a blind panic. He said he didn't even remember shooting the second officer. His only coherent thought, said Terrence G. Johnson when he had his day in court, had been that he was going to die.

Reaction to the case fell pretty much along racial lines. For many Prince George's blacks, Terrence G. Johnson symbolized that community's on-going problems with an abusive, hostile police force. For many blacks, Terrence G. Johnson -- not the officers he killed -- was the true victim on that hot summer night.

For many whites, however, Terrence G. Johnson symbolized that community's on-going complaint about arrogant, disrespectful black teen-agers, teen-agers who had brought the urban blights dTC crime and drug abuse to that once pastoral community. For many whites, any show of sympathy to a man who cold-bloodedly shot and killed two police officers was an incalculable insult to law and order.

A jury listened carefully to both sides and found the young man guilty of manslaughter for one shooting and not guilty by reason of insanity for the other.

A judge gave him 25 years in prison.

So now 12 years have passed, and Terrence G. Johnson remains in prison, where he earned a high school diploma and obtained a bachelor of science with honors in business administration. He has gotten married. He has studied computers. All in prison.

Now, he wants to be set free.

I wrote about the Terrence G. Johnson story four weeks ago. I wrote about him with great sympathy, and reaction once again split pretty much along racial lines.

Many blacks saw Terrence G. Johnson as a martyr and applauded my courage.

Many whites saw Terrence G. Johnson as a great villain and called me a great fool.

So now you see how little progress we have made in 12 years.

In fact, by all the evidence, Terrence G. Johnson appears to have spent those 12 years more constructively than we have. He has grown. He has reflected on how he could have handled an admittedly difficult situation differently. We haven't.

But listen . . .

Just listen.

There is an important lesson in the Terrence G. Johnson story if people will only listen.

Our mutual distrust, our anger, our refusal to come together, is acted out on the streets every day.

Every day there are angry, distrustful, potentially tragic confrontations between white police officers and young black men. They are acting out our fears.

We have got to defuse the rhetoric. We have got to find some way to fight crime other than to declare war on entire communities and on entire categories of people. Our police officers deserve better and so do our teen-agers.

We have got to learn to grow as a community, just as Terrence G. Johnson apparently has learned to grow as a person.

So, listen . . .

Just listen.

The lesson is that Terrence G. Johnson is neither martyr nor villain. He is not a symbol. He is just a man, just as the two officers who died at Terrence G. Johnson's hands were men.

The deaths of the two officers is a tragedy.

But the question before us is whether to pile tragedy on top of tragedy.

Focus on that.

Focus on Terrence G. Johnson the man and what he has made of his life and what he might make of his life in the future.

Don't focus on Terrence G. Johnson the symbol.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.