TWENTY-FOUR years ago this week, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead in Memphis, Tenn. I received the news on a special television bulletin in the early evening in my home on East 22nd Street.
My sister came home soon after and told me that in the bars and on the street corners of Greenmount Avenue -- places usually known for a rowdy, boisterous atmosphere -- black people sat or stood in shock and disbelief. (Inmates in the maximum security wing of the City Jail reacted with substantially less reserve, one of the residents told me later. They smashed to pieces all the TV sets they could find.)
"I sure hope Baltimore doesn't blow," I said to myself when my sister gave me the news. My mother, a tolerant, religious woman who had preached brotherhood her entire life, received the news when she got home from work and unleashed a torrent of invective. "Uh oh," I thought. "Now I know Baltimore's going to blow."
And blow it did, within a few days of the King assassination, mainly because of that undercurrent of anger that had swept the black community.
But exactly a year later, I knew there would be no such violence, simply because the level of anger wasn't there. That didn't stop the police commissioner of Baltimore from having his officers engage in a show of force to deter a riot that was not about to happen. Up and down Greenmount Avenue they rode, four, sometimes five to a car in full riot gear -- determined to show black Baltimore that they were ready this time and that a repeat of the 1968 violence would not be tolerated.
They showed us, all right. They showed us that the police commissioner was completely out of touch with the city's black people. They showed us that Donald Pomerleau, who recently died and was both praised and excoriated, really believed black people staged anniversary riots.
That was my first glimpse into the curious mind of the late police commissioner. I would get a more detailed look a few months later.
In late June 1969, a black woman was attacked by a police dog on Edmondson Avenue. Convinced the incident was a vicious case of police brutality, a delegation from a black nationalist group called the S.O.U.L. School arranged a meeting with the commissioner. I was a part of the delegation.
Pomerleau opened the meeting by citing the progress blacks had made on the national, state and local levels. He took personal responsibility for making significant changes in the city Police Department. Then he made a curious reference to the election of Charles Evers as mayor of Fayette, Miss., citing it as a veritable milestone in the history of African Americans.
It was at that point that Olugbala Balogun, a S.O.U.L. School founder who is now a leader of the rejuvenated Soul School Institute, interjected.
"Mr. Commissioner," he said, "we feel we're being talked down to. We don't appreciate people talking down to us."
Pomerleau, not realizing that Balogun was skillfully setting a trap, took the bait. "Are you calling me a racist?" he demanded.
"I didn't say a word about race," Balogun said quickly. "Did you hear me say anything about color?"
The commissioner looked momentarily flustered, as though he had expected no debating skill from Balogun. After a moment, though, he reassumed his haughty demeanor.
"You probably have serious psychological problems," he suggested to the lot of us.
What arrogance, I thought. This was the man who supposedly had improved the Police Department? What were Baltimore cops before he arrived -- Nazis-R-Us?
Later, Pomerleau had the entire delegation locked up for demonstrating about the police dog incident, thus showing the contempt for civil liberties that had become his trademark. Through the years, I would come to regard him as even more arrogant, imperious and egotistical than the first time I met him.
So when he died in January, I determined to take a kinder, gentler approach.
For one thing, I now support police dogs on foot patrols, especially the breeds capable of sniffing out drugs. A number of such foot patrol-canine combinations in areas of high drug activity might deter drug dealers enough to at least reduce the shootouts that are becoming all too frequent and taking a toll of innocent bystanders.
Moreover, Pomerleau's arrogance and scorn for civil liberties are the same traits possessed by three of my historical heroes: Toussaint Louverture and Jean Jacques Dessalines of Haiti and Samory Toure of West Africa. Perhaps in a different time or place Pomerleau would have been a hero instead of a scoundrel. I do know I would like to see his brand of policing turned loose on today's drug dealers.
Why are the Donald Pomerleaus of the world never around when they're really needed?
Gregory P. Kane writes from Baltimore.