Jesse Chapman a poor candidate for martyrdom

August 28, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

So Jesse Chapman in his grave becomes a martyr to West Baltimore. Police killing, we're informed by public mourners who thus add a final touch to the heroic Chapman record: Cocaine abuser, female attacker, martyr to the cause.

Which cause? This is a little tough to say. On television, there are demonstrations. The reporter on the television screen says it's a small group of demonstrators, but no matter: They're bunched in tight for the camera, and they're loud, and they're claiming Chapman died of a police beating. Never mind that contradictory report from the coroner's office, which must have been produced by liars.

But then the TV cameras go away, and 15 minutes later, when I arrive, the demonstration's over, too. Everybody dispersed, neighbors say, as soon as those cameras left. The neighbors are sitting on their front steps at twilight, directly across from the Western Police District, the site of the demonstration. They seem a little less than impressed.

"I don't know if the police killed him," says a woman named Marsha, who's edgy about using her last name in the current atmosphere, "but I'll tell you this. If they didn't, then his girlfriend would have."

Maybe, maybe not. The girlfriend ran to the police after Chapman, with cocaine in his system, became abusive and belligerent. He chased her into the station and tried to beat her in front of police, who pursued him and subdued him a block away.

Did they, in the process, beat him to death? The coroner's report says no and a grand jury says no, but demonstrators say otherwise. The coroner's report says "acute cocaine intoxication complicated by asthma" killed him, and notes, "superficial injuries . . . primarily involving the face, exhibited a pattern typical of skin contact with a hard, rough surface such as the pavement. . . . The autopsy did not reveal evidence of repeated blows or other significant injury."

Lies, the demonstrators say. The grand jury report, the refusal of the state's attorney's office to indict the cops? All part of a conspiracy to protect the murderous police. There's much talk on the street of a secret videotape of the beating, whose existence seems to give heart to the demonstrators.

But the man with the video, James Breakfield, is found on Mount Street, and he says it's not exactly that way. He says he has a video camera, and he used it, but not until the beating was done.

However, he says, he saw the beating from his window, maybe 15 feet away, and says, "I saw the police take the life out of the man. Three police whipped his head with some instrument, whipped the daylights out of him. It sounded like a sledgehammer. I know they cracked his skull. I saw the whole thing, and I told the grand jury."

This is chilling stuff, though there are problems with it: not only the coroner's report denying signs of severe beating, but the basic right of police to use force to subdue a criminal suspect who's resisting arrest.

"Chapman probably took some hits," says one police insider reluctant to use his name. "Police work isn't pretty. He was putting up a fight, and it ain't easy to arrest a man and keep your own safety in mind. But taking some hits and being beaten to death are not the same."

No matter: For the moment, Jesse Chapman has achieved a stature in death that he never had in life, an outgrowth not only of general suspiciousness of police behavior -- particularly toward young black men -- but of media-savvy demonstrators who have found a martyr.

But why, exactly, this particular martyr?

This is a neighborhood with big troubles, and the evidence is that Jesse Chapman personified some of it. The drug traffic flourishes, and Chapman was part of it. There's firsthand talk, given willingly to reporters and to the state's attorney's office, that this girlfriend was not the first woman he attacked. Chapman had a rap sheet over the past 10 years that included arrests for assault, malicious destruction of property, armed assault, illegal use of a handgun, contempt of court, violation of probation and rape.

On Mount Street the other night, Rodney Heard, a mortician, said, "My problem is simple. I don't think Jesse Chapman deserved to die, but he brought it on himself. You assault a woman inside a police station, listen, you might as well commit suicide.

"But you'll have young people getting worked up for the TV cameras over this drug abuser. And then when the TV cameras go away, they'll walk up the street and get right into the drug traffic. That's what they need to protest around here. But the drug dealers are idolized. And I don't know how you idolize somebody who's poisoning a community."

As he says the words, heads on Mount Street are nodding in agreement.

"You want to hold a demonstration?" says a woman who doesn't want her name in the newspaper. "Get out and rally for jobs. Rally to get the dope dealers off the corner and the criminals out of the neighborhood.

"I had a man break into my house last Thanksgiving. He broke in on me and my daughter. And look at me sitting right across the street from the police station. Listen, the name of the game is respect. The police are human. They have families waiting home for them. The guys on the corner won't tell you that, but . . ."

The woman's voice trails off. For the moment, such talk is a little subversive. Jesse Chapman's become a martyr, and those accusing the police may be back. It's nice when people rouse themselves for a cause. But there's gotta be a better one than this guy.

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