Law enforcement life spotlights racism

August 18, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

For 12 years Tyrone Powers worked in law enforcement, a writer trapped in, first, a state trooper's, then a G-man's, body.

You have to wonder after reading his autobiography "Eyes To My Soul" if, during all those years, the writer in him was struggling to get out.

This is no average autobiography, which is usually heavy on the auto and light on the bio. And Powers is no average writer. When he writes about an FBI agent trying to goad him into a confrontation, Powers puts the reader right in the office.

A cold, steely silence filled the suffocatingly warm room. A few of the other agents, who were seated at their desks, stopped working and provided the supervisor with the smiles and then the laughter that he so desperately craved. The laughter echoed throughout his hollow soul and puffed up his bony chest. His smile widened. A few other agents, who I believe did not agree with the warped statements of their superior, presented only dry grins to the speaker.

When he's in Greater Baltimore Medical Center watching his brother Nate's life slowly slip away from him, Powers' eloquent writing puts us in the room, too.

I reached out and touched Nate's hand -- he felt so cold. He looked so cold that I wanted to cover him with a blanket. I wanted to hide his suffering; he would have wanted that. I watched as blood dribbled from his nostrils. I wanted to wipe the blood away but I couldn't move. I couldn't touch my brother's blood.

When Powers describes how, as a boy, he and his younger brother Warren witnessed his father raping his older sister, he makes the terror the two boys felt like our own.

Warren was trembling. Tears crept down his face. He reached up and grabbed my arm. I could not differentiate his trembling from mine. I didn't know whether Warren was angry or scared. I couldn't stand to look into his face. I didn't have all the answers he needed right now. I couldn't explain why his father was doing this to his sister.

Such powerful writing elevates "Eyes To My Soul" above the run-of-the-mill autobiography. Powers traces his life growing up in West Baltimore, his three years as a state trooper and his nine years with the FBI. Both organizations, he claims, remain rife with racism.

"We had major problems with the Maryland State Police when I was there," Powers said from the basement of his Northeast Baltimore home. Sitting in a small, makeshift office, Powers claims a white corporal admitted he had had several hostile confrontations with blacks he had stopped.

"That attitude was prevalent at the time," Powers insisted. "I know a guy who still works in intelligence who said the atmosphere was worse." Given such attitudes, Powers believes that the number of blacks stopped by the anti-drug Maryland StatePolice Special Traffic Interdiction Force (STIF) unit is "not a coincidence."

His writing bug started early, with his mother urging him to keep a journal. James Harrison, his English teacher at Southwestern High School -- where Powers graduated in 1979 -- had him read poets like Langston Hughes and Robert Frost and urged him to keep notes on his reactions.

The note-keeping continued with the state police and the FBI. After he left the bureau in 1994, his wife, Doris, and others told him he had enough important material to write a book. He submitted the manuscript for "Eyes To My Soul" to The Majority Press publishing house in January 1995, and it reached bookstores in early May of this year.

Powers can now add his own book to his library. His office has bookshelves lined with biographies of Dwight Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, Richard Nixon, Josef Stalin, Lyndon Johnson, Fidel Castro, Robert Kennedy and Marcus Garvey. On a shelf below these books, visitors will notice three volumes of Karl Marx's "Das Kapital.`

"Once we shun a group of people, we don't want to read anybody's history but ours," Powers mused as the reason for his eclectic reading taste. "But a history professor at Coppin said you have to read everybody's history. I don't exclude anyone."

The biography he admires most is that of Marcus Garvey, the black nationalist leader of the 1920s who formed the largest mass movement of African-Americans in the history of the country.

"Most people," Powers asserted, referring to the current crop of hat-in-the-hand black leadership, "think they know Marcus Garvey, but [he] would be ashamed of some of the beggings going on now."

Such erudition is no accident. His mother and older brother Nate urged him to read, study and steer clear of the streets. Powers expressed disdain for Baltimore's public schools, accusing teachers of having low expectations of students.

That is one point on which the gifted writer and I will have to disagree. City schools produced Tyrone Powers, who was dedicated, committed and driven to learn. Those are qualities that will guarantee excellence in any school system.

Pub Date: 8/18/96

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