Firings furor distracts from true causes of our ruin

May 17, 2001|By Michael Olesker

CLARENCE Mitchell III is a lion in winter now, an angry, growling, eternally restless presence who cannot escape the shadow of his own memory.

He stood there Tuesday evening at a crowded City Hall hearing as the Baltimore City Council huffed and puffed a little bit, just to show it still counts for something, and watched as it failed to lay a glove on Police Commissioner Edward Norris.

As Norris explained why he had fired two high-ranking black city police officers, Clarence Mitchell III thought about Donald Pomerleau. As Norris looked impatiently at his wristwatch and said he had more pressing business, Mitchell thought about police in his old West Baltimore neighborhood who menaced black residents for reasons of skin color. The shadow of his memory lengthened as the minutes ticked by.

The past does not go away. Norris is 41 years old. He was not born when Clarence Mitchell III's mother, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, was marching for equal rights, or when Mitchell's father, Clarence Jr., was prodding the collective conscience of Congress, or when a young Clarence III saw the white police officers of Baltimore bullying their way through black neighborhoods.

The shadow of memory does not fade. But it is a half-century later, and we live in a city where a 2-year-old is shot in the head reaching for a drinking cup, and guns keep firing in neighborhoods where narcotics rule everything. And Tuesday evening, we had Norris declaring, "We could have 300 murders by the fall, and the only person to answer for that is me. That's why I had to make the decisions I made. It's my department."

"I know racism when I see it," Clarence Mitchell III said when he digested Norris' words. "I know the look of it, and the sound of it, and the smell of it."

He meant the firing of the two policemen, Deputy Commissioner Barry Powell and Col. James Hawkins. They are black. There were two white officers also fired, whose names are already forgotten and whose fate was not remarked upon by anyone at City Hall on Tuesday.

The past haunts us still. On the radio, Larry Young calls the two firings "the bleaching of the city," and contrives conspiracies of racism to boost his ratings. At City Hall, council members summon Norris to defend the firing of Powell and Hawkins. In Clarence Mitchell III's memory, there is always the police commissioner named Pomerleau.

"People forget," Mitchell said.

Not everyone does. Donald Pomerleau was city police commissioner when Mitchell was a state senator. Pomerleau trampled on civil liberties. His intelligence unit followed innocent residents whose only crime was having political views different from Pomerleau's. When asked, in the privacy of his office one day, if he was targeting political figures, Pomerleau blithely replied, "Just the blacks, just the blacks, just the blacks."

Mitchell was one of those blacks. The past clings to him, as it should. But the worst of Donald Pomerleau's reign was more than a quarter-century ago. Edward Norris was a schoolboy then. So was Clarence Mitchell IV, who holds his father's old state senate seat and stood a few feet from him Tuesday.

The son is as outspoken, and as publicly enraged by the two firings, as the father. The past clings to him also. As a family, the Mitchells are the keepers of important memory. But the past must inform us without paralyzing us. There is still racism in Baltimore, which goes on in real estate offices, and in corporate suites and political back rooms, and in the everyday actions of individual police. Sometimes, the racism cuts both ways.

But we sidetrack ourselves when, lacking evidence, we instinctively impose yesterday's motives on today's. In a city two-thirds African-American, Edward Norris would commit professional suicide if he fired two high-ranking black police officers without just cause.

Did he make mistakes in the firings? Maybe. Maybe he could have slipped word to City Council leaders, and not just the mayor, before the public announcement was made. Maybe he could have been more explicit about his reasons to a public quick to suspect the motives of all high officials. But maybe he thought 40 homicides in 42 days spoke for themselves.

He is Edward Norris and not Donald Pomerleau. He should not be charged with the sins of those who preceded him. There are kids shot on their mother's front steps today not because they are black, but because they live in violent neighborhoods. No one should have to live in such places. We should save our outrage for the things that are truly killing us.

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