Cover Story

Mend it or end it?

The Truth, Logic, and Courage Medal: A lonely soldier who fought a losing battle in America's Civil War II, a war of ideas, now hopes it's not too late to extinguish the racial fires

Issue: "A new division, a new dream," Aug. 25, 2001

and Cyril Boynes Jr.-It's 6:25 p.m. on Aug. 28, 2063, exactly 100 years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech during the historic March on Washington 1963, at this same location, the Lincoln Memorial. A restless gathering of people from around the country awaits the speaker of the hour. Charlton King fidgets and checks his watch. His keynote speech was supposed to begin at 5:30 p.m. Filled with anxiety and flustered with anticipation, he floats a look of his justified annoyance at the master of ceremonies. The speaker preceding him had gone on well beyond his allotted time. Still, these days it's become hazardous to try to correct misbehavior. Charlton caresses his "medal of honor," squeezing the gold coin engraved with his name in the palm of his left hand, while tugging nervously at the red, white, and blue ribbon with his right. It's the only outward sign of his anxiety; as usual, he's remarkably restrained. Restraint, in fact, is one of the attributes of his complex character that made him one of the most decorated soldiers in America's Civil War II. Although he had won many medals, the Truth, Logic, and Courage Medal he now grips in his hands is the one he most cherishes. Not so much because of what he personally endured to win it, but because of it origins-what it stands for, how it was established, and why. The medal was conceived and created by an African-American leader named Roy Innis, who once headed the Congress of Racial Equality. CORE flourished from the middle of the 20th century to well into the 21st. The medal was created to commemorate one of the great controversies that led to the American Civil War II. The war was a war of ideologies; in this controversy truth was laid waste by vile untruth, logic gave way to frivolous and flawed thinking, and intellectual cowardice was rewarded as virtue. The war pitted the liberal left against the conservative right. The battlefields were the minds and hearts, the very soul of the American people. In its wake, fundamental American values would be corrupted and rights enshrined in the Constitution would be subverted. An unbroken stream of successes by liberals bred more arrogance on the left and cowardice on the right. At a signal from the master of ceremonies, Charlton rises. As he ascends the six wooden steps to the platform, his ebony face reflects the rays of the incandescent lights now aimed at him. He struggles against the glare, straining to recognize any familiar face in the amorphous and restless gathering. The crowd, now a featureless sea of bodies, begins to chant his name. It's his moment. "We have an inescapable obligation to fulfill," he begins, his mellifluous voice cascading over and echoing off the solid wall of people before him. A sudden pall overcomes the crowd; his listeners are cool to him. He chides himself for letting his legendary self-restraint slip-for jumping into the meat of his speech too quickly-and steps back to regroup. He turns and nods to everyone on the platform-a nod that seems as much in farewell as in greeting. Then, turning to the crowd, brandishing his secret weapon-his disarming grin-he shouts, "How's y'all out there?" He has recaptured the moment. "Truth is the only guarantor of our Constitutional rights," he says, less stridently now, but still firmly. "Our media, too, must be ethics-driven. Had the reporting in the aftermath of the Ahmed Damali shooting last year been ethical-straight and truthful-we would not have the mess we now have on our hands. I believe that abuse of the truth, an irresponsible media, and apathetic authorities are what put us atop this powder keg we're sitting on. I believe that racial incidents, handled badly by the press and the politicians, become racial conflict-to the detriment of all." To give his listeners a moment to digest his words, he deliberately raises the medal in his right hand. "An African-American leader of another age created this medal I hold so dear," he says. "Many years ago, Roy Innis sounded an alarm about the formation of an unholy alliance between politicians, prosecutors, and the press. The Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse, he called them. This alliance, he believed, would work to curtail the rights we cherish as Americans. Tonight I want us to take a look at the roles these very 'horsemen' played in the Ahmed Damali debacle." Charlton's audience is now fully engaged-as enraptured as if it were attending a Southern church revival. Charlton holds his listeners just as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had-with the same style, the same mannerisms, the same inflections, even. But Charlton has come by these naturally-he inherited them. What he missed genetically, he learned through ardent study and patient practice. He read every book written by or about Dr. King and watched every disc he could get his hands on. What was more difficult, but to Charlton even more important, was emulating the good Reverend's skill at detailed analysis and his sharp intellect. "Three interests and passions needed to be satisfied in the Ahmed Damali case," he continues. "None were, when that Albany jury found all four police officers not guilty in Damali's death. Instead we see the same sorts of dynamics and the same sorts of demagogues that made the Rodney King case and the Amadou Diallo case so detrimental to racial reconciliation in the 20th century." He pauses, looking down at his notes, though he doesn't need them. Charlton's at his best when he's speaking extemporaneously. He looks up and focuses on a group he surmises is a family-a man, a woman, and a youth-standing in the front of the crowd. "The Damali family's search for justice has been denied," he says. "Closure and restoration for society has been delayed, and the catharsis-the cleansing-needed for national healing has been frustrated. You know the particulars of this horrific incident; how on July 7, 2062, Ahmed Damali was shot 21 times, in a fusillade of 51 bullets, on the vestibule of his residence." Charlton knows his business; he's tempering the terrible details by using the comforting cadence of a seasoned preacher. And so far, he's said nothing his listeners haven't already heard, from a media culture happy to delve into the worst details, and from politicians and "community leaders" happy to play yet another race card. Charlton wonders if his audience is ready to hear something new. "But the usual red herring of racism cannot be easily drawn across the trial in this case," he says. "While the four officers who killed Mr. Damali, a black immigrant, are white, they were tried by a jury that included four black women, with one of them serving as foreperson. In addition, an African-American, Roger Jones, is the district attorney of Kings County, New York, where the tragic death occurred." The crowd reacts with a mixture of surprised interest, and an increase in the restlessness he's seen. "The not-guilty verdict of the jury is understandable, based on the evidence presented to it by the prosecutors and the instructions given to it by Justice James Thomson," he says. "But the decisions of the prosecutors cannot be easily rationalized. The series of errors by the prosecution started with its failure to conduct a thorough investigation of all aspects of the Damali tragedy before seeking an indictment, especially one as serious as murder in the second degree." He lets his words sink in; after all, this is probably the first time these people have been asked to look at the case logically, and to analyze their anger. He hopes he's in time, and can succeed in showing that the Damali incident should spark not racial war but some political housecleaning. This is his message-this is his mission. But he knows it might be too late for that. Charlton's instinct for spotting impending trouble kicks in now; he senses, then sees, a disturbance brewing at the left periphery of the gathering. It seems to him out of the ordinary, unnatural and contrived. Three women and two men are engaged in an antic dance designed to distract more than to disrupt his speech. For some reason unknown to himself, Charlton interprets that as a sign of danger, and he instinctively moves closer to the lectern, as if to shield himself. Placing both hands on the lectern, he braces himself and gathers his thoughts. "The prosecution failed to develop enough evidence, and it failed to anticipate the defense's strategy," he says. "The defense claimed that the officers' actions were consistent with the police department's policies and guidelines and the police academy's training regimen, and that they acted in self-defense. The prosecution should have known this was coming, and rebutted it." His inner alarm goes off again, and he looks to his right. He's relieved to see the Damali family making its way through the crowd, guided by security officers. As they ascend the platform, Charlton greets them each in turn-the mother, the father, a son. Charlton now turns again to the crowd. "The public has a right to know whether these four officers-and police officers in general-have been trained and encouraged to respond to assumed threats with fusillades of bullets as was done in the Ahmed Damali incident," he says. "And if these policies exist, these policies must change. "The death of Ahmed Damali was a tragedy, and the trial was a tragedy-because political and prosecutorial incompetence has fueled racial fires," he intones, knowing that behind him, Damali's grim-faced, shiny-eyed mother is nodding in agreement. "The prosecution's failures have caused destructive doubts in the minds of many good people and have aided those who will shout 'no justice, no peace.' And the media have been throwing on the gasoline. The question for us now is, how will we respond? Will we work peacefully to replace the incompetent officials and demand accountability from the media, or will we let anger destroy the lives we have built up? Will we mend our society, or end it?" The crowd, emboldened by the timbre of Charlton's voice, has overwhelmed the small security detail and has drawn closer to the platform. Charlton feels uneasy, but at the same time feels an electric thrill at being so near his audience. Raising his hand to the sky, still clutching his medal, he sings out, "I'm bringing it all home now ... Horrendous incidents like these undermine good relations between police and the communities they're meant to protect. And it makes more difficult the task of those of us in the minority communities who understand that criminals are more dangerous to us than the police." He holds out his hands in supplication: "As one who has labored tirelessly for good relations, I implore the mayor and the commissioner to reach out to the community at large. And not only to their critics, to placate them, but also to those of us who do not have a visceral reaction to the police. No justice, no peace, you say? I agree. But the answer is to seek the justice, not to breach the peace." The crowd cheers, and Charlton fancies he hears a more hopeful tone in those voices than he's heard in the increasingly ominous Damali demonstrations he's witnessed lately. He feels a small, bony hand on his arm, and turns to see the smiling face of Ahmed Damali's mother, as she mouths something-words of assent, or congratulations maybe. He hears a single dull firecracker thud, a soft and subtle interruption of the gathering's natural din. Simultaneously, he sees a flash of light and feels a sharp twinge in his forehead, just above his left eye. Charlton, in shock, has just enough time to realize what has happened. He staggers backward, then lurches forward and falls. By the time the ambulance carrying the semi-conscious Charlton King reaches the emergency ward of a nearby hospital, Washington, D.C., is ablaze. The final firewall against a racial Armageddon and the dismantling of the American system has crumbled. The man who would be peacemaker has fallen.

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