In Search of a Right

The 13-year struggle of targets in a racial dragnet reveals the elusive nature of justice

In fact, the state police case file, a redacted copy of which Fein provided to the Voice, lists hundreds of fruitless interviews, a litany of "negative results," and "no pertinent information." It describes an all-points effort to track down any and all black males, on the sidewalks and at traffic stops, with absolutely no indication that officials paused to consider the social implications of such a sweep.

One agent's report, typical of the kind of investigations described, reads: "[name] is a white female, age 16, states she has black male friends and named [name], [name], [name], [name]." According to Fein's analysis of the file, over 100 black women and many older black men were interrogated, despite the victim's description.

"The actions of the state police were lawful in the circumstances," says Marc Violette, a spokesperson for Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who stressed that the office is required by statute to defend all lawsuits against the state. "We mount a full defense. We want to prevail, and we take that same approach whether the issues are more trivial or deeply substantive," he said, refusing to make available any of the state's attorneys or provide detailed responses to questions. (Voice writer Wayne Barrett has disputed the absoluteness of this statutory duty, reporting past instances where New York attorneys general refused on principle to defend certain state actions.) Spitzer showed more concern in 1999, after the state won a crucial federal court argument defeating the plaintiffs' constitutional claims. He told Bob Herbert of The New York Times, "We won the case but it makes your skin crawl."

Oneonta student rally, September 1992
photo: Bruce Endries/The Daily Star
Oneonta student rally, September 1992

The debate over the years has been whether New York State is defending merely shoddy but excusable police work or outright discriminatory policing. But there is little debate as far as the plaintiffs are concerned. When the effect either way is to harass hundreds of blacks exclusively, the difference between carelessness and design hardly matters. Whether incidentally or on purpose, the plaintiffs believe that official racism played an undeniable role in the probe, and it damaged their lives.

'All the black people in the community'

Hopeton Gordon (left) and John Mason
photo: Steven Sunshine
Lohr woke from an afternoon nap to find several uniformed officers in his dormitory room. They wanted to know where he had been in the pre-dawn hours of September 4. They said they needed to see his arms and hands. A small scar on his right hand excited them, until he pointed out how obviously old it was.

The authorities had obtained a list from the college's vice president for administration, Leif Hartmark, of the names and addresses of all 125 black male students. Hartmark's quick compliance enabled police to move through the dorms with efficiency. He would later be demoted for violating the students' privacy.

Much of the questioning occurred in public or before an audience. Ricky Brown was walking home from a frat party when the uniforms formed a circle around him. Hopeton Gordon of the Bronx was roused from a nap in his dorm room and grilled as fellow students looked on. Hugh Harris-Inniss, from Trinidad by way of Brooklyn, was questioned once outside his off-campus apartment and then again that same day, as he called his mother from a pay phone to tell her about the first time. Sheryl Champen, then a SUCO admissions officer, was one of the women inexplicably stopped. At the town's bus depot, she was told by an officer that if she did not produce identification, she would not be allowed to board a bus to visit her grandmother in the Bronx.

All across Oneonta, for days, black students and residents stood before law enforcement agents, often in view of their white neighbors and colleagues, accounting for their whereabouts and displaying their arms. Many recently told the Voice that they were angry and hated to go along, but that cooperation seemed the only option when faced with several, often armed, officers at a time.

"We've tried to examine the hands of all the black people in the community," then senior state police investigator H. Karl Chandler told the Oneonta Daily Star in 1992. Forced to retire five years later, after a statewide corruption probe uncovered rampant evidence-tampering in the troop under his watch, Chandler spearheaded the multi-agency Oneonta sweep. The state's lawyers would later frame his judgments as having shown legitimate police discretion. Essentially, Chandler figured, black males being a manageably small minority in this town, the police might as well question them all. He said in a CBS television interview that his decision was "practical."

The investigation did not include a single law enforcement agent of color, according to Fein's interviews over the years with participating officers. Race and minority status did not seem to spark the slightest social concern or comprehension in officials like Chandler. He said then to The New York Times, "If your car has an accident, and there's red paint on it, are you going to look for a green car?"

Reached at his home in Oneonta last month, Chandler said, "My views have not changed. I have many black friends, and I've talked to them about this. They think the investigation was fine." He insisted that the same blanket approach would have been used upon another group—for instance, if the suspect had been "redheaded"—if the numbers allowed. Asked whether he had ever considered the social meaning of such an investigation, given the history of racism and official oppression in the U.S., Chandler said, "That is BS. There was no disrespect. We were not rude. The only people who would feel that way have something to hide or want money from a lawsuit."

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