‘It is time for thee, Lord, to work: for they have made void the law.’ —Psalm 119:126
I must have dozed off last Saturday with the radio set to 1010 WINS News. During my mid-day slumber, the gutsy street reporting of Lisa Evers, regarding the latest fatal shootings of young black men in Brooklyn, played out in my psyche in melodramatic bulletins. I remember hearing snippets of news about a robbery, toy guns that looked real, three suspects who got away, and soundbites from police brass calling the shootings of two allegedly armed teenagers by Operation Condor cops justifiable killings.
In and out of my snooze, I thought the police version of what happened could only bolster Rudy Giuliani’s contention that his private Ton Ton Macoutes are all that stand between law-abiding New Yorkers and violent young African American men. With the breaking news on my mind, I fell into a deep sleep and my worst nightmare. I dreamed I was in the office of Father Edward Durkin, the principal of the Catholic school my 13-year-old son, Peter Jr., attends. I had come with tears welling in my eyes to tell Father Durkin that Little Peter, the taciturn, six-foot center on the school’s basketball team, was one of the stickup kids involved in the Brooklyn robbery.
In my dream, Father Durkin put his arms around me and led this former altar boy in reciting the 14 Stations of the Cross. I woke up suddenly. Disoriented. Flailing my arms. Grasping. How could this happen? Little Peter, who wears a fake diamond stud earring in his left ear and is grooming a Kobe Bryant Afro, is not some street kid. Was he among the three suspects who got away? Had some trigger-happy cop shot and killed my boy? Why, in the name of the Father and of the Son, am I not on death row? My dream was incomplete.
In my family of West Indian immigrants, however, the women dream with horrifying accuracy. The night before an unarmed Patrick Dorismond was gunned down by an undercover cop, my mother left a message on my voice mail regarding my close relationship with Little Peter.
“Boy,” she sobbed, almost choking, “I keep getting these bad dreams about you and Little Peter. I keep seeing you and him struggling. He’s pulling away from you, but you keep crying out, ‘My son! My son! I can’t let you go!’ ”
Ma paused. But that only meant that she was perusing her blue, large-text Bible, the one that has the names of her six boys written all over her favorite chapters and stuffed in white prayer envelopes dipped in the special anointing oil some televangelist sold her.
“Peter!” she bawled, as if she sensed I was on the other end silently listening to her. “Peter Noel! You don’t listen! I am warning you not to leave your job today without saying the 119th Psalm. Don’t tell me, ‘Ma, it’s too long!’ Read it! Son, this is your protection! It will guard you and that beautiful, big-eye boy!”
I read all 176 verses of the Psalm and called my mother. “You made a mistake, Ma,” I said. “You always tell me to read the 70th Psalm. (The five verses of the 70th Psalm are short and to the point, but I always read the second verse: “Let them be ashamed and confounded that seek after my soul: let them be turned backward, and put to confusion, that desire my hurt.”) Ma cut me off. She said she’d figured out the dream that kept haunting her in the wake of the uproar over the Amadou Diallo verdict and the subsequent police killing of Malcolm Ferguson.
“Little Peter was trying to get away,” she said. “He was frightened, and if he’d only run, if you’d only let go of him, the people—the big white people who was chasing him—would have caught him.”
I felt my mother was holding something back. “Did Peter die in this dream?” I asked.
“It could be you. It could be him,” she said. “Talk to Little Peter,” she advised. “Tell him that Grandma Alice say, ‘Never talk back to police! Don’t fight! Don’t struggle!’ He’s just like you, Peter Noel. He has your spirit.”
I slumped back in my chair. I am afraid of my mother’s dreams. In 1998, two days before my younger brother, Derrick, was fatally shot by a white cop in Montgomery County, Maryland, my mother had dreamed she was attending the wedding of one of her sons. “Marriage is death,” she predicted. “This is bad news for somebody in the family.” On the night of March 30, my brother Seaver called. A cop had killed Derrick. Two bullets to the back of his head, allegedly during a struggle over the cop’s gun. Derrick was unarmed.
This reminiscence was broken when the phone rang. Ma again. This time she brought up the unpleasant subject of a spiritual struggle between Little Peter and me. In a West Indian ritual, when a “boy chile” is the “spitting image” of his father, the father must pay his son—put a dollar or more in his hand—or the son’s spirit may wind up vanquishing the father’s. “Pay the boy!” she demanded. “Ole people say that you killed your father because he never paid you. You look like him, walk like him, and talk like him—and you’re just as pigheaded.”
Despite our strong resemblance, I don’t believe Little Peter’s spirit would kill mine so that he could live. If anything, I would be the one to give my life for him. I told Ma that the recent killings of young, unarmed black men by police have crept into her dreams and my own fears.
“Peter might die before me,” I said. “What if a cop killed him?”
“What can you do?” she asked angrily.
“Ma, you’d have to bury me,” I replied.
“Killing yourself is not the answer,” she shot back.
“It’s homicide I’m talking about, Ma. The ‘Vengeance of Moko‘ [a West Indian phrase meaning all-out revenge against your tormentor] will fall on him. I’ll beg God to forgive me, and kill the cop who killed my son.”
“Did I kill anybody when Derrick died?” she asked. “Look at those African people [Amadou Diallo’s parents]; are they talking about killing and killing and shooting the police who killed their son? You’re crazy if you start thinking like that.”
Maybe I had gone over the edge, I thought later. But it was a vow born of rage and sorrow. There are thousands of black fathers like me who are having the same thoughts and dreams—not from feelings of retribution, but out of a desperation born of the belief that justice for them and their sons is impossible in Rudy Giuliani’s New York.
William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs, the authors of the book Black Rage, say we can’t be blamed for such “copicidal” fantasies. “Black people, to a degree that approaches paranoia, must be ever alert to danger from their white fellow citizens,” they write. “It is a cultural phenomenon peculiar to black Americans. And it is a posture so close to paranoid thinking that the mental disorder into which black people most frequently fall is paranoid psychosis. Can we say that white men have driven black men mad?”
On the afternoon of March 16, I learned that Patrick Dorismond, a Haitian American on his way home to Brooklyn from his job as a security guard in Manhattan, had been shot to death by an undercover narcotics officer after he quarreled and struggled with the cop. Dorismond, 26, had rebuffed the undercover, who tried to entrap him into telling him where to buy marijuana. Another young black man had died, and I lashed out in anger. It could have been Peter, I said on the several talk shows to which I subsequently was invited to comment about, as Grier and Cobbs put it, “the depth of the grief for slain sons.”
Except for my mother, and Paula, Little Peter’s Mom, I had never told anyone about the rage that I feel would overwhelm me if a cop unjustifiably murdered my son. But last Thursday, after a white man almost drove me mad, my secret got out.
During a heated debate with New York Post columnist Steve Dunleavy on The Alan Colmes Show on WEVD radio, Colmes questioned the decency of demonstrators at Patrick Dorismond’s funeral who carried posters declaring: “IF MY SON WERE KILLED BY THE COPS, I’D GO AFTER MAYOR GIULIANI’S SON.” Colmes said the signs threatened the life of the mayor’s 14-year-old son, Andrew. I responded, and, in the ensuing acrimonious exchange, bared a black father’s pent-up rage.
“I have a 13-year-old son, and any police officer who kills my son, he’s dead! Period!” I bellowed. “I’m going after him! That’s how I feel! I’m not waiting for this system to give up any justice. I am going after that police officer! . . . If a police officer kills my son in this city, I am not waiting for Rudy Giuliani to do anything. I’m going after that cop. I’m just as dead!”
Dunleavy argued that I had created an implausible scenario—that he could not imagine my son being shot by a cop. But then he turned. “[L]et’s talk about circumstances,” he said. “You’ve come outright and [said] if any cop killed your son, the cop’s dead. What would happen if that 15-year-old son of yours—which I’m sure would not happen—had a gun in his hand, was shooting at a cop?”
“No! No! No!” I replied. “My son will not have a gun in his hand. I’m gonna tell you like it is. I raise my son with proper values, okay? My son is an endangered species when he walks outside. Your son is not an endangered species. . . if you have sons. . . . You don’t understand the black experience in this city at all! Whenever my son or my daughter, who is 19 years old, step out of their apartment in this city, I don’t know if they’re gonna come back home because some police officer might mistake their cell phone, might mistake their wallet, or their set of keys, for a gun, and then shoot them down because he profiles them! You don’t understand that experience, Steve, because you don’t live it! You live in your own nice world where . . . you protect the status quo, protect people like Rudy Giuliani.”
Just as I felt Dunleavy might be sympathizing a bit with what I had to say, he began to question my standards. “You keep on talking about how you bring up your children with proper values, and they wouldn’t have a gun in their hand, and I quite agree with you. I’m sure they wouldn’t. . . . But if you say you bring your children up with proper values and you talk like this, I think you better readjust what you call values.”
I stuck to my declaration: “Any police officer [who] kills my son; I’m taking him out because I’m just as good as dead!”
Colmes interjected: “But you’re talking about taking justice in your own hands. . . . ”
“Yes!” I emphasized. “[The cop] took justice in [his] own hands. There has to be some kind of response, Alan. There are . . . grieving mothers and fathers. . . . I come from a totally different culture. My culture tells me ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ You kill my son and you want to say that he had some gun in his hand when he didn’t have one! I am dead. You guys are gonna write my story for me. I am coming after that police officer.”
Dunleavy invoked an argument popular with Giuliani conservatives and far-right talking heads. “I think you should take your activism down to Washington, where the Washington cops have a frightening record [of killing black men],” he said. (If Dunleavy was suggesting that I tolerated black cops killing black people, he was sadly mistaken.)
“I [live] in New York,” I reminded him. Dunleavy pressed the point, hinting that the civil libertarian’s theory—that police brutality would be almost nonexistent if black cops patrolled mostly black neighborhoods—does not work. “It just so happens the majority of Washington cops are black. . . . ,” he said.
But my beef is with Giuliani’s terror squad. “Any cop in this city, black or white, who attacks and brutalizes people . . . should be punished. . . . ,” I said.
“But you’re talking about vigilante justice, Peter,” said Colmes. “You’re talking about going after them yourself.” I wanted to make it clear that my fight with the cop who killed my son would be personal. If there were four cops, like in the case of Amadou Diallo, I’d go after them all—but I wouldn’t be avenging every alleged police killing.
“I’m speaking about me!” I explained. “I’m speaking about what would happen to me if a white police officer, a black police officer, a Latino police officer, kills my son. I’m gone. I’m dead!”
The liberal Colmes attempted to link my views to those of some of the radical protesters at Patrick Dorismond’s funeral who, according to Colmes, advocated killing Andrew Giuliani. ” . . . I think a sign at this rally threatening Giuliani’s son [was] way out of line,” he declared. “It was really inappropriate.”
“There is something called righteous indignation,” I asserted. “People are angry! The only thing that they have . . . is freedom of speech, regardless of whether . . . they are fighting words.”
Dunleavy interjected: “Is that what you call righteous indignation? You’re talking about righteous indignation when you talk about killing the mayor’s son? Are you out of your freaking mind?”
” . . . The mayor has killed the sons and daughters of African Americans in this city,” I retorted. “He has sanctioned it! And if people feel that they have to send a message back to him . . . let them do that.” (In no way was I calling for the life of the Pharoah’s first-born son.)
“Oh, come on, for God’s sake,” Dunleavy fumed. “You better stop taking those stupid pills you’ve been taking.”
Pills? Much like the undercover cops who assumed Patrick Dorismond was a pothead, Steve Dunleavy was not above inferring that I might be a drug abuser who popped pills. News flash, Steve: I don’t need pills. I get high on black rage, which makes African American fathers like me consider homicide when Giuliani justice is not enuf.
Last month, on the second anniversary of my brother’s death, Little Peter’s mother summoned me to their home. I told Paula that if she was going to talk to me about another one of her “Stephen King nightmares,” I didn’t want to hear it. “It’s about Peter!” she snapped. “No dream could predict what I am about to do to your son.” I raced over to the apartment. Little Peter, who is always at the door to greet me, remained in a back room. Paula was sitting on a chair in the kitchen gritting her teeth, trying to calm her erupting nerves.
“His pants is hanging off his ass these days, and he’s not listening to me!” she complained. “Take him!” she offered. “Because if the cops don’t kill Peter for looking like a thug, I will.” I called Little Peter from his hiding place, rapped him a couple of times in the back of his head (“Kid, what wuz you thinkin’?”), and thrust a $10 bill in his hand.
“What’s that for?” he asked, still wincing from the thumps.
“This,” I said, staring at Grandma Alice’s beautiful big-eye boy, “ensures that both of us will live.”
41 Bullets and Counting…: The Voice archive on NYPD brutality.