tThe extermination of the indigenous population and the enslavement of Africans are linked. The epic of white supremacy in America is a legacy of our English heritage. Not surprisingly, our history of systematic police brutality, harassment and prejudice is as disheartening as any in faraway London or Brisbane.
With his new translated book A story of violence, injustice and the American cityNicholas Dawidoff explores one eerie example from his hometown, New Haven, Connecticut. It was your typical frame of an innocent inner-city guy. Naive, unworldly and eager to get home after hours of questioning, 16-year-old Bobby Johnson impulsively believes Detective Clarence Willoughby. Asked with no one else around, Johnson was forcefully armed. Told that if convicted “he was liable to execution,” the young man was promised that confession meant probation. And so, three times, in three different ways, an innocent teenager confessed to the murder.
Known as the home of Yale, another colonial relic, New Haven is a place full of privilege amidst a sea of destitution. The accidental disaster occurred on a summer evening in 2006. What happened was not unusual, just another confrontation between the raging ranks of race, class, guns, and inequalities besetting urban neighbourhoods. Ultimately, such bleak places do not offer opportunities for, or preparation for, freedom from legal means of subsistence. Ghettos left residents in a state of despair, often at each other’s throats, allowing wholesale victim-blaming to defeated people deemed inhumane.
On such a quarter, during a layover, Herbert Fields, a 70-year-old middle-class black grandfather, was shot in his car at point blank range. Throughout his life, Fields has worked hard and done well. Due to perseverance and the good fortune to retire before the last of the manufacturers left town, he even managed to escape from the slum of Newhallville.
On frequent returns, he’d hang around, helping out friends and former co-workers who wouldn’t go away. Many families were like him. They made the Great Migration from South Carolina, looking for well-paying factory jobs. The fields gave, lent, and sent money on the first day of every month. On that day in 2006, he was carrying more than $1,500.
The alleged killer, Johnson, was trapped with the rest of his family in Newhallville. After a rapid-fire investigation, marred by falsified evidence and withheld by dishonest officers, he was not probated. He was sentenced to 38 years in prison.
Dawidoff, an Art for Justice fellow and Pulitzer Prize finalist, has returned home from New York to spend eight years solving the case’s harsh realities. He interviewed more than 500 people. Despite its painstaking journalistic rigor, the resulting book is neither academic nor boring. Dawidoff puts the reader into the scene with lively prose and attention to detail. Not unlike Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, it’s as gripping and fast-paced as a best-selling fantasy mystery.
Some will certainly welcome the author’s strategic editing of names and lack of illustrations, movements that contribute to the mythological atmosphere. Some may feel that it helps to elevate this work into a more specific, universal, and cautionary tale. Yet, to me, such omissions, though well-intentioned, are the chief defect of the other side of probability.
Honoring Johnson’s request, Dawidoff said he agreed to only be identified in the script as “Bobby”. Likewise, he omitted only $3 million from the settlement that the City of New Haven eventually paid. After, after Nine years in prisonfollowed by an acquittal and a successful lawsuit, Johnson sees his compensation not as a windfall but as “damages.”
Along with the dedicated local attorney Ken Rosenthal, the New Haven attorney appointed to represent him in 2010, and the New York attorneys associated with Innocence Protect, what ultimately served Johnson best was the incompetence and alienation of all those he should have protected. The investigators who accused him ignored promising evidence that very likely led to the real killer. They completely failed the video check from Visel Pharmacy. It proved Johnson’s assertion that when Fields was killed, he was there.
Davidoff depicts the sultry life of Herbert Fields with the same care he dedicates to her unpromising progress. Fields would-be killer, Larry Mabry. But the author is at his best examining Johnson. His depiction of alienation is probably even greater than the ghetto as true to the part of prison life as you will ever read.
If you don’t have a family [to put money in your commissary account]You don’t have soap.”
Johnson asserts that the “prison stench” eventually became “normal”. Laundry was unreliable. The white clothes came back stained. Johnson took bird baths in his cell sink. He started cleaning his clothes there as well. When the power went out because of the electric stoves with greyers, there was “real darkness… for 13 hours, until daylight seeped in through the cracks in the windows”.
In the context of Johnson’s resettlement and his mostly happy decision, Dawidoff writes of a wiser one, who says, “I was listening to the tape the other day… thinking about how deep and intimate it must have been.”
To this his historian replies: “It didn’t occur to him, he was just stripped of his story. A false coerced confession can be taken as a metaphor for how Bobby was brought up. He had no agency. He had become someone else’s expectation.”
“Painting” a picture of Bobby Johnson with only words, with missing facts and no images or index, also detracts from the agency. All this diminishes his personality, even his humanity. But it is not enough to recommend that this deed be avoided. Such are its merits, it seems certain that it will become the basis of a movie, which will give this story even more immediacy.
The Other Side of Possibilities: A Tale of Violence, Injustice, and the American City Published in the United States By WW Norton & Company