Racism, Sensationalism, Opportunism

  by Sarah Bockian, '04


It all began on Saturday, November 28, 1987, in Wappingers Falls, New York, a small suburb 65 miles north of New York City. A resident of an apartment complex looked out her window as she drank her morning coffee and saw a young black girl tucking herself into a trash bag. The girl hopped around a bit and finally lay down; when she stopped moving the woman called the police. Responding officers found the girl barely conscious, covered in dog feces, with some of her hair ripped out, a cottony substance in her ears and nostrils, her jeans burnt in the crotch, and "KKK," "NIGGER," "ETE SHI," and other crude phrases scrawled across her torso. She was lying outside her family's old apartment.

The girl, taken to a hospital and identified as 16 year old Tawana Brawley, had been missing for four days. She managed to convey to police that during that time she had been abducted by six white police officers, taken to the woods, beaten, raped and sodomized repeatedly. She gave a description of a man whom she claimed had grabbed her and tried to force her into a car. When Tawana had called for the police, the man had replied, "I am the police," showing her a badge. He had then struck her over the head, and when she regained consciousness, she was in the woods where she would spend the next four days. Finding no evidence of rape or even physical abuse, the hospital released Tawana within hours. Her family promptly hired a black lawyer, Alton H. Maddox, Jr.

What followed was a chaotic year of investigations, allegations, and complications. Maddox was soon joined by C. Vernon Mason, another prominent black attorney. The team was completed by a spokesman and political advisor, the Reverend Al Sharpton, a black activist with a history in politics and law. The three took swift and thorough advantage of the circumstances surrounding the case to advance their own political causes, inspiring a witch hunt in which accusations of racism and racist conspiracy were thrown in the direction of anyone who stood in their way. They sought to use the case not only to expose the racism demonstrated by the alleged actions of the Wappingers Falls Police Department and others, but to put the legal process itself on trial, pulling out and laying bare the threads of institutional racism woven into the fabric of our judicial system.

To say that Tawana Brawley's claims fueled an already explosive racial situation would be an understatement. In 1984, Bernhard Goetz, a white man, shot four black teenagers on a Manhattan subway car, claiming that the youths were threatening him. Goetz was seen by some as a demonic racist murderer and a dreadful embarrassment to the city, while others lauded him as a hero, a man who fought back. It was a case in which the middle ground disappeared.

Two years later, in Howard Beach, Queens, a gang of white youths assaulted three black men, chasing one of them onto a busy highway where he was struck and killed by Dominick Blum, a white motorist, who left the scene after the accident. Maddox and Mason, the lawyers for the two surviving victims, accused Blum of knowingly participating in the attack. Maddox and Mason refused to cooperate with the investigation being conducted by the Queens District Attorney unless Blum were arrested. The lawyers instructed their clients not to testify, charging that the police were protecting Blum because he was white, a court officer, and his father was a policeman. For lack of testimony, governor Mario Cuomo was forced to appoint special prosecutor Charles Hynes to the case, to gather by other means the evidence Maddox and Mason's clients would not provide. Hynes, a BLACKWHITEDUDE, managed to get three of the youths convicted of first-degree manslaughter, and Blum charged with a hit and run.

The very week before the Brawley story broke, racial incidents in Dutchess County, the county of Wappingers Falls, had set people on edge. A black man had been attacked by a gang of white men in front of witnesses, and although several assailants were positively identified, the police made no arrests until a fire deemed "suspicious" badly damaged the black man's house one week later. At the Orange County jail in Goshen, nine black and Hispanic inmates who had refused to return to their overheated, unventilated cells were assaulted by guards wearing sheets over their heads, wielding clubs and hoses. An internal investigation cleared the guards of any wrongdoing, but the inmates were charged with destruction of property, criminal mischief, attempted assault, and riot. The atmosphere was, to say the least, volatile.

New Yorkers, particularly white liberals, were hyperconscious of issues of race. There was an overwhelming sense of paranoia and shame regarding the prevalence of racism, and the white left was especially self-recriminating on this front. So when the first three investigators assigned to the Brawley case resigned, citing unspecified conflicts of interest, the public had no problem nodding its collective head as Maddox, Mason, and Sharpton called the resignations proof of the police conspiracy to cover up the case and the reluctance to investigate matters thoroughly. "Everyone in Dutchess County knows who did it," Maddox and Mason told the press, "but no one dares arrest them."

The truth was quite different, but the truth was not made public. Four days after Tawana Brawley was found, Harry Crist, Jr., a part time cop in the neighboring town of Fishkill, committed suicide. Crist matched the description Brawley had given to police officers at the hospital, a fact which, coupled with his suspiciously timed suicide, made him a prime suspect. Steven Pagones, the assistant District Attorney of Dutchess County, was Crist's good friend and a potential alibi witness. Pagones was also a suspect himself. Any investigation for the case would therefore involve questioning Pagones and searching through his files. William Grady, the District Attorney initially assigned to investigate the case, resigned after learning of this detail, to avoid any "appearance of impropriety." Local attorneys David Sall and William Burke, appointed in Grady's place, both asked off the case on account of this detail as well, because searching the assistant DA's files could disqualify them from many future criminal cases in Dutchess County.

In light of the conclusions Maddox, Mason, and Sharpton drew from the multiple resignations, as well as their distrust for the police department after its handling of the two local cases of racial violence preceding the Tawana Brawley case, the trio adopted the policy of noncompliance that had worked so well for them in Howard Beach. Neither the Brawleys nor the lawyers would cooperate with the investigation unless arrests were made and a special prosecutor appointed. They petitioned Cuomo to appoint Charles Hynes as that prosecutor. But before any appointment was possible, there was a long period during which the Brawley family simply remained silent, leaving the endless questions from investigators and the media unanswered.

Sydney Schanberg, a columnist for New York Newsday, commented, "It was like hanging red meat in front of the press." A story of a little black girl raped by white cops, delivered to her old doorstep covered in feces, and a racist police conspiracy to protect the perpetrators is a story that sells papers. "There was one reason why this case escalated and that was that it tied up the process, the system of justice," noted F. Gilman Spencer, the editor of The Daily News. "We couldn't get the testimony, we couldn't get [our questions answered], and therefore suddenly you had this fascinating situation of a case that was very very interesting, and probably a tragedy, and you had the process unable to deal with it because it was choked, that's what made it a real story."

In the absence of unraveling details, the media would sensationalize the smallest developments in the case, if not fabricate information or change specifics. For example, most news stories, in summarizing the case, would report that Tawana Brawley had been raped, as opposed to saying that she had alleged to have been raped. Some reports even said that hospital tests had confirmed that she had been raped, when in reality such tests had produced negative results. In the very first news story on the case, televised on local CBS news the evening after Tawana Brawley was found, news anchor Mary Murphy reported that the hospital had found "evidence of vaginal bruising," which was completely false. Sensationalist and distorted reports kept the public freshly offended by the atrocities of the case, and thereby all the more inclined to believe the stories of corruption spun more and more frequently by Maddox, Mason, and Sharpton.

In late January, Governor Cuomo did appoint a special prosecutor to the case, but not Charles Hynes. Instead he chose Attorney General Robert Abrams, an appointment which Maddox, Mason, and Sharpton immediately contested. The three alleged that John Ryan, the man Abrams put in charge of the day to day investigations in the case, was racist. In fact, Sharpton urged Cuomo to replace Abrams with Alton Maddox. Abrams remained the special prosecutor, however, and Maddox, Mason, and Sharpton continued to refuse to cooperate with the investigation, saying that the Brawleys would not testify before a grand jury as long as Abrams was on the case. This was a very frustrating slap in the face to Abrams and Cuomo, who were only trying to aid in the investigation according to what they felt was due process.

While the Brawleys remained silent, questions began to surface regarding the validity of Tawana's allegations. For example, when Tawana disappeared, she was carrying several textbooks, but those books were then found at her high school. And when police searched her family's old apartment, to which Tawana likely had a key, they found a cut up pair of boots with lining material matching the cottony substance found in Tawana's ears and nose. Without her testimony to explain these and other pieces of contradictory or otherwise suspect evidence, the public had no choice but to grow skeptical of the Brawley story.

In radical, desperate efforts to keep the media, and in turn the public, on their side, Maddox, Mason, and Sharpton launched a McCarthyist campaign of haphazard accusations of racism supplemented with unsubstantiated stories of intricate racist conspiracies. Sharpton equated Abrams to Adolf Hitler, saying that asking Tawana Brawley to talk to Abrams was like asking a Jew to talk to Hitler; he then compared the New York state government to fascism. Citing no evidence, Mason accused Abrams of masturbating over pictures of Tawana Brawley; he repeated the accusations on air and for print reporters. Sharpton claimed that a white man had told the lawyers about a white racist cult responsible for the attack, though he declined to give the identity of the informant. And truly working overtime, the trio contended that the New York state government had conspired with the Mafia, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Irish Republican Army to cover up the crime, again failing to cite evidence.

Their claims were so far fetched that it seemed unlikely they would be taken seriously. Conservative white politicians especially were shocked to see the white left and most blacks undaunted in their support of Maddox, Mason, and Sharpton. Although many of the trio's supporters disagreed with the tactics employed, they had no political choice but to applaud the trio's actions. Tawana Brawley's story hit an American nerve; it was the archetypal politics of whites taking advantage of blacks, and getting away with it through friends in high places who would never condemn white for a crime against black. It was so important to New York that it prove itself more enlightened and just than the America of the past, the people couldn't take the time to argue semantics over Maddox, Mason, and Sharpton's legal maneuvers.

The people were trapped, they didn't dare turn their backs on the trio at a time like this. In the long run, and in the name of black civil rights, it was imperative that white police officers be found guilty of the alleged crimes, and that any traces of racism in the justice system be dredged up, stared in the face, and destroyed, by whatever means necessary. If Robert Abrams, Mario Cuomo, and Don Vito Corleone had to have their names dragged through the mud in the process, it was a moral sacrifice that white liberals and most blacks were willing to make.

The Brawley lawyers were aware of these politics. They knew that white liberals, religiously apologetic on issues of race, would rather die than do anything to get themselves labelled as racists. Blacks, meanwhile, were stuck fast. Maddox, Mason, and Sharpton were some of the strongest leaders black New Yorkers had. If blacks didn't support them, who would? And then would anyone replace them? Blacks couldn't risk losing what leadership they had. The assured support from both groups, or at least the preclusion of opposition from either, gave the lawyers power to act as they pleased to advance their own political causes. Warned New York reporter Stanley Crouch, "The atmosphere of hysteria, paranoia, and militant self-pity that has surrounded the Brawley case only encourages and empowers demagogues."

While the black and left response to Maddox, Mason, and Sharpton's allegations surprised white conservatives, even more alarming was the black and left response to those who spoke out against the trio. Roger L. Green, a black democratic Assemblyman from Brooklyn, chairman of the New York State Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus, criticized Al Sharpton for his comparison of Abrams to Hitler. "To equate at this point in time the Attorney General of the State of New York with a fascist dictator and to equate the system with fascism does a major disservice to all of those who fought and died [fighting] against that major and most heinous form of injustice," Green said. "[Maddox, Mason, and Sharpton employ] tactics that encourage race war."

Most criticisms of the lawyers were received similarly to Green's; Green was called an Uncle Tom, a puppet of the white vote, and Velmanette Montgomery, a black state senator from Brooklyn, initiated an effort to depose him from his chair in the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. Al Sharpton told the New York Times, "He's obviously doing bidding for his sponsors . . . For Roger to attack the defenders of the girl and not attack those who attacked the girl, that shows where Roger's heart lies, as an apologist for the system."

Maddox, Mason, and Sharpton seemed to have their support lined up, until evidence which threatened their credibility began to surface. Perry McKinnon, an aid of Sharpton's, told the press in June that the case was "a pack of lies," and that the trio was "making it up as they went along." McKinnon quoted Sharpton as saying the story "sounded like bull. [But] if we win this case, we'll be the biggest niggers in New York." He also quoted Maddox as saying, "I'm not gonna pursue [this case] legally, I'm gonna pursue it politically, I don't care about no facts." McKinnon passed a voluntary lie detector test, but he had no hard evidence against the trio.

That legal hurdle appeared to be cleared later the same month, when a man name Samuel McClease claimed to have tapes of recorded conversations among Maddox, Mason, and Sharpton which proved the case a hoax. Before it was discovered that McClease had no such tapes, the story was widely reported. Maddox, Mason, and Sharpton not only denied the existence of the tapes, the men insisted that if the tapes existed, they were evidence of governmental conspiracies engineered to keep the trio from defending the rights of blacks.

The Brawley lawyers tried to create an "Emperor's New Clothes" scenario to fend off criticisms; just as the fabled naked emperor declared that anyone who couldn't see his clothes was an idiot, Maddox, Mason, and Sharpton called any and all opposition pure racism, however potentially legitimate or harmless that opposition might be. It was a tactic the three of them had used all along, but it became their primary artillery as the injurious reports surfaced and criticism from white conservatives increased.

White liberals and blacks remained silent, and white conservatives remained strongly critical, straight through to the end of the case, when the Grand Jury assembled under Abrams concluded that there was not enough evidence to prove that a crime had been committed by any of those Tawana had accused. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., head of the African American Studies department at Harvard University, summed up the city's chagrin: "Bitch lied."

Jim Sleeper, a long time New York newspaper reporter and author of several books on race relations specifically in New York, offers an interesting analysis of the case's final months. He comments, "The costly black communal silence in the Brawley case was the product not only of white racism but also of years of radically self-indulgent demagoguery, supported blindly at almost every turn by the white left, indulged by guilt-ridden liberal elites, and enforced upon blacks by the militants themselves. . . . That [Maddox, Mason, and Sharpton] were able to carry so much of the black community with them for so long - that so few felt strong enough, at any rate, to stand up and say what they knew to be true - is part of a continuing tragedy."

The tragedy Sleeper refers to is our insistence on the prevalence of racism. Tawana Brawley was found with "KKK" and "NIGGER" etched across her chest, and those words were the only blatant instances of aggressive, anti-black racism in the case. That may not even be so, as many hypothesize that Tawana herself wrote those words across her body. Racist Americans exist, hate crimes exist, subtle racism ingrained in our justice system exists. But for Al Sharpton to equate Robert Abrams to Hitler, when Robert Abrams was a white man working to put white cops in jail for crimes against a black girl, is a demonstration of the degree to which many black militants and white liberals insist on finding racism where none may exist. Before the Brawley case, Maddox and Mason were notorious for trying to foil otherwise successful prosecutions of white-on-black crimes in order to prove to blacks that our justice system would never work for them. Sleeper comments, "The failure of the New York liberal tradition to bear the fruits of black progress reflects not only the intransigence of white racism and the ravages of economic change but also the derelictions of those who have stepped forward to make history." He refers to the unbridled opportunism demonstrated by Maddox, Mason, and Sharpton. As the reverend Herbert Daughtry says, "History teaches us that the most vocal leaders are often charlatans."

As for the fruits of black progress Sleeper mentions, there are indeed fruits to bear when white-on-black crimes are prosecuted and white assailants are convicted. We have a ways to go, but before we can take another step, we have to examine where we are, the nature of the beast we are dealing with, and our odd reluctance to see it slain.

Works Cited


Coleman, Jonathan. Long Way to Go. Atlantic Monthly Press. New York. 1997

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McFadden, Robert D., et al. Outrage: The Story Behind the Tawana Brawley Hoax. Bantam Books. New York. 1990

Sharpton, Al and Walton, Anthony. Go and Tell Pharoah: The Autobiography of the Reverend Al Sharpton. Doubleday. New York. 1996

Shipler, David. A Country of Strangers. Alfred A. Knopf. New York. 1997

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Grand Jury Reports, obtained at:


http://courttv.com/legaldocs/newsmakers/tawana/part2.html 11