Hotshot reporter Percy Crenshaw died on
the last day of my thirty-second year.
I'm crystal clear on the timing, because I remember precisely where I was when I got word the following morning. I was slogging away in the misdemeanor intake unit, issuing criminal trespass after criminal trespass case, thinking to myself, This is a shitty way to spend my thirty-second birthday.
The way I saw it, I had no business working at intake. I have been a prosecutor for seven years, three federally as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in New York City, and four in my current position as a Deputy District Attorney for Multnomah County. Only someone with a local connection would know where Multnomah County is, let alone how to pronounce it. It's the county whose seat is Portland, Oregon, the rainy city in the Pacific Northwest. Not the big one with the needle in the skyline, the smaller one south of there.
Before hearing the news about Percy, my big complaint of the morning -- and the reason I was at intake -- was the protesters. Outsiders might not recognize the county name, but they know about these people, even if they've never made the Oregon connection. My hometown's protesters are the same nuts who stirred up the masses outside the World Trade Organization talks a few years ago. In a smaller local show, they tried to make a lost point about our soldier-a-day situation in the Mideast by upchucking red, white, and blue ipecac when the President showed up for a campaign stop. Some of them are rumored to be responsible for the arsons in California targeting suburban housing developments and SUV dealers.
The political causes may vary, but one thing remains the same: These kids love to protest. And the night before my birthday, the chosen cause was the fatal shooting two weeks earlier of Delores Tompkins, an African-American mother of two, by a patrol officer with the Portland Police Bureau. Like all police shootings, the Tompkins case would be presented to a grand jury before any official determination was made regarding justification. Unlike most, however, this one's purpose would not be simply for appearances. Tompkins had no criminal history, was unarmed, and was shot through the windshield of her car during what should have been a routine stop. And, as often seems to be the case with these things, the police officer in question, Geoff Hamilton, was white.
As the newest member of our office's Major Crimes Unit, I was not working on the investigation into the Tompkins shooting. But even I could sense a more than theoretical possibility that our office would be going for charges against Officer Hamilton. The public must have sensed it too. With each day since Delores Tompkins's death had come another related event -- a prayer vigil, a town meeting, a conference with the police commissioner -- each occasion an opportunity to apprise the city that its small community of color was fired up and paying attention. And as their message trickled its way each morning into a new edition of the Oregonian, the odds of an indictment reading State of Oregon v. Geoffrey Hamilton increased just a little more.
Until the Sunday night before my birthday, however, the pressure to indict had been quiet, subtle, and largely behind the scenes. All that changed when the state's band of semiprofessional protesters selected Delores Tompkins as their cause du jour, drawing a riled-up crowd of several thousand downtown on Sunday afternoon for a hastily planned March Against Racism. Supporters of the police bureau organized a counter-protest, not because they were marching for racism but because they interpreted the anger over the Tompkins shooting as a general attack on law enforcement. When a pack of militia types from eastern Oregon announced that it would piggyback onto the counter-protest, downtown Portland became the official magnet for every disgruntled wack job in the region.
From Close Case by Alafair Burke, Chapter 1, pages 3-17 of the hardcover edition. Copyright © 2005 Alafair Burke.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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