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Caseythoughts It was the first week in April, 1996. I remember the day because it was the first week of my debut on The Morning Report on WHCU. Moving my afternoon talk show to morning drive was thrilling, scary, and hard work. Morning drive is the ultimate of radio aspiration, but moving a successful afternoon talk show to the morning to combine with a highly regarded news department was intimidating and, as I said, a challenge to prepare.

One of my first guests that week was Diane Sams, an Ithaca Common Council member and an outspoken leader of Ithaca’s community of color. Outspoken, as anyone who knew Diane, is putting it mildly. But I admired her, even as we disagreed on many topics.

Well, Diane called me a racist on the air, stating that as a white male, I was automatically guilty of that epithet. Further, she claimed that morning that a woman of color could not be a racist, as the oppressed could not possibly be termed racist.

I still don’t quite understand that line of reasoning, but I also felt hurt that I would be lumped into the same group as, say, the anonymous person or persons who posted neo-Nazi and racist notes on bulletin boards on the Cornell campus. When I called them out on the air, I then received an incredibly vile and violent note from the perpetrator.

Ok, so why did I really feel the confusion about called a racist? I’ll do my best to recall events, in order, as I tell a story that many Ithacans will remember with pain.

It was Christmas weekend in, I believe, 1989 (but may have been 1988), and I was “on-duty” at WHCU on that Saturday afternoon when calls started coming in asking, “What happened in Dryden?” A call to the sheriff’s department directed me to the state police, where a public information trooper read a statement to me concerning the quadruple murder of the Harris family.

I was the only person in the station, and in a state of shock wrote the first news story that WHCU would release that holiday weekend.

Without a lot of the subsequent detail that many of you will remember, state police eventually killed the suspect, Michael King, and arrested his mother, Shirley King, charging her with twenty-six counts of aiding and abetting the crime. Investigators alleged that she returned to the crime scene to help her son clean the fingerprints from the home before setting fire to it with the families’ bodies inside. A couple of the charges stemmed from her use of a stolen credit card and video proof of her attempting to use the card in Auburn.

Bill Sullivan was appointed her public defender and Bill’s first act was to buy Ms. King a wig, as he felt that her hair, which reminded some of Al Sharpton, would prejudice the community. Little did he know how prescient that sentiment would turn out to be.
As many will remember (the trial was broadcast on local cable TV, in accordance with New York state law, at the time), Sullivan continued to question the presence of the sole thumb print on a gas can found at the scene of the crime.

David Harding was the senior state police investigator and was a most ‘credible’ witness, according to all who watched the trial. The jury of Ms. King’s ‘peers’, twelve white Ithacans, believed him, discounting Sullivan’s pleas that something was “horribly wrong here”. The jury came back in about two hours and found Shirley King guilty on all twenty-six counts of accessory to four murders and other related charges.

I went on the air the next day (this was my new afternoon program, at the time) and said I believed Shirley King had been railroaded. The studio phones lit up like a Christmas tree and I was subjected to some pretty vile verbal assaults. I expected that, I guess, but I was not prepared for the insults I received anonymously in the mail. So much for open minded Ithacans. So much for the idea that Ithaca was the harmonious and racially sensitive town that it touted itself to be.

That’s not a broad brush – not all of my calls and mail were backlash – but I came to the conclusion that even Ithaca had its racist elements and that there were those who had decided that because the woman charged was black and the perpetrator was a black man with a violent and prison-bound history, then all that was needed was a popular white prosecutor and a golden boy state police investigator to throw the book at an older black woman who allegedly despised white people.

End of story? Of course not. In a CIA interview and lie detector test, investigator Harding admitted freely to planning evidence and it turned out he and four other troopers had planted evidence in almost a hundred cases, many apparently racially motivated, in order to “make sure the bad guys got it good”.

I continued my ‘crusade’, if you will, during the interim between King’s conviction, subsequent interview with Sullivan, and the first revelation of the under-cover crime. I called publicly on the governor’s office to appoint a special prosecutor. The governor eventually appointed Nelson Roth and many, many cases investigated by Harding that relied on his ‘evidence’ were overturned and retried.

It’s a sad and painful experience to retell and remember. But I do so for the reason stated at the beginning of this column. I feel justified in refuting the label ‘racist’, but I also in some ways have come to terms with the sentiment involved in Diane’s charge, broad brushed as it was. No sense arguing with someone who has gone on to their reward, but the recent events in Minneapolis, and so many other places unnoted and unnoticed for years, bring it all back.

We’ve lived our white lives without ever really knowing what it’s like to be black in this country, without knowing what it’s like to be questioned by police in a manner that implies ‘guilty until proven innocent’. I’m a white guy and I don’t like to see flashing red lights in my rear view mirror, but I also don’t know what it’s like to be treated the way so many black men are, and it’s beyond my comprehension to imagine a knee on my neck for almost nine minutes during a traffic stop while I suffocate. How many more? Did the media just start reporting these incidents after Ferguson, Missouri? No way. We just didn’t hear of them in white America, but every black man and woman knows the fear, a fear that runs beneath the surface in black America.

Now here’s what I’m thinking. Humans learn right from the get-go how to ‘otherize’. The newborn looks and sees mother or ‘other’, father or ‘other’, puppy or ‘other’. Humans categorize into known or unknown, this or that, this or ‘other’. Humans are not born racists, but learn to categorize what we know and what we don’t. We otherize in war and in our daily lives. If we don’t know or understand something, our brain is hard-wired to otherize it. I feel it is what I do, as a matter of course: I otherize the black experience because I don’t understand and have not experienced it. Just like a baby, I otherize what I cannot categorize. I think that’s what I need to address: you and me and ‘other’.

Anger in the streets? You bet. Do I condone violence? Of course not. But how can we continue to otherize these many instances of the corruption of justice and what can we do?
I’ve known Leslyn McBean Clairborne for years, and what she said last week was absolutely on the mark. “It’s up to the white community to come up with answers.” She says she thinks she knows some solutions, but she’s accustomed to not being heard. Leslyn expected to receive what she termed ‘hate mail’ for that statement, but that will prove not only that she’s right, but also that Ithaca is no less prejudiced and biased than any other town. Otherized.

Ithaca and its surrounding communities need to own up to the fact that, vehemently though we deny it, it is sometimes our own white knee upon the necks of our brothers and sisters, and it’s time for us to find solutions, new ways to understand.
We didn’t go through this pandemic and its agony to find ourselves in the midst of another national crisis. I have to look in the mirror and ask myself, “Am I part of the problem, or part of the solution?”

And by the way, thank goodness for our millennials. They have inherited something to be angry and speak out about. Don’t blow it, kids. The world is counting on your youthful and correctly placed moral outrage. And, take care of each other.

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