The first case occurred in 1987, and involved a black drug dealer named Larry Davis, who had run from the police, who were trying to arrest him. Shots rang out as the police entered the apartment where Davis was hiding. Several police were wounded. Davis claimed he was in fear for his life, and only fired in self-defense. This case is unusual because Davis used a self-defense plea against the police. The Bronx jury believed Davis and unanimously acquitted him of attempted murder charges. The jury members, blacks and Hispanics, all lived in or near high-crime neighborhoods; all were law-abiding citizens who were gainfully employed. They could understand the need for more police protection in high-crime neighborhoods, but, at the same time they recognized the fear that their black neighbors have of police brutality.
Normally, citizens should have no fear of being killed by law officers, who use their weapons for self-protection only. This attitude of police as impartial and trusted and from whom you have nothing to fear is hardly the accepted view of most black Americans. Ask students to respond the question, “Do the police really care what happens in black neighborhoods?” Ask students in class if they have any personal experiences to relate.
In Queens, New York, the Howard Beach incident occurred when a car with three black men in it broke down in an all-white neighborhood. Some white youths began to threaten the men, severely beating one of the men. One of the occupants of the car was killed when struck by a speeding car while trying to escape being killed by the whites. In Bensonhurst, in Brooklyn, a black youth was gunned down by a white youth, because it was rumored that this group of blacks had come to their neighborhood to make trouble. In fact, they were just shopping for a used car. Juries in these cases resulted in convictions for those guilty. Both these incidents were reported in the national media, and were seen as evidence that for black citizens, there are many places in America that are off-limits. One author concludes that
“Blacks do not consider it paranoid to wonder whether they might someday find themselves behind barbed-wire enclosures, as happened to Americans of Japanese descent during the Second World War. The white race, after all, has had a long history of dealing harshly with human beings it considered its inferiors.” (Hacker, page 203)
Now that the teacher has introduced evidence that racism in America has divided its black and white citizens into groups with widely different experiences and attitudes toward one another and towards the criminal justice system, we are ready to explore issues of race and racism in the criminal trials of Bernard Goetz and O.J. Simpson.