Oscar Performance

Where do racist white gangs allow black people to be members? In Arizona, according to a news release by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

At least that's what the Reverend Oscar Tillman, president of the Arizona NAACP, was saying at the news conference he called last week, following the murders of two black teenagers.

His organization's news release declares that "Arizona State NAACP Questions the senseless murder"--as opposed to sensible murder, I assume--"of two Black Teenagers by a white gang in Northeast Phoenix." (The weird capitalizations are from the news release.)

At the conference, Tillman behaved like a liberal Joe Arpaio. He blustered for a half-hour, but said nothing of substance, showed shocking ignorance and never made a single claim he could prove.

He said he wanted the murders to be regarded as a hate crime, adding that the two kids were "singled out of the group to be murdered in cold blood."

In fact, according to police, there is no evidence to suggest that race was an issue. The shooter fired into a crowd from a distance of 200 feet. Two white people got hit as well, but weren't badly hurt.

Tillman wasn't aware of this. He was taken by surprise when a reporter told him there was a black teenager in the car carrying the alleged shooter.

When cornered, he said--incredibly--that he wasn't trying to racialize the crime. But race was all he talked about. He complained that the other two people in the car with accused murderer Bobby Purcell--a black male and a white female--weren't in jail, and said that they ought to be. He claimed that they had gotten free by cutting a deal with authorities--a claim he provided no evidence in support of and which County Attorney Rick Romley has denied.

Tillman called the two kids in the car "finks." He said they had "finked out" Purcell to protect themselves. But then he condemned them for not going to the police soon enough. He said they had "gone home, got with their parents and possibly got good legal advice before going to the police."

Well, this is something they were entitled to do. Who, when involved with a crime this serious, could be blamed for seeking counsel before turning themselves in?

But Tillman was wrong again. The kids had no lawyers when they went to the police.

He said the driver should have driven away and left Purcell when he got out of the car and started shooting. The fact that he didn't makes him an accomplice in the reverend's view. The reality is that the driver and the other kid bailed out and left Purcell two blocks from the scene of the crime.

Faced with these realities, Tillman continued to bluster. Unable to think for himself, he stuck to his script.

"The police have dropped the ball in this case," he said. "We demand that the police go back and do their job. . . . We have to beg of the media to expose this kind of action. . . . The police have allowed these two young men"--one of whom, of course, is female--"to outsmart them."

Outrageously, he compared the witnesses to the young black men who have been held in custody for the past year, accused of the gang rape of a 15-year-old girl on East Chipman Road. Why, he wanted to know, were these black youths denied their freedom while these two white youths--one of whom, of course, is black--were free?

When it was pointed out to the reverend that the men in custody are accused of rape while the two witnesses to Purcell's atrocity are accused of nothing, he simply repeated his statement, then said, again, "I'm not trying to paint this as a racist issue."

When he continued to demand that the murders be regarded as a hate crime, a reporter asked him why, as there was nothing to prove that it was.

"But it hasn't been proved that it wasn't," he said.

The day after the news conference, William Ponder, first vice president of the Maricopa County NAACP, apologized for Tillman's remarks. "We don't, in any stretch of the mind, view this as a hate crime," he said.

The day Ponder apologized, I headed for Tillman's office in south Phoenix. He greeted me affably.

He's 53 years old, and has been in the NAACP since he was 10 or 11. He's been president of the entire state organization for three years, and prior to that was president of the Maricopa County branch. He's the assistant pastor at New Home Baptist Church.

After talking with him for a while, I realized that the comparison I made with Joe Arpaio was superficial. While both men have enormous egos (Tillman is given to talking about himself in the third person) and will talk forever without actually saying anything, that is all they have in common.

I believe Joe Arpaio may be the most evil person I have ever come face-to-face with. But it's hard to doubt that Oscar Tillman means well. He seems like a good, sincere man.

Too bad his rhetoric is so baseless.
Tillman has little understanding of the issues he comments on. He understands that there's a great deal of racism in this state--a point that's hard to deny. But that's all. He has no ability to analyze or examine.

Not everybody sees it that way. There are those who know him well who say he has more smarts than he lets on, and that he's a clever political manipulator who plays dumb when things get hot for him.

Whichever impression is more accurate, he has a useful role as an activist. He's passionate and outspoken. Some years ago, his relentlessness proved such a thorn in the side of Phoenix Police Chief Ruben Ortega that he had Tillman investigated. Tillman has a hypnotic charisma, and it's hard not to like him, even when you think he's full of it.

And he is. He sees racism in everything. He probably thinks Arizona gets hot in the summer so that black people sweat. When I asked him about the things he said at the news conference, he denied that he said them. "Nowhere have I brought up the issue of racism. Nowhere have I said racism was involved."

When I asked him to respond to William Ponder's comments, he didn't. Instead, he pulled rank on Ponder. "He has no authority to apologize for what I said. He's at the local level. I'm headquarters."

I suggested to Tillman that most people, himself included, are missing the point concerning the murders of the two teenagers: that they are rarely referred to as "teenagers" or "kids" or even "people." Everyone keeps referring to them as "two honor students."

There is implicit racism in this. The reason this case of murder is getting so much media attention, the reason that everyone's so outraged, the reason that even the Arizona Republic's E.J. Montini stopped wringing his hands and described the alleged shooter Purcell as "sewage" that should be "flushed"--the reason, in short, that these killings makes a good story--is that these were two nice, smart, respectable black kids who got killed. Better yet, many of their friends were white.

It's different when poor, uneducated kids shoot at each other. What all the commentators--reporters, columnists, and people like Tillman whose job is to know better--are essentially saying is that it's more wrong to kill middle-class honor students.

I put this to Tillman, and he didn't seem to get it. Instead, he perpetuated it. "Violence keeps growing and growing, until something like this jerks us back to reality. No one cares if poor students and gang-bangers get shot, but now that people of stature died, people are coming together."

Isn't that wonderful.

Oscar Tillman's effect on racism in Arizona may be the opposite of what he intends. Well-meaning or not, when the president of the NAACP is a man who perpetually cries wolf, who sees racism in every incident involving a black person, then instances of real racism are trivialized.

His behavior hands ammunition to those who would like to deny that Arizona has any racism. When the Scottsdale Police Department victimizes people for Driving While Black, or harasses nightclubs that cater to a black clientele, the voice of the NAACP should be--and is--raised in protest.

But when the voice of its president is in a constant state of being raised, it's easy to dismiss reports of genuine racist abuse by shaking your head and saying, "Ah, it's just Oscar going off again."

Contact Barry Graham at his online address: bgraham@newtimes.com

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