Councilman Michael Johnson Cozies up to the Nation of Islam; and the Fault Line Between Brown and Black in Maricopa County
Of all the ironies in the fallout from Councilman Michael Johnson's alleged roughing-up at the hands of a rookie Phoenix cop, there's one that's particularly troubling:
The presence of Charles Muhammad, a minister for the Nation of Islam's Phoenix branch, at a press conference given by Johnson last week at City Hall.
Muhammad was there at the invite of Johnson, according to Johnson flack Stephanie Ribodal. And Muhammad conveyed an incendiary message at the press conference from none other than controversial NOI leader Louis Farrakhan.
"If justice is not served," warned Farrakhan in a statement read by Muhammad, "it will produce revolution."
During his time at the mic, Johnson continued to riff on the possibility that the incident, in which Phoenix cop Brian Authement reportedly laid Johnson on the ground and handcuffed him, was racially motivated or, perhaps, a reaction induced by the post-traumatic stress disorder suffered because of Authement's tour of duty in Iraq.
We don't know what was in Authement's head that night, in part, because we haven't heard from Authement, who's been ordered silent by police brass as they investigate the incident.
On the night of the confrontation, Johnson was checking on a neighbor whose house was on fire, and maintains he had the okay from fire officials to approach the victim.
Johnson is black. Authement is white. Did Authement overreact? Was it based on race, miscommunication, or just a cop's mentality of "shut up, and do as I say"?
Thing is, there's no Rodney King-like videotape. At least not that we know of. But let's accept for the sake of argument that race played a part in Authement's takedown of Johnson.
If so, why would Johnson invite a Nation of Islam minister to convey the thoughts of a man known for making anti-Semitic, anti-white, and homophobic remarks?
Over the years, Farrakhan has called Jews "bloodsuckers," Hitler "a very great man," and Judaism "a dirty religion." He's falsely claimed Jews were behind the slave trade and promulgated various anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
For such rhetoric and for its advocacy of black superiority over other races, the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled the Nation of Islam a hate group.
But don't listen to it. In his day, Dr. Martin Luther King criticized Black Muslims, as they're also known, as "a hate group arising in our midst that would preach the doctrine of black supremacy."
If you've ever read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, you know that the theology of black separatism preached by Elijah Muhammad's followers has little to do with Islam.
In fact, Malcolm X eventually broke with NOI over Elijah Muhammad's extramarital affairs. And when Malcolm X made his pilgrimage to Mecca, it brought home the fact that true Islam was a faith embracing many ethnicities and nationalities.
Farrakhan regarded Malcolm X as a traitor and proclaimed at the time that "such a man is worthy of death."
Decades later, Farrakhan said he regretted the statement and admitted it may have led indirectly to Malcolm X's assassination. He's also attempted softening some of his rhetoric, though his anti-Semitism has persisted.
So why is Johnson, a former Phoenix homicide detective, aligning himself with Farrakhan and Farrakhan's followers? Is Johnson planning to become a black revolutionary?
Hardly. It's just one of several missteps by Johnson over his manhandling by Authement.
As has been noted by my colleagues Paul Rubin and Monica Alonzo on New Times' Valley Fever blog, Councilman Johnson has hardly been Mr. Civil Rights when it comes to allegations of abuse of power by Phoenix cops.
Indeed, in the councilman's statement after the Authement incident, he practically admitted that he didn't take complaints against cops seriously before violence happened to him.
"For years now," reads the Johnson release, "I have received calls from residents complaining about police harassment, abuse of power, and, in some cases, brutality. I retired from the Phoenix Police Department and couldn't believe it. How could our police officers harass the very people they promised to protect and serve?"
Johnson concludes by promising, "I, Councilman Mike Johnson and police department veteran, am going to be the voice for the voiceless, and I'm going to be heard."
So Johnson's had his road to Damascus experience. Too bad it took getting put facedown on the ground for him to get there.
Johnson spokeswoman Ribodal told me that the councilman and his staff have had meetings with police commanders previously over other allegations of police abuse.
She characterized the councilman's concerns over the misuse of police authority as not something new, but "something that has been ongoing."
Then where were the press conferences from Johnson decrying past incidents? Most of Johnson's verbal ammo has been utilized in the past to support Phoenix cops and their union, the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association.
Regarding the Johnson incident, PLEA is backing Authement, saying that Johnson was in the wrong for not obeying a police officer protecting the perimeter of a fire scene.
That's gotta rankle Johnson, who has consistently been in the cops' corner.
His past silences aside, Johnson hasn't been slow to throw his weight around regarding the Authement affair, informing the media that he's met with U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke to press him to investigate the matter.
The U.S. Attorney? Really? Why does the U.S. Attorney need to investigate when Public Safety Manager (formerly called Police Chief) Jack Harris already has asked the FBI to investigate (the PPD is also probing the situation internally).
Not that Harris' CYA move has carried much weight with Johnson's powerful pals.
Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon called a special City Council session to air the matter with the community. Johnson declined to attend because it dealt with him. Most other council members stayed away, as well, including Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who said he feared the meeting would turn into a police-bashing frenzy.
It was more than that. It was nearly a reverse-lynching.
State Representative Cloves Campbell practically said to hell with the investigation — chuck Authement out now.
"I'm personally asking for this gentleman's job to be taken away from him," Campbell told the assembled, "For his butt to be taken out . . . to be removed from the police department totally."
Don't get me wrong. If Authement reacted in the way Johnson says, he should be 86'd. Already he's on paid administrative leave. And if Johnson's claims prove accurate, Authement may end up working security at a Wal-Mart.
But even lowly Phoenix beat cops deserve a little due process.
Then there was the Reverend Oscar Tillman, president of the Maricopa County NAACP, calling for Harris' head on the proverbial platter.
"You've done well," Tillman told Harris at the meeting, "but it is high time you go home."
That's a little over-the-top, considering that Tillman is not calling for the resignation of Sheriff Joe Arpaio over the long list of his abuses of power.
There may be a lot of reasons for people not to approve of Harris, but his job should hinge on how he handles the Authement incident and the other claims of police abuse in the South Mountain Precinct, where Authement served. Not on angry invective from his critics.
BROWN, BLACK, AND BLUE
Since Oscar Tillman serves as head of the local NAACP, I think it's fair to ask where he's been as the county's Hispanic population has been terrorized by anti-immigrant sweeps and raids carried out by Arpaio's MCSO.
I'd ask the same of Johnson, save for the fact that he's already made known his views on cops asking people for their papers.
In 2007, Johnson penned a distasteful opinion piece for the Arizona Republic, wherein he admonished illegal immigrants and backed local cops inquiring about people's immigration status.
He charged, "Illegal immigrants, if not above the law, are sometimes certainly beyond its reach." And he erroneously asserted that the undocumented are somehow exempt from requirements on motorists for driver's licenses, registration, and insurance.
Not only are the undocumented subject to the same laws, they are likely to be arrested and deported after being stopped for minor infractions for which most of us would be ticketed and sent on our way.
Johnson complained about the cost of teaching immigrant students English in the piece, though that's part of a federal court mandate.
And he pooh-poohed the notion that families are broken up by deportations, ignoring the reality that mothers and fathers deported after detention in MCSO or federal facilities may have been in the country for decades.
He similarly overlooked the plight of so-called DREAM Act kids, brought to the United States when they were small. What about an American citizen kid whose mom or dad gets deported? Johnson showed no sympathy.
"There is a negative consequence to breaking laws, even immigration laws, which are set in place to be used as deterrents," he wrote.
No wonder you never see Johnson at the big anti-Joe Arpaio marches.
But back to Tillman, usually absent from anti-Joe activities, for a moment.
I have spoken to Tillman about Arpaio and the plight of Hispanics in this county. In January, before the last big anti-Arpaio march, we discussed an ad in the Republic comparing Arpaio to Bull Connor, Birmingham, Alabama's police chief during the '60s, who famously turned attack dogs and water cannons on civil rights demonstrators.
Tillman objected to the comparison as "name-calling," which he said Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas never engage in, unlike their detractors.
He also did not criticize Joe over the sheriff's Hispanic-hunting dragnets.
"Any complaint [of MCSO abuse] that has been filed with the NAACP office, has been dealt with direct," he noted. "We may not have ended up in the right agreement, but we have had a response direct from the sheriff, and that is the only thing that I can do."
Tillman insisted that such access to Arpaio helped him help others. Those who protest the sheriff should aim their sights at the ballot box, he suggested.
And yet, Tillman's quick to seek Harris' exit after the Authement-Johnson incident.
The stances of Tillman and Johnson expose a fault line between the African-American and Latino communities in Phoenix, one that I've heard Hispanic leaders complain about privately.
That's not to say some African-Americans have not spoken out against the ongoing Arpaio sweeps and the MCSO's ethnic profiling, which has garnered a federal civil rights lawsuit and a continuing, year-long probe by the U.S. Justice Department.
But there's a paucity of African-Americans involved in the Hispanic civil rights struggle here in Maricopa County, even though Hispanic leaders continue to preach solidarity between black and brown.
Recently, the city's Hispanic leaders gathered in César Chávez Plaza in downtown Phoenix to show their support for Johnson.
Phoenix lawyer and activist Danny Ortega was one. He told me that he had not talked to Johnson about the Authement incident. Nor was Johnson present at the media event.
"You can make whatever conclusions you want," he told me. "The bottom line is, we saw this as a very good opportunity, given the high-profile nature of this particular incident, to come back to what anecdotally has been a problem in the Latino and African-American [communities]."
The only problem with that is the lack of reciprocity. Take Arpaio's raid on four area McDonald's restaurants, where workers were carted off like common criminals.
One of them was American citizen and single mother Viridiana Ramirez. On her release, she wept as she told Channel 3 news about her wrongful arrest.
Sheriff Arpaio shrugged off the mistake.
"That's just normal police work," he said of Ramirez's collar.
If Jack Harris had callously said the same thing of the Authement-Johnson confrontation, what hell would he have been made to pay by Tillman and Johnson?
Why, they might have even asked him to resign.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.