FEAR IN THEIR HEARTS,FIRE IN THEIR WORDS
"Ric Rankins did not die in vain," the speaker shouted last Sunday night. "His death has created a new spirit in this community." The crowd packed into the low-ceilinged meeting hall of the church on Broadway and 19th Street cheered. Seated in the front row were black political leaders state Senator Carolyn Walker and Phoenix City Councilmember Calvin Goode. They remained for the entire meeting, during which it was proposed that the most effective way to fight Smitty's was to hold a series of shop-ins. It was explained that during a shop-in the demonstrators fill shopping carts with perishables like ice cream and proceed to the checkout line where they tell the store clerk they have forgotten their checkbooks. The shop-ins will take place only in the two stores on the south side of town. "Is this place going to be controlled by rich people? Is there to be no justice for us because our bank accounts aren't big enough?" Once again, the crowd roared its approval. Umar Sharif, the spokesman for the Phoenix Nation of Islam, looked out over the crowd, which filled all the folding chairs, with an overflow of standees on both the side and back walls. Rankins, 43, died as the result of a crushed esophagus sustained in a fight with several Smitty's employees outside the grocery chain's store at 3324 West Bethany Home Road on July 10. Events on the south side of Phoenix are rarely covered by the white press. But last Sunday night, reporters and television crews were on hand in the packed church hall at 19th Street and Broadway. For many in the audience, this was their first chance to hear from one of their own on how Rankins died. "Ric was Joe Average Man," Sharif said. "He wrote a check that was returned for insufficient funds. He had a credit card that was no good. But he certainly didn't deserve to die for those things." "No," the crowd shouted back. "What should have happened was that Smitty's should have dialed 911 for the police." "Yeah," shouted the crowd. "They denied Ric Rankins his rights." "Yeah." "The question must be asked. What so offended them about Ric Rankins that they went out into the street after him? "Rankins got into a cab and they pulled him out. The store manager threw the first blow. The problem escalated. Rankins was taken in a choke hold. His esophagus was broken. When the police arrived, he was bleeding from the mouth. And two Smitty's employees were still sitting on him." The crowd seemed stunned into silence now. Sharif plunged ahead, his voice rising in intensity. "The police cut him loose and then they put handcuffs on him and tossed him in the back of a police car. We have to ask questions about that. "What would have happened if that incident took place on the south side and the victim was white and his assailants were black? "Damned sure there would have been arrests made, right?" "Right," shouted the now impassioned members of the audience. "They wouldn't have thrown a white man in the back of a police car with handcuffs on him." "Right," they shouted again. "We're not gonna take it anymore." "Right." "We'll call for a federal investigation of our police force and County Attorney's Office." "Right." "Are you ready to step into the pages of history with Ric Rankins?" "Yeah." "Ric Rankins was the wake-up call," Sharif implored. "The door is open. If you don't walk through it, don't blame white folks." Umar Sharif, the speaker who dazzled the crowd, grew up in New York City's Harlem. He came here to attend Arizona State University, where he majored in sociology. The first words Sharif heard upon arriving and parking his U-Haul on a Phoenix street came from a car full of white men. "Hey, nigger," they shouted as they drove by. Sharif has never forgotten that greeting. The incident made him realize racism was alive and well in Phoenix, Arizona. He is now spokesman for the Nation of Islam and has taken up a leadership position in the battle against Smitty's over the recent death of Ric Rankins. Clearly, Smitty's is not to be the only target of the black community. Its members are furious with Rick Romley, the Maricopa County attorney. Romley says he studied the case for days before realizing his office had a conflict of interest. Jim Wright, regional director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also spoke. He told of a meeting that he and Benjamin Hooks had had in the Oval Office with President George Bush. "The president promised he would make freedom and equality a reality. We intend to call the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Attorney General's Office on this issue. "Arizona is setting the pace for racism in the West," Wright said. "There has been the King holiday incidents and a series of cases involving black people. "And now we have a grocery chain like Smitty's that apparently encourages its employees to have confrontations with its customers." Another passionate speaker was Perry Ealim, who is head of a political action committee. He predicted that there now would be a whole new way for the black community to look at local black political figures. "I called Senator Carolyn Walker, Representative Art Hamilton, and Councilman Calvin Goode. Representative Hamilton said he had to be out of town tonight. "Senator Walker and Councilman Goode are here." Then Ealim issued a warning. "There will be no more voting for you just because you're black." These words from Ealim were met by the most enthusiastic applause of the night. "We're gonna be watching you," Ealim said. "When these things happen, we expect you to call the authorities and ask what the hell is going on?" More applause. "We are putting our elected officials on notice right now that if they are not part of the solution . . . " And then the crowd responded without being asked: "Then you're part of the problem." The final speaker was the Reverend Oscar Tillman from the NAACP. Tillman was another excellent speaker. It was Tillman who had confronted County Attorney Romley so forcefully at the press conference when it was announced Maricopa County had a conflict of interest. "They tried to scare me off," Tillman said, "by telling me the police report on Ric Rankins' death would cost $13.50. "But we have the report and let me read something from it to you." Tillman put his head down and read one passage that said it all for the crowd. "The cab stopped and both doors were opened by Smitty's employees . . . "
Tillman looked out over the crowd and paused for the message to sink in. The message was that Rankins clearly had attempted to leave the scene in the cab. He was, however, halted by Smitty's employees, who then killed him in the ensuing fight. "One day," Tillman warned, "the victim might be you." It was not surprising the speakers were so eloquent. This is in the black tradition. According to Taylor Branch in Parting the Waters, his prize-winning book: "The ministry was the only white-collar trade open to blacks during slavery, when it was a crime to teach blacks to read. Religious oratory became the only safe marketable skill and a reputation for oratory substituted for diplomas and all other credentials. It served as a people's court." In the book, Branch relates the saga of the Reverend Vernon Johns, who was the predecessor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. One time, Reverend Johns put up a sign that his forthcoming sermon the next Sunday would be: "It's Safe to Murder Negroes in Montgomery." Johns was called before the white authorities to explain what would prompt him to deliver such a sermon. Johns was a swashbuckler of a minister whose grandfather was hanged after he cut his master in two with a scythe during the Civil War. Then there was the time he alienated a wealthy doctor who was one of his wealthiest church members. R.T. Adams had shot his wife to death on the front porch because he suspected her of adultery. When Dr. Adams came to church the following Sunday, Johns pointed him out from the pulpit and shouted: "There is a murderer in the house. God said, `Thou shalt not kill.' May God have mercy on your soul." Johns was nothing if not outspoken. He explained to his powerful white interrogators why he was determined to speak out about the murder of blacks: "Because everywhere I go in the South the Negro is forced to choose between his soul and his hide. Mostly, he chooses his hide. I'm going to tell them it's not worth it." And that was precisely the message delivered to the black community once again this past Sunday night. Incredible as it may seem, the civil rights movement seems to be right back where it started thirty years ago.
"What would have happened if . . . the victim was white and his assailants were black?"
"Ric Rankins was the wake-up call. The door is open. If you don't walk through it, don't blame white folks." "The cab stopped and both doors were opened by Smitty's employees . . . " Tillman looked out over the crowd and paused for the message to sink in. "Arizona is setting the pace for racism in the West.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.