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Geraldo's aim at baring city's 'Blacks and Blue' schism falls short of mark

Friday, October 23, 1998

By Tony Norman

Let's face it. You know your town is in trouble when Geraldo Rivera is seated in the front of a police cruiser trying to figure out why the guardians in blue and large segments of the black community aren't exactly on speaking terms.

To quote "Bullworth" star Warren Beatty's exasperated response from another context: "Isn't it obvious?"

On "Blacks and Blue," an NBC News special airing at 7 p.m. on WPXI Sunday night, Geraldo Rivera turns the network spotlight on the often contentious relationship between Pittsburgh's African-American communities and the increasingly resentful and demoralized cops who patrol them.

Narrated in the breathless, sometimes agitated style that has been Geraldo's signature for years, "Blacks and Blue" makes clear its intention of exploring "the racial divide" at the heart of Pittsburgh's, and presumably, America's, law enforcement nightmare.

It's an ambitious mandate for an hour, a mandate that goes largely unfulfilled, given the tyranny of the network documentary format with its institutional bias against nuance in prime time.

From the earliest scene featuring Geraldo and Officer James Thiros speeding to a housing complex to investigate a dispatcher's report of a black man with a gun, we're immediately thrust into a world where suspicion of the police is deeply etched into the faces of citizens who are never quite sure there's anything that legitimately warrants a trip to their neighborhood by the cops.

There are moments in "Blacks and Blue" that vividly hint at the depths of this tortured relationship, where cops and citizens warily circle each other like gladiators preparing for battle.

A snippet of local NAACP president Tim Stevens counting off the community's weariness with "suspicion, fear, absence of respect" on the part of the cops is juxtaposed with a cop's assertion that the city "sold" them out by obeying the consent decree imposed by the federal government two years ago.

It's a setup of biblical proportions, with clearly delineated heroes and villains on both sides.

The only problem with the show's setup is that heroes and villains continually change places in real life, a notion that appears alien to most of the "combatants" in "Blacks and Blue."

Mayor Murphy, whom I continue to think of as a wily, though often flummoxed politician of the vaguely progressive sort so popular around here, comes across as a weird hybrid of Andy Warhol and Frank Rizzo with his self-aggrandizing pronouncements about having brought Pittsburgh's crime rate down with "aggressive policing."

His chest thumping, rooted in a fanatical desire to be loved by the cops at all costs, doesn't do the Chamber of Commerce any favors in the long run if the whole country perceives his nationally televised boosterism as an act of intransigence.

Red-faced at one point and visibly angry, Murphy provides some of the show's more surreal moments given the city's embarrassing predicament under the consent decree and the heart-rending and angry interviews with citizens and cops that follow.

But the show rolls along with increasingly surprising contradictory narratives. Two middle-class sisters-in-law, one black, one white, describe an encounter with a white cop who allegedly grabbed the then-pregnant black woman by the throat. Prevented from answering questions on camera pending litigation, the cop, through intermediaries, insists the woman's actions were far more threatening than she reports, but doesn't go into details.

OK, score one for the citizens.

Officer John Wilbur describes what it was like to be dragged down a street at 70 mph and eventually falling free thanks to the skin on his ring finger peeling off. A weeping Earline Guest, the mother of one of the two men shot to death in the back of the car during Wilbur's attempt to free himself, asks why her son had to die since he was "just a passenger" in a stolen car.

Score one for the cops.

Then there's the odd story of the preacher studying for his graduate school mathematics exam with friends in an apartment. The cops arrive in response to a neighbor's complaint about some vague nuisance. The preacher is arrested and his head slammed into the wall. The cops insist he greeted them at the door with a gun in hand. The preacher says he was carrying an empty holster having just shown the gun, then stashed safely away in the apartment, to friends.

Geraldo never asks the preacher, the Rev. Ernest Williams, why a man of God was packing unregistered heat in the first place. But Williams, now relocated to Alabama, is part of the ACLU class action suit that initiated Justice Department interest in Pittsburgh in the first place.

When Stevens gallantly admits that "we all come to the table with our own filters," it is a moment of sanity in a sea of rampant subjectivity. I was hoping that the show would travel more in that direction, acknowledging both black paranoia and the obvious bullying on the part of some officers as flip sides of the same cancerous pathology.

Stevens' savvy observation sounds positively presidential compared with the ravings of Smokey Haynes, who admits he encouraged Murphy to disobey the consent decree. Such nostalgia for George Wallace-style tactics in a modern metropolis is indicative of why Pittsburgh politicians are perceived, even by their constituents, as second-rate ward hacks who got lucky.

The mysterious Blue Knight, an anonymous cop who vents his animus against the consent decree in cyber space, is interviewed in silhouette. Other cops repeat his canard about "race sensitivity" going too far, as if the imposition of the consent decree could be reduced to race.

When the Jonny Gammage case is dismissed as having no relevance to the situation in Pittsburgh because it happened outside the city proper, you realize that this is exactly the sort of legalism that got Clinton in trouble.

Missing from this discussion are the voices of grass-roots organizations, the journalists who cover the problems here everyday, and folks in neighborhoods other than poor, black ones.

Still, "Blacks and Blue" is a well meaning, if maddeningly fractured, look at a problem that has unfairly vaulted our town ahead of New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia in the police brutality sweepstakes.

I salute Geraldo, in this his first prime time news special since inking a huge new contract at NBC, for a valiant attempt at telling a complicated, multi-layered story, including the less-than-veiled threat by the police to not patrol as aggressively as they once did in response to the consent decree. Too bad the very schisms that drive the story make a coherent retelling impossible between commercials for fast food and deodorant.

Tony Norman's email is: tnorman@post-gazette.com

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