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Ferguson Echoes

by Paul Bass | Sep 2, 2014 6:07 am

(18) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Legal Writes

Paul Bass Photo Contributed Photo When a white cop shot a black teen to death on the streets of a St. Louis inner-ring suburb, Kevin Ewing’s mind flashed to an earlier racially-tinged shooting that might have taken place there—his planned assassination of his police supervisor.

Ewing, at the time a patrol officer in a town next to Ferguson, had picked out the spot for the killing. The hour. The Dumpster to stow the body. The escape route.

A surprise phone call from a buddy rescued Ewing from his plan. It set him on a more productive path, one that eventually led to a new way of helping keep the peace here in New Haven.

Twenty-five years later, his plan to shoot his sergeant has never escaped his mind. The Aug. 9 killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, brought back all the racial and military-policing tensions that underlay Ewing’s own fateful time in the area. The subsequent outbreak of protest and of police violence there, which stunned the nation, came as no surprise to him.

“It was a matter of time,” Ewing said, “before people got fed up and acted up.” He knows from experience.

Hospital, Then Jail

Allan Appel PhotoPeople in New Haven who know Ewing—and many people in New Haven do—know “Rev Kev” as a warm, open, gentle man who works tirelessly to stop violence, talk through tensions, not as someone who would consider resorting to murdering a racist boss.

A minister with a Yale Divinity degree, he preaches at a Hartford church and recently completed extended fill-in stints at the pulpits of New Haven’s Church of Redeemer and United Church on the Green.  A veteran community organizer, he trains grassroots leaders through a “Neighborhood Initiators” program. Through groups like Frontline Souljaz, he helps young men who’ve had trouble with the law turn around their lives. He has volunteered his time on countless civic boards, from the West River Neighborhood Corporation and the Economic Development Commission to the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. He also was a founding member of the Grove coworking space on Orange Street, which he recently reopened as a digital media hub called Grove Studios.

In an interview at the Grove, Ewing, who’s 53, recalled his painful experiences as a St. Louis-area cop as an example of how the environment created by “oppressive” policing can bring out the worst in people. It certainly transformed him into someone he never wanted to be, he said.

Ewing grew up on St. Louis’s North Side. Everyone in his neighborhood was black except for two families. (“They didn’t get the memo about white flight. They looked up one day—and everybody was gone.”) From an early age he saw police hassle friends, relatives; his father told stories of being abused on his way home from work as far back as the 1940s. By the time he was 11 Kevin was being stopped on the street by a white police officer upon leaving church choir practice during random searches for black criminal suspects.

“Police were at best a nuisance we tolerated,” he recalled.

Ewing and his parents made sure he left the neighborhood’s borders to know the wider world. He acted in theater. He attended a half-white, half-black experimental high “school without walls” (similar to New Haven’s original version of High School in the Community).

During college Ewing worked as a security guard. Following the lead of a friend, he decided to “do it for real” and apply to become a cop.

Why do you want to become a cop? Ewing recalled being asked at his interview.

His answer: “I want to make sure there’s at least one honest cop on the force.”

“They looked at me like I was crazy,” he said. “One started laughing.”

Contributed Photo He completed a cadet program at the St. Louis police academy in 1983 (his class is pictured) and obtained an auxiliary officer’s badge. He subsequently completed the St. Charles County Law Enforcement Academy in 1984, becoming a fully sworn cop. He took a position with the force in Kinloch, one of the tiny commuter suburbs scattered outside the St. Louis city line. It shared a border with the town of Ferguson.

In September 1985 he moved to a patrol position in Olivette.

“I was the black cop,” he recalled. The mostly white town always had one black cop, to qualify for federal grants, he said. It always had one Jewish cop. One female cop. He and his fellow officers were trained to view citizens as subjects to be controlled, not as people to help and interact with, he said. They were soldiers. “They called it a paramilitary force.” That was before people started talking about “community policing.”

Yes, the police in Olivette were racist, Ewing recalled. They were disrespectful, sometimes violent, in dealing with the small, concentrated African-American population in town. But the bigger problem was that the cops were disrespectful, period, he said. In Olivette and in the surrounding towns. “It was not mostly racial,” he said. “it was a complete disregard for the rights of people.”

Still, there were differences among the departments. Ewing learned that in chasing suspects in Olivette, whether by foot or by car, all he had to do was steer the pursuit toward the Ferguson town line. Seriously. The fleeing suspect would stop there rather than cross the line.

“If we got them, they would go to jail,” he recalled. “If they got to Ferguson, they would go to the hospital—and then jail.”

A Ram Appears

Ewing tried to be a different kind of cop in Olivette. He got to know African-Americans in particular, hung out at softball games, helped people out. In return, someone black with a warrant out on him would agree to surrender to police if he could surrender to Ewing.

But Ewing found that too many of his colleagues adopted the rough, adversarial approach—and that it at times rubbed off on him.

“I got a car stopped on old Bonhomme with four bucks in it,” Ewing, on patrol one night, heard a lieutenant report on the radio.

“What do you mean?” Ewing asked. He knew the lieutenant was referring to four black men. Nevertheless, Ewing recalled telling the lieutenant:  “I’m going to call animal control—and Ripley’s Believe It or Not. You’ve got four deer driving in a car.”

“I hated my job. I hated some of the people I worked with,” he said. “They were insensitive, dishonest, the way they treated people.

“It was not mostly race. It was a complete disregard for the rights of people”—such as the time he saw a superior break into a home after responding to a false alarm while the home’s occupants were out of town.

One night toward the end of his tenure, Ewing was working the desk. A young rookie, white and maybe 23 or 24, brought in an African-American man in his 60s for a traffic violation.

“Come on boy,” the rookie told the man. He kept addressing the man as “boy” as he questioned him.

“Look, I’m old enough to be your great grandfather. Quit calling me ‘boy’!” the man finally exclaimed, standing up.

The rookie “took him down, recuffed him,” as Ewing watched. The rookie added new charges against the man: resisting arrest, assault.

Before the rookie wrote up the report, Ewing approached him. Having witnessed the event, Ewing said, he would not back up the officer’s account. “You provoked that,” Ewing told him.

The rookie “said something smart.” Next Ewing knew, he had the rookie slammed up against a wall.

“Don’t you ever talk to a man like that. This is a human being,” Ewing recalled saying. “If I ever see you doing something like that again, I’ll put two in your head.”

Ewing realized he was reaching “the edge—trying to be a compassionate guy and trying to [fit] in this paramilitary organization. I was becoming a mean, nasty person. I was smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. I was drinking a case of beer every three days.” On one traffic stop, he found himself “smashing” a black driver in the head when he reached into the glove compartment after twice refusing orders to keep his hands on a steering wheel. Officers sometimes justify such actions with the argument that, for all they knew, the suspect could have been reaching for a gun. Ewing knew in his heart, he said, that the man wasn’t reaching for a gun. He was startled and confused.

After observing instances of blatant racism by his colleagues, Ewing would sometimes leave business cards from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in noticeable places.

One particular member of the force was getting on his nerves—a white sergeant to whom he reported. The sergeant was outwardly racist, Ewing said. He regularly used racist language, regularly insulted Ewing. He was generally mean and nasty.

Ewing wasn’t sure how to respond. One night the sergeant came into the station when Ewing was working the desk. He told Ewing he and his wife had just seen the movie Mandingo, a film derided by reviewers as “racist trash” and “almost fetishistically racist.” (One list of the “most racist films of all time” ranked it number two—right under the classic Ku Klux Klan homage The Birth of a Nation.) The sergeant started describing the movie in detail to Ewing.

“I saw the movie. I didn’t like the movie,” Ewing told him. “I don’t want to hear this.”

The sergeant insisted on continuing to describe the scenes. Finally Ewing stood up and grabbed his keys. Leaving the room for his patrol car, he told the sergeant, “if you want to sit and tell the story, you can watch over the desk.”

Ewing tried to deal with the pressure of the job by looking beyond it. He finished up his college degree.

But that didn’t do the trick. In early 1989, toward the end of his tenure, he plotted revenge.

“I had a plan,” he said, “to kill my sergeant.”

He knew the sergeant regularly took a break on the night shift to go Dumpster diving. The Dumpster was in a remote spot by some woods.

Ewing learned the precise time the sergeant would make that stop. He scoped it out. He procured a gun for the job. He learned what day of the week the Dumpster was emptied; he planned to carry out the shooting the night before so the body would be carted away.

“I rehearsed it,” Ewing recalled. “By the railroad tracks, where I’d have my best shot.” He selected an escape route through the woods, walked it for practice.

He was serious about it, he said. “I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t know where to go”

As he rehearsed the killing, thought out the ramifications (having to serve on the investigation, for instance), he received a phone call from his best friend, who had left his job as a cop to become a pastor.

It was, Ewing said, reaching for a biblical reference, “my ram in the bush.”

I’m moving to Florida, the friend said. In two weeks. You and two other buddies are coming with me. I waited until now to tell you this, the friend said, so you wouldn’t try to talk me out of it.

You’re right, Ewing said. I would have tried to talk you out of it.

Ewing put in his resignation. Two weeks later he headed to Cocoa Beach, and to a new life.

What’s Next

In Florida, Ewing helped at his friend’s church. He caught fish to eat. He migrated to New York City, where he pursued some off-Broadway tech work, ending up producing shows (including then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s weekly program) for a government access TV station. A job with The Hartford insurance company brought him to Connecticut. He had an operations management job, a big salary, a house in Bloomfield—and a feeling of emptiness. After seven years he ditched it for the seminary, first in Hartford, then, in 2005, at Yale. He paid the bills as a community organizer in Fair Haven and West River. A career blossomed, a combination of spiritual and activist and entrepreneurial work; he became a mainstay of the city, a force for change and reconciliation. He also developed a love for sailboats, falling in with a crew of racers in Essex.

Throughout, his police experience continued to haunt him. He very well may have never carried out the shooting of his sergeant, of course; lots of people fantasize revenge against abusive bosses, even if they don’t draw up specific plans for a murder.

“I probably would have gotten caught,” Ewing reflected. Then, he said, “I probably would have never done it.”

As he tackles New Haven’s violence problem as an activist, he has gained admiration for many of the city’s cops. He applauds community policing. Yes, New Haven has racial problems and policing problems like any other community—but not of the intensity he saw in St. Louis’s suburban inner-ring. He has seen wanted men request to surrender to top Hill cop Lt. Holly Wasilewski the way they used to request surrendering to him in Missouri, he said. He spoke of how he has seen other top cops, like Assistant Chief Luiz Casanova, Fair Haven’s Lt. Herb Johnson, Dixwell’s Sgt. Sam Brown, build people’s trust.

He said he hopes that Michael Brown’s killing becomes a “Rosa Parks incident,” that the charged discussion sparked by the incident and subsequent riots will continue not just in Ferguson, but nationally. Including in New Haven.

“If we limit this [discussion] to being black versus white, we’re not doing it justice,” he said. “This is a very complicated and complex issue. We should separate as much as we can the issue of police versus civilians and the issue of race.”

Thinking back to how his environment affected his behavior as a Missouri cop, Ewing spoke of how the same colleagues who could be “assholes” much of the time could also show humanity.

That white rookie who kept calling the older black man “boy,” for instance.

On another occasion, Ewing recalled, he and the rookie responded to the home of an African-American woman. She had overdosed on drugs. The officers found two children in the house. They were around 5 and 7 years old.

The rookie “took care of the kids, kept them calm,” Ewing recalled. “It was amazing to watch him connect with those kids.” That rookie probably kept in touch with those kids for years to come, perhaps even to this day, Rev Kev declared. He is sure of it.

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posted by: mechanic on September 2, 2014  7:54am

Kevin Ewing is an amazing man, and after reading this story, it’s clear that he’s an even more amazing man than I thought.  I’m so touched that he’s shared this story with our community.  We love you, Kevin!

posted by: Paul Wessel on September 2, 2014  12:53pm

Thanks, Paul.  Thanks, Rev. Kev.

posted by: RHeerema on September 2, 2014  12:54pm

Thanks for sharing your powerful story, Rev. Kev!

posted by: Bill Saunders on September 2, 2014  6:48pm

I am not sure what to think about this story…..

On one hand it sounds like a ‘thought-out plan’, on the other hand, it sounds like indulging fantasy for personal glorification.

Or was this just a sermon….

posted by: robn on September 3, 2014  5:40am

If I were the interviewer I would have asked, “is rioting an appropriate form of protest and did it help clarify why Michael Brown is dead?”

posted by: JustAnotherTaxPayer on September 3, 2014  10:20am

Thank You. The insights from first hand experience, not only as a black man, but as a police officer, are needed. A lot of the coverage was sensational, that is the showing of looting, firebombing, close ups of cops pointing assault weapons at protestors at point blank range, but almost none of it described the social environment in those communities. Particularly the race relations. It should be said that having one person on a force such as the rookie who felt it was appropriate to call anyone “boy”, but in this case a 60 year old man, is way too many. Those that allowed this behavior, and accepted it, destroyed that department. A handful of officers that are blatantly racist, being tolerated, and paid to be police officers anywhere, is insane in this day and age.  It’s bad enough that the national numbers of people of color being arrested and incarcerated in unbelievable numbers is bad enough, add the open racist behavior, and the US starts to look like South Africa during apartheid. This should not be.

posted by: New Haven Nuisance on September 3, 2014  10:26am

Wow, talk about completely missing the point, robn.

posted by: Nathan on September 3, 2014  10:41am

That was exactly robn’s point.  He was not the one who missed it, rather, the reporter soft balled the entire interview in what comes off as a sympathetic offering of a story from a man who planned the murder of a police officer and who justified it on the basis of racial tension.  Just like, for example, the people in Ferguson who looted and destroyed using the same excuse.  I can admire Mr. Ewing’s contributions later in his life and still find his rationalizations for previous thoughts highly disturbing.

posted by: mechanic on September 3, 2014  11:49am

I didn’t see Kevin as “rationalizing” his thoughts of 25 years ago.  He explained why 20-something Kevin plotted, but he never defends or endorses that thinking.  He actually never reflects on his thinking, only saying that he probably would have been caught, or that he probably wouldn’t have carried it out.

I couldn’t judge him based on a wrong decision he didn’t make 25 years ago.  I know my thoughts and reasonings are different now than they were when I was in my 20s.  That said, it does take a lot of character to share such a story and to build the life he has since those events a very long time ago.

posted by: Bill Saunders on September 3, 2014  1:56pm

Mechanic,

For me, it is all of the ‘probablys’ that make Kevin’s story weak.

posted by: Bill Saunders on September 3, 2014  2:36pm

For me, the “Big Tell” in this story is the last lines of the article—

“That rookie probably kept in touch with those kids for years to come, perhaps even to this day, Rev Kev declared. He is sure of it.”

Now, if the quote had been “I was recently in touch with this rookie, and he is still doing great work”, we would have something outside of conjecture-land.

posted by: Paul Bass on September 3, 2014  2:58pm

Note: Kevin Ewing asked me to post this two-part response to the story. (The corrections have been incorporated into the main text.)

Thank you Paul for tricking me into sharing my story. It wasn’t the one I was intending to tell when you

asked me to share my reflections on what’s happening in my hometown. My hope was that it would go

with me to my grave. But one thing I’ve learned is not to spend a lot of time regretting the messed up

stuff you’ve done. Time’s better spent trying to learn something from it and living today. Do that and

you’ll have a better tomorrow.

So with that said there are a couple things I want to correct. First, young (and big) Mr. Brown was 18 not

19. I didn’t co-found The Grove but was one of the founding members. Our interview was at The Grove

Studios—the new initiative we’ve started in 9th Square (http://www.grovestudios.tv). I serve on the Economic

Development Commission. And I don’t think we need more rioting in New Haven.

Also, I wasn’t clear about what happened when/where. The city of Kinloch borders Ferguson. Kinloch

was almost all ‘black’ and so was the police department. That’s where we had the invisible but very

real wall that our ‘criminals’ wouldn’t cross. I worked full time nights and weekends in Kinloch while

attending St. Charles County academy full time M-F. Crazy but I was honor grad. That’s why Olivette

hired me – I was an authentic looking, intelligent speaking, and somewhat non-threatening black dude.

GOLD! Olivette was several miles from Ferguson and several $$ above Kinloch. Even the ‘black’ folks

within the city limits had good jobs. However it was also the time where the ‘good jobs’ were drying up.

And I was a soldier in the war on drugs. (continued ...)

posted by: Paul Bass on September 3, 2014  2:59pm

(Part 2 from Kevin Ewing)

... But mostly I want to give you a point of this story that we never reached. It’s not about me, my temper.

This is about how I live my life as both an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. For a long time that dichotomy tore me apart (enough to consider homicide as a viable option… the very thing I was tasked with preventing.) So what I learned is that in almost every case ‘us’ and ‘them’ are the same dude! There is no ‘us’ or ‘them’. There’s just… ‘we’. Cops are people. Residents are people. Politicians are people. ALL of us… we’re PEOPLE!

And that is the core of my faith and the point of my story. The ‘ram in the bush’ didn’t rescue Isaac. It rescued Abraham. Florida didn’t save my former boss it saved me. And now I see what was there all along. We’re all people. And unfortunately sometimes we stink. When we recognize that perhaps we can start having some conversations and get to the real core of the issues. And trust me… there are a LOT of issues we need to address.

It’s not going to be easy. Poorly treated wounds will be reopened. We are going to discover some things about ourselves that we won’t like. People are going to hear stories that we never wanted shared. And at times we are going to get angry at each other. But if we keep going back to the fact that we’re all people. And we’re all in this together. If we can start there we might have a chance to reach the peace that’s on the other side.

posted by: robn on September 3, 2014  3:22pm

Dear THOUGHT POLICE,

Considering killing another person may be disturbing but it’s not a crime.

posted by: Bill Saunders on September 3, 2014  3:41pm

Not yet, Robn, not yet….

But when that time comes, it will surely be aggressive thoughts about the police will be the first punishable ‘thought crime’.

posted by: New Haven Nuisance on September 4, 2014  10:46am

Reverend Ewing, you have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of and thank you for being truly honest. Honesty is a precious commodity in our world, and is the necessary starting point for making any progress in fixing the racial injustices which you describe and have experienced firsthand.

While some of the other commenters on here try to denigrate you for being a perfectly imperfect human being, as we all are, and imply to have never had an impure thought pass through their pure minds, we know their claims are very misguided.

By far the most important takeaway from this story is to understand and fully appreciate the insidious and corrosive effect of racism. There are few forces as disturbingly powerful as is racism. It has the power to cloud the mind of a peace-loving man and turn him into someone who feels he has no other option other than to physically eliminate a source of racism. Even the ability of physical torture to bring about the same change in judgement pales in comparison to the mental torture wrought by racism.

The desperation felt by a young Reverend Ewing and countless others at this very moment must be shared and known to everyone in our community and nation. Racism affects us all and we all have an effect on this ugly aspect of our society. Only through knowing how racism operates and affects us and our brothers and sisters can we accurately choose whether we are impacting our society negatively or positively in this regard.

posted by: Bill Saunders on September 4, 2014  12:55pm

Given the extreme personal nature of this story, a straight Q&A might have been a fairer format.  Kevin obviously has more to say than was portrayed…

posted by: westville man on September 4, 2014  3:39pm

New haven nuisance-  it’s been a long time since I read an NHI comment as precise, well written and true as yours.  Thank you for your insightful comment!

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