Writing about the wave of deadly encounters — many caught on
video — between unarmed black people and police officers often draws a
particular criticism from a particular subset of readers.
It is some variation of this:
“Why are you not writing about the real problem — black-on-black crime? Young
black men are far more likely to be killed by another young black man than by
the police. Why do people not seem to protest when those young people are
killed? Where is the media coverage of those deaths?”
This to me has always felt like a deflection, a juxtaposition meant to use one
problem to drown out another.
Statistically, the sentiment is correct: Black people are more likely to be
killed by other black people. But white people are also more likely to be killed
by other white people. The truth is that murders and other violent crimes are
often crimes of intimacy and access. People tend to kill people they know.
The argument suggests that police killings are relatively rare and therefore
exotic, and distract from more mundane and widespread community violence. I view
it differently: as state violence versus community violence.
People are often able to understand and contextualize community violence and,
therefore, better understand how to avoid it. A parent can say to a child: Don’t
run with that crowd, or hang out on that corner or get involved with that set of
A recent study by scholars at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at
Yale found that homicides cluster and overwhelmingly involve a tiny group of
people who not only share social connections but are also already involved in
the criminal justice system.
We as adults can decide whether or not to have guns in the home. According to a
study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, having a gun may increase the chances
of being the victim of homicide. We can report violent family members.
And people with the means and inclination can decide to move away from
high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods.
These measures are not 100 percent effective, but they can produce some measure
of protection and provide individual citizens with some degree of personal
State violence, as epitomized in these cases by what people view as police
abuses, conversely, has produced a specific feeling of terror, one that is
inescapable and unavoidable.
The difference in people’s reactions to these different kinds of killings isn’t
about an exaltation — or exploitation — of some deaths above others for
political purposes, but rather a collective outrage that the people charged with
protecting your life could become a threat to it. It is a reaction to the
puncturing of an illusion, the implosion of an idea. How can I be safe in
America if I can’t be safe in my body? It is a confrontation with a most
discomforting concept: that there is no amount of righteous behavior, no
neighborhood right enough, to produce sufficient security.
It produces a particular kind of terror, a feeling of nakedness and
vulnerability, a fear that makes people furious at the very idea of having to be
The reaction to police killings is to my mind not completely dissimilar to
people’s reaction to other forms of terrorism.
The very ubiquity of police officers and the power they possess means that the
questionable killing in which they are involved creates a terror that rolls in
like a fog, filling every low place. It produces ambient, radiant fear. It is
the lurking unpredictability of it. It is the any- and everywhere-ness of it.
The black community’s response to this form of domestic terror has not been so
different from America’s reaction to foreign terror.
The think tank New America found in June that 26 people were killed by jihadist
attacks in the United States since 9/11 — compared with 48 deaths from “right
wing attacks.” And yet, we have spent unending blood and treasure to combat
Islamist terrorism in those years. Furthermore, according to Gallup, half of all
Americans still feel somewhat or very worried that they or someone in their
family will become a victim of terrorism.
In one of the two Republican debates last week, Senator Lindsey Graham of South
Carolina seemed to be itching for yet another antiterrorism war, saying at one
point: “I would take the fight to these guys, whatever it took, as long as it
Whatever, however, long. This is not only Graham’s position, it’s the position
of a large segment of the population.
Responding to New America’s tally, Fareed Zakaria wrote in The Washington Post
“Americans have accepted an unprecedented expansion of government powers and
invasions of their privacy to prevent such attacks. Since 9/11, 74 people have
been killed in the United States by terrorists, according to the think tank New
America. In that same period, more than 150,000 Americans have been killed in
gun homicides, and we have done … nothing.”
And yet, we don’t ask “Why aren’t you, America, focusing on the real problem:
Americans killing other Americans?”
Is the “real problem” question reserved only for the black people? Are black
people not allowed to begin a righteous crusade?
One could argue that America’s overwhelming response to the terror threat is
precisely what has kept the number of people killed in this country as a result
of terror so low. But, if so, shouldn’t black Americans, similarly, have the
right to exercise tremendous resistance to reduce the number of black people
killed after interactions with the police?
How is it that we can understand an extreme reaction by Americans as a whole to
a threat of terror but demonstrate a staggering lack of that understanding when
black people in America do the same?
George Whitmore Jr., an eighth-grade dropout who confessed in
1964 to three New York murders that he did not commit, and whose case became
instrumental in establishing historic legal reforms — including the Supreme
Court’s 1966 “Miranda” ruling, which protects criminal suspects, and the partial
repeal of capital punishment in New York State — died on Oct. 8 in a Wildwood,
N.J., nursing home. He was 68.
The cause was a heart attack, his daughter Regina Whitmore said.
Mr. Whitmore was 19 in April 1964 when he was first picked up on a Brooklyn
street, in Brownsville, for questioning about an attempted rape in the
neighborhood the night before. A soft-spoken young man, he had grown up in a
house in a junkyard that his father owned in Wildwood, N.J. He had tried hard in
school but dropped out at 17, moved to Brooklyn and was waiting for a ride to
work when the police pulled their car over and started asking him questions.
He would later tell interviewers that he had secretly been pleased at being
asked for help in solving a crime, and at the prospect of having a good yarn to
tell his friends.
But when his interrogation ended several days later, Mr. Whitmore had confessed
to the attempted rape, and to the rape-murder a few weeks earlier of another
woman in the neighborhood, Minnie Edmonds. He had also confessed to the double
murder in Manhattan, on Aug. 28, 1963, of two women whose bodies were found
bound and stabbed numerous times in the apartment they shared on East 88th
Called “the Career Girl Murders” in newspaper headlines, the killings of Janice
Wylie, 21, a researcher at Newsweek magazine, and Emily Hoffert, 23, a
schoolteacher, had been the focus of an eight-month investigation.
Mr. Whitmore recanted his confession, and he consistently claimed afterward that
the police had beaten him and that he had signed the confession without knowing
what it was. He said he was innocent. And in the case of the Wylie-Hoffert
slayings, he said, he could provide the names of a dozen people who saw him on
that day and who would remember it, because it was the day of the civil rights
march on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream”
speech. He and everybody else in Wildwood had watched it on television and
talked about it incessantly, all day, he said.
In 1964, Mr. Whitmore was convicted by a Brooklyn jury on the charges of
attempted rape. Though the verdict was overturned because jurors were found to
have been reading newspaper accounts of the case, which referred to Mr. Whitmore
as the “prime suspect” in the Career Girl Murders, he was tried a second time.
He was convicted again, but the verdict was again thrown out, on different
By 1965, Manhattan prosecutors had evidence that Mr. Whitmore was wrongly
accused in the Wylie-Hoffert murders. They had linked the brutal slayings to
Richard Robles, a recently released prisoner who would later be convicted of the
crime, and who remains in prison.
Still, while Mr. Whitmore now faced a second trial, in the murder of Ms.
Edmonds, his indictment in the Wylie-Hoffert case remained in place. News
accounts said that by refusing to dismiss the indictment, prosecutors hoped to
deny Mr. Whitmore’s defense lawyers an argument: that the dismissal of the
double-murder indictment proved it had been coerced, and that Mr. Whitmore’s
confession to the Edmonds murder, elicited in the same long interrogation, had
therefore been coerced, too.
Selwyn Raab, a reporter then for The New York World-Telegram and Sun, and later
for The New York Times, had found a dozen witnesses who remembered seeing Mr.
Whitmore in Wildwood on the day of the double murder. They had bumped into him
in the homes of friends and relatives while watching Dr. King’s speech, Mr. Raab
wrote in a front-page story in The World-Telegram.
“Whitmore’s case showed how fragile the whole system was, and still is,” Mr.
Raab said in an interview on Sunday. “Even now, police use the same techniques
to manipulate suspects into giving false confessions. And 90 percent of
convictions are still based on confessions.”
The police and prosecutors at the time denied any misconduct. Legal reformers
asked Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, a Republican, to appoint a panel to
investigate, but he declined.
Yet Mr. Whitmore’s legal troubles were far from over. With the Manhattan
district attorney still refusing to clear him entirely in the Wylie-Hoffert
case, Mr. Whitmore went to trial for the murder of Minnie Edmonds, solely on the
evidence of his “confession.”
In the debate in the New York State Legislature over a proposal to abolish the
death penalty, Mr. Whitmore’s case became a warning cry against the killing of
innocents. “In Whitmore’s case,” said Assemblyman Bertram L. Podell of Brooklyn,
“we have learned to our shock and horror that a 61-page statement of completely
detailed confession was manufactured and force-fed to this accused.”
Governor Rockefeller signed a bill in 1965 abolishing capital punishment, except
in the killing of police officers. (The death penalty was reinstated in 1995,
and declared unconstitutional in 2004.) The Supreme Court cited Mr. Whitmore’s
case as “the most conspicuous example” of police coercion in the country when it
issued its 1966 ruling establishing a set of protections for suspects, like the
right to remain silent, in “Miranda v. Arizona.”
Mr. Whitmore was tried several times in the murder of Ms. Edmonds, with each
trial ending in a hung jury.
As a result of the various cases in which he had become entangled, he was in and
out of prison, for months and years at a time, until April 10, 1973, when the
Brooklyn district attorney, Eugene Gold, dismissed the last case against him — a
retrial of the attempted rape case — with new evidence exonerating Mr. Whitmore.
On his release from custody that day, Mr. Whitmore said that what he felt was
“just beyond expressing,” adding “I’m not bitter. I appreciate greatly what the
His life after prison was marked by depression and alcoholism, said T. J.
English, author of “The Savage City: Race, Murder and a Generation on the Edge,”
in which Mr. Whitmore’s life is chronicled.
Mr. Whitmore moved back to Wildwood, operated a commercial fishing boat for a
time, and was later disabled in a boating accident. He was unemployed for long
Mr. Whitmore’s daughter Regina said he had children but never married.
Besides her, she said, his survivors include three other daughters, Aida, Sonya
and Tonya, and two sons, George and James, all of whom have taken the name
Whitmore, and more than 20 grandchildren.
“He told us about what happened to him,” she said. “But he said he never held it
against anybody. He was always a very sweet man with us. He wanted us to grow up
This article has been revised
to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 15, 2012
An earlier version of the headline with this article