Fox and Foes

Imagine that you are writing a book which opens with your central character, “a powerful, 6’2″, finely dressed man of proud stature and handsome face,” leaping “like a lion” from a bus to save a woman from two knife-wielding thugs. Imagine that, within the next page, you have further described your protagonist as “a musician, and artist… quick in mind and step… (with) an unusual grace of movement…  magnetic charm,” and a “creamy” skinned Afro-American, bearing a “noteworthy resemblance” to Clark Gable.

Imagine that your book is a first-person narrative, whose central character is describing himself.Imagine, further, that your narrative is non-fiction, is, in fact, autobiography. Would it not occur to you, unless you were blinded by pathological narcissism, that this description of yourself might weaken your claim to credibility?

And that this lack of credibility might undermine the purpose of your book, which is to convince others that you are innocent of the murders for which you are serving three life sentences in Alcatraz?

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Aside from these questions of narrative choice, I found this book of interest because of my relationship with its author. Between September 1967 and September 1968, I was a VISTA volunteer assigned to a legal services program which assisted Chicago community organizations. Among the organizations I assisted was a large South Side youth gang, whose primary legal need was protection from police harassment and brutality. At the time, the police officer who was the most notorious harasser and brutalizer of these young men – and the officer with whom I had my own most harrowing encounter – was Stanley (“The Fox”) Robinson. Young men accused Robinson of leading unjustified raids on where they lived or met, trashing the premises,  confiscating their property, arresting them without cause, and taking them to secluded locations, where he beat and threatened to kill them. In 1973, Robinson was convicted of murdering two men for drug dealers for whom he moonlighted as a hit man.

This news that a Chicago policeman who considered beatings part of his job description had taken up off-the-books but better compensated homicides had not entirely surprised me. But recently, while researching a “Whatever-Happened-To” epilogue for a book I was writing about my year in Chicago, I learned that Robinson had written his own book, The Badge They Are Trying to Bury, “produced” by “The Committee to Save Stanley Robinson Who Is Innocent” and published in 1975 by Simon Belt Publishes (sic) of Bluff, Utah. This surprised me more.

Obtaining a copy was difficult. A cursory Google search produced no information about Simon Belt or the Robinson Is Innocent committee; and Bluff, Utah, with a population of 320 (62.5% white; 35% Native American), seemed an unlikely setting for a literary house hospitable to a black Afro-American. (To add to the mystery, an article about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in a 1976 issue of Jet Magazine identified the author of Badge as “Rosalie Goldman,” about whom I could learn nothing either.) Amazon offered a used copy for $95, which exceeded my research budget; and while 21 American libraries had copies, my local public one lacked the reciprocal arrangements necessary for an intra-library loan. Fortunately, a well-connected niece scored me one from Lincoln University (Jerry Falwell’s place). It had been checked out three times, most recently in 1993.

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The thrust of Badge is that Stanley Robinson was “the black Dreyfus of the 20th Century,” the victim of an “anti-Black cabal.”

His life was not unimpressive. At 15, he had enlisted in the air force. Discharged when his age was discovered, upon turning 18, he joined the army and fought in Korea. He worked for the Chicago Transit Authority and the post office. He married and had two daughters. He would later take on a second “family,” a divorcee and her daughter, each of which was kept secret from the other and which he seems to have viewed as an example of his loving, nurturing nature, not as a moral failing – or the source of financial pressure which might have later been perceived as bending him toward income-supplementing activities that paid more than working as a security guard.

In or about 1961, Robinson finished 200th out of more than 1500 applicants in the examination for the police department. He worked as a high-crime area beat cop, spent four years undercover, another in narcotics, and four in Gang Intelligence, joining the unit at its inception. Promoted to sergeant, he carried on a “lonely,” “personal crusade” against Chicago’s drug trade.  His service had already revealed to him the police department’s discrimination against black officers. It had exposed him to police brutality so egregious he had pulled his gun to stop it. And now he discovered that the drug lords were connected to police leadership and Chicago political figures. When his protests failed to stop these practices, he began a book to expose them.

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I found Robinson’s report of Chicago police practices, coming, so to speak, from the Belly of the Beast, an oddly angled and queerly comforting confirmation of my own suspicions and beliefs.

If he saw someone in public whom he considered a criminal, Robinson writes, he would “stop and embarrass” them. This might involve a search. It might involve pocketing what his search found. He admits to no acts of brutality himself but reports other officers dangled suspects by their feet from 13th floor windows, suffocated them within plastic bags, and plunged their heads into toilets, all of which so exceeds anything I heard him accused of that it seems unlikely what I did hear was untrue. He also says the police infiltrated groups and incited them to illegal acts, burgled offices and churches, wiretapped homes, fabricated evidence, and planted stories in the press to inflame public attitudes against those they opposed.

Robinson’s view of the gangs also interested me. He believed Chicago’s blacks had been confined to ghettos by the “steel bands of segregation.” (While not as completely and finally destructive as those of, say, 1940s Warsaw, these ghettos were, I would argue, situated along a similar continuum of damage and degradation inflicted upon their inhabitants.) Advocates for the gangs saw them as vehicles for achieving positive social change, assuming they could be persuaded this change would benefit them on a cost/reward basis more than crime; and Robinson also saw the gangs not as pure organs-of-evil, which major portions of the public did, but as “struggling for something better but helpless to know how to achieve more…” He believed “education” and “economic opportunity” were the answer, but of course, neither was forthcoming; and Chicago’s youth gang-related killings, which had reached an all-time high of 150 the year I entered VISTA, totaled 467 in 2016.

Robinson says his goal was to “save” young black men through “persuasion, diplomacy and protection,” all terms which I never heard anyone else apply to him. He concedes he “could be stern.” He admits he was accused of being “too hard on the gangs” – but he attributes these criticisms to those “jealous” of his success. In any event, he was transferred from the South Side, where I’d known him, to the West, where the events of Badge played out, a transfer, he claims to have been part of a departmental policy that “blocked” officers who were effective in curbing gang violence within neighborhoods the city wanted the gangs to “destroy.”

When I was in Chicago, residents of the neighborhood to which I was assigned, Kenwood-Oakland, believed it was targeted for such destruction. Twenty minutes from the Loop and bordered on the east by lake front, it seemed ideal for a gentrification-disguised-as-urban-renewal program that would enrich the city’s property tax base. The first step, already underway in 1967 through eminent domain proceedings, was to drive out the more stable residents, making it less likely anyone would object to the removal of the less desirables. And today that community has gone from tenements and welfare mother-occupied apartment buildings to $300,000 condominiums and $400,000 town houses, and a Tiger Woods-designed golf course is planned. In other words, city planning-wise, it was more important to increase property values than to stop young men from killing each other.

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In September 1973, following a two-and-one-half month trial, Robinson was convicted of killing Verdell Smith, whom he had mistaken for a drug dealer, on May 6, 1972, and, 11-days later, an actual dealer, Jeff Beard.

The case can be better understood by Googling United States of America v. Stanley B. Robinson (or, if you are in a law library, reading 503 F.2d 208) than from Robinson’s book. His approach to narrative is less “Just the facts, ma’am” than “Can you believe this shit?” He flings outrage at his readers, hoping some will stick sufficiently to inflame them. He analyzes evidence by unleashing surges of skepticism at inferences drawn by the jury than in rebutting the testimony from which these inferences were drawn. “How is it that…,” he often asks. “Why would…” “Where was…” His defense, to which he devotes only five of Badge’s 296, seems to have consisted primarily of “solid, respectable citizens” promoting his good character and Robinson, himself, testifying… Well, what? He quotes little of his direct examination – and his cross- is ignored. Instead we receive his summary that he provided “the dull diary of day-to-day happenings in the life of a conscientious, hard-working cop.” If these “happenings” included his whereabouts on the evenings of  May 6 and 17, Badge omits repeating them.

Robinson’s complaints, in many ways, are common coin among the convicted. Prejudicial pre-trial publicity. Rulings by a biased judge. But as a highly self-regarded man-of-the-law, he seems more distressed by the character of his accusers than is the standard felon. How, he repeatedly asks, could jurors dismiss the “solid” and “respectable” voices he offered for the contradictory, omission-riddled words of the “junkies” and “drug dealers,” plucked off street corners and delivered from jail cells, to damn him. Some harbored resentments because he’d arrested them. Some had been rewarded with plea deals and sentence reductions. Some had been housed in a “plush” motel during the trial, paid $36/day witness fees, and allowed drugs to satisfy their cravings. It was as if Clark Gable had been done in by Elisha Cook, Jr., Percy Helton, and Strother Martin.

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The key witness against Robinson was William O’Neal, Jr.

While we are talking movies, if any individual in this story deserved one, it was he.

And John Ford or Carol Reed should have directed.

O’Neal was a 23-year-old admitted car thief and accused drug dealer, who testified he had accompanied Robinson on both hits. He said Robinson had shot and knifed Beard. He said Robinson had driven the car from which his co-defendant, William Tolliver, another Chicago policeman, shot Verdell Smith. (Tolliver, who suffered to some degree the same publicity, rulings and testimony as Robinson, was acquitted.)

It turned out O’Neal had been providing bought-and-paid-for information – perhaps $30,000 worth – to an FBI agent, Roy Mitchell, since, at least, 1968 when, at Mitchell’s instruction, he had joined the Chicago Black Panther Party, becoming its chief of security. And it had been O’Neal who, following the November 3, 1969, killing of two Chicago policemen by a Panther, diagramed for Moore an apartment, where the Panthers had weapons stashed, in sufficient detail to show where the chapter leader, Fred Hampton, slept. Mitchell, whose bureau’s director, the virulently racist, paranoia-fevered J. Edgar Hoover considered the Panthers a revolutionary threat and Hampton a potentially dangerous Messianic leader, provided this information to vengeful, blood-for-blood lust-hungry local authorities, who, on December 4, at 4:30 am, not entirely unforeseeably fired nearly 100 unanswered shots into the apartment, executing Hampton while he slept, killing another Panther, and wounding several more.

After the Robinson case, O’Neal was enrolled in a federal witness protection program. He remained away from Chicago until 1986, when he returned and lived unobtrusively. At some point, he married. In late 1969, his wife had their son. Earlier that year, interviewed for the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize, II, O’Neal said he had never considered himself an “informer.” (“Provocateur,” “moral eunuch” and “schizophrenic” were others epithets by which he was labeled.) He had been, he thought, an undercover agent, much, I imagine, as Robinson, whose actions against youth gang members might have been classified by ACLU-minded critics as thefts or burglaries or assaults or kidnappings, never considered himself a criminal.

“I felt,” O’Neal told PBS, “like I was… doing something good for the finest police organization in America. And so I was really proud.” It had, he said, “made me a better person” and Roy Mitchell had been a “role model” for him, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. But he also believed that the use to which his information had been put had “betrayed” him. He considered Fred Hampton “a fine leader,” “dedicated to the Black struggle” and believed the Chicago police had “murdered” him. After that, “I lost something. I mean anything that I thought we were doing… had a different meaning after that.”

On January 17, 1990, at 2:30 a.m., not 36-hours after the premiere of Eye on the Prize, II, O’Neal ran onto the Eisenhower Expressway into oncoming traffic. Suicide, the coroner ruled.

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The cabal brought him down, wrote Stanley Robinson, because of “Stanley Robinson’s investigation of the narcotics underworld network… and its government connection” and “Stanley Robinson’s discovery – and his solitary attempt to expose – the FBI’s connection with the Fred Hampton murder…”

(There are other stories. The Tribune reported that Robinson had initially claimed he had “infiltrated” a “crime ring” of O’Neal’s, which had carried out the murders, and was planning to expose it – before O’Neal turned the tables and blamed him. And Sheldon “Shelly” Waxman, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago and author of the “Sam Cohen” crime novels, has posited that Robinson was “set-up” because he had learned that the second wife of Illinois senator Charles Percy was responsible for the still-unsolved 1966 murder of Valerie, his daughter from a prior marriage.)

In general, I believe conspiracy theories, whether about assassinations of figures of national renown or erasures of street detritus are about as resistant to logic as the Wicked Witch to water. The two propounded by Robinson in Badge seem no match for an eye-dropper’s full.

First, nothing about his trial stopped Robinson from publishing his expose. In fact, the publicity would have seemed more likely to establish a bidding war for his work than to suppress it. Not to mention that portions of his manuscript went into evidence – and the press – like pre-publication teaser chapters in Newsweek.

In mid-1972, Robinson had begun collaborating with David Young, a reporter with the Trib. Young was to edit Robinson’s book, and Robinson was to help Young with a series of articles about Chicago’s drug trade. A year after the trial, when Young’s articles appeared, Robinson complained only that they provided no information beyond what he had given Young. He did not say that Young had suppressed anything of consequence. Which suggests it all got out there. Robinson’s allegations about Chicago politicians and police might have been true. (Hell, they probably were.) But in Badge, when he had the opportunity, he didn’t deliver any specifics I could see which demanded muzzling.

One other thing. When they were collaborating. Robinson had given Young a portion of his manuscript “in strict confidence.” Young turned this over to the FBI – and then testified about it for the prosecution. This conduct may have breached journalistic ethics, but if there had been a privileged communication between him and Robinson, it was Young’s to invoke. That is, Young could have refused to disclose this information, but Robinson could not prevent his doing so. If Robinson had a creative attorney, he might have successfully sued Young, as some years later the convicted triple murderer Jeffrey MacDonald sued the writer Joe McGinnis (See: Janet Malcolm. The Journalist and the Murderer) for a similar betrayal; but otherwise Robinson was stuck with the disclosures – and, like MacDonald, still in the slammer.

As for Robinson’s claim “I and my trial exposed O’Neal…”

It seems to me that if the federal government wanted to keep O’Neal’s secret safe, it wouldn’t have prosecuted Robinson in the first place. (As Shelly Waxman pointed out to me in correspondence, it wasn’t like the feds had a major interest in cleaning up what was essentially a local squalid mess.)

Nor is it clear that Robinson exposed anyone. In The Assassination of Fred Hampton, Jeffrey Haas, a Panther lawyer, who represented many of the victims of the raid, says they learned O’Neal was an FBI informer from the Tribune in February 1973, when Robinson was indicted. before he had even retained counsel, let alone tried. So if someone dropped a dime on O’Neal, my money is on the USA. He doesn’t seem to have been of much value since 1969, and riding around with – arguably aiding and abetting – murderers, he may have become more trouble than he was worth.

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Joan Didion wrote, in her piece “L.A. Noir,” “Murder cases are generally of interest to the extent they suggest some anomaly or lesson in the world revealed.” Sometimes these lessons are fixed and finite and directly conveyed. Other times, they hover and shape-shift and cast shadows within which you may find hints about yourself or your country, the nature of man or the coin flips of fate. That the murders of Verdell Smith and Jeff Beard occurred nearly a half-century ago does not negate the possibility of revelation, lessons often having less to do with the instructors on the podium than with the students drawing them in the well.

Anyway, as I almost said, the primary reason I read Badge was that I had once stood eyeball-to-eyeball with Stanley Robinson in the parking lot of the Museum of Science and Industry. That was enough to set me dipping into sources, tripping over memories, skinning my knees on thoughts, tumbling into darknesses, cynical and deep, refreshing and despairing. I’ll leave you with one more. In light of the outcome of the recent killings of unarmed civilians by police, maybe “The Fox” went about things in the wrong manner. If he had been on the clock, in uniform, and claimed fear-of-his-life, he might have walked.

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