Water Man Spouts

Saturday, March 12, 2005

"Only he who attempts the ridiculous ....

Can ever hope to achieve the impossible...." -Rubin "Hurricane" Carter; quoted from a letter to the author.

"The Hurricane" was one of the most controversial movies since Oliver Stone's "JFK." The film was based on the 20 year legal struggle of former boxer Rubin Carter, who was twice convicted for a 1966 triple homicide in a Paterson, NJ bar. The story that director Norman Jewison told raised serious questions about the movie's accuracy.

Some criticism came from people upset at how they were (or were not) portrayed in the film. But the most serious accusations came from people who charged that Carter was a cold-blooded assassin, who was freed on a legal technicality.

No one was more interested in discussing every aspect of the case that Rubin himself. This comes as no surprise to anyone who has known Rubin. And no movie can actually tell the 20 year story as well as Carter.

In 1973, I was a 15-year old amateur boxer, who was familiar with Carter's boxing career. I read an article on his legal case in a sports magazine, and became convinced that he had not had a fair trial. I wrote to Carter, who was incarcerated in Rahway State Prison in New Jersey at the time. In the manner of a 15-year old, I explained to Rubin that I was going to get him out of prison. To Carter, my letter was "a ray of sunshine in (his) dark and dreary cell," and we began a correspondence that may shed some light on an important scene in the movie, and perhaps even on his case.

The movie begins with a dramatic scene where Carter knows the prison officials are preparing to remove him from his cell in Rahway in the middle of the night. Without spoiling the movie for those who may not have seen it, the "Hurricane" is not about to go gently into that good night. And here is why:

In the summer of '73, as Rubin and I became fast friends, we would discuss boxing, his case, and the prison system. In the fall, as I began the 10th grade, my English teacher became interested in the Carter case. Russell Pokorney was a product of the "anti-war" generation, who was influenced by A.S. Neill's school Summerhill; Pokorney allowed -- indeed, encouraged -- students to bring things of interest into his classroom. Soon, two classes of students from a rural, upstate New York high school were corresponding with Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. We sent and received letters and cassette tapes as we learned more about the case of a man convicted of a violent, racially-motivated hate crime.

Some students believed that if a court convicted Rubin, he must indeed be guilty .... and they told him so. Rubin wrote back that he was impressed that these three students were not going along with the groups' perception, but encouraged them to examine the facts before deciding if he was guilty or innocent.

In one letter, he wrote, "I somehow think, Tom, that perhaps you have fallen into that same old mirror of images that trapped me and is the cause of my being placed here in the first instance. I'm talking about the diabolical image the news media and entire law enforcement agencies around the world successfully depicted of Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter; but of which was also an image that didn't necessarily reflect the opinions that I truly expressed. You must remember that this happened during a time when it wasn't fashionable to be black, and black people wasn't proud .... And the 'Long Hot Summer Sessions' were about to set in. That was when there was only Malcolm X and myself telling our people to protect themselves from police brutality and harm .... And if you can really understand exactly what happened to Malcolm, only then will you be able to understand what happened to me. Our lives were interlocked into each other's, and the only difference was: the cops feared me a little more than they did Malcolm -- they hired some mentally-dead niggers to kill him! But they couldn't find any to do it to me ...."

Students askedquestions about prison life, and Carter responded in detail in a series of cassette tapes. "This isn't the long arm of coincidence, pulling itself out of socket," he said, "but the cold and cruel reality of life behind bars." And the students could hear the sounds of the institution: the metal doors, the PA, and the bells in the background.

The Hurricane also coached me in terms of ring strategy. I was, by this time, a pretty good fighter, featured in a Boxing Illustrated story for a string of over 50 straight knockout victories. Rubin was adding the "finishing touchers." He began to send me rare photographs of his fights, to illustrate the finer points of scoring knockouts. And I would send photos of my recent victories.

"I've really enjoyed the pictures," he wrote in one brief letter, "it reminded me of when I was the sports director in my hometown, and used to train youngsters of your age bracket; those are some times I can look back on with some joy."

Then, "...but, man, I kid you not -- things are really uptight in this jail, and about to explode in death and destruction. Whatever you do in life -- be it good, bad, or indifferent -- please! Stay the hell out of these kind of places. They're not fit for man nor beast. But that's besides the point, isn't it?"

Carter had been through a prison riot in Trenton, just weeks after Attica. His actions were credited with saving the lives of several guards. And so I wrote and told Rubin Carter to take similar actions to prevent a riot at Rahway.

In early 1974, in a letter to my brother, Rubin wrote, "Since I've been writing to Pat, and he asked me not to let this prison explode, I stepped forward and took control of the jail. Something I never wanted to do in the past -- and of which is very dangerous to me .... and now I am the Director of the Rahway Prisoner's Council on Penal Reform. So if you and Pat and perhaps Russell P. really want to come into this prison and see what it is like ... we can arrange a day in the near future. What the hell! If I can't go to you -- then you come to me!"

A week later in a letter to me: "....since I've become the Director of the Rahway People's Council, I've been busy beyond belief. Man! I'm just waiting until you can send me the date that you will be here to see me in person -- that's really going to be a day for me to remember. (smile) I truly love you, little buddy -- I think you are one of the best things that ever happened to me. You are a real friend. thank you!"

For the past six years, Carter had been a virtual hermit in prison. The Rahway Administration was surprised when he ran for the position on the inmate council, and shocked when he won. In fact, they refused to recognize him as the director of the inmate council at first. And they were caught totally off-guard at what happened next.

Carter called in the Police Benevolent Association, church groups, and sociologists for meetings on prison reform. He spoke out on the problems of drugs and weapons being smuggled into the prison. His efforts began to ease tensions between inmates and guards. Soon, these actions brought Rubin "Hurricane" Carter to the attention of a number of people outside of the prison walls .... and it was evident that Rubin was no ordinary convict.

The most influential person who came to visit Carter was Muhammad Ali. The former heavyweight boxing champion was interested not only in Rubin's work on prison reform, but also in helping with his appeal. And so, on 4-26-74, Carter wrote me: "Point of information: Today I talked with Ali, and he and I have set the date to fight June 10, 1974 -- here at Rahway. So, I have to get back in shape. But I can do it -- it's only been eight years since I've had the gloves on at all .... but once I put something in my mind -- that's it, baby! Watch out! (smile) Look at me! Now I'm talking like Tom, what? (smile)"

In the 1960s, Carter had sparred with heavyweight champion Charles "Sonny" Liston in some of boxing's famous "Philadelphia Gym Wars." It seemed that now Rubin was serious about fighting Ali, not in merely putting on an exhibition to draw attention to his case. And so I advised him to be careful, because Ali was , well ..... Ali!

"Dear Little Buddy of Mine: Only he who attempts the ridiculous can ever hope to achieve the impossible, and that's the way I feel about Muhammad Ali -- while he may very well be great, he's still not invincible. Right? In point of fact: ever since we first started boxing together, he has always sent his sparring partners to try to whip me ..... 'Sugar Boy' Nando, Gomeo Brennan, Fernandez, Jimmy Ellis, Ernie Buford ..... and none of them has succeeded in the past. And although Muhammad and I are considered friends, we both would like to know who can beat whom -- real friendly-like, you know? (smile) With friends like he and I -- who in the hell needs enemies! (smile)"

It was then that the prison officials decided to remove Carter from his cell, late in the night, and to put him in isolation in the psychiatric wing of the maximum security "hospital" at Trenton State Prison. In explaining why Rubin had been taken to the Vroom Building, which housed incorrigible and insane inmates, the Director of New Jersey's Institutions and Agencies told reporters at a press conference that "Carter was a danger" and had become "too much of a threat to prison security."

"I have some bad news for you," Rubin wrote me from solitary confinement, "it seems that my being elected as Director of the People's Council, and the Rabbi as the Director of Information, we were putting too much pressure on the inhumane conditions which exist within the New Jersey prison system. So at one o'clock Wednesday morning -- and you have probably heard about it on tv by now -- the pigs rolled down on me and the Rabbi with shotguns and pistols and zoomed us through the night to the Readjustment Unit ..... where we are right now. We were getting too many people involved in the prison system. Too many influential people were flocking to Rahway to investigate the conditions -- to right the wrongs, if they could -- and the administration couldn't accept that ....

"And this is why I wanted you and your friends to come to Rahway to see this for yourselves. Now ain't that a kick in the ass? (smile) .... So I'm sorry to tell you that our meeting date is off for the moment -- postponed, but not canceled out completely. Just bear with me for a while, my friend. Okay?"

Lawyers filed an appeal in US District Court, and the judge ruled in Carter's favor. The state had violated Carter's rights, and he was released from Vroom and sent to Trenton State Prison. On his first day in Trenton, he sent me a postcard: "Hi there, Little Buddy: long time no see! Tommy and I are out of the Vroom Building now, and I'm in Trenton State Prison. Just wanted you to know. I miss you -- The Hurricane"

We never made our class trip to see Rubin. By the time he was out of Vroom, Russell Pokorney had been fired by our school, and we were on summer vacation. In a few short weeks, events were set in motion that resulted in Rubin winning a second trial. Muhammad Ali's influence had played an important role. Bob Dylan recorded a song about Carter, and everthing looked positive for Rubin's future.

However, New Jersey was not about to admit an error. Instead, in Carter's second trial, the state put forth their "racial revenge" theory. A few hours before the Lafayette Bar & Grill murders that Rubin and friend John Artis were charged with had occured, a white man killed a black man in a bar in another part of Paterson, NJ. With no legal foundation and no supporting evidence, the prosecutor told the jury that Rubin Carter was a violent racist, and that his hatred of all white people was the motive for him commiting the triple murder. Although Carter had never met the victim of the earlier murder, had no connection to the Lafayette Bar & Grill, and John Artis had no connection to either crime, they were again convicted of the triple murder.

Looking back, it is hard to find the prosecutor's mad-dog racist assassin in the Rubin Carter who wrote to the 15-year old white kid and his 45 white classmates.

It's interesting to speculate on what it was that the Rahway Prison administration found threatening about the 3 weeks of work Rubin did as the director of the inmate's group. To stop that "threat," they had added anther label to "criminal"...... Rubin became "insane." New Jersey had learned a lesson from the Soviet Union in how to punish people for "thought crimes." Indeed, neither criminals nor the insane have any rights within institutions.

In 1983, a US District Court ruled that New Jersey acted maliciously in putting Rubin in Vroom. The court awarded the Hurricane $2760 in ounitive damages; $30 a day for 90 days. Rubin spent that money to hire a detective to investigate what really occured at the Lafayette Bar & Grill on that June night in 1966.

The investigation centered on information from the Caruso file. This was a series of notes kept by a Paterson detective investigating the case in preparation for the 1976 retrial. Caruso quit in disgust when he discovered major flaws in the case. Two recent books ("Lazarus and the Hurricane" and "Hurricane") detail much of this information.

After studying the case for over 30 years, I think I have a good idea what actually happened. First, the "earlier murder" was not racially motivated. It was a business dispute, over money, involving former business partners. It also involved a disagreement on the sharing of profits from numbers-running that occured at the bar.

The Lafayette murders were not something that an angry racist thought up in an hour's time in the back of a bar. Rather, it was a thought-out part of the organized crime wars that were occurring in Paterson and the surrounding areas. The "mentally dead niggers" that committed the crime had come fom NYC, and were actually identified by one of the shooting victims.

Rubin Carter had nothing to do with the crime. Although he and John Artis were picked up by police the night of the crime, they did not fit the description of the gunmen given by any witnesses. At a grand jury hearing two weeks later, police testimony indicates they were not considered suspects.

However, the police were not able to solve the crime. The shooting victim who identified two other men died a month after the shootings. The police could not find the weapons used, or any other physical evidence. After a couple months, two investigators became convinced that Rubin Carter was the "mastermind" behind a racial revenge plot. Although they did not think he was one of the gunmen, they began to plant and fake "evidence" in order to implicate him.

It became a chain reaction: other police and prosecutors began to believe that Carter was involved, based upon the fake evidence. When these police officers were able to convince the person who was literally caught robbing the dead bodies in the Lafayette to "identify" Carter as one of the gunmen, they had their "proof." This false evidence, combined with efforts to suppress the evidence that would clear Rubin 20 years later, resulted in his being convicted twice for crimes he did not commit.

If you have never seen the movie "The Hurricane," you really should. It tells the remarkable story about a 20-year ordeal of a man who attempted the ridiculous, and achieved the impossible.


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