Water Man Spouts

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Way of the One-Eyed Man

The Way of the One-Eyed Man

(1} In the past few weeks, I've had the pleasure of talking to Rubin "Hurricane" Carter about his new book "The Way of the One-Eyed Man." It is scheduled to be released in Canada in the fall, probably in late September. It should be available in the United States in October.

Those familiar with Rubin's boxing career, his legal trials and tribulations, and 20 year incarceration, know that there are a series of books detailing his life. "The 16th Round: From #1 Contender to Number 45472," was his autobiography, published in 1974. Then in 1991, "Lazarus and the Hurricane: the untold story of the freeing of Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter," by Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton, was published in Canada. Although it was the #1 book in Canada, it did not become available in the USA for a couple of years, except through The Ring boxing magazine.

In 2000, two books on Carter were published in the US: first, "Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter and the American Justice System," by Paul Wice, a professor of political science at Drew University; and then "Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter," by James Hirsch.

Carter is also found in several other books, including "Voices from the Big House," a collection of writings from people in the American prison system. But perhaps the two most widely know vehicles for his story were the 1975 song "Hurricane," by Bob Dylan (most of the lyrics were by psychologist Jacques Levy, who the last I knew was teaching at Colgate University in rural, upstate New York); and the Norman Jewison movie "The Hurricane," featuring Denzel Washington. ESPN Classic and A&E's American Justice also did great one-hour specials on Carter.

Each of these presents interesting and valuable information on Rubin and his case. In a sense, they remind me of the old tale of the blind men attempting to describe an elephant; for example, the authors of "Lazarus and the Hurricane" told the story from the point of view of a group of Canadians who assisted Rubin in the years just before his release from prison. Some critics felt that their book placed too much emphasis on the Canadian group, and not enough on the attorneys. In truth, the case was the longest, most tried and appealed in US history, and so no single book could possible cover all of the legal issues involved. The Paul Wice book, though it contains a few errors, does a better job of addressing those legal issues.

Still, a large part of the story, which is hinted at in the first two books, and addressed somewhat in a few of the best pages of Hirsch's fantastic book, was never really told in the manner it needed to be. I'm one of the people who has been pestering Rubin to write it. The response of people to his speeches over the years since the movie came out has convinced him that it is time now.

{2} Rubin Carter was born on May 6, 1937 in Delawanna, New Jersey. His book "The 16th Round" tells the story of growing up black in America. And it was a difficult time to be black in the US. Carter's book describes some of his connections to three of the "institutions" that many black folk belonged to in those days; the three are not mutually exclusive -- and in fact the overlap of the three is what defined Rubin's early life. The three are the family; the churches; and the criminal "underworld," including youth gangs.

Most of young Rubin's life took place in and around Paterson, NJ. It is interesting to note that while the Moynihan Report, which came out around the same time as Rubin's arrest and conviction, would focus on the impact of single parent families on black culture, Rubin had another not uncommon experience. His father was a senior deacon in a strict Baptist church. (Rubin's paternal grandfather and 10 uncles were also men of the cloth.) Like many black fathers, Rubin's dad was an overly strict figure, who was doing his best to prepare his children for the harsh realities of being a black man or woman in the USA.

Rubin developed a stutter as a youth, which was illustrative of his inability to comunicate what was going on inside him, to the outside world. At the time, of course, his world was limited to his family, his church, and school. He soon learned to communicate his frustration and anger with his fists, and became a member (then leader) of an urban youth "gang."

He was like many of the young black men living on the margins of society in the 1950s and '60s. He was intelligent, but lacked formal education. He had rejected organized religion because he rejected the authority of any patriarchal figure. And his criminal activities resulted in periods of incarceration in youth facilities, and eventually adult jails and prisons.

In the classic "Autobiography of Malcolm X," there is a point where the former criminal Malcolm Little transforms into Minister Malcolm X. He is always aware, however, of the wasted human talent from the black communities, which gets channeled into vice and crime, resulting in people who may have had the ability to be an uplifting force in society to end up flint-hard convicts. Carter could have easily taken that route for his entire life, and one suspects that life would have been cut short by a policeman's gun or a criminal's knife. But Rubin never did things the easy way.

As a young adult, Rubin was in the military. While stationed in Germany, he met an older man who taught him about the religion of Islam. He also began taking some courses for college credit, and began an amateur boxing career. But his issues with authority and abuse of alcohol led to further problems, both in the military and in New Jersey. Carter would end up in Trenton State Prison, where he became focused on boxing.

{3} When Rubin was released from prison, and began a career as a professional prize fighter, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing. As Carter's ring career brought him recognition nationally as the "Hurricane," his family ties would get him involved in the movement. A cousin he was particularly close to was a community activist, with strong ties to the mainstream civil rights groups. Rubin did volunteer work with youth groups, including "at risk" young men who were looking for success as professional athletes. He took part in the March on Washington, where he heard Martin Luther King, Jr's "I Have a Dream" speech.

At the same time, professional boxing was a sport closely tied to what might politely be called "organized crime." In Paterson, NJ, that included competing groups that looked to control gambling, drug trade, prostitution, and boxing. The most famous (or infamous) article on Rubin's career came not from a boxing magazine, but from the Saturday Evening Post. It was titled "A Match Made in the Jungle," and it detailed the upcoming Joey Giardello - Rubin Carter middleweight title bout. Carter was described as an unstable, violent product of the ghettos and prisons, and Giardello as the trophy horse of one of the largest mafia "families" in the USA.

It is worth remembering that the Civil Rights movement resulted in hundreds of threats of violence; of savage assaults on innocent victims; in bombings of cars, homes, and churches; and in the deaths of far more people than our "common memory" too often honors. If one reads the three-part series by Taylor Branch of "America in the King Years," you begin to appreciate the scope of the suffering of the nonviolent groups in the black community.

Some groups in the black community, however, did not subscribe to Martin's philosophy of non-violence. Among them was the Nation of Islam. Although Elijah Mohammad was the NOI's leader, Minister Malcolm X was its most widely recognized spokesman, and Malcolm advocated black American's exercising their rights to self-defense. When Malcolm spoke about the concept of black people forming "rifle clubs," he scared white America, as well as the established civil rights groups.

So, when Carter was quoted in the Saturday Evening Post article as saying blacks in American cities should use weapons, if necessary, to protect their families even from violent police officers, he caught the attention of more than boxing fans. And when he travel back and forth to South Africa, for a couple boxing matches, his relationship with a young Stephen Biko, and his interest in supporting the African National Congress, was also noted by people who were not mere boxing fans.

Rubin was a popular fighter on the Friday Night Fights. He won a couple of the most intense one round knock-outs, and was competing well against the top fighters in the middleweight division. He won and lost in tough fights against several fighters who would hold world titles from the welterweight to light heavyweight division.

His "role model" was Jack Johnson, the controversial black heavyweight champion who refused to conform to societies' expectations. Carter would strike up a curious friendship with Charles "Sonny" Liston, who would lose the heavyweight title to Cassius Clay (who briefly became Cassius X, and then Muhammad Ali). But, when Carter broke his relationship with the white management group he had, and began fighting for black interests -- by no coincidence, at a time when black organized crime was challenging for turf in New Jersey -- he found out (as did Liston) that there are consequences for crossing those who control boxing. His career did not reach its potential, in large part because he no longer had the connections to get the fights that would benefit his career. Hence, he was traveling to places like South Africa for fights.

{4} On June 16, 1966, Carter had a meeting planned with one of his management team, to discuss plans to travel to South America to box. It would be one of the most violent nights in Paterson, NJ's history.

Both the Canadians and Hirsch's books detail the history of mob violence that was taking place in that era of Paterson's history. The most famous up to that point was known as the Kavanaugh case; it involved a conflict over gambling profits, and would result in police corruption (including mafia ties) being exposed. More, the case involved the use of petty criminals who gave false testimony to convict an innocent person of murder.

In the hours before Carter left his home, a white man went into a bar he sold to a black man, to pick up the final payment. A disagreement arose, apparently over the profits from "numbers running" operated out of the business. The white man left, and came back moments later with a shotgun. He killed the bartender.

Six hours later, two black men entered a bar & grill, and shot four people. Two died immediately, and two survived. The general details of the case are told in the numerous legal briefs, newspaper and magazine accounts, and in the books, tv programs, and movie previously mentioned. I will not go into great detail, other than to mention that one of the most valuable services provided by the Canadians was to create a huge chart that outlined all the documented evidence from that night, and how the statements and testimony of those involved frequently shifted and changed over the next 20 years.

Both of the people who survived the shooting, and a number of people who were either in the tavern or in the neighborhood, gave a detailed description of the assassins: two tall, thin light black men, wearing dark suits, one of whom had a pencil-line mustache. Both were described by the witnesses as being about 6 feet tall.

Rubin Carter and two black friends were in one of a half-dozen white cars that police pulled over that night. Eventually, Rubin and John Artis were brought to a hospital to allow the victims to view them. Both indicated to police that Rubin and John were not the gunmen. They were questioned at the police station, Rubin's car was searched, and they were released.

A week later, both Rubin and John were among people who testified to a grand jury investigating the murders. The lead detective told the grand jury that both men had taken and passed polygraphs. He said that they did not fir the description of the killers. In fact, the woman who was shoot had picked two suspects out from police mug shots, and identified them as the assassins.

However, in time, two officers became convinced that while Rubin was not one of the gunmen, he may have encouraged the murder as a form of "racial revenge" for the earlier murder of a black man. They began to plant evidence to implicate Carter. For example, one claimed that he had found some shells in Carter's car on the night of the murders. It would not be until 1974 that it was discovered that he had not "filed" the shells until almost two weeks after the murders, and they did not match those from the murder Rubin would be accused of; in fact, they were the same type as those used in the first murder, which the same officer had gathered from that crime scene.

The case would go on to be the single most litigated case in US history. Carter and Artis would be convicted of triple murders, based largely on the testimony of a career criminal, caught stealing money from the cash register of the bar that June night. He had been incarcerated several times in the past, and was facing nine felony counts which were "taken care of" in return for testifying he saw Carter and Artis outside of the bar after the murders. He would tell 14 versions of events over the next 15 years.

The case has enough to keep lawyers, criminologists, and sociologists discussing, debating, and arguing for another twenty years. Some day I may write about what really happened on that terrible night, but for this essay, I will simply say Rubin Carter did not participate in any way with the vicious murders. He had nothing to do with those killings.

{5} In prison, Carter attracted the attention of a variety of famous people, from Bob Dylan to Muhammad Ali. Those are fascinating chapters in his story that have been told. Also interesting are the roles that some great legal minds played, attorneys like Myron Beldock, Lewis Steele, and constitutional expert Leon Friedman. Many were involved in assisting Carter in the mid-1970s, to uncover evidence for a successful Brady appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court. Yet for a variety of reasons, in the re-trial, the two were again convicted.

In large part it was because the prosecutor was able to make an appeal to racism, in stating without any legal foundation that Carter and Artis, who were black, were likely to commit a "revenge killing" because they were enraged that a white man had murdered a black man they had never met. They also misrepresented the results of a polygraph expert's testing of the state witness who said he saw Carter and Artis at the scene of the crime. Eventually, these two issues would be argued in federal court by Friedman, in a series of hearings that eventually reached the US Supreme Court.

There were other people who played significant roles with Rubin while he remained incarcerated, for which they never wanted any attention or "credit." Among these was Thom Kindren, who for years brought Rubin "care packages" in prison. Rubin refused to eat prison food, wear prison clothing, or participate in prison activities. Thus, Thom's 20-lb packages sustained him on cans of soup he heated on a metal coil in his cell.

Thom also brought Rubin books. The ESPN Classic special addresses Carter's using his prison cell "as an unnatural laboratory to conduct experiments on the human spirit." He read everything from Plato, Aristotle, Freud, and the Bible, to a few of Thom's favorites which changed his life. These were books by Viktor Frankel, Jiddu Krishnamurti, and Piotr Demianovich Ouspensky.

I was one of two people that Rubin corresponded regularly with during those years. I have long letters that he wrote late at night from his prison cell. He began to stripe away all the layers of his personality, from the angry warrior with the bald head, fu-manchu and goatee, and began to note that "bitterness contaminates the vessel which contains it." as his relationship with himself changed, his concepts about his interactions with other changed, also.

Thus, while he sat in court for round after round of appeals in the New Jersey courts, and heard the prosecutors describing the angry, violent black assassin, he recognized that they were not talking about him. When he no longer felt compelled to prove he was not involved in the murders, new doors began to open. One of the most important was what was called the Caruso file, which was the notes of a police investigator who found out in the mid-1970s that Carter and Artis were not the murderers. In fact, the state had prepared a case that claimed others were the actual murderers, but that Carter had encouraged them, and was "there but not shooting." The Caruso file had evidence that indicated investigators found Carter and Artis were not involved.

Other doors began to open: on November 7, 1985, Carter's case was heard in US District Court in Newark, NJ. The next day he walked out of prison a free man.

{6} Rubin today is always busy. He works on issues involving social justice, in opposition to capital punishment, and assisting those who have been wrongly convicted. When he calls, often late at night, he may be in Canada, California, or Florida. Always – always! -- when I ask, “How are you doing?”, his response is, “Perfect, my brother!” Rubin recognizes that every day of life is a miracle, which should be appreciated and lived fully. And when I talk to Rubin and he tells me he is at work on a project with Nelson Mandela, I am aware that life is indeed a miraculous journey.

Rubin and I discuss everything from human culture to horticulture. Who would think that two old pugs would be comparing notes on the best fertilizers for roses? Boxing fans might recall me questioning him two years ago on ESPN about his relationship with Sonny Liston and Malcolm X. But while there might be a limited audience who would be interested in those discussions on boxing and compost, I think that many of the people who are involved in progressive politics, and in social activism, will find Carter’s new book fascinating.

Many people have had issues relating to the structure of their family of origin. Many, like Rubin, find patriarchal religious systems to have that same rigid structure. Many find that the current social structure handcuffs them, and seems to restrict their options. Many find the USA today is being run like a large corporation that has put the most criminal of inmates in charge.

One of the topics that the Hurricane loves to talk about is the two forces involved in the growth and destruction of nation-states. Rubin met George Bush when he was the governor of Texas, and Rubin was involved in trying to save an inmate from execution. He has strong impressions of the nature of the president. And he travels the globe, and has strong impressions on how the rest of the world community views the Bush administration and the USA.

Now, this may sound like that long arm of coincidence, wrenching itself out of socket, but I am convinced that if we, as individuals and as a people, are going to turn this thing around, and transform this society, we may find some helpful information in Rubin’s experience.


Post a Comment

<< Home