“It is critical that we become angry, and turn that anger into mobilized actions designated to eradicate, eliminate or displace those crimes and disorder problems that threaten the safety of our community.”
— Commander Ernest Brown, Public Housing Section, Chicago Police Department
September 11, 2001
When news of the terrorist attacks reached me, I was working on the piece that follows. It is the story of a single act of violence—a blow inflicted by a police officer on the body of a citizen. In the course of the day, as the scale of atrocity became apparent, it seemed an indulgence to concentrate on arranging words on a page in an effort to craft a report on this incident. For a time, I lost my bearings.
Two weeks have now passed. The world remains shrouded in ashes. Reverberations from New York and Washington continue to unsettle our lives. Thousands of tragic individual narratives—some known in sketchy outline or by way of a telling detail, countless others not yet known—bear in on us on all sides, dwarfing our moral imaginations and confounding grief.
Many have observed that the events of September 11th changed everything. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they disclosed the underlying terms of existence. As a survivor of violence once observed, “There is knowing, and there is knowing.”
In the midst of much confusion, this much is clear: violence is prepared in the domain of words before it is inscribed on the bodies of human beings. Consider what had to happen in the semantic realm in order for those who planned and executed mass murder on September 11th to be capable of such acts. Consider our national efforts to come to terms with what happened on the 11th: the fates of whole populations now turn on the choices we make between words, on the metaphors we adopt, on the stories we tell.
As The View From The Ground resumes publication, we rededicate ourselves to the work of resisting violence wherever we encounter it, and in whatever form, by using language responsibly to call things by their true names. In that spirit, we offer the following report—one in an ongoing series on police violence in public housing.
On the morning of Thursday, September 6th, Anthony Boatwright went out to buy some cigarettes. A 43 year-old resident of Evanston, Illinois, Boatwright was visiting a friend who lives in 3549 South Federal, a public housing high-rise at Stateway Gardens. He descended by way of the stairs, because the elevators, as is often the case, were not working.
The open air lobbies at Stateway—”up under the building,” as residents refer to them—are the setting for an active drug marketplace. They are also the scene of much other activity—residents coming and going throughout the day, children with brightly colored knapsacks heading out to school in the morning and returning in the afternoon, friends enjoying each other’s company in convivial public space.
Even when stepping out for just a few minutes, Boatwright makes a point of taking his wallet containing identification. Having been stopped in the past by police who threatened to charge him with criminal trespass, he also carries a letter signed by his friend which states that he is on the development for the purpose of visiting her.
Boatwright bought some cigarettes three for a dollar—from one of the men up under the building, then chatted with friends on the grounds immediately outside the building along Federal Street.
The police appeared in force. Five unmarked cars and a paddy wagon came down Federal, jumped the curb, and drove across the grounds to the building. Lookouts for the drug dealers called out warnings. The dealers fled upstairs. Community members in the vicinity began to disperse.
When he saw the police coming, Boatwright walked back into the lobby. “As a rule, when they’re coming toward the building, I walk away. I don’t run. I walk at a normal pace.” He intended to pass through the lobby, out the other side, and go to the store.
“I got halfway past the mailboxes, ” he recalled, “and that’s the last thing I remember. I woke up spitting teeth.”
According to witnesses, a plainclothes police officer ran up behind Boatwright and hit him full force in the back with what resembled a football block. The impact slammed him face first to the ground and sent his body skidding forward some fifteen feet.
“It was,” a witness said of the sound, “like an egg hitting the ground and smashing.”
Boatwright was blind-sided. He had no warning the blow was coming. The officer said nothing prior to striking him. “He didn’t say, ‘I’m an officer.’ He didn’t say, ‘Stop!’ He didn’t say anything.”
Witnesses said that the officer’s name is Andre Cuerton.
Boatwright passed out briefly. He lay face down on the concrete. His nose was broken. His two top front teeth were knocked out—driven through his upper lip.
“I sat up on the ground, trying to compose myself. Another plainclothes policeman said, ‘Get your black ass up. Ain’t shit wrong with you. Get your black ass up.’ I rolled over and got on my knees. As I was getting up, he grabbed my arm and slammed me up against the wall.”
This police officer took him to the paddy wagon where they were collecting dozens of people they had arrested. As far as Boatwright knows, he was the only one they roughed up.
He was bleeding profusely. He overheard the sergeant at the door of the paddy wagon say, “Get him out of here.” They took him to the office of paramedics—the FACT team— housed in 3547 South Federal. Over police objections, the paramedic who treated him took him back outside to find his two front teeth in the hope that they could be restored. Because he had been unconscious, she also insisted he be taken to the hospital to be examined and called an ambulance.
The ambulance took him to Mercy Hospital at 26th and Michigan. He was accompanied by two uniformed officers. “They was real nice. They said they couldn’t understand why he did that to me.”
After he was examined at Mercy, he was taken to the police station of the Public Housing Section of the Chicago Police at 48th and Federal. When he entered the station, he heard “some smart remarks like ‘You won’t try to run from the police no more, will you?'” But he also observed a good deal of uneasiness about his condition. “There were a lot of mixed emotions down at that police station.”
He saw the officer who slammed him to the ground. “I asked him, ‘Why did you do that to me?’ He didn’t say anything. He just walked off.”
While waiting to be booked, Boatwright overheard discussion among the police about whether they should give him another charge—resisting arrest or selling drugs. He also heard an exchange in which “they were trying to get someone other than the one that assaulted me to sign the report.” He is not sure what the outcome was. In the end, he was charged with c
riminal trespass and solicitation of unlawful business.
After he was booked, he was taken to the lockup at the police station at 18th Street where he spent the night. In pain from his injuries, he was unable to sleep. He was released on his own recognizance on Friday morning and returned to Stateway Gardens.
“Out of my forty-something years, this has never happened to me,” Boatwright observed. “They want to categorize and put everybody in the same boat.”
In telling his story, he took pains not to do the same with respect to the police—not to put them all in the same boat. “All police is not bad.” He recalled the solicitude of the two officers who took him to the hospital and the comments of others who were offended by what was done to him.
“Me myself, I don’t bother nobody. I treat the police with the utmost respect. If they ask me a question, I answer them. If they tell me to go over there, I go over there. If they tell me to sit down, I sit down. But he assaulted me to the fullest and thought nothing of it.”