Scandal, rumour and racial politics in New York

Scotland on Sunday diary column, March 21 1988

It takes a city as crazy as New York to produce a mystery like
the saga of Tawana Brawley, a story which starts off with a
sensational crime, rapidly turns into a twisted political plot
and then becomes a city-wide debate where everyone shouts at
everyone else, everyone has an opinion, and no-one knows the
truth.

It all started early one Saturday afternoon, on November 28 last
year, at a block of flats outside the village of Wappinger Falls
just north of New York. Residents saw a disheveled young black
girl crawling around their backyard and finally hiding herself
inside a plastic garbage bag; they called the police who came and
found that she was Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old schoolgirl from
the village. She was in a terrible state.

Her hair had been chopped off in a ragged mess. Her face and
clothes were smeared with dog faeces, and someone had scrawled
racist insults across her chest. Over the next few days, her
story emerged in scraps of tearful conversation and scribbled
notes: she had been abducted and taken to local woods where she
had been raped over a four-day period by six white men, one of
whom was wearing a policeman’s badge.

The people of Wappinger Falls were appalled not just at the
violence that had burst into their midst, but at the racism which
was so foreign to their way of life and at the horrifying
suggestion that one of their own lawmen might be involved. Then
things started to get muddled.

The hospital to which Tawana was taken that Saturday could find
no evidence that she had been raped or beaten as she said, nor
any physical sign that she had been kept outside in cold, wet
weather for four days. Then the police could find no-one to
corroborate her story: no employer with a man who had failed to
turn up for work for four days; no walkers in the woods who had
seen signs of the attack; no witness who had seen her thrown from
the men’s car that Saturday morning as Tawana described. Village
opinion began to divide. Then things got a lot more muddled.

On the Monday after Tawana was found, Alton H Maddox Jnr and C
Vernon Mason arrived on the scene. Maddox and Mason are a famous
New York double act, two powerful black lawyers who have made a
career out of championing civil rights. They also have an
unfortunate reputation for exploiting criminal cases to promote
themselves and their political causes.

Not far behind them was the Rev Al Sharpton, aged 33, the Pied
Piper of Brooklyn, who says he gave his first sermon when he was
four, and became a minister when he was ten, ran civil rights
pickets and protests all over New York in the 70s, but has since
been accused of running a youth organisation that has no members
and no financial records and of rubbing shoulders with the Mafia.
He shares the same unfortunate reputation as Maddox and Mason.

The three moved in on the Tawana Brawley case. Maddox and Mason
told the family that there was a cover-up and became Tawana’s
lawyers. The Rev Sharpton became their ‘family adviser’. Since
then, Tawana has not spoken to the police. The three activists
say she will not do so until the inquiry meets with their
approval. In the meantime, they have held press conferences,
organised rallies and have run from one end of New York to the
other screaming Cover Up because the police have failed to solve
the crime.

Soon, opinion was divided across New York. It turned out that
Tawana had been arguing with her step-father and had skipped
school on the day of her disappearance, so some said she was
making up the whole story. Then it was discovered that a local
policeman had killed himself a few days after she was found in
her garbage bag in Wappingers Falls and that a car which might
have been his had been seen near the spot where she was found.

The three activists demanded that a special prosecutor should
lead the inquiry. A local judge appointed two lawyers, but Maddox
rejected them. ‘Too white,’ he said. The Governor of New York,
Mario Cuomo, offered to put his Attorney General in charge. The
three activists rejected him. He had a summer house not far from
Wappingers Falls, they said, so he was part of the local cover
up.

At a rally where the crowd chanted their names, they denounced
Cuomo telling him:”We come to you with hate in our eyes. We come
to you with hate in our minds. We come to you with hate in our
hearts. You are not talking to foot-shufflers.” Other black
leaders stepped in to defend Cuomo and accused the three
activists of blocking the police inquiry and using ‘tactics that
encourage race war’. The Rev Sharpton denounced them as
‘state-sponsored Uncle Toms’.

Those who believed Tawana was making it all up were encouraged to
hear that police had monitored a phone call in which Tawana
supposedly said that the only thing the police and the press had
got right about her story was her name and address. There was
further encouragement when it was disclosed that the block of
flats where she was found had been her home until two weeks
before, and that she still had a key, that the neighbours had
heard movements in her old flat during the four-day period when
she was missing, and that they claimed they had seen her coming
and going throughout that time.

But Tawana’s supporters asked if a girl would really indulge in
such self-defilement just to conceal the fact that she had run
away for four days? And could she have written all those racist things
the right way up on her own chest? The three
activists said there was no question about it: they knew the
names of all six men involved and so did the police, they
claimed.

Last week, they held yet another press conference and named an
assistant district attorney from Wappingers Falls as one of the
six rapists. They claimed they had ‘direct evidence’ of his guilt
and added that he was a friend of the part-time policeman who had
committed suicide and that the District Attorney had deliberately
lied to conceal his assistant’s involvement.

There is, as yet, no end to this story. There is a new round of
speculation that Tawana was really attacked by her step-father,
who unfortunately murdered his first wife, speculation which is
only confused by the fact that a pile of papers in the case have
been stolen from the Attorney General’s office by a man who
worked there and wanted to impress his lover. It takes
a city as crazy as New York.

*********

The latest piece of whistle blowing from a former intelligence
officer comes from Mr Archie Roosevelt, a grandson of President
Theodore Roosevelt who has spent most of his life working for the
CIA in the Middle East. In his autobiography, For Lust of
Knowing, published here last week, he recalls the ramshackle old
CIA building in central Washington where “one of my friends,
working in his second-floor office on a weekend, happened to look
down and see a colleague in an office below undressing a pretty
secretary with the obvious intention of committing a bit of
unauthorised covert action. Surrendering to an irresistible
impulse, my friend picked up the phone, dialed his colleague,
and watched him draw away from the lady to answer it. ‘This is
God speaking,’ said a deep commanding voice. ‘I see what you are
doing. It is a grievous sin.’ He hung up and saw the parties
hurriedly dressing to leave the building.”

*********

Early in the Presidential election campaign, there was an
outbreak of cynical bumper stickers reading: “He’s relaxed. He’s
tanned. He’s ready. Richard Nixon in 88.” At least, I assumed
they were cynical. In the last ten days, Nixon has been cropping
up all over the place. Vice President George Bush has been
quoting him. Bush’s main opponent, Bob Dole, has been consulting
him about whether to stay in the race for the White House. And
when the former national security adviser, Robert MacFarlane,
could not decide whether to admit his role in the Iran Contra
affair, he went to see Nixon. The old villain, who escaped the
Watergate scandal with a pardon from his successor, had the gall
to tell MacFarlane to admit everything.