KEYNOTE SPEAKER Dick Gregory took on the awkward issue without flinching: "Some people have doubted our cries of racism in this case," the veteran entertainer and civil rights activist told 600 protesters outside the federal courthouse here last week. Just because the accidental killing of a black man that has roiled Detroit for a month was black-on-black, he said, some people can't see the racism behind it. "But let me remind you that Hitler's grandmother was a Jew."
Institutional racism is the theme of the rallies that are keeping Frederick Finley's death in the headlines here. Finley died in the parking lot of a suburban Lord & Taylor in a confrontation with security guards over suspected shoplifting. Three of the five security guards, including the one who allegedly constrained Finley in a fatal chokehold, were black. Yet the culprit, according to Gregory, Martin Luther King III, and other speakers outside the courthouse, is Lord & Taylor's white management, which employs black people as cover for its bigotry, then brainwashes them to regard their own brothers and sisters with suspicion and scorn.
Since Finley's death on June 22, part-time security guard Dennis J. Richardson has been charged with involuntary manslaughter, a felony carrying a possible 15-year sentence. And anti-racism crusaders have piled on.
The Rev. Al Sharpton flew in from New York to inflame a crowd of 5,000 outside the department store on July 5. He shared the podium with Gregory, Detroit congressman John Conyers Jr., trial lawyer Geoffrey Fieger (last seen arguing that 11-year-old killer Nate Abraham was a victim of racism), members of the local clergy, and representatives of the NAACP.
"You hire thugs to run us down in parking lots!" thundered Sharpton. "There's a misconception some of the brothers have that they work for the Lord . . . & Taylor! But WE work for the lord . . . Jesus that has all power in His hands!"
The Finley tragedy "takes racism to a new, clandestine level in corporate culture," fulminated Detroit pastor Horace Sheffield. "Racism can be black-on-black if white folk have staged this to be black-on-black."
Roars of applause came from the crowd of largely middle-class blacks, who waved placards reading "No Justice, No Peace!" and "Respect Our Black Fathers!"
The protesters are making several demands. In addition to a $ 600 million lawsuit filed by Fieger against the department store, they want capital investment and more jobs for blacks in downtown Detroit. Sharpton traveled to Chicago to confront executives of the May Co., which owns Lord & Taylor, and demanded an apology for Finley's death, which the company proffered.
Sharpton et al. have also called for a boycott of the mall where Finley's death occurred, even though this would disproportionately hurt blacks. A good many of the store's sales force, and the majority of Fairlane Town Center's shoppers, are black. And the general manager of the mall is an African-American woman, a previous keynote speaker for the NAACP, who oversees a jobs program jointly run with the Detroit Public Schools.
Protest leaders also want to see stiffer charges brought against Richardson, a Detroit firefighter and family man. At Rep. Conyers's insistence, the Department of Justice is investigating possible civil rights violations.
Meanwhile, Sharpton and his friends are championing the victim. Although Finley obviously did not deserve the fate that befell him, no evidence has emerged to indicate the store singled him out for "shopping while black." Lord & Taylor surveillance cameras recorded members of Finley's family removing tags from merchandise and taking items of jewelry.
And it turns out that his common-law wife has been arrested at least four times since 1996, for retail fraud, child abuse, and credit card fraud. Finley himself, at the time of his death, was carrying two credit cards not his own.
As the Detroit News's influential black columnist Bill Johnson noted recently, "attention-grabbing demagogues" may posture about corporate conspiracies, but "there's more than enough justification to closely monitor black crime."
"Since 1978," Johnson continued, "almost 20,000 Detroiters have fallen victim to homicide. More than 95 percent died at the hands of someone with the same skin color. Rarely, if ever, was there a protest or demonstration in opposition to this carnage. Perhaps some forms of racial profiling are more acceptable than others."