Guest columnist Bob Flaherty: I went to bed: My moment of near shame  

  • Former Gazette reporter and WHMP radio morning show host Bob Flaherty Gazette file photo

Published: 7/16/2021 4:06:45 PM

There is a racial incident from my past that has bothered me forever. Don’t worry, it’s not me showing up at a frat party in blackface, sorry to disappoint. I once wore orangeface when I played a pumpkin in a local theater production, but never blackface. No videos will surface, trust me. And I was never no frat-bro.

My moment of near shame came at age 17, returning to my house not 100 yards from the “Entering Boston” sign, pretty much doing nothing. It took me until 2 in the morning to accomplish all this nothing, making my poor mother stay awake half the night with worry, but circadian rhythms, which hadn’t been invented yet, were nevertheless surging through me like neon.

My old house sat on the corner next to a grocery store and a gas station/repair shop. This was not the first time that I had come home at that hour, but it was the first time that I noticed a light on in the garage’s little office. And I saw them, plain as day, two young Black men trying to break open the cash register, one of them jumpier than the other, both stressed. Neither could see me out there with the light on, I knew, so I just watched for a few seconds from across the street and mulled. My house was right there. I could slip right by them, dash in the front door, wake everyone up as if I was Paul Revere, and pick up the old phone in the hallway and dial law enforcement. Then we’d watch the whole thing from the porch, better than an episode of “Hawaii 5-O.”

But I did none of that. I shrugged, went home, ate a sleeve of Oreos, and went to bed. I did all that because I thought the nervous young Black men would be killed. Sure of it, actually. This was right square in the middle of the reign of Richard Nixon, the law and order 37th U.S. president, and everything I read in Rolling Stone, the Boston Phoenix or in the lyrics of Marvin Gaye, told me that the cops would come roaring in with shotguns, bullhorns and itchy trigger fingers, and one false move would result in the two men blown to guts, even as they raised their hands high in surrender.

The next morning, well, more like early afternoon, if I’m to be honest, I was eating my Cocoa Puffs when my mother came through the door with news of the robbery.

“Oh yeah,” I said, checking the sports pages as I crunched, “I saw it.”

“You saw the break-in?” cried my astonished mom.

“No, not that, but I saw the two guys trying to crack open the register.”

She stood before me. “You are telling me that you saw criminals stealing money from a friend of ours, and you just came home and crawled into bed? Do you have any idea how hard that man worked for that money?”

“Well,” I replied, “they gotta eat too. ”

And those words, weak as they were, basically ended the argument, though my mother did manage to tell me how disappointed she was in me, and how I might consider, in my wildest dreams, going to church this Sunday and asking God for forgiveness. I did neither. But I never forgot the look on my mother’s face.

And it’s very possible I was right, right? Maybe the cops, some of whom I knew to be ball-busting bastards who’d grab you by the throat and yank your long hair until you’d squeal on friends for minor crimes, would have escalated the situation into a massacre, drilling the windows, shelves and overhead doors of the gas station, along with the two young men inside, with bullets of countless caliber. Or maybe the wisdom of one of the older officers would prevail and the two robbers would be coaxed out into our spot-lit neighborhood with their hands over their heads. But we’ll never know. Because I went to bed.

So maybe their kids got fed the next day. Or maybe they used the money to feed another habit, who knows. Perhaps my inaction caused them to gain confidence, becoming more brazen, until getting themselves blown away two weeks later outside a body shop in Revere. I wouldn’t know. I never got their names.

I was logged into the Zoom-a-thon last month directed at the Northhampton City Council, which, for the most part, featured Zoomer after semi-scripted Zoomer urging the council to either defund the police budget by 50% or abolish the force altogether. Though most of these people had never had any interaction with Northampton Police, and many said so, the gist was that the police are a para-military force upholding white supremacy.

When I was 17 we called this sort of thing prejudice. Branding all cops as racist killers, all priests as molesters, etc., is no different than thinking that all Blacks rob gas stations.

I’m not sure I was wrong to go to bed that night, based on what I’d read in the Phoenix, and I’ve always had a healthy wariness of cops. I mean, we are not far removed from an era when they’d bust down your door for a bag of weed. But many things have changed for the better in recent decades, and were I to witness a robbery now I’d call 911 in a flash. And I take most of what I read with a grain of salt.

Derek Chauvin was found guilty for murdering George Floyd. That’s the victory we should be celebrating. Not pretending that everyone in uniform is a Chauvin-in-waiting. Remember: if Chauvin killed Floyd in 1967, ’77 or even ’87, he’d likely still be on the street, his report mentioning the weapon Floyd brandished. If you don’t think we’ve made progress, you haven’t been keeping up.

Before drastically defunding a progressive department in a progressive city and eliminating 50 people from the city payroll and foreclosing on their homes, I’d ask the defunding crowd to reach out to Chief Jody Kasper and tell her what’s on your mind. You’d find her pretty accessible. But that wouldn’t be very Zoomerly, now, would it?

Bob Flaherty of South Hadley is a former Gazette reporter and morning radio host on WHMP.

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