The program was set for 7 p.m. But by 4:30, several hundred Detroit residents were waiting in the freezing rain, senior citizens in wheelchairs, parents with small children, the hopeful and the hopeless huddled in line together. The doors opened early, a nod to the elements, and by 6:30 not a seat remained in the Wayne County Community College building, and there was nowhere to stand either -- not even in the three overflow classrooms where folks had squeezed in to watch the event on big screens.
What had drawn 1,900 people downtown on a yucky night was the sheer star power of a 67-year-old comedian who hadn't come to do comedy. Bill Cosby had come to give a stern lecture -- free of charge -- about the failures of black parents, and the failures of black Christians, about how systemic racism can't explain everything that drags down some African Americans, about how too many black youths are "standing on the University of the Corner" and too many black adults are serving as poor role models.
In typical fashion, he was dressed casually, wearing Smith College gear. Black sweat pants, blue hoodie, red baseball cap. Not that it mattered. He had come to make people think: What are we doing to ourselves?
This was a black-on-black conversation.
"How do you think our children ever got to accept the word 'pimp'? It's in our house," he said. "It's the mother's boyfriend." Cosby didn't mean to indict all black people or all low-income blacks or all single mothers and their boyfriends, but nuance is not his specialty. His fastball sometimes comes straight at your head.
To applause and laughter, Cosby did a parody on black politicians who've made a cause out of battling sentencing disparities for crack and powdered cocaine offenses. "I'm having a problem, ladies and gentlemen. Okay, we even it up, let's have a big cheer for the white man doing as much time as the black man. Hooray! Anybody see any sense in this? Systemic racism, they call it, that the white man is not doing as much time as the black."
What we need to do, Cosby added, is tell the crack dealer to stop selling crack.
Detroit was just the latest stop in an extraordinary tough-love tour that had been sweeping the country, playing to packed houses from Newark to Atlanta, Baltimore to Milwaukee. It was the kind of thing that used to go on with a lot greater frequency, part of an honored tradition of unflinching dialogue that African Americans have practiced for generations. Would this mark the revival of fearless public debate in black communities?
Then, unexpectedly, Cosby's traveling town-hall show shut down.
Sam Fulwood III, a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, was at home when he got a distressing call from Cosby spokesman Joel Brokaw at 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 19. Cosby was canceling his Cleveland appearance the following night. Brokaw "sounded really shaken," observed Fulwood, who was slated to moderate what had been billed as "A Cleveland Conversation With Bill Cosby."
As Fulwood recalls, Brokaw told him a story was about to break out of Philadelphia, "a Kobe Bryant kind of thing." The next night Philadelphia's NBC-10 reported that a 31-year-old Canadian woman had accused Cosby of sexual misconduct at his suburban Philadelphia mansion. At the time of the alleged incident, in mid-January 2004, the woman was director of operations for the Temple University women's basketball program. She had been recruited to Temple by coach Dawn Staley, a close friend of Cosby's, and that is how the two met.
The woman told the following story to authorities:
She had been out to dinner with Cosby and mutual friends at a Philadelphia area restaurant and was invited alone to come back to his place. After she complained of stress, Cosby gave her some pills -- "herbal medication," he said -- that made her dizzy. Though her memory is hazy, she remembers Cosby touching her breast and placing her hand on his genitals. She awoke at 4 a.m. to find her clothing in disarray and her bra undone. She then drove herself home. (The Washington Post does not generally publish the names of alleged victims of sexual assault without their consent.)
After investigating the allegations, Montgomery County (Pa.) District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. announced late last week that he had found "insufficient credible and admissible evidence" to file charges against Cosby. The complainant's attorney, Dolores Troiani, has said her client will file a civil suit against Cosby.
From the beginning, Cosby's Philadelphia attorney, Walter M. Phillips Jr., called the allegations "utterly preposterous" and "pointedly bizarre." But neither Phillips nor other Cosby spokesmen would comment on news reports that Cosby had acknowledged to authorities that he had "consensual" sexual contact with the woman that night.
"Mr. Cosby is gratified that District Attorney Castor, after a thorough investigation conducted with the full cooperation of Mr. Cosby, has determined not to file charges," Phillips said in a statement. "Mr. Cosby looks forward to moving on with his life."
The allegations have ricocheted around the Internet, creased the supermarket tabloids and landed on black talk radio -- with some intriguing twists. While the Pennsylvania investigation was unfolding, a 57-year-old California attorney came forward alleging a similar incident in the 1970s when she was a model and aspiring entertainer. Tamara Green, who wanted her identity known, said she had been ill at a restaurant and Cosby gave her what he said was Contac, which only made her feel worse. After driving her back to her apartment, Green alleged, Cosby started taking off her clothes and dropped his pants before she scared him off. Cosby, through a spokesman, said he does not even know Green.
Green said she came forward after so long to support the Canadian woman, who she felt was being viewed with skepticism. "I'm not suing him for money," she says. "I would have waited my natural life if he hadn't drugged another person. It's not about me. It's that women are not listened to."
The Public Image
Discussion of Cosby these days can be confusing. The accusations against him have become intertwined with his stalled community crusade.
"It certainly puts a damper on the kinds of things he was saying," says Leonard Haynes III, a longtime educator who was once acting president of Grambling State University. Haynes says he was surprised that Cosby would find himself in this predicament and disappointed "because it comes at a time when the public comments he'd been making about the state of the black community were resonating."