IT BEGAN AS a simmering domestic quarrel on a broiling June night in 1979. Double-parked in his station wagon on Eighth Street in New York's Greenwich Village, Amiri Baraka, poet, dramatist and political activist, was arguing with his wife Amini about the high price she had just paid for a pair of shoes for one of the couple's children who sat in the back seat. It wasn't a pretty argument. It wasn't of great moment. But, on the other hand, as a domestic spat, it was certainly nobody else's business, either.
So imagine his surprise when, suddenly, Baraka was grabbed from behind and yanked from the car, slammed against its side and kicked in the stomach.
We have come to expect the worst on the mean streets of New York: muggers, murderers, teens out for a thrill. But on that night, it was even worse.
It was the police.
Amini Baraka immediately leaped out and ran to her husband's defense. She pleaded with the police to stay out of a family fight. But the officers persisted, and before it was all over they had arrested not only Baraka but his wife as well. The only family members they didn't arrest were the couple's four children, aged 5 to 10 years.
They just left them standing in the street.
Now, Baraka is more widely known by his old name, LeRoi Jones, under which he shocked the conscience of a nation during the '60s with controversial, award-winning plays. His work has made him one of the most significant American playwrights and poets, and undoubtedly he will have to be considered when the literary history of this age is assessed. Certainly his influence during his time is undeniable. Practically all Afro-American playwrights, poets and writers owe him some debt. Already major critical texts and articles cite his work. His brilliance has resulted in teaching assignments at Yale, Rutgers and George Washington universities.
But on this hot June night, he was just another black man facing the police, so, in keeping with that tone, five charges were levied against him, including assaulting a policeman and assaulting his wife. In September of that year, sanity seemed to reassert itself when a New York grand jury not only threw out all five charges but ended up indicting two of the policemen with harassing Baraka.
It might have ended there. But Baraka was looking for justice and was threatening to sue on grounds of police brutality. That's when the district attorney, who has discretion to bring his own charges, charged Baraka with resisting arrest in the case. Two months later, Baraka was found guilty and, despite the probation department's recommendation of probation, was sentenced to 90 days on Rikers Island.
According to court records, the presiding judge said the 90-day sentence was to serve as an example.
It certainly has -- as an example of justice denied.
For two years, Baraka and a team of lawyers -- Conrad Lynn, Vernon Mason and William Kunstler -- have fought the jail sentence and conviction, and now the final act in this absurd play is about to unfold. On Tuesday, Dec. 8, Baraka, his final appeal rejected by the courts, will surrender himself to begin serving his sentence.
Ninety days in Rikers. Now consider the sentences handed down to these other Americans.
Earl Butz, former secretary of agriculture, 30 days for evading $96,000 in taxes;
Abbie Hoffman, 54 days for possessing 30 pounds of cocaine;
And what about the white New Yorker whose sentence was to write an essay on respect for the law, after being convicted of sicking his dog on a black cop?
There have been some changes for the better since the rage days of the '60s, thanks in part to the indignation and courage of individuals such as Baraka. But the sentence he received can only serve to remind us that the struggle is not yet over, not by a long shot. What other message can there be? Will all men pulled from a car by police in the middle of a domestic argument now get 90-day sentences on Rikers, or just black men who are world-renowned writers and critics of American racial injustice?
Baraka is merely the latest in a long line of outspoken men like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois who have found that their constructive criticism of American society has earned them nothing but abuse in return. Certainly, others will discover it on their own after him. All that I can say is that American justice is not served when a man is singled out for the radicalness of his politics more than the circumstances of his offense.
Against this background, Baraka is justifiably afraid of going to jail. In an interview yesterday, Baraka summed up his feelings this way: "Nobody wants to go to jail. You're at the mercy of the state.
"That," he concluded, "is a very dangerous situation."