June 2, graduation day at Phillips Exeter Academy, dawned under a sky of incredible blue. Edmund Evans Perry, of Harlem, was an honors graduate of the prestigious New Hampshire preparatory school on this storybook day. The chimes rang in the centuries-old chapel and the wealthy and powerful of America and Europe sat on the campus' lush green grass, applauding as their privileged offspring received diplomas.
Although Ed Perry, 17, was a scholarship student, enrolled there under a program for gifted youngsters called A Better Chance, his future seemed as bright as his more privileged friends. He had been offered scholarships by three of the nation's finest colleges, and he had chosen Stanford University.
Ten days later, Ed Perry was dead, killed by a plainclothes police officer on duty in Morningside Park, a ghetto area near Perry's home that's the polar opposite of that elitist Exeter, N.H., environment.
The officer who shot him, Lee Van Houten, 24, alleges that Perry and a companion assaulted him in a robbery attempt. According to the officer, they threw him to the ground and began beating him. Van Houten said he fired his gun, hitting Perry in the stomach, while the other alleged assailant escaped. Police also said they had witnesses to the assault. Perry's alleged companion in the robbery attempt, according to anonymous police sources, was Perry's brother, Jonah, who is a sophomore at Cornell University. To date, no one has been arrested, and no witnesses have been produced.
But a growing group of people who knew the teen-ager said he had no criminal record and no reason to commit a robbery. Just three days earlier, he had begun working for a prestigious brokerage firm on Wall Street.
In the days since the boy's death, many New York City black leaders have charged that the killing of Perry, who was black, by a white police officer is a particularly painful example of a continuing phenomenon -- police brutality with racial motivation.
At a memorial service for Perry attended by 1,500 people, the Rev. Herbert Daughtry and the Rev. Preston Washington cited several other examples of black youths gunned down by white policemen. "[They] were killed by the people we pay to protect us," Daughtry said.
Washington, who was young Perry's minister, directed his message to city officials: "Tell this mayor and this police commissioner and the police who so often are an occupation force that our children's lives are precious."
Ed Perry's death struck a chord that is vibrating beyond the boundaries of New York City. Across the country, people are asking, 'Why was this unusually gifted youth killed? A young man who by his own brains and ambition transcended the rage and hopelessness of so many of his comrades, Ed Perry represented the best that blacks have to offer.
Meanwhile, those who loved or respected Ed Perry say they owe it to his memory to make sure that his death isn't, in the words of Judith Berry Griffin and Lance Odden, president and chairman of A Better Chance, "a symbol of the ultimate vulnerability and helplessness of black children everywhere."
If, indeed, Perry was a victim of police brutality, it is an issue that is not confined to a single city. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) has emphasized the breadth of the problem by scheduling a congressional hearing to examine police brutality.
And the circumstances of Perry's death remain a riddle. If Ed Perry was guilty of a robbery attempt, we need to ask ourselves whether the strain of living in Harlem and attending school at Exeter could have produced a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. If Perry was innocent, then the officer responsible for his death needs to be brought to justice. In any case, the New York City police department needs to produce some proof to back its allegation. Then a separate investigation needs to be launched to determine whether excessive force was used in this case.
Until many questions are answered, it is going to be hard for a lot of people to believe that the alleged attack was committed by a youth who only last April wrote: "My impressions of myself have changed drastically. I now see a growing responsibility . . . Because I have been fortunate and given this education, I must help to educate and economically advance my race so that we may one day fulfill the wishes of the fathers of this country . . . and make it understood in the USA and the world, that all men are created equal . . . "