Every once in a while, after visiting his mother in Northeast Washington, William Ray would take a short walk down Providence Street NE past the vacant lot where lame dogs prowled amid the tincans and weeds. He would enter the Gallaudet Market, buy a pack of cigarettes, light one up, sit down on the meat freezer across from the front counter and talk for a few minutes with Amon the grocer.
They would talk about the world as they encountered it, from their perspective, with few facts and statistics at their disposal. They talked about working and not working, sickness and drugs, what was happening out on the streets and, quite often, about runins with the police.
On Dec. 27, the day Ray was dying in Prince George's General Hospital with a police bullet in his brain, his friend from the market recalled some of those discussions.
"I told him he should have known better than to fool around with the P.G. (Prince George's) cops," said Amon. "The scene out there is dangerous for a black man. Most people 'round here (the Ivy City region of Northeast Washington, where Ray grew up) know that for sure. You get picked up by a P.G. cop, you don't run. That's the first rule."
"Too true, too true," said an older man who had taken Ray's place on the market's meat freezer that day.
"They be looking for you to run," Amon continued. =They pick you up, haul you in the cruiser, then stop somewhere on the way to the lock-up. They stop at a store or gas station and get out of the cruiser to talk to a buddy, and just leave you there thinking: 'Hey, I can be free by just gettin' out and running.'
"But that's what they want you to think, my friend. Don't get out, no way. A bullet'll chase you down. Ray knew that. He shoulda known better."
Amon had no hard evidence to back up his warnings about the Prince George's police. But, whether what he said to Ray had any truth to it or not, police records indicate that Ray, who was black, was shot and killed by a white Prince George's patrolman on Christmas Eve as Ray attempted to escape, unarmed, from the district police station in Seat Pleasant.
That shooting got many balck people talking - angrily philosophically, emotionally - about the way they are treated by the county's 91 percent white police force. The complaints grew louder three weeks later when a black burglary suspect, also unarmed also was shot from behind and killed by a white policeman.
"Right at this moment," said Sylvester Vaughns, president of the county NAACP, "if you asked 100 black people what they thought of the Prince George's police department, all 100 of them would tell you how bad and racist it is. That's the way people perceive it. Whether it's true or not is a subjective question."
An 18-year-old man who will be referred to here as "the Wrestler" grew up in Seat Pleasant one block from the churchyard on Addison Road where Ray was shot. The Wrestler dropped out of junior high school at age 14, after being transferred to four schools in one year, each one passing him along as a "disciplinary problem."
From the day he dropped out of school to the time nine months ago when he decided to "go straight, do things the hard way," the Wrestler frequently found himself in contact with the Prince George's police.
His stories, again, offer only one perspective, one side of the interaction between blacks and policemen in the inner-Beltway neighborhoods of Prince George's County.
"The first time I got caught and locked up was after this dude stole my gun in the parking lot of McDonals on George Palmer Highway," said the Wrestler. "The dude called the cops and told'em I was beating on him and his car - nothing was said about the gun.
"The cop came and I took off across the highway behind the Glen Willow apartments. He caught up with me quick and started choking me right away. Then he took me to the lock-up at Seat Pleasant and began beating on me again. I was dumb. I didn't say a thing, I was silent."
A few months later, the Wrestler was picked up again by a Prince George's policeman. "By then I knew just how to handle it," he said. "As soon as they picked me up, I started talking to them. I'd say: 'Come on, hit me right here. Get out the stick, you roller. Hey, brutalize me, hurt me. What's the matter? I want to tell people 'about it. Come on, hit me.'
"They wouldn't touch me when I said that."
Last summer, after the Wrestler said he had quit stealing and found a job, he was stopped by a county policeman as he was driving home to his apartment near Landover Mall.
"I wasn't doing nothing wrong and I knew it, and I knew I was being straight," the Wrestler said. "This cop go out of his cruiser and walked up to may car window. The first thing he did was snap the button on his holster. Then he said: 'Hey, haven't I seen you somewhere before?'
"I don't know, have you seen me?' I said. I hadn't done anything. The man got down and checked my tires, he went through the car looking for something. I got lucky that time. You never can tell what's gonna happen to you when a P.G. cop stops you."
Although the Wrestler speaks only for himself - a young, often angry man, his sentiments and fears were shared by a broad spectrum of blacks who compose an estimated 35 percent of the nearly 700,000 people in Prince George's.
Sam Marshall and Tom Bullock, two middle-class black businessmen from the Beltsville area, sat next to each other at a town meeting in Cheverly last week at which County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr. was confronted by more than 100 blacks who were upset with the two shootings.
"There's only one answer to it," said Bullock. "You've got to get rid of the group in there (the police department) and put another group in. They do what they want any time they want. We used to tell our children to watch out for strangers. Now we tell them to watch out for the policemen."
"A lot of them are racist to the core," said marshall. "I took a course at the community college on constitutional law. There were 14 police in the class and me and two other people. I couldn't believe what those policemen would say in the class. They'd say: "I know what you're supposed to do, but that ain't what I'd like to do.'"
Kelly and Police Chief John W. Rhoads have heard similar complaints every day for the last month. In response, thwy claim that race was not a factor in either shooting, that the police force has gone form about 3 percent to nearly 9 percent black in the last two years, that brutality complaints dropped from over 60 a year to less than 20 during that span, and that the police department is imposing stricter guidelines on the use of deadly force by its officers.
"They sai it's not so bad to have 19 brutality complaints instead of 60. I say we shouldn't have one," answered Decatur Trotter, a state delegate whose district includes Seat Pleasant. "And how do facts and figures stack up against the simple fact that two black men have been killed by the police? That's where we're coming from."
Where they are going is less certain. Suggestions on how to deal with what is seen as an urgent problem vary greatly. "The thing to remember is that when people are getting killed there is an immediate problem," said Vaughns. "This is not something that you wait for another generation to solve."
Vaughns said several of his black colleagues have suggested that they call for an economic boycott of the county. "That's very serious kind of move, but I'm not sure that anything is too rash in a situation like this," he said. "As more instances of police heavy-handedness occur, that kind of thing moves higher on the agenda."
James B. Blackistone, president of a county lobbying group known as Voters in Contact, collected an estimated 5,000 signatures on an eight-point resolution presented to Kelly last week.
The resolution, among other things, urged the county to require that policemen attend human relations workshops, ban use of hollow-point bullets, consider use of guns that temporarily stun a victim, institute an administrative policy that would shift a policeman to a desk job after more than one complaint was filed against him and place a civilian on the police review board that rules in such complaints.
"I wouldn't want to give the impression that we are condemning the entire Prince George's police department," said Blackistone. "But we have to dispel the fears that too many people have when they enounte r a county policemen.