Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Everyone of my generation knows the TV character Kojak played by Telly Savalas in a police drama that screened regularly during the 70s but they may not know where the character originated and why. This book will help to understand where Kojak came from. For people growing up in sleepy Australia throughout their teens during the era of civil rights protests T.J. English's The Savage City (2011) provides the backstory to Kojak and other things besides. So, OK, you've seen Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, you used to love James Brown, and you know that New York socialites like Norman Mailer once had a thing about Black Panthers. But you never really understood about Malcolm X or the Nation of Islam and why these people did what they did. In fact you probably don't even know what they did. This book is the answer. It will help you to understand much about the civil rights era and the cultural spinoffs that you grew up with and could immediately relate to though you never read the news stories in the papers that reflected the events that spawned them.

The book focuses on the lives of three individuals whose lives represent something essential about the era of US civil rights protest. There's George Whitmore, a young black man from New Jersey who is charged with three crimes that he didn't commit, including the murder of two young, well-off New York women. This was a crime that was dubbed the "Career Girls Murders" and is the case that led to the emergence of Kojak from Hollywood after a screenwriter adapted the book on the subject by a journalist into a screenplay. Abby Mann's The Marcus-Nelson Murders included a character named Kojack who was a good cop and was a "composite character, based on a number of detectives, lawyers, and reporters who were involved in the Wylie-Hoffert murder case", according to Wikipedia. In fact there was no "good cop" in Whitmore's case and for almost a decade he fought against conviction for this murder and for two other crimes. Whitmore's struggles were part of the reason that the Black Panther Party began (although it started in San Francisco, not New York, where Whitmore's travails played out), in a reaction against corrupt police practices. It was also during this period that the well-known Miranda warning emerged in the US. The common practice of police to set up individuals for crimes by manipulating their testimony resulted in an official response: individuals must be informed about their constitutional rights before they are interrogated. It also resulted in the formation of the Black Panthers and a virtual war between black man and white police on the streets of US cities for half a decade.

Dhoruba Bin Wahad is the second person whose life is chronicled in the book. A member of the Black Panthers, Dhoruba was born Richard Moore but became a key lieutenant in the BPP. The third person who features in the book is Bill Phillips, a currupt cop who was turned and used by the Knapp Commission set up to investigate corrupt practices in the New York Police Department. All three of these men are alive in the US. All three of them served time in jail. One was completely innocent of the crimes originally laid upon him. One was deeply corrupt but representative of the entire police force. The third, Dhoruba, was a product of a society still struggling to deal with the legacy of slavery. English, the journalist who wrote the book, has undertaken a massive exercise in witnessing, for the modern generation, the forces that shaped the lives of these individuals. It's an pretty extraordinary book and a great find for those, like me, who value good non-fiction. For this reason the book comes highly recommended from me.

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