Turning around racism

November 21, 2013

Bob Simpson revisits a forgotten incident of racial violence from four decades ago through the prism of crime writer George Pelecanos' The Turnaround.

I WAS four chapters into the George Pelecanos crime fiction novel The Turnaround when a sudden chill ran down my spine. Omigod, this is the story of the Ken-Gar 5.

I had to put the book down as my mind traveled back to 1972 Kensington, Md., where an ugly racial incident ended in tragedy. I had lived in nearby Wheaton until my teen years and was writing for a local underground paper when that racial clash exploded. Our paper, the Spark, had covered the story and talked to witnesses.

Three young white men, all from neighboring working class Wheaton, had driven into the small Black section of Kensington called Ken-Gar on a hot summer night and thrown a firecracker at a group of Black residents and yelled racial epithets. The firecracker landed near the 4-year-old daughter of one of the Blacks. The three whites sped down Plyers Mill Road through Ken-Gar thinking they could easily escape in their souped-up fast car.

They thought wrong. Having never been in Ken-Gar before, they didn't realize that Plyers Mill Road dead-ended. There was only one way out of Ken-Gar. Back the way they came. After turning around and driving a short distance, they found the street blocked by angry neighborhood residents.

The dead-end turnaround in Ken-Gar, photographed in 2012
The dead-end turnaround in Ken-Gar, photographed in 2012

Similar nasty racial incidents happened frequently in Ken-Gar, but perpetrated by racists who knew they had to turn their cars around and toss their abuse on the way out. Shots had also been fired into Ken-Gar by persons unknown, but presumed to be white racists firing from across the railroad tracks that ran next to the community.

This time, the incident ended with one white man shot dead, another badly beaten and one who managed to escape into a nearby wooded area. Five Black men were indicted for the killing and the beating. The shooter was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison, although at the trial, he claimed to have fired at the street, not at a person. Maybe that was true. Maybe not. It all happened very fast.

The Ken-Gar community petitioned for the release of the shooter while also issuing a statement of regret for the death and injuries that had resulted from the confrontation.

Author George Pelecanos wisely decided to alter the basic details and fictionalize the characters. Ken-Gar is renamed "Heathrow Heights," but remains a small, isolated Black community in Maryland's southern Montgomery County. Much of the story is placed in the present day with the characters much older. The title of the book, The Turnaround, reveals multiple meanings as the novel progresses.

Review: Books

George Pelecanos, The Turnaround, Little, Brown and Company, 304 pages, $24.99.

His fictional version raises critical questions about how race, class and masculinity shape our personal lives as well as the social milieu in which we live. Pelecanos sets up the fictional confrontation in Heathrow Heights by introducing us to three young white male characters and three young Black male characters.

The White Men of The Turnaround

Pelecanos describes the white male teenagers of working class Wheaton in these words: "The fathers...worked service and retail jobs. Many of them were World War II veterans. Their sons would grow up in a futile, unspoken attempt to be as tough as their old men."

The Gran Torino that roared into Heathrow Heights on that hot summer evening contained three of those white teenagers. None of them knew that within minutes Billy Cachoris would be dead or Alex Pappas would be badly beaten and nearly blinded. Or that Pete Whitten would outrun disaster.

Billy didn't hate Black people. He feared them. He would try to prove his manhood by driving into Heathrow Heights.

Pete Whitten had college plans and financial ambitions. Whitten didn't fear Black people. He looked down on them...and on his own white friends. It was his idea to drive into Heathrow Heights, toss a cherry pie at the first Black person in range and shout, "Eat this, niggers!"

When the confrontation begins, he will desert his friends and escape into the woods. A man had to know when the odds were against him. A man looked out for himself and puts is own interests first. A man could not be endangered by a foolish mistake involving people who were his social or racial inferiors. That was Pete's idea of masculinity.

Alex Pappas was in the back seat, sinking down so as not to be seen. The white boy talk from Pete and Billy that evening about "pussy" and "banging Black whores" had bored him. Alex respected his girlfriend Karen who was trapped in a bad family situation. He wanted to be comforting her after another family blowup, but she was home caring for her baby half-sister. So instead he was stuck with two guys he didn't even really like very much.

John Pappas, his Greek immigrant dad, a marine veteran of the Second World War's Pacific campaign, was the owner of a small diner just off Dupont Circle in D.C. His dad was in the diner everyday laboring along side of the racially mixed crew. Alex worked there also. John Pappas believed that masculinity was defined by work: Work is what men did. Not gambling. Not freeloading or screwing off. Work.
He paid his employees decently in cash and helped them out financially when they needed something extra. That's what men did. Took care of their own. In return his employees were as fiercely loyal to him as he was to them. His spouse Calliope was a stay-at-home mom. She kept the household together with a complete trust in her husband, a trust that was returned in kind. As Pelecanos puts it, if John was the workhorse, it was Calliope who kept the stable clean.

Although hardly a flaming liberal, John was no racial bigot. Nor was he a cruel sexist who abused his wife. Alex had tried live up to his father's definition of manhood, but it was an incomplete definition, one that left Alex adrift. John tried to isolate himself from the maelstrom of social change that characterized the 1960's. So when it came to working out the social meaning of that tumultuous and confusing time, Alex was on his own.

Because Alex wanted to fit in, he tolerated the racism and sexism of his friends, though with no real enthusiasm. He would suffer a terrible beating on the streets of Heathrow Heights for his inability to resist what he knew in his heart was terribly wrong. A man adrift is a man in danger.

The Black Men of The Turnaround

"I'd like to have my own gas station someday, make real money. Live in a place where redneck white boys don't drive by my mother when she's walking home from the bus stop up on the boulevard after getting off work. Calling my mother a nigger after she's been on her feet all day, wearing that cleaning uniform of hers. She who never judged anyone." -- James Monroe

Three Black teenage residents of Heathrow Heights, James Monroe, Raymond Monroe and Charles Baker spent that hot Maryland afternoon before the racial attack drinking pop or beer. They talked about the girls they wanted to experience, though none of them had girlfriends at the time.

James worked part-time at the local Esso service station, pumping gas and cleaning windshields in those long ago days before self-service. He was the first Black teen hired by the owner. James took great pride in his work. A man needed a job to follow the masculinity code that James embraced. A man also needed to go the extra mile on that job. Not for the boss. But for his own sense of self-worth.

This impressed the service station owner who offered to pay half the tuition for a mechanics class. James was following in the footsteps of his dad Ernest Monroe, a bus mechanic at D.C. Transit. Ernest, handy with tools, took pride in keeping up their small bungalow by making prompt repairs and keeping it freshly painted. That's what men did. Fixed what was broken.

Ernest spent evenings with his wife Alameda, watching TV and reading the Washington Post. Ernest Monroe never met John Pappas, but they would have understood each other. A man stays faithful to his spouse. A man works hard to support his family. A man lives a quiet life within a cocoon of work and home.

Alameda cleaned houses for white families. She was a proud Christian woman, even expressing compassion for the wounded George Wallace, lying in a hospital bed at the nearby Holy Cross hospital after the 1972 assassination attempt.

It was Ernest who told James to look after Raymond who was struggling with his own masculine role. Raymond had a juvie record for vandalism and petty theft. James hoped to get Raymond a job at the Esso station and put him on the right path to manhood, especially because Raymond was spending too much time with Charles Baker.

Raymond was young and unformed. Baker's influence would be toxic.

Baker, the child of an abusive family, carried a dangerous smoldering rage in his heart. Baker had once attacked a young man armed with a box cutter who questioned his manhood, breaking the man's arm over his knee. For Charles, manhood was anger and aggression, both verbal and physical. Fuck with Charles Baker and he would introduce you into a world of pain.

James thought Charles Baker was on a hell-bound train and didn't want Raymond along for the ride. James believed that a man needed to put some boundaries around his machismo. James had tempered some of his early anger at white people by working and going to school with them. They were not his friends, but he learned that at least some of them were OK.

All three young black men shared one thing though, an increasing frustration with the white boys who drove recklessly through the neighborhood tossing objects and screaming racial epithets. Men should not allow that to go on unchallenged. Violence must be met with violence.

Raymond was especially stressed because his mom had recently been a target of verbal abuse. Charles called them "white bitches" and offered to "shoot the motherfuckers." Raymond felt a need to impress Charles, something that James noted with trepidation.

James thought the white boys were cowards, too scared to get out of their fast cars. But James also had recently bought a gun "...just to scare those punks." He had no desire to kill anyone, just to frighten them off. But plans involving men and firearms easily go awry. That evening Charles urged that the gun be fired at Billy, already lying on the street bleeding from a blow to face. And it was Charles who would smash the face of Alex Pappas with his fist and his boot.

Masculinity and Race

Gender and race are both social constructions. In the USA of 1972, those social constructions were undergoing a major remodeling. The young people of Wheaton and Heathrow Heights were now living in a world where rigid gender and racial hierarchies were being challenged.

Wheaton's population was overwhelmingly white. Wheaton young white men normally had little contact with Black people. In their white isolation, a culture of white masculine supremacy was easy to maintain with its racist jokes and a variety of racial epithets. Part of that culture was verbal harassment and vandalism, as well as physical assaults on the small number of black people in the area.

For some of Wheaton's white male population, masculinity included the Wheaton white boy tradition of visiting Swann Street or 14th and T Streets in D.C. to engage the services of Black prostitutes. Treating them in a disrespectful degrading manner was all part of the "experience". Billy and Pete loved talking about it. Alex was embarrassed by it. The masculine code for dealing with young white women was generally very sexist, but racism made their treatment of young Black women even worse. Sexism mixed with racism made for a nasty brew.

People like Pete and Billy and to a lesser degree Alex, did not understand what throwing a pie at a Black person really meant to the residents. Their white isolation blinded them. After Pete Whitten ran, Billy got out of the car and tried to apologize. But what was a minor prank to the three Wheaton boys, was deeply hurtful to the Heathrow Heights community. The white boys would pay for the sum total of racial incidents that had plagued the community.

The civil rights and Black power movement had led to a new assertiveness. While neither SNCC or the Black Panther Party had ever been in Heathrow Heights, their indirect influence was felt there. James, Raymond and Charles were not "political" but felt that as black men, it was imperative to stand up against any gross manifestations of white supremacy

James thought that ignoring minor racial affronts was part of maintaining his masculine dignity. A man didn't sink to their level. Raymond was still figuring it all out. But for Charles, his earlier ordeal of domestic neglect and sexual abuse had removed any inhibitions about violence.

Part of their code of Black masculinity was a strong desire to protect the dignity of their mothers. Maryland's history of slavery and segregation included a brutal tradition of exploiting Black women. Defending their community from attacks is what men were supposed to do. If that meant whipping some white boy's ass, then so be it.

Both the Black and white young men grew up thinking that violence was part of manhood. A man had to be tough, even if he was not the aggressor. Ernest Monroe had taught each of his sons to "walk like a man", showing confidence at all times. In both Wheaton and Heathrow Heights, fighting among young men was not uncommon. A man had to be prepared to defend himself, his friends and his family. The threat of violence was accepted as part of everyday life.

This came in handy when the U.S. government was scouring the country for soldiers to fight in the Vietnam War. Communities like Wheaton and Heathrow Heights sent more young men to fight than the upscale Montgomery County communities like Chevy Chase or Potomac.

The Heathrow Heights residents petitioned for the release of the shooter, a proud Black man who had been driven to desperation by the racist attacks on the community. But they also expressed regret for the death of Billy. What the white boys had done was wrong. But no one deserved to die that night. In a better world, a non-racist world, none of it would have happened.

Except for Pete Whitten, all the survivors of that violent night in Heathrow Heights would bear the consequences of that violence for decades to come.

When the book switches to the present, we find out how it affected each one of them.

Alex, permanently scarred in the face and plagued with guilt over Billy's death, abandoned his dreams of becoming a writer and instead took over the coffee shop. He mourns for his son killed in the Iraq War. Another pointless death in the often gray world of Alex Pappas. He delivers free pastries to the wounded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, finding some solace in that. He is still adrift in ways he does not understand.

James Monroe was sentenced to prison for 10 years for the shooting. Because he stabbed an inmate in a prison altercation, he pulled another 10 years. His dream of opening a service station dashed, he works in an unheated semi-legal garage for minimum wage.

Charles Baker went to prison for a shorter time after the Heathrow Heights confrontation, but became a career criminal and returned to prison several times. He forms opportunistic relationships with Black women whom he exploits, using charm to lure them into to the traps he sets.

Much like Alex, Raymond is also consumed with guilt. He saw what incarceration had done to his brother James and the death of Billy continues to haunt him. Still grieving for his wife who had died of breast cancer and worried about his son deployed to Afghanistan, Raymond finds some solace in his physical therapy work with wounded soldiers at Walter Reed.

The only one to escape unscathed was the amoral Pete Whitten, who, unlike the amoral Charles Baker, had the advantage of being white and headed for a law career. He is now a prominent and wealthy member of the bar. He has long abandoned the scruffy world of Wheaton for the comfort of upper class Chevy Chase.

The living characters meet again in the 21st century to resolve for better and for worse, what had begun in the Heathrow Heights of 1972. Pelecanos mixes both tragedy and hope in that unexpected reunion, as the book hurtles toward a climax of both violence and reconciliation.

The Civil War in the Working Class

The fictional confrontation of The Turnaround, as well as the real events that inspired it, were one more battle in an ongoing civil war: the civil war within the working class. It began in the colonial legislatures of 17th century Virginia and Maryland when Black and white labor were separated into a racial caste system.

White supremacy was born then and became closely tied to the already prevailing male supremacy. White male supremacy developed traditions that were self-replicating, aided by a ruling class who used these as a means of labor control. That pattern spread, adapting to changing times in a Darwinian evolutionary fashion.

There have been many instances when white labor and Black labor have maintained a sometimes precarious solidarity. But all to often it is been white workers fighting to keep their higher status against efforts to achieve racial parity. This civil war within the working class has left deep scars on the US. Even today, it is hard to have a rational public discussion about race, as if the nation is suffering from a massive case of PTSD.

This civil war pitting one part of the working class against the other has come with a price tag, one that goes beyond the countless personal tragedies that have resulted. A weakened and divided working class has ceded too much power to the wealthy. As a result, the U.S. working class standard of living lags behind other comparable nations.

Although not conscious of it, Billy, Pete and Alex were soldiers on the wrong side of that civil war. Drafted into a system of white male supremacy at birth where even a pie becomes a psychological weapon of war, they failed to challenge that system. In real life some white people in Wheaton and the surrounding areas did openly challenge the racism of that time, becoming race rebels and allying with Black activists. But they remained a minority, however well intentioned.

Ending this civil war within the working class is imperative. The ravages of neo-liberal capitalism cannot successfully be confronted with the present level of racial division, despite the gains that have been. After all, we did elect a Black president, even if he has proven to be a bitter disappointment.

George Pelecanos writes crime fiction, not socio-political analysis. But as The Turnaround reaches its conclusion in the present day, Alex, Raymond and James are struggling not to forgive and forget, but to forgive and remember--and move toward positive action together. The women in their lives will become involved too. They have to be. The men cannot do it alone.

We now know that as a social construct, gender is a spectrum, not a set of rigid categories. Sticking with rigid gender roles like traditional masculinity and femininity is the road to perdition. It won't do a damned thing to end racism. Or overcome neoliberal capitalism.

Distorting the bitter history of racism and sexism only helps the wealthy minority who profit from them. Neoliberal capitalism produces far too many people with the cold blooded class arrogance of a Pete Whitten combined with the violence of a Charles Baker. They fill the halls of power from Washington D.C. to Wall Street.

We can do better.

First published at Red Wedge.

Further Reading

From the archives