Cop's son relives fearful night of long-ago year

Kevin Riley is editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Looking back to Summer 1968: Men described as “black militants” had shot 15 police officers, killing three of them. Looters would rampage and the city would burn for the next five days, and four other people died. A cop's son remembers

I woke up that morning in the summer of 1968 to a loud argument between my parents. I was six, and my mother was crying.

My mom, a housewife with five children under the age of eight at the time, was begging my father to not go to work. He stood in the kitchen, a white riot helmet under his arm. He, like all Cleveland, Ohio, police officers, had been ordered to report immediately to work.

The night before, men described as “black militants” had shot 15 police officers, killing three of them, in what police called an ambush. Looters would rampage and the city would burn for the next five days, and four other people died. With the help of the Ohio National Guard, the city finally restored order.

The shootings in Dallas made me flash back to that time; it was the earliest moment I can remember being aware of race.

As I reflect on what’s happened over the past few weeks, I fear how our country has been set back to a time like 1968, one of the United States’ most tragic years. Cleveland’s troubles have been largely overlooked in that tumultuous year.

I’ve spent a lot of effort since then researching and learning what happened that night in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood. It was a case study of the problems all big cities face. I even interviewed my father about it more than 20 years later, when he retired, to get the view of a street cop.

But at the time, I was a little kid, who comprehended only one thing: there were people trying to kill my father for reasons I couldn’t understand. And those people were black.

My father’s mother lived with us. My mom and siblings huddled around Grandma Riley’s old police radio, where she monitored what was going on in the city. My father’s patrol car number, which we listened for, is forever seared in my memory

Every time we write a story about a police officer, I scrutinize it more than others. Anytime I see a police officer, I think of my dad, now deceased. His family was proud of what he did, and we knew it was dangerous.

I found out later that my father was relatively safe that night, and not even at the wheel of his familiar Car 416 as we hoped to hear his voice occasionally crackling across the radio. Instead he patrolled with other cops in an armored vehicle at the outskirts of the troubled neighborhood.

Later he told me cops had taken off their badges and put black covers on their riot helmets for fear of being easy targets in the dark.

“Of course, you’re scared,” he said. “If you say you’re not, you’re a liar. You’re damned scared.”

And that’s it. Everyone was scared in ’68, the year Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. And we’re scared again.

Black men are scared when they’re pulled over by police; just ask one.

Cops are scared when they approach a car in the dark; just ask one.

We’re all scared when we try to talk about race, or even when we talk about the new O.J. Simpson documentary.

Race is the most important conflict we have in our country, and the one we avoid confronting. And now it’s gotten even harder to talk about.

The events of the last week have created problems to solve, and they’re problems that will play out in the media and in the courts.

But all over the country, we’ve created a bigger problem. Children — whether the young son of a Dallas cop, or that young daughter of the woman in the incident in Minnesota – are learning to fear our differences, not see our commonalities. Their young views will be shaped by fear and suspicion.

And they will spend a lifetime overcoming that. I know I have.

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