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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Yeah ... everyone has First Amendment rights!

I'm watching some people on Facebook puke out their self-serving venom against professional athletes who found it offensive in how officers took care of matters in incidents in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y.

The most recent of these "protests" were the "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts worn by two of the greatest players the NBA has seen – LeBron James and Kobe Bryant – during warmups in reference to the Staten Island incident in which an officer used an illegal chokehold on an African-American man who was illegally selling single cigarettes on a street corner.

His life was worth wasting over that? Serioiusly?!

I get it. A majority of people in this country turn five different shades of green, make horrible faces, then make even worst comments about these so-called "spoiled athletes."

"Why doesn't he just play and STFU! He's being paid a lot of money!"

I've got a comment for you back: Have you ever heard of the First Amendment?

I'm sure you have because that's what allows YOU – that's right, yoooooou! – to make heinous and awful comments. Just because an athlete is making a boatload of money doesn't make that athlete just go out there and "play the game." Pure and simple. You may also forget that their upbringing and "where they came from" might not have been the best of situations. I'm betting money, as a matter of fact, that their surroundings were better than yours growing up.

So yeah, let me help you on this – YOU'RE WRONG and maybe YOU should STFU!

Obviously, you have no clue about what happened during the 1960s. Maybe you were sleeping a lot in history class, so as a reminder, I'm going to get you up to speed:

We had racial tensions in this country that seem to be about 100 times worse than now. We had African-Americans shot to death for no reason at all and even after a law was passed to desegregate schools in the South, that still didn't stop white Southerners from wanting to make it loud and clear that minorities (they used the "n" word in many cases) weren't wanted.

Want a sports angle on it? I'll gladly give you one:

African-American baseball players like Bob Gibson, Curt Flood and Bill White of the St. Louis Cardinals were not allowed – not allowed! – to stay in the same hotel in St. Petersburg, Fla., as their white teammates in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Yeah! This stuff happened!!

And so you had Selma. You had Birmingham. You had Albany, Ga., and St. Augustine, Fla. And the protests were peaceful ones for the most part. Only when white people felt threatened that they decided to open up fire hoses on protestors, all hell broke loose and lots and lots of arrests were made.

You had Washington, D.C. on that famous day in August 1963 where in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. made the now famous "I have a dream" speech.

And Mr. King was getting some prominent people of the day to help fight those racial discrimination wars such as Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Jackie Robinson and Flood and then later on Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). And Muhammed Ali, whose stance against the Vietnam War, easily the most polarizing war in our country's history, was made into something racial by saying, "I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong ... no Vieg Cong ever called me 'Nigger.'"

You see, there was plenty of activism among athletes. African-Americans, especially. Who will never forget Tommie Smith and John Carlos putting their fists in the air after taking medals in the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, their fists covered in black gloves?

They set the standard that seemed to get lost in the 1990s and 2000s when the divide between black and white seemed to become greater again.

Now, James and Bryant as well as young stars like Kyrie Irving and Derrick Rose are making statements with the "I Can't Breathe" T-shirt, a week after five St. Louis Rams players came out of the tunnel with their hands up after a grand jury failed to indict a white officer for killing an African-American teen, the details still mirky, but the job of putting together the indictment process so poorly done that a first-year law student would laugh out loud if he saw the shoddy job that was done.

I will support police officers throughout this country. They have a terrible job in a lot of cases. They deal with the world's biggest scum and in a lot of cases, they have to make life-and-death decisions that could mean everything.

I am blessed that some of my friends that I grew up with are cops, sadly many of which are retiring after putting in 25 years or more. These cops I know are good men. Very, very good men. They deserve every bit of praise. And it's not just them. It's a lot of cops ... thousands throughout the country who deserve our praise, love and thank yous for all they do.

You see, my cop friends don't have egos. They checked theirs at the door. They're humble human beings who only want to make it through the day and go home to their families. We, as a society, should laud those cops.

Unfortunately, it's the rogue ones that ruin it for the all-too-good and by-the-book officers. They are out there and quite honestly, those cops shouldn't even be allowed to have a badge or a gun. There, I said it!

When I left Toms River, N.J. in 1999, I got to see how other communities lived. Other than a smattering of towns I grew up around, I never lived in a town that had quite as many African-Americans as I did in both Key West and then Palatka, both in Florida. In the south, it's a bit different. And I've heard it on both sides of the spectrum.

The cops I've come across in my years in Florida have been fantastic. They tell me about their day and they don't want to go into too much detail over certain things, but they have respect for the citizens they protect. And then I hear the minority side of the fence and though some just go about their business, they also are aware that because of their skin color – yes, they said it to me – they have been stopped by white officers. One even said to me, "I keep my head low and just abide by what the cops say. I'm doing nothing illegal and when they're done, they tell me, 'You're good. Have a nice day.'"

Soberingly, this stuff happens here. This same African-American male, who said he's been stopped three times by officers as an adult (he's 26), told me, "This sh*t just happens. You learn to deal with it. I tell them, 'Search the car all you want. I have nothing.'"

Race relations is a problem in this country. Let's get that straight. Sad thing is no one of my color wants to get into a discussion over it.

Why? Well, that would mean being "inconvenienced." No one of my color wants to have a frank discussion over that. They feel as if "Well, if you're not breaking the law, then all should be OK in life."

Folks, it ain't all black and white, figuratively speaking, I'm sorry to say. There are those one or two cops in a police force who are not above harassing the citizens and doing it in such a way that it's not apparent on the surface. Like the guy who got stopped three times by officers even if he was minding his own business.

And no one is above harassment, black or white, for any reason. Heck, it happened to me.

It was Friday night, August 21, 1987. I was at the Ocean County Mall in my hometown of Toms River, N.J. I was 20 years old at the time and I was going through the mall minding my own business and looking at different stores and at kiosks. I came to one kiosk in the center area of the mall where a young lady, about 17 years old and from Bayonne, was working it. She had something there that I was interested in buying for my mother, but I didn't have the money for it. However, she was nice enough to say she'd put it on hold for me.

She had a friend who was working at a kiosk next to hers. That girl was about the same age and she was from Lacey Township. Class of 1989, I remember very well. We began talking and somewhere along the line, it got a little flirtatious, but nothing overt to the point where I felt they were being violated in any way. I had a lot more class than that.

I left the mall, but I came back with my sister. I told her to wait in the car since this was my first stop and that we were going to go somewhere else to pick something up for dinner and take it home. She wanted to get out of the house and I had my Dodge Aspen at the time.

When I got back to the mall, I came back to the same girl from Bayonne and paid for what I asked her to hold for me. I was appreciative of it and I hoped to see her again.

Well no more than about three seconds after the transaction was over – and I'm guessing this was something that was set up in advance so I wouldn't say no and walk away from the purchase – this 5-foot-6, blonde-haired asshole with a Napoleonic complex comes walking over to me, probably not much older than me.

"Excuse me! These girls say you were harassing them. Were you harassing them?"

"No. I may have been a little flirty, but I wasn't harassing them."

"Well, they say you were harassing them!"

"I wasn't, sir."

At first, I thought this was a joke. Little did I know this asshole was a Dover Township cop who was doing security at the mall and didn't have to dress up in uniform.

"Just leave now!" He then barked.

Then this jerkoff put his hands on me to push me back.

"I don't want you to be anywhere near these girls again! Do you hear that?!"

Then he pushed me backward again.

"Fine! Whatever you say." And I walked away.

I walked back to the car humiliated ... and violated by this douchebag.

My sister asked me what was wrong and I told her what happened.

"I didn't even do anything," I told her.

One thing you find out about family is that if you mess with one of us, you get parts of the clan after that. I don't know what was said, but I'm pretty sure those two girls got an earful from my sister.

One of them, I find out moments after she returned, had told my sister there, "Well, he was gyrating his hips in a sexual manner."

"Oh, really?" I said. I'm glad she was such an expert in that kind of thing.

I knew I had a possible police harassment report I could've filled out, but I never did. The reason: I always felt the Dover Township cops would believe his side of the story and would never believe mine.

Sad but true, but I lost quite a bit of trust in police officers that day. It's hard for me to trust a cop that I don't know. If it's my friends, they'll tell me everything I want to know. I'm blessed with them because, again, they have done a tremendous job for the people and towns they serve.

And sadly, I got stopped by the 5-foot-6 Napoleonic complex dude again in January 1992 in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven on Route 37 coming home from work. He didn't remember me, but I sure recognized him that night. And like that time in August 1987, he gave me a bit of an attitude. After I showed him my license, registration and insurance and he held me there in the parking lot for nearly 10 minutes, he let me go.

I've only told this story to two people and that was 2 1/2 years ago – two of the best people I've ever known in Officers Yannacone and Gannon, while we were sitting there at Tiffany's in Toms River and they were talking about police work.

But that incident in 1987 is mainly why I will never be allowed to serve on a jury. Twice, once in Key West in 2001, the other in Palatka in 2009, I was asked to come in to be part of a jury. I was there both days for a significant amount of time. Then they bring you into the court where you must answer questions from both lawyers on the case as well as the judge.

Both times, they asked the question, "Have any of you ever had trouble with the police?''

I put my hand up both times. And I explained the incident in 1987, but I always used the caveat "Other than that, I've never had any trouble with cops, especially in Florida."

Let's say I've never made the final cut. In my opinion, I will never do my civic duty because of that incident.

I'm proud to do what I do daily and have been professionally for 30 years. I've seen a lot. I've heard a lot. There's things out there I've still yet to see and hear.

But I'm grateful for my First Amendment rights. We don't use those rights enough in this country. Some sit quietly and never say what's on their mind. And then there are those who say waaaay more than they deserve to.

I've known those people, too.

And I'm grateful we have great law enforcement out there throughout this country and that I am honored to know quite a few of them.

They don't represent the rogue, bad one. I know both sides very well.

So when an athlete who is paid a lot of money wants to exercise his First Amendment rights, no matter what color, race or genre, they should be allowed to have it, plain and simple.

And to those who think those "spoiled athletes" should just STFU, you simply just don't want to have a clear and honest conversation.

That's too bad.

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