By Michael Billingsley
The morning of January 15, 1976 started out just like any other in the Skyline neighborhood of southeast San Diego, but there were two special things that set this day apart. For one, it was the day before my 14th birthday. Second, it was the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
There had been a movement to make MLK’s birthday a national holiday—in fact, African Americans all over the country started celebrating before it became a legal holiday. One of the things that appealed to me was that my birthday was on January 16, one day after Dr. King’s and the day before Muhammad Ali’s.
Civil Rights had been a favorite topic of mine because of growing up in San Diego and living in predominantly white Pacific Beach followed by Skyline, a largely African American community and then being bused to school in Anglo Serra Mesa. I saw firsthand how blacks were treated differently from one side of town to the other. My parents came from Birmingham, Alabama in the 1930s to ’50s. They were not vocal activists, yet they never stopped reminding us how different life for us would be as black people, especially in dealing with police and authority figures.
I used to question my mother about life under the Jim Crow and segregation laws, but her answers stayed vague. It wasn’t until years later that I realized this was a sore subject for her. One day while watching old news footage of the police in Birmingham using dogs and fire hoses to control black protesters, she said, “There he is.” When I asked, “Who?” She said nothing else, but a tear was about to fall from her eye.
The more I snooped all I would find out was that many of those were her neighbors and close relatives. In 1955, my father left Birmingham to join the U.S. Navy where he served the next 20 years. As much as I admire those who fought for equal rights, I must say people like my parents were also heroes for protecting their families and securing a good future for all.
But on that day in 1976, without the knowledge of my parents, I planned to ditch school for a special event. Luckily I lived in Skyline and only had to walk about two miles to Martin Luther King, Jr. Park to take part in my first expression of civil disobedience.
After pretending to leave for school, I met up with my friends and as we walked to the park, we laughed, made fun of each other, and bragged about who would pull the most girls. Not only that, anyone we came across would say things like, “You guys ready to make history? This will be the next holiday.” There was a sense of pride in the neighborhood that was seldom seen or felt in Skyline. It was a welcome distraction from the usual news of shootings, arrests, overdoses and fights that were so commonplace.
As the day went on, hundreds of people flocked to the park. Some were skipping school, some work—whole families participated. The smell of barbeque filled the air. There were local bands playing, along with ministers, politicians, and my favorite, plenty of girls.
The park itself never seemed more manicured than on that day. Freshly cut grass and from the eastern approach, the eucalyptus trees seemed tall and the branches reached out as if they welcomed everyone coming there with a big hug. Folks were feeling good about it and with as much fun as I was having, I kept wondering how my parents were going to react when they found out I had skipped school for this.
The only bad part of this day was that I was still poor. I had no money to eat and as it grew later, I knew I would never be able to walk home. My plan was just to ask anyone I saw to help me with some change so that I might be able to ride the bus home.
While I was out panhandling to achieve this goal, I looked across the street. At this time there were no homes on Skyline Drive across from MLK Park, just very high canyon hills. And along the tops of these hills were lined with what looked like every police officer in San Diego, standing next to their cars, holding rifles, and surveying the crowd through binoculars. Minor feelings of regret and fear began to seep into my brain that only a few hours earlier had channeled the mentality of Dr. King, Malcolm X, Gandhi and even Nat Turner all rolled up in one.
Then I got really afraid. By the time I finally had enough money to get on the bus and go home, darkness had enveloped the hills of Skyline. The music groups had disbanded, the barbeque pits had been extinguished, and all the politicians and ministers had left for the safety of their homes. But I had done it. It took nearly four hours to panhandle and to scrape together 50 cents to ride the bus, but I finally had it!
I waited for the eastbound number 11 bus, confident that after I explained to my parents the reason for and meaning of my disobedience that they would be proud of me. The bus began its approach to MLK Park. I reached into my pocket to organize my measly 50 pennies, not noticing that thugs, drunks, junkies and all-around bad-asses were the only ones at the bus stop with me.
The driver, a young Mexican woman, was as surprised as I was once she opened that door. About 30 people rushed into the bus without paying, all the while yelling obscenities at the driver—“Move this bus, bitch,” “What the fuck you waiting for, ese? You must want yo ass kicked!” I even heard one brother say, “You don’t move this motherfucka, I comin’ up there and do it myself.”
I thought, “Who the heck are these people? What happened to the spirit of the unborn holiday? What would Rosa Parks do in this situation?” I believe she would have done what I was about to do.
I was the last person to enter the bus, and I took all that change I had procured during the day and put it in the receptacle that showed I had paid for this ride. Right behind me was the San Diego police department, in full force. I took the last seat available right behind the bus driver, feeling good about myself because I was the only one who had paid on that bus. I hadn’t said a word; I just hoped this would be over soon so I could go home.
I took out my Afro Pick, the one with the black fist, and began shaping my afro. By this time, the police were receiving every indecent verbal insult imaginable: “Fuck you, ya swine, muthafuckers,” “Pigs ain’t shit,” “Get you cracker ass out of here”. . . . The barrage went on and on for about five minutes.
Then, very quietly, an officer was standing right in front of me. I’ll never forget him for he had the pinkest skin I had ever seen and his full, fat face sported a mustache that look just like walrus tusks. His angry contempt for the rebelling crowd was becoming tangible, and if the lighting had been right, I’m sure I would have seen steam whistling out of his ears.
He also had “the look.” There is a look that white people have when they hate black people. This look I don’t believe can be controlled. It’s as though the person is possessed by the ultimate evil—piercing eyes that degrade you just by a glace. Stonefaced, he looked down at me and said, “What did you say?” and since I hadn’t said anything, I tried to ignore him. Again, “What did you say?” I looked him dead in his eyes and without any expression said, “Nothing. I didn’t say a. . . .” And before I could get the rest out of my mouth, he had me by the neck, forcing me off the bus with his brute strength. At the same time, the people on the bus exploded into violence, kicking windows out, running each other over to get off the bus, and trying to avoid the all the other police.
I had paid and thought I had left no reason to antagonize the police. I figured I would wait them out and then go home. The officer who grabbed me finally wrestled me off the bus, where I thought he would let me go for I had done nothing wrong. I was the only one who had paid yet I was placed in another chokehold and had my face bounced off the side of the bus a couple of times, then I was handcuffed, and thrown in the back of a squad car about 20 feet behind the bus.
In those days the buses had a rear window that wrapped around the back of the vehicle so I could see everything that was happening. Now this was the scariest thing I had ever seen in my life. There was one brother left on the bus all the way in the back with about ten cops approaching him. He took on the most convincing karate stance I’d ever seen—the cops hesitated, but kept approaching.
The lead cop seemed scared, but inch-by-inch, closer and closer, he came. Right behind him was the only female cop on the scene. Once they were close enough, the brother took the offensive and then threw a straight right at the lead cop. He ducked and the female cop took the punch square in the jaw.
From that point on all I could do was pray for that black man. They beat him with clubs, guns, boots and whatever else they could hold and swing. I could hear every blow that man took from those angry police officers. Every blow to his body made a blunt thud that reverberated through my eardrums and the sound of the wooden clubs against his skull cracked like the sound of a baseball bat connecting with a 90 mph fastball.
Before they finished, I felt as though I had received each blow on my own body. While in the back of that police car, I squirmed and tried to move out of the way of every strike. And then the strangest thing, the world went silent. The screaming faded out; all the people darting away in fear kept running without making any noise. The only sound was the thud and crack of those clubs connecting with that young man’s body and head. “Thoomp! Thoomp! Thoomp! Crack! Crack!” for what seemed like an eternity.
It was not until he seemed lifeless that they stopped. After a couple minutes in which I thought he was dead, the police picked up his beaten body and dragged him to the car I had been detained in. After literally throwing him on the backseat on top of me, this brother mustered up enough strength through countless bumps and bruises that I could literally see growing from under his skin to say, “Whaddup, lil’ homie?” With amazement and relief my trembling voice replied, “Wassuup.”
The next morning, I woke up on my 14th birthday inside a concrete room painted dull white over a standard brick pattern along the walls. What caught my attention was a stainless steel toilet sink combo that sat way too close to the bed. When I saw that, I said to myself, “Michael, you are really in trouble now.”
I trembled when I thought of how long I would be locked up in there. Fear began to grip me like a chokehold and barely let me breathe for what seemed like hours after I had woken up. Just as a sense of hopelessness began to take over, the loud clang of keys rattled outside my door and it swung open. A guard looked in and asked, “Are you Michael?”
“Yes, I am,” I replied.
“Follow me and stay to the right of the yellow line and don’t say a word.”
The officer led me through a series of hallways, one looking exactly like the other. All of a sudden at another doorway just like the hundreds or so I had been seeing, he stopped me, rattled those keys again, opened the door and it was like the gates of heaven greeting me.
There sat my mother and father alone with a white man in a cheap suit and old briefcase. I sat down across the table from my parents while the public defender stayed at the end of the table. I kept my head down for as long as I could, fearing the looks I would get from my parents. Would it be disappointment? I could live with that. Or would it be that look both of them had just before the belts came off and the serious ass whipping started? I didn’t believe I could ever look them in the eyes again. I had lied about ditching school, found myself in the company of thugs, and been arrested. I knew they would hate me for life.
Finally, I glanced at my mother whose eyes were red from crying, with tears running down her full cheeks. Then I glimpsed at my father, who didn’t say a word, but the look in his eyes gave me a sense of calm. I saw no disappointment, only relief that his son was all right. This opened my own floodgates, and I began to cry like a baby. At the end of the best and worst day of my life my parents still had nothing but love for me.
Eventually life returned to normal. Even though I was charged with inciting a riot, disturbing the peace, and resisting arrest, the charges were dropped. But the way I looked at the world would change forever.
To this day, I have never fully trusted any police officers. I began to see them as an occupying force in my neighborhood—more of a street gang than law enforcement. And my view of black people changed as well. It is hard to attend any event such as a concerts or play without thinking, Which one of us is going to fuck up this peaceful event? As far as that man who got beaten on the bus, I hadn’t ever seen him before and haven’t since.
Editor’s Note: We’ll be publishing excerpts from Sunshine/Noir II: Writing from San Diego and Tijuana, an anthology of local writing about San Diego over the coming weeks. As City Works Press co-editor Jim Miller says in his introduction: “… San Diego is still a city in need of a literary voice, a cultural identity that goes beyond the Zoo, Sea World, Legoland, and the beach. With Sunshine/Noir II we persist in our romantic, perhaps Sisyphean, effort to address this need and expose the true face of “the other San Diego.”
The book gained national recognition when National Geographic Traveler recently listed it as a must read before visiting the San Diego/Tijuana region. To buy a copy of Sunshine/Noir II or any other San Diego City Works Press book go here.