12:07 PM, January 1, 1967.
Los Angeles, California.
The white people were protesting again.
Most the time Jerome Jackson had no problem with all that, but today he just wanted to get to work, so he punched the dashboard of his Chevy Chevelle and blared his horn at the tie-dyed, Day-Glo-colored parade of longhairs flowing past.
This lanky cat with flowers threaded through his beard and a buckskin coat turned around and flipped him off.
“Fuck you, pig,” the hippie said and spit towards Jerome’s car. Without realizing it the hippie saved himself from an ass whooping by coming up short of actually hitting the vehicle.
Jerome could only shake his head and laugh at the irony of a white-boy protester spitting at a black man who was just trying to get to work. That, right there, was just goddamn funny, folks, and if you can’t appreciate the humor than you’ve let the politics get too deep into your head.
Most any other time he’d happily sit and watch the show unfold as the inevitable men-in-blue came to crash the party, but on this particular day he was five minutes away from being fifteen minutes late to his construction gig.
His foreman was a cool enough guy and not the sort to hassle him for being a little late, but Jerome wasn’t trying to just avoid being hassled. He had his eye on a promotion, and he’d do anything he could to get it.
He had a wife and newborn daughter at home to care for, now. The time for games was goneseville.
The faces of his wife Clara and his baby girl Linette smiled back at him from the photograph taped to his dashboard. One last look at them and he gunned the gas. He had no intention of hitting any of the hippies in the march but he barreled forward just enough to inspire some walleyed expressions and frantic jockeying for escape routes before cutting the wheel sharply and shooting for a narrow alleyway running parallel with the protesters.
He’d never taken the route before but calculated that it should take him over to South Downey. North from there and he’d avoid the protest altogether and get to work only a little later than he already was.
Driving the narrow alleyway slowly to avoid dinging his car against dumpsters and trash cans, he’d made it about halfway when a man in blue jeans and a leather jacket fell into view for just a split second before crashing onto the hood of his car and rolling onto the ground.
Jerome slammed the brakes. He hadn’t even had enough time to process what had just happened when the man who’d fallen onto his car was back up, eyes wide with terror and staring over the hood at Jerome.
Jerome recognized the guy almost instantly. It was Leroy Freed, one of the most famous Black Panthers in the city. His face was all over the city on posters, the Los Angeles Free Press papers, and television, and he’d become as familiar a sight as Jerome’s own next door neighbor.
Freed moved for the passenger-side door. Jerome’s hand shot across the car like a striking snake and popped the lock down. Terror filled Freed’s eyes as he jerked at the handle.
“Sorry, man,” Jerome shouted through the window glass. “I can’t be getting caught up in whatever you got going because whatever you got going doesn’t look good. I got a family, man.”
“Open the door,” Freed yelled through the glass. “They’re coming, man. They’re going to kill me.”
Jerome touched the gas lightly and started driving away. He didn’t want to hurt Freed and truth be known felt sorry as hell for having to leave a brother behind, but what he’d said was true. Clara and Linette were all that mattered to him. He was a husband and a father now. That’s the way it’s got to be.
Freed gripped the edge of the windshield with one hand and dragged alongside the car, positioning to pull himself onto the hood and ride that way. As he did he stared through the glass with mad eyes.
“Brother, I’m sorry for getting you dragged into anything but I’m telling you what’s going down right now is bigger than me and bigger than you. I didn’t do anything wrong, man, but there’s a whole lot of people going to die if you leave me here. I promise you I don’t lie.”
Jerome heard the words but didn’t particularly care about all of that. What floated through his mind instead was the sudden certainty that Freed was telling the truth, and the question of what kind of man he’d be be if he left an innocent person behind to a terrible fate, especially a person who’d done so much for his community.
That wasn’t the kind of daddy he wanted Linette to have, nor the kind of man he wanted his wife sleeping with. He hit the brakes and unlocked the door.
Freed leapt inside. “Move, man, move!”
Jerome didn’t wait for clarification. He gunned the gas and tore down the alleyway. The walls were narrow enough that he had to keep his eyes fixed straight ahead to avoid hitting them, but he managed to steal one glance in the rear-view mirror to see two cops standing in the middle of the alley. One drew a weapon.
A bullet popped a hole in the the rear window and shot straight into the dashboard. A second blasted the driver-side mirror into broken glass and blasted metal.
Jerome ducked his head low and drove faster. He yelled at Freed as he drove. “You give me that sob story and bring the law into my life like this? Hell, I got a family, man. I told you that.”
“Those ain’t cops.” Freed was crouched down in his seat, looking back through the rear window.
“They had uniforms on. Badges.”
“I don’t know what they are, man, but they ain’t cops.”
Freed was about as bad-looking a dude as Jerome had ever seen. He was maybe a little shorter than average but he was thick and muscled and his big old head looked like it could take a square shot by a baseball bat and be none the worse for wear. Jerome would never want to scrap with him. Seeing the sheer terror on the face of such an intimidating man unsettled him even more than getting shot at by cops.
“What’d you get yourself tangled up in, Freed?”
Freed’s gaze never broke from looking back at the cops-that-weren’t-cops. He just slowly shook his head. “I’m not even sure, brother.”
Jerome looked at Clara and Linette on his dashboard. He had no idea what he’d just gotten himself into. Only one thing in the world was certain.
He’d get home to his wife and his baby girl, and there wasn’t a man in the city of Los Angeles that could stop him.
[Part 2 is HERE.]