Jonny Gammage: Murdered for DWB (Driving While Black)

Revolutionary Worker #886, December 8, 1996

Just hanging out on a Friday night--three young Black men waited in a parking lot of an apartment complex in a Pittsburgh suburb for their friend to come home. At about 1:20 a.m. on October 12, 1995--their friend still hadn't arrived--and the three decided to leave and go their separate ways. Jonny Gammage took off and drove north on route 51. He was driving the Jaguar that belonged to his cousin Ray Seals, defensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers. As he drove into the white suburb of Brentwood he was followed by a cop.

At 1:47 a.m. Jonny Gammage was asphyxiated to death by five white police officers in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania suburb of Brentwood. Within seven minutes in police custody Gammage died.

Brutally assaulted, Gammage died of suffocation when the police stood and kneeled on his neck, shoulders, and waist as he lay handcuffed and shackled, face down on the pavement. His crime--being a young Black man in a late model sportscar and putting on his brakes "in a suspicious manner" as police followed him through the suburban roads of Brentwood and Overbrook. Gammage was unarmed, and even the D.A.'s office found no reason why Gammage was stopped by the police that night.

From the start, members of the coroner's jury were outspoken in their disbelief that homicide charges were not brought against the five cops. Richard Lyons, the foreman of the coroner's jury, has exposed what the cops themselves said in Focus, a publication of the faculty and staff of Carnegie Mellon University. From testimony given at the coroner's jury it is clear that the police had no reason to even stop Jonny Gammage.

Lyons recalls that at the coroner's jury Mulholland was questioned by the assistant D.A. and asked to describe from the start what happened. "Mulholland said he left a parking lot and noticed a black Jaguar hit its brakes as it passed him. He followed him for a mile-and-a-half to a mile-and-three-quarters with no lights, just following within 15 feet. He noticed the brake lights flashing on like he was slowing down and picking up speed. Now if you know route 51, that's a slight downhill grade, so in ord er to stay under the speed limit you are going to have to tap your brakes. But as far as going lane to lane, that never happened. When he decided to pull the black Jaguar over he radioed for backup. Brentwood and Whitehall all cover each other's calls. When Mulholland radioed he asked for John Vojtas by name, not just for backup."

Jonny Gammage cannot tell us his story. But anyone who knows anything about the realities for Black people in America also knows that a young Black male driving alone at night in the suburbs, post Rodney King--with a cop car following him with its lights out (!)--might try to stay within the speed limit. But trying to stay within the law didn't help Jonny Gammage--because he had broken another code of American life. He was "in the wrong place." He had entered that social space where the paid public enfo rcers of segregation and white supremacy and capitalist property values have been given a license to hunt and kill. He was at their mercy and they showed no mercy.

After Gammage gave his license and registration over to Mulholland, two others came up to the car with their guns drawn. As Gammage got out of his holding a schedule book and a cellular phone, he was thrown to the ground with three cops on top of him. In an article in Focus, a publication of the faculty and staff of Carnegie Mellon University, Lyons wrote, "It went from checking on warrants and everything is calm and cool to a guy on the ground with three police officers on top of him. Three of ficers testified Albert [another cop] came in and started hitting Gammage in the neck, left and right side of the face, in the throat and on his back. He hit him so many times the baton flew out of his hand. Vojtas told Gammage to assume the position by putting his foot on his neck, but it was more like he jumped on his neck, lost his balance, then kneed him in the back. Albert testified he hit Gammage 4 or 5 times in the thigh with a [eight-battery] flashlight. Henderson [another cop] testified that he hi t Gammage directly in the groin 10 or 12 times with a billy club, and also hit him in the upper thighs 8 to 10 times.... One officer testified that when he arrived the body was motionless, but Vojtas told him `if the son of a bitch gets up, put him down'...the EMS guy was the first one to order police completely off of him."

As Gammage lay dying, Vojtas, whose defense was based on a claim that Gammage had bitten him in the struggle, told the cops on the scene, "I hope he dies" and "We just got another one." Moments before he lost consciousness, Jonny Gammage directed his final words to Sgt. Keith Henderson of the Whitehall police department--"Keith, Keith, I am only 31."

The Nightmare
Behind the American Dream

Jonny Gammage and Ray Seals had grown up together in Syracuse. Gammage had always encouraged Seals to pursue his big dream to play in the NFL. Seals, who did not attend college, had worked as a doorman at the Hotel Syracuse, playing lineback and right end for the Syracuse Express of the semi-pro Eastern Football League. "I never made any money playing semi-pro ball," Seals told the New York Times. "I would get a hamburger and chips if the game didn't sell out. If the game sold out all the fans bought the hamburgers and chips. I got nothing." After five seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Seals signed with the Steelers in 1994.

And in 1995 Gammage and Seals counted themselves lucky among the small class of successful Black entrepreneurs. They had just launched a new line of sportswear and planned to use the proceeds for charity work. But in 1995, as Ray Seals packed up Thanksgiving dinners for poor families, his cousin Jonny was not at his side.

Seals, who had asked Jonny to move to Pittsburgh to work with him, does not believe that Jonny would have been stopped if he was not a young Black man. "Being a young Black man in this profession I have been followed by police," Seals told the New York Times, "I've heard of teammates who have been followed, pulled over and searched for no reason. So it's something that needs to be addressed and a stop put to it."

The murder was a bitter shock for the Gammage family since Seals' father is a 30-year veteran of the Syracuse police force. "The craziest thing about it is that up until that point my father was bringing police officers from Syracuse to the games here and Jonny would be the one to pick them up at the airport and help me take them out to dinner," Seals recalled.

But the murder of Jonny Gammage shined a spotlight on a whole legal and social system that perpetuates police brutality and police murder against Black people in this country.

Injustice upon injustice--every step in how the system handled this case has served to deliver a message that police murder will be excused as "justifiable homicide," as Amerikkka approaches the 21st century. Although the coroner's jury recommended that homicide charges be filed against all five police officers--Mulholland, Henderson, Vojtas, Patterson, and Albert, only three of the police officers, Mulholland, Albert and Vojtas, were charged in the killing of Jonny Gammage. The District Attorney charge d the three with third-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, and official oppression. The D.A. did not bring charges against two of the officers--arguing that they were needed as witnesses against the other three in order for the state to get any convictions. But in the preliminary hearings in late December 1995 Judge James R. McGregor ruled that there was no malice in the officers' actions and that the charges should be reduced to involuntary manslaughter--a first-degree misdemeanor charge with a maxim um sentence of five years and a maximum fine of $10,000. The police eyewitness at the hearing claimed that excessive force was not used and other police witnesses argued that the officers were following police training procedures when they kneeled on Gammage's back and suffocated him to death as he lay handcuffed face down. Shades of Rodney King.

The court reached 300 miles from Pittsburgh to assemble a white jury in the trial of the officers. Then on October 18, a Pittsburgh judge ended the trial of Mulholland and Albert. The judge declared a mistrial after the trial had barely started--citing a remark made by the coroner, who was a prosecution witness. Then the judge imposed a "gag order" on everyone involved in this case, including witnesses--making it difficult for family members to speak out about the case in the media. The trail of injusti ce includes the threatening and intimidation of witnesses--like the tow truck driver who saw the entire incident. He testified in court against what the cops did and as a result his family was threatened and he is no longer in business because the police never call for a tow. Even the Brentwood police chief was fired when he refused to defend the actions of the accused police officers.

Finally, on November 13, in a Pittsburgh courtroom, the white jury from Lackawanna acquitted John Vojtas of even involuntary manslaughter. And no new trial date has been set for two cops who got a mistrial.

In the weeks surrounding the acquittal of Vojtas, cops in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York were acquitted in well-known cases of police murder. And in St. Petersburg and New Brunswick New Jersey authorities dispensed with trials altogether by not even bringing charges against officers who killed Black people.

The Danger of DWB--
Driving While Black

The murder of Jonny Gammage has also shined a light on the rampant segregation and white supremacist outlook persisting in the Pittsburgh suburbs. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette only 10 of Brentwood's 10,823 residents are black, and this is not unusual--last year the Pittsburgh metropolitan area was judged to be the 45th most racially divided area among 318 metropolitan areas--which means that six out of seven places in the U.S. are more integrated than Pittsburgh. As new sub divisions have prospered in the north hills, Pittsburgh remains "one of the poorest and most economically disadvantaged black populations of any large city," according to a study by the University of Pittsburgh. The Republican councilman in Brentwood lost local re-election when he publicly admitted "there is a very clear pattern of racism in the borough that has been apparent for many years"--citing a cross-burning in the borough several years ago and complaints from Black athletes about playing in sportin g events there.

Not long after Gammage was murdered, in late November 1995, Pittsburgh Steelers' wide receiver Johnie Barnes got another taste of standard police procedure. Barnes was pulled over driving his truck with his girlfriend on Interstate 279 on the north side. Police pointed a laser beam gunsight at Barnes' head and forced him to kneel on the ground. Barnes, who had missed much of this football season because of a knee injury, tried to tell the cop that he was a Steelers' player on the way to the mall and tha t he could not kneel because of recent knee surgery. But the cop "would not listen. He screamed at me to kneel down while at the same time pointing his gun at me from close range."

A preliminary investigation by the city's police bureau found that the police officer did not act improperly when he stopped Barnes. The cop claimed that Barnes' truck matched the vehicle of a suspect in an out-of-state sexual assault case--but the suspect's vehicle had Colorado plates whereas Barnes, who is a resident of Suffolk, had Virginia plates on his truck!

After the Gammage murder and the Barnes incident a spokesperson for the NAACP told the Post-Gazette that many people, especially Black people, no longer feel it's safe to drive a car! Following the acquittal of Vojtas, a Black woman told the RW about how she and her husband are familiar with being pulled over by the police while driving in the area. She said, "If it can happen to Jonny Gammage, it can happen to anyone. I live in fear when my husband leaves the house."

The danger of DWB (Driving While Black)--is fast becoming a national scandal. It is so pervasive that on November 4 a federal appeals court in California ruled that police do routinely and frequently stop Black people for "investigatory" reasons simply because they are Black. A unanimous ruling from a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 1993 lower court ruling against Santa Monica police for violating the constitutional rights of two Black men--a photo editor for Sports Il lustrated magazine and a senior computer program analyst for the Bank of New York--who were arrested because they supposedly looked like robbery suspects. Citing the history of repeated police brutality against Black movie actors, the court stated that the case of the two men shows how L.A. area police agencies routinely violate the constitutional rights of Black people.

The System at Work

The acquittal of Vojtas sent a chilling message to the Black masses that no matter how you succeed you will be a target of official enforcers in America. And protests have brought thousands into the streets of Pittsburgh in the wake of the verdict.

"This verdict is part of a whole atmosphere of white supremacy. Look at how they take away affirmative action," a 50-year-old Black man told the RW. "This verdict tells any Black man that he could be killed by racist cops. This system produces them and tells then they can kill Black people, that's fine. That's what this verdict is about to me."

A 36-year-old Black social worker commented, "When I heard the case and I knew he was a successful young Black man.... Here's a man who made it. When I saw his fine automobile, his Jaguar and he had a leather agenda book the first thing that went through my mind was--this late at night and a cellular phone--they thinking `Oh yea, this n*gger yea we gonna teach this n..... a lesson. Doesn't that sound familiar. Doesn't that sound like prejudice. `Yea we gonna teach this n..... a lesson. You think you're somebody, well we'll show you just how big you are. Yea, what you got here, you got a little agenda, you think you're successful, uh, you think you can drive around here in this Jaguar like you somebody. Yea, you a n...... what you gonna do about it?' The feelings that I get when this young man was approached and he was beaten to death because they were so jealous and this system is so racist that they have so much hate. Then the cops were gonna get off scot free because the are the law. They beat him to d eath. It could happen to anyone, it could happen to any Black man, it could happen to any minority. This kind of racism pervades the police forces. They hate us."

After the verdict Jonny Gammage's mother Narves said, "I am so hurt and disappointed. At first I didn't think that color mattered. But I see how that it matters. I believe it was a racial thing. They would have had a guilty [verdict] right away if it had been my son who killed one of those police officers.... The justice system looks at you like you're less than anything, like you're less than dirt. They took someone from me who I dearly loved and we can't even get justice for what they did. I don't even know if it's worth it. But we're going to fight on."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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