Opinion | My Grandfather Was a Good Cop. Or Was He?

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By 1949, he’s back in Stickney, appointed as a patrolman on the police force. This is also the year he marries my grandmother. The township still has 522 acres of tillable farmland, 27 apple trees bearing fruit.

He makes “a career of being among the ‘front-runners’” in his endeavors, I read, and is named chief in 1953. I learn facts — I think they’re facts — information I never knew: graduated from two F.B.I. courses, membership in eight policing organizations. One of those, the Stickney Police Association, provided coal to destitute families during the Depression and outfitted “all patrol boys of Haley School with raincoat uniforms.”

I see a photo of my grandfather and his fellow patrolmen — his best friend, his brother-in-law — “giving the village of Stickney Christmas tree its final touch”; showing off the squad car radio transmitter to a troop of Girl Scouts; administering bicycle safety tests; donating tanks of helium to a sixth-grade class to write self-addressed, stamped postcards, launching them off in balloons.

I try to coax him out of the pages. I stare down the barrel of the pistol he points at the camera, holding his eye: He is a marksman on Stickney’s pistol team, so decorated by 1960 that they get approval from the village board of trustees to install a trophy case.

That pistol. It complicates things. Is this the whole story?

I get to August 1964 and come across a headline that makes me reconsider my grandfather. Here is a narrative I recognize: “Police Personnel and Equipment Ready for Riot Control Action.”

This article reports that the southwest suburban police forces of Stickney and Forest View are preparing with “special riot and crowd control classes to prevent such outbreaks as Dixmoor’s.” That my grandfather is on vacation, but he is spending it at the police station. That his force has received civil rights training. He says, “We have the protective headgear and other equipment for our regulars as well as reserves.”

In the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man, and the subsequent unrest in Ferguson, Mo., Ron Grossman at The Chicago Tribune reflected on the Dixmoor Gin Bottle Riot. It began on Aug. 16, 1964, with a petty theft. Nineteen miles from Stickney, south on Harlem Avenue along the Cal-Sag Trail, past the Cook County Forest Preserve. At Foremost Liquor in Dixmoor, “a blue-collar, mixed-race community,” Blondella Woods, a 21-year-old African-American woman, was accused of stashing a bottle of gin under her clothes. The store’s owner and several employees tackled her, allegedly to prevent her from destroying bottles.

The next day, 150 protesters gathered outside Foremost Liquor. Chants and posters grew into rioting — cars rocking, boulders flying. The crowd grew to 1,000 people, as church officials and civil rights leaders called for peace. In Dixmoor, windows were shattered, shopping centers looted and torched, and the police were called in. More than 200 members of state, local and county law enforcement, with tear-gas guns, German shepherds and hoses, faces covered with plastic visors that look like the shields people are wearing right now to protect themselves from the coronavirus. The Cook County sheriff, Richard Ogilvie, bullhorned, “If you shoot, we’re going to fire back.”

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