When I read about the increasing acceptance of waterboarding as a form of torture, I vividly recall how in 1968 members of the Memphis Police Department believed I could tell them information about civil rights insurgents arriving to create havoc. Forty years later I still hide my serrated scars.
I was 14 years old and forgot I was a black boy living in racist America and heading for the devil's den of discrimination. Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" stimulated my raging hormones for truth, justice and the American way. Like the main character in his book, I stuck out my thumb for a ride from my home in Wisconsin. I was so excited when someone pulled over for me that I went in the wrong direction. After hitchhiking the rest of the way from Milwaukee to Memphis, Tenn., with no trouble, I put out my thumb for the last ride to my grandfather's place. I was sure he could take me to demonstrate alongside Martin Luther King Jr. to support his recently announced policy on poverty and Southeast Asia.
"Boy, where you from?" asked the toothpick-sucking officer in the passenger seat as his partner walked around the car to me. At the station, Tennessee police officers beat me because I was a threat to the status quo of time-honored Uncle Tom behavior. In retrospect I would have kept the king's English to myself, shuffled my feet, and goggled my eyes in adherence to the South's renowned sacred social rule for young black bucks.
The physical and verbal abuse heaped upon me caused several broken bones in my body and several dozen stitches on my 14-year-old skull. I guess these seven policemen were trying to protect the good citizens of Memphis from more of the Rev. King's peaceful demonstrations. Between the baton blows to my body and over my screams of youth and innocence, their loud accusations that there were people supposedly coming to Memphis "to stir up trouble" kept ringing in my ears.
Who were these people I supposedly knew who were ready to disrupt the city's infrastructure? My wild eyes could only register pain as the large men kicked, punched and beat me with nightsticks because I was unable to speak coherently between my sobs of sorrow and moans for my mother.
I went over in my brain the moment when I stuck out my thumb for one more ride and noticed it was a police car driving by. When they pulled over to talk to me, I knew to have my ID ready, but I never could have been ready for the pain and anguish they distributed upon me.
Recent victims of waterboarding must have felt the same excruciating, indescribable pain administered to me by seven Memphis police officers. Forty years later, I can only hope that when Canada put America at the top of the list for human rights violations, they were also talking about America's recent increase of police brutality against black men.
The legacy of Memphis police in 1968 may have influenced CIA torture methods. I am not sure what waterboarding victims in our own times tell their captors, but my experience tells me that nothing said under such forms of torture should be regarded as truth. I acted quite contrite as I admitted to being the vanguard for hundreds of civil rights workers heading for Memphis to be with King and acknowledge the number of black men drafted, wounded and killed during the Vietnam "conflict" (what a euphemism for war!).
Like relentless Stalinists, the policemen gave me a few hard, calculated kicks with steel-toed boots in my back and ribs for making them exhausted from their beating. I promised them the names of protesters, when they were coming, and what they were driving. I could hardly speak from my busted lips, chipped teeth and broken jaw, but I forced words from my mouth that sounded like what they wanted as long as they stopped their feverish beating to decipher what my cracking voice was revealing.
But I didn't know anyone, and I certainly didn't know about a conspiracy to take over Memphis. So I have since apologized for naming as co-conspirators Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hermann Hesse, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and any other author I ever read. I kept looking from face to face of my seven captors trying to plead with them individually by offering each a name. I worried that one would recognize these names and decide to kill me and dump me in the river, like so many other black men who had been crucified in the South.
Then one of the white men with sweaty armpits shouted out, "I know the name of Faulkner but I can't remember where." My heart seemed to explode. I held my breath while biting my lip in preparation for the repetitive beating from well-worn nightsticks. Then another cop said, "Wait a sec. It sounds like one of the names from our list of people to look out for."
The next thing I remember was being thrown onto a crowded jail cell's sticky, dirty floor with inmates shouting to the guards that I belonged in a hospital. As they looked over at me with unmasked pity and sympathy, I tried to mumble "please, no police" because I was in no hurry for them to finish the homicidal job they'd started. When an old prisoner with callused fingers tried to prop me up to drink putrid water, I remember saying, "No, thanks, Mr. Bojangles," before I passed out again.
I woke up in a hospital bed with the sunlight streaming down on my shackled, cast-encased arm. Seeing me regaining consciousness, a black nurse dressed in blinding starchy white rapidly walked across the ward floor to my bedside. As a bulky white police guard looked on, the nurse whispered in my ear, "Martin Luther King is dead." Now death was also stalking me, and I started to hyperventilate.
My experience at age 14 in 1968 leads me to conclude at age 54 in 2008 that no torture is justifiable. No one has the right to harm another human being. Information obtained though such barbaric methods cannot be trusted to be the truth. The amendments of 1789 to the Constitution through the Bill of Rights denounce personal violation at home. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights should extend those morals abroad.
Tom Gardner of Madison is a student in the Odyssey program at the UW-Madison.
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