The encounter at a phone booth on a breezy summer night lasted less than 20 minutes. But it was decades in the making and, more than a year later, is reverberating still.
Johnny James McCool Jr., 19, was calling a friend from a gas station in the Montrose section of Glendale when the telephone was snatched, hard, from his hand. He turned to face the blue-eyed stare of a short, curly-haired man he had never met before.
The man, later identified as Ralph Tavlian, wanted to know why McCool had thrown something at him. McCool said he hadn’t.
What Tavlian yelled next is recorded in Glendale Police Department report 724-054:
“Nigger, you don’t belong in this city. We don’t need people like you here.”
At the same time, he slapped Johnny McCool. Then he smacked the astonished young man again and again.
As crimes go, this was a minor case. No one was badly hurt (McCool was bruised; his striped turtleneck torn). No deadly weapons were involved (Tavlian did not even make a fist).
But it was just the kind of episode that illustrates the scale and nature of prejudice today. Increasingly, ill will toward others has crossed the chasm between thought and deed.
“Hate crimes” have been reported at record rates in Los Angeles County each year since 1986. Other Southern California counties have not been keeping separate hate-crime figures, although authorities in Orange County say they sense an increase there. But wherever such statistics are kept, across the United States, bigotry cases have become more commonplace, according to Leonard Zeskind, research director of the Center for Democratic Renewal, which monitors hate crimes nationwide.
The incidents have ranged from anonymous spray-painting of slurs to cross burnings to murder. What they have in common is their motivation: fury directed at those who are “different” because of their race, their religion or their sexual orientation.
The numbers are small compared to some other crime categories, but authorities find the direction frightening. In the first half of 1990, the 272 entries in the county’s hate-crime log represented a 32% jump in reported incidents over the same period in 1989. The surge is “a barometer of increasing tension in society as a whole,” says Eugene Mornell, executive director of the county’s Human Relations Commission.
In late 20th-Century Los Angeles, awash in immigrants, there are plenty of “different” people around. Each group offers potential victims--and potential aggressors as well. None holds a monopoly on bigotry.
Blacks, for example, rank with Jews and male homosexuals as the most frequent targets in local hate crimes. In that respect, Johnny McCool’s experience was typical.
But last month, a black transient screaming, “I hate Mexicans!” used a cinder block to bash a Latino to death.
Armenians, too, have been threatened. Last year, a teenager’s nose was bloodied by several dozen taunting Latina schoolgirls. An Armenian man found three deflated tires on his car and, beneath the windshield wiper, a note warning him to move out of his apartment. “You stink up our building,” the note read in part. It was signed, “Ottoman Empire.”
Ralph Tavlian is Armenian. He says his treatment of Johnny McCool “was the most shameful thing I’ve ever done.” He was sodden-drunk at the time. He says he swore off alcohol the morning after, when he woke up in jail, and has not touched it since--an account supported by friends and colleagues.
He also has spent some time thinking about the roots of his outburst. He says alcohol fogged his memory, but concedes that he probably said what he is quoted as saying and did what he is accused of doing. The sentiment he expressed “was there, yes. It didn’t just come from the blue sky,” he says.
The confrontation at the phone booth, he says, really began 20 years ago, when he was Raffi Tawilian, age 12, a new arrival from Lebanon by way of France and New York. His family clung to old Armenian ways; he became Ralph, “the Americanized one.” One way to fit in, he found, was to pick up his classmates’ chatter about the need to keep their school as white as the teachers’ chalk.
After high school, he says, he fell in with a biker gang called the “Dirty White Boys.” He had the name tattooed across his back. It was a response, he says, to a black biker gang known as the “Chosen Few.”
On television, in movies, in news accounts, he says, the stereotypes and the ugly names were reinforced. “It’s crammed down our throats,” Ralph Tavlian says. “Crammed down our throats, and you can quote me on that.”
To hear Johnny McCool Sr. tell it, Johnny Jr.'s first brush with prejudice came on the day of his birth back in 1969:
“I told my wife, ‘Martha, keep gas in the car.’ But she didn’t and the car ran out in Glendale at 3 o’clock in the morning. I was walking to a gas station when a police car pulled over.
“I said, ‘Officer, my wife is in labor and we ran out of gas. Could you take me to get some gas or take us to the hospital?’ The officer started asking me some questions. A black man on foot in the middle of the night. He thought I was out there stealing or something.”
McCool Sr. recognized the attitude. His sensors were always activated. He had spent a good bit of time going out of his way to avoid racial problems without giving up his pride.
He grew up in Drew, Miss., in the Delta and “back in that area, all (a black person) was supposed to have was a weak mind and strong back.” He couldn’t take that, but he didn’t want to start any incidents either. So he moved to Los Angeles.
House hunting here in 1960, he says, a Crenshaw District realtor told him: “Hey, we are not selling to blacks . . . or colored, whatever they said then.”
“Why antagonize?” he thought. So he moved to a racially mixed block in Altadena instead.
Later, he quit his city job driving street sweepers, to open his own mechanic’s shop and located the business in a predominantly black South-Central Los Angeles neighborhood.
When the three children came along, he resolved to impart certain lessons. Between water skiing, violin practice, judo and church, his middle child and namesake received field trips to Skid Row and lectures on race relations.
“It’s not what you are. It’s who you are,” McCool Sr. liked to say.
“It’s not what happens to you; it’s how you handle it.
“We got to live in the real world among real people and deal with it as it is, not the way we hope it is.”
Some people, McCool Sr. told his son as they watched the television miniseries “Roots” together, just don’t like other races, because of something they saw or something their parents told them.
“It went in one ear and out the other,” McCool Jr. says now.
After all, McCool Jr. was living in a well-integrated world as he grew into a lanky, soft-spoken teen with a wispy mustache. At Pasadena Christian School, he met his best friend, a white guy with short blond hair and a dry voice who lived in affluent La Canada Flintridge. His name was Bond. James Bond.
They stayed close, even though McCool went on to Marshall High School and Bond attended St. Francis. McCool knew that every couple of months or so, others asked Bond why he spent so much time with black guys. But he didn’t dwell on that much, because he also knew about Bond’s stock reply: “ ‘Cause they’re not . . . like you.” Bond filled in the blank with a descriptive swear word.
It was Bond who got McCool involved with the Crescenta-Canada YMCA, a low, sprawling brown building on Foothill Boulevard near the Glendale Freeway’s north end. After two years of Bond’s coaxing, McCool began playing basketball there. He coached and refereed as well, then acted as disc jockey for Y-sponsored dances at local schools.
By the time Bond and McCool enrolled at Pasadena City College, they were Y fixtures, working as gymnastics teachers and as counselors for junior high school-age teens.
Sometimes a whole crowd of Y buddies would cross the Glendale city line to the south for a bite to eat in the Montrose shopping district. The place had a homey feel. American flags adorned the light standards. The only people soliciting spare change on the streets were members of the Lions Club.
Nearly everyone there was white.
By and large, McCool felt more accepted than excepted. Once in a while, though, he could tell that whites in town thought of him as different.
A few kids hailed McCool as “cuz” or “blood,” as if he belonged to a gang. School principals took him aside as he set up for dances, asking him not to play too much rap music. And the cops seemed to pull his car over every week. Once, McCool recalls, sheriff’s deputies said they’d halted him because he was driving 41 m.p.h. in a 40-m.p.h. zone. The constant stops ebbed only after he’d become well-known locally. “I coached some of their kids,” he says.
He really wasn’t all that bothered. He has, he concedes, some biases of his own. “When I see a Latino or a Chinese driver and don’t like the way they’re driving, you try to blame it on where they come from,” he says--this from a young man with a long string of his own parking tickets and moving violations.
Still, his father worried that he was spending so much time in such white precincts. He thought his son was courting trouble. “If you eat,” McCool Sr. says, “you are going to bite your tongue sooner or later.”
Ralph Tavlian, the baby in a family of eight children, speaker of Armenian, Arabic and French, former resident of Lebanon, France and New York, grew skilled early on in the ways of adapting to a new environment.
By the 1970s, he was absorbing the atmosphere at La Canada High School, where the prospect of integration was Topic A.
The other kids were always saying things like, “They’ll never bring niggers to our school.”
In class, “we learned that blacks were bought and sold . . . they were slaves (once),” Tavlian recalls. He drew a conclusion. “They must be inferior. That sticks.”
He had nothing in particular against black people, he says. He didn’t know any. But he figured--he still figures--"they use the word nigger on TV in this country. That’s what everybody else in this country calls them.”
He does not claim to have ever been a saint. He had a drug problem, he says, though he is not forthcoming with details. He hung out with a motorcycle gang in Tujunga and did time in Chino for robbery. In prison, he lifted weights with the black guys. It was his first real contact with the people he’d heard so much about.
“I felt the resentment they have toward the white person,” he says. “And they’re a lot more open about it than whites. We’re the blue-eyed devil. . . .”
He returned to what had become his home turf in the foothills. He was a laborer for a while in Glendale’s municipal parks department. Next, he got a mechanic’s job at a local Volkswagen dealership. He shared a home with a fiancee.
Then, in the mid-1980s, his life curdled. His father died. He got fired. His romance fell apart. He quit smoking and drugs, but he kept right on drinking. He acquired three drunk-driving convictions.
Six years ago, he rented garage space from McKenna’s Auto Parts on Verdugo Boulevard in Montrose and opened his own business: Ralph’s Automotive, specializing in German cars. He visited the convenience store at the Shell station next door two or three times a day, buying six-packs as often as snacks.
The station employees noted that he was bellicose when drunk, which was often. Minorities were starting to show up occasionally in the area, and Tavlian apparently was displeased. Once, a black customer dawdled at the register, one former employee recalls, and Tavlian muttered about his taking so long. “Get back where you came from,” he said. When an Asian of any nationality annoyed him, he would hiss about “that nip.”
But he never confronted anyone face to face. He waited until they were out of earshot.
“Sober, he’s just normal. Alcohol tends to bring out negative traits,” says Tavlian’s friend, Jim Winstanley, a Glendale parks maintenance worker. “He’s not a virulent racist. He’s a mild racist. He’s a racist if he’s mad at you.”
On July 11, 1989, Ralph Tavlian got mad at Johnny McCool.
McCool and Bond had spent the evening counseling a Y junior high group and were headed afterward to a young woman’s house. A mild wind fluttered. The air was so clear that the distant skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles lit the horizon as Bond’s car rolled down toward Montrose.
The night did not seem nearly so fine to Tavlian. He’d had a few too many at a Mexican restaurant and was reeling toward work, on foot because his driver’s license was suspended again. He cursed loudly to no one in particular.
Bond’s car was low on gas, so he turned in at the Shell on Verdugo Boulevard. As he parked by the pump, about 8:45 p.m., Tavlian staggered past. Bond and McCool exchanged a glance. Check out that drunk, each one thought, but neither said a thing.
Bond went inside the store to pay the cashier while McCool headed for the phone to call the friend they planned to visit.
Tavlian, next door at his auto yard, thought he felt something small strike his chest from the direction of the gas station. He peered over and saw about eight people, among them the black man on the phone. He had his suspect.
Mark Bontjas, the night clerk at the Shell, was watching. No one threw anything, he told police later. He saw Tavlian jump over the wall and run to the booth, then tear the phone from McCool’s hand. He heard Tavlian shouting racial slurs over and over again. He saw Tavlian slap McCool.
“It felt like a movie,” McCool says now, “and it felt like a dream.”
Bond rushed to McCool’s aid. He recalls that Tavlian asked The Question. “Why are you friends with niggers?” he demanded to know. Bond gave his standard response. That’s when Tavlian tried to knee Bond in the groin.
The two friends held Tavlian to the ground while Bontjas called Glendale police. In the presence of Officers Eric Sachs and Darrel McEntarffer, Bond made a citizen’s arrest.
“While in the police car,” McEntarffer wrote later in his report, “Suspect Tavlian stated, ‘I have $30,000 in tools in my shop. I just get nervous when I see niggers around.’ ”
The next morning, Tavlian woke up in his cell at the Glendale City Jail with only a faint recollection of the previous 12 hours. At 9 a.m., he was led to a tiny room with a plain table and three chairs. Two detectives waited to question him.
“In my drunken mind, I singled him out,” Tavlian told the detectives. “It was strange for a black to be there.” Then, backtracking: “I’ve never had any problems with blacks, I have nothing against him. Why I singled him out, I don’t know.”
He appeared sure of himself, almost cocky. But inside he squirmed. “They were calling me a racist,” he says. “I’m seeing myself in a white sheet burning a cross. It was a degrading feeling.”
By the end of the half-hour session, says Detective R. O. (Rusty) Hancock, “There was no doubt in my mind that the only reason he singled out Mr. McCool was because Mr. McCool was black.”
Later that day, Tavlian was charged with one misdemeanor count of battery and one felony count of interference with the exercise of civil rights.
Legal maneuvering stalled the outcome until Jan. 26, 1990. On that day, then-Glendale Municipal Judge Charles Horan accepted a plea bargain.
The civil rights charge was dropped. Tavlian pleaded no contest to the battery charge. According to plan, Horan sentenced him to six months in the county jail.
“On the garden-variety battery with this level of injury, they wouldn’t have given jail time. They would say, ‘Here’s a fine and stay away from him,’ ” says Charles Urtuzuastegui, Tavlian’s attorney. “Here the seriousness was not in the injury but was in the ramifications of allegations of racially motivated remarks.”
Tavlian spent 90 days at the county’s alcohol rehabilitation center in Acton. He was released and later served four months in jail for the battery and an earlier drunk-driving charge.
McCool had no idea that the People vs. Ralph Tavlian was wending its way through the judicial system. Detective Hancock left a telephone message for him early on, but they missed connections. No one called again.
He told few others about the incident. “It’s pretty personal on my part,” he says. Besides, “I wanted to forget about it myself.”
But whenever he passed the gas station, even after it changed hands and became a Mobil, he remembered. He wasn’t deterred from attending the annual Oktoberfest in Montrose recently, but he joked, a little nervously, with a black friend “about how we would see how many white people got drunk and how they act.”
He still is best friends with Bond. His girlfriend of 10 months, whom he met at the Y, is white.
But he is wary of white strangers now. Outside the familiar surroundings of the Y, he wonders how they expect him to talk, whether they think he must be stupid, or a thief, or worse.
He wonders, too, what those strangers might do. His first response to a telephone call from a reporter about the incident was a sudden, sharp intake of breath. “How do I know you’re not just someone trying to get me?” he asked.
For his part, Ralph Tavlian says his life is in the midst of an overhaul. He is back fixing cars at his bay behind McKenna’s. He lives in an apartment nearby with his mother. He is sober these days.
He remains bitter about his treatment by police and the time he had to serve. He believes that he was made a scapegoat. “There’s a lot of people who do a lot worse than what I did,” he says. He still talks about blacks being “nervy” and mentions that blacks, not whites, are the ones selling crack on the streets.
But he is also noticing that resentment of his own group has increased in direct proportion to the size of the local Armenian community, the fastest-growing ethnic population in Glendale.
His golf buddies have begun to tease him by saying things like, “I see your homeboys have bought another building in downtown Glendale.” He shrugs off such remarks; these are his friends, after all.
More disturbing was his 15-year-old nephew’s report that the kids at school call Armenians “Armos” and “ ‘mos.”
He knows now where such talk can lead.