For Edward Lawson, it was the same old story.
On Monday, as Los Angeles counted down toward the Oscars, Lawson went to visit a business associate in Beverly Hills. A few hours later, the tall African-American was in police custody, charged with a trio of misdemeanors, including failure to produce a driver's license on command.
Ironically, it was just a decade ago that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a person, even one like Lawson who wears his hair in dreadlocks, has the right to walk peacefully through any neighborhood he or she chooses, without having to produce identification or explain his or her presence to police. That landmark case bears the name of Edward Lawson, the same man who was arrested last week on a similar charge.
Lawson, 46, who lives in Venice and still has dreadlocks, believes he was arrested by Beverly Hills police simply because he is black. "There are always doubts in an intelligent mind," he says, "but it's not like this hasn't happened to me before."
Beverly Hills police deny the arrest was racially motivated.
But in Lawson's view, nothing much has changed since the mid-1970s when his habit of taking long nighttime walks in predominantly white sections of San Diego and Chula Vista led to his being arrested 15 times. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union and others, "The Walkman," as the press dubbed him, successfully challenged the existing California law that allowed police to arrest anyone who did nothing more than fail or refuse to produce identification or explain his presence in a community where he didn't seem to belong.
But the fact that Lawson won before the Supreme Court didn't keep him from spending almost three days this week in jail. (He was released on his own recognizance Wednesday and will be arraigned April 14.)
Granted, the current charges are slightly different from those that led to his earlier arrests--after all, thanks to Lawson, innocent pedestrians don't have to produce identification for the police. But Beverly Hills police allege that Lawson broke the motor vehicle code by failing to produce a driver's license on command, which is required by law, and by giving false information to a police officer. Police also charge him with obstructing and delaying a police investigation, a misdemeanor.
Lawson denies all three charges and says what happened to him last week is just another variation on the old, old story of racial fear and prejudice.
As anyone in the black community can tell you, says Lawson, when police see a black man in a mostly white neighborhood, no matter what he's doing, they assume the worst and often behave without regard for individual rights. It happens all the time, he says. It certainly happens to him. Lawson says he is a police magnet, despite the fact that he is a clean-living guy who has never been arrested, before this week, for anything but violations of the overturned California ID law.
As Lawson puts it, "I've been stopped by the police more times than any man on the face of the Earth." The dreadlocks, he concedes, do tend to make things worse. "That always exacerbates whatever the problem might have been otherwise."
The police and Lawson differ in their accounts of what happened Monday morning.
But both agree it happened in famously affluent, overwhelmingly white Beverly Hills, where Lawson says he had driven for a meeting at the apartment of his friend and business associate, John Longenecker. A filmmaker and associate with Lawson in various media projects, Longenecker won an Academy Award in 1970 as producer and co-writer of the best live action short subject, "The Resurrection of Broncho Billy."
Lawson says he was trying to park in front of Longenecker's Elm Street apartment building, "when--boom!--a police car from Beverly Hills showed up." Lawson and the police don't agree on much from that point on. According to Lawson, he was asked if he lived in the area. Lawson said he didn't understand immediately how that was any of the officer's business. Lawson says he was asked if he had identification. He responded by asking why he was being stopped.
Lawson says the police officer told him a woman had told police that someone was driving slowly past a nearby school in a car that matched the description of Lawson's, a 1968 Cadillac El Dorado currently painted primer gray. Lawson says he remembers wondering why the police would respond to a report of someone driving slowly in a posted school zone equipped with two speed bumps. He thought: That's legal, not illegal, right?
Lawson was asked to get out of the car, he says, and as soon as he did so, he put his hands over his head and began explaining to the police officers (there were four officers on the scene before the incident was over) that he believed he was under arrest. He said he would not say anything more as was his right as a result of the Miranda decision.
"I told them I understood in post-Rodney King Los Angeles that anything I said could provoke the police," Lawson recalls. "What Rodney King has told us all is that anything I do in front of an officer can lead him to believe you're on PCP." And if an officer thinks that, Lawson says, "he can beat you to death or very near to it."
The police report tells a somewhat different story.
In his written report, Beverly Hills Police Officer Cary Williams says he was working traffic enforcement when he was approached by an Asian woman in a yellow van. She said she had just dropped off her child's lunch at Beverly Vista School on Elm Street where she had noticed an older gray car driving slowly in the vicinity. The driver was a black male, she reported, and, in the language of the report, "the female expressed concern for the safety of the school children." She gave Williams a partial license plate.
(Lt. Frank Salcido, a department spokesman, explained later that following up on such citizen tips is standard procedure. "We have had several incidents around elementary schools and that one in particular," he said. The investigating officer found no evidence that Lawson had behaved inappropriately while driving by the school and there were no related charges, Salcido added.)
Williams subsequently spotted what he thought was the car driving north on Elm Street. The license plate matched, and Williams approached the suspect--Lawson. When Williams asked Lawson "what business he had in this general area, Lawson responded by saying belligerently, 'None of your business' . . . I subsequently requested 'identification' from Lawson and was told he did not have any. Seeing that Lawson was becoming even more uncooperative, I requested a backup unit and again requested a driver's license or some form of I.D. For the second time Lawson refused by saying he did not have any and asked if he was being arrested."
Both Lawson and the police agree that he declined to answer questions at this point, insisting that he considered himself under arrest. Beverly Hills Police Sgt. Jack Douglas then arrived and, according to the police report, Douglas advised Lawson he was going to be arrested for refusing to present his driver's license. It was then, according to the report, "Lawson immediately stated he had a 'driver's license,' however was never asked for a D.L. (driver's license) specifically, only I.D."
Lawson says that, until he was accused of refusing to produce his driver's license, he was never asked for identification, only asked if he had ID. That is the sort of distinction that may have been lost on the police but not on Lawson, who probably knows more about ID law than any non-attorney in America. Lawson also says he was asked several times if he was on probation. "I have no idea where this comes from," says Lawson, who observed after his 1970s arrests, "I don't drink, smoke, do dope or commit crimes. But to the police, I'm an Unidentified Flying Object."
Who is Lawson exactly? That is a tough one. He is apparently almost as pure as he portrays himself, a vegetarian who won't take so much as an aspirin and a man who says he has neither a significant other nor personal life. He is mysterious, even secretive. He doesn't reveal his age or his address or exactly how he makes a living.
Lawson's business card identifies him as executive director of something called Pro Per Inc., a nonprofit organization that he says is involved in various civil rights and media-related projects. Lawson also has a Screen Actors Guild card and has had some tiny parts in movies, including "Choose Me." Like many others who claim ties to the entertainment industry, he has unspecified irons in the fire, unnamed projects in development. This week's arrest couldn't have come at a worse time, he says: He was about to ink a deal to make a pilot for his own TV talk show.
Whatever else he is, Lawson is media savvy. Articulate to the point of mesmerizing, he did not allow the fact that he was in custody keep him from getting his message out. He called at least one journalist from jail--collect.
Lawson supporters chuckle and say, "That's Edward." Paul Michael Neuman is a local public relations man who works for Lawson without charge and has known him for 20 years. When they met, says Neuman, Lawson was a fixture of the UC Berkeley street-and-student scene. Lawson, who often spent hours researching topics of interest in the Berkeley law library, would drop by student housing where Neuman lived. Lawson was attracted, in part, says Newman, by the free peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches provided for anyone who wanted them. But Lawson, who has taken college courses but never really committed to college, was also sustained by the passionate talk that is the lifeblood of any worthwhile campus.
"People gathered around Edward to discuss issues, to discuss life," Neuman recalls. "He was very, very respected."
Among Lawson's biggest fans is former Navy man Robert William Jackson, who made headlines in the mid-1980s after he blew the whistle on fraud and dirty dealings on the USS Kitty Hawk, including the smuggling of embargoed fighter-plane parts to agents of Iran during the Iran-Contra affair.
Jackson, who called The Times last week after he read about Lawson's arrest, said Lawson had approached him after Jackson appeared on a talk-radio show.
According to Jackson, Lawson saved him by teaching him "how to use the media to stay alive." Jackson, who said his life had been threatened by unspecified government agencies and forces, said Lawson "told me the only insurance policy you've got is information. I attribute my life to Edward C. Lawson. He's a smart man. I don't know any other way to put it. He's capable of playing chess. Move. Countermove." Lawson has helped others as well, Jackson says. "What he usually does for people is help keep them alive, move their issue and connect them with Hollywood."
Less controversial figures also say good things about Lawson. Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, argued Lawson's landmark case before the Supreme Court. Rosenbaum professed, then as now, that the law that Lawson had run afoul of was an unconstitutional excuse for "street-sweeping" by police.
But Lawson was not the easiest client Rosenbaum ever had. In fact, Lawson fired Rosenbaum and fought unsuccessfully to argue his own case before the highest court in the land. Despite their history, Rosenbaum says, he has nothing but respect for Lawson. "Any time there was a stand-down between Lawson and racism, Edward never blinked."