“How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.”
“How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Those were the words Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. thundered on the steps of the state Capitol in Montgomery, Ala. on March 25, 1965 after the march from Selma.
One day short of the 47th anniversary of that historic moment, at 11 p.m. on March 24, 2012, an unarmed black man, Kendrec McDade, 20, died in a hail of bullets fired by two white Pasadena police officers — one on foot, the other in a squad car — near the intersection where the history of Pasadena's wealth and its poverty meet, Orange Grove Boulevard and Fair Oaks Avenue.
Together with the all too similar killing of Treyvon Martin a month earlier by a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, America's unresolved racial attitudes are back in the forefront with the added contemporary element that the man who shot the Florida teenager was half Latino and the man who lied to police about McDade being armed was an undocumented Latino immigrant.
These things don't just happen. They grow out of who we were and who we have become.
For so long, Pasadena, like much of America, has been a tale of two cities — one white, one black, and now, with a third of the population Latino, a tale of three cities.
Pasadena, for all its affluence and hipness, the beauty of its neighborhoods, the resurrection of Old Pasadena, the high quality of life enjoyed by so many, has never fully faced the ugly truth about how nearly a fifth of its population lives in poverty, how an astonishing third of the school-age children are in private schools because of the failure of its public schools, how the disparity in wealth and circumstance is like a cancer eating away at the life of the city.
That's true of much of America, but the death of Kendrec McDade is Pasadena's problem, an opportunity once and for all to start a public dialogue that can heal the wounds of the past and build a future where these things don't happen anymore.
For Pasadena, this is a story that goes back virtually to its founding as a paradise for the wealthy escaping those awful winters back in the East and Midwest.
They built mansions along Orange Grove Boulevard, monuments to the fortunes created by America's entrepreneurial spirit and materialism: Wrigley's chewing gum, Bissell's vacuum cleaners, Busch's Budweiser beer, Gamble's Procter & Gamble consumer products and so many others.
They socialized at the Valley Hunt Club, founder of the Tournament of Roses, which remains as exclusive as it once was, if not quite as exclusionary.
Their cooks, cleaners, gardeners and servants were mostly blacks who lived a mile or two to the east toward Fair Oaks Avenue in the area where the Friendship Baptist Church still stands as a house of worship for a largely African American congregation.
Over the decades, a lot of changes occurred. Many of the mansions were turned into luxury apartments and smaller homes; blacks were pushed into what has become Northwest Pasadena and ghettoized by the construction of the Foothill (210) Freeway on the west and south. “White flight” from the public schools started as early as the 1960s and then, accelerated by court-ordered forced busing 50 years ago, evolved into middle-class flight. Latinos began to move in, and gentrification today threatens long-time residents living in structurally-sound affordable Craftsman homes in need of repairs.
In a lot of ways, it is a microcosm of what has taken place in the San Fernando Valley and so many other places where dramatic demographic changes occurred without government or civic institutions coming to terms with realities of the residents.
And then there is a tragedy like this, where everything that could go wrong did go wrong — a botched theft, a victim lying to the cops about being robbed by armed men, cops hunting down the suspects without their red lights flashing or activating the onboard video camera, and then firing at least eight times at Kendrec McDade as he reached toward his waistband — apparently without hesitating, for even a split second, to see whether he had a gun.
McDade's family already has sued, outside investigators have been called in, the cops are on administrative leave, the community questions the tactics, training and even whether one or both the cops were examined carefully for post-traumatic-stress-disorder because of serving in the military in Iraq.
So many questions, so much emotion, so much on the line — who knows if we will ever know the truth, the whole truth, of what happened in the darkness in the dead of night just before midnight on March 24?
Will the cops face charges? Will the apparent crime victim — Oscar Carillo, 26 — be deported solely because he became involved in the criminal justice system? Will procedural reforms be put into place, as they were in the past after terrible mistakes like this? Will the bitterness and discontent grow?
Or will Pasadena find a way to turn the corner, purge the ghosts of the past and bridge the gulf of race and class?
Whatever the rights or wrong, these things don't just happen. They have been happening a long time and it's time to ask how much longer.
RON KAYE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.