Teen Killing Tests Town On Racial Tolerance
TEANECK, N.J. — THE fatal shooting of a black teenager by a white policeman has polarized this integrated town, which has prided itself on its racial tolerance. Teaneck, a bedroom community of 40,000 residents, just across the George Washington Bridge from New York City, was the nation's first community to voluntarily integrate its schools in 1964.
The shooting death of 15-year-old Phillip Pannell by patrolman Gary Spath last April sent shock waves through middle-class Teaneck, one of New Jersey's most ethnically diverse communities.
A candlelight vigil for the slain black teenager several days after he was killed turned violent as a crowd of mostly black teenagers set police cars on fire, broke windows in the police station, library, and 16 businesses.
While there has been no more violence since April, Teaneck is on edge as a state grand jury nears completion of its work. The jury is expected to decide shortly whether to charge Officer Spath in connection with Pannell's death.
``There is a lot of tension as residents wait for the outcome of the grand jury,'' says the Rev. Bruce Davidson, head of the Teaneck Clergy Council and pastor of a local church. ``People are worried. They don't want a repeat of last April's violence.''
Walter Fields, a board member of the Bergen County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, says black teenagers just want justice to be done.
``The black teenagers in Teaneck don't want to burn up the town; they just want to see that the criminal-justice system work for minorities. They feel a black life was taken and someone has to pay a penalty for it. To them the criminal-justice system is on trial,'' he says.
Pannell was shot in the back while fleeing Spath after the officer responded to an anonymous tip that a teenager was brandishing a gun. Spath says he made the split-second decision to shoot because he believed the youth was going for the gun that was in his pocket. But some witnesses said Pannell's hands were above his head as he was shot.
Since the shooting, black activist groups have held weekly demonstrations through Teaneck's streets demanding justice. Black leaders like Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton have made the Pannell killing an issue at speeches not only here, but across the United States. The Teaneck police force, joined by some 3,000 other New Jersey policemen, held its own march in August demanding justice for Spath.
This once calm oasis, where residents could escape the urban problems of New York City, is a sea of turmoil. ``Certain black national activist leaders are using the Pannell tragedy to advance their own political goals,'' says Teaneck Mayor Eleanor Kieliszek. ``We are being portrayed as this racist community. That only increases racial tension here.''
Mayor Kieliszek says most residents moved here because they wanted to live in an integrated community where their children would be exposed to children of all races and religions. ``We've good people here. We have been misjudged. It hurts,'' she says.
But to black residents like Mel Goode, a former network correspondent for ABC News, there has been no misjudgment. ``For the last 24 years since this town integrated its schools it has lived a big lie. In reality this town is a cesspool of bigotry. There never has been equality here,'' he says.
He cites the low number of blacks in the police and fire departments - five blacks among the 88-member police force, another five blacks among the 100-man fire department - as examples of the lack of equality.
The alienation Teaneck's black community feels seems no greater than among its black teenagers. ``The cops always hassle us when we hang out on the streets talking with friends,'' says high school junior Charles Easter. ``They pick on us because we're black.''
Kieliszek says the killing is a ``terrible tragedy'' that will be dealt with by the criminal-justice system. But she insists there has been no prejudice among Teaneck's cops against black youth. ``The police are just trying to do their job, asking teenagers in groups on the street to move along when they make too much noise disturbing residents.''
The mayor says Teaneck has tried to attract more blacks to the fire and police departments without much luck in the past. ``These positions have been filled by white middle class who see them as secure jobs,'' she says.
The Rev. Mr. Davidson says some good has come out of the tragedy in that it has forced residents to rexamine their relations with their neighbors. The Clergy Council has hosted two community forums in the last few months where several hundred residents got together to discuss their feelings.
He says residents are realizing they are not going to have racial harmony just because they live next door to someone of a different color.