MAXWELL:  Overreactions that work to trivialize race  

4/21/2004 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Several weeks ago, I interviewed former St. Petersburg Police Chief Mack Vines and asked him to put into context his infamous “orangutan” remark that ostensibly caused Mayor Rick Baker to fire him in 2001. (Vines, who has been working as a telemarketer for the St. Petersburg Times, has filed a federal lawsuit against the city for violating his civil rights and free speech.)

Vines made the “orangutan” remark during a unit meeting related to some internal affairs disciplinary actions.

“I just wanted to let (the officers) know what my philosophy was in addressing the different internal affairs cases,” Vines said. “I was teaching them and training them in regards to the degree of force. I wanted to emphasize that excessive force would not be tolerated. I’ve never tolerated that, and my reputation nationally has been that.

“I told them you only use the degree of force necessary to effect the arrest. You don’t violate people’s human or civil rights. Sometimes, though, it might take two, three, four or five people to subdue an individual, especially if they’re resisting to the degree of an orangutan. I went on just talking about the issues.”

During the days immediately following the meeting, Vines was going about business as usual until he learned that his “orangutan” metaphor had offended some officers, some residents and, worst of all, the mayor. Things heated up: The Uhurus, of course, demonstrated, telephone calls came to the city, the media cranked up, readers wrote letters to the editor, an internal police investigation commenced, and to no avail, Vines apologized to everyone who would listen, especially to fellow officers and to black leaders. In the end, Baker fired his police chief.

I asked Vines to explain the “orangutan” figure of speech: “I had used the word before to talk about the degree of force. I’ve never used it to talk about any particular person, gender, race, culture, any of that. Just the degree of force. A number of years ago, I was watching National Geographic, or whatever, and saw where it took several handlers to get this one orangutan subdued. I mean, arms and legs are going everywhere. I’ve used the image before but never in talking about a particular person. I was talking about behavior _ the fierceness of resistance.”

I believe Vines wholeheartedly, and I believe that Baker’s action was grossly unjust _ if the “orangutan” allusion was the real reason. When black people and race, or mere perceptions of race, are involved, common sense goes to the wind. And, more often than not, most of us, black and white, act as if we have lost our collective mind.

Remember David Howard, the Washington, D.C. city employee, who, in 1999, told other staffers that in light of severe budget cutbacks, he would have to be “niggardly” with funds? Blacks cried racism, and Howard was forced to resign.

Columnist Tony Snow aptly summed up this nonsense: “David Howard got fired because some people in public employ were morons who a) didn’t know the meaning of the word “niggardly’ b) didn’t know how to use a dictionary to discover the word’s meaning and c) actually demanded that he apologize for their ignorance.”

Consider another example of the trivialization of race: Last month, the University of Central Florida celebrated its basketball team’s appearance in the NCAA Tournament. To kick off the fete, UCF president John Hitt and Board of Trustees chairman Dick Nunis donned Afro wigs at a board meeting because many fans wore Afro wigs to honor star player Dexter Lyons _ who is black and who wears a big natural Afro.

Lyons and his teammates attended the trustees meeting, with Lyons posing for photos with Hitt and Nunis. After a photo was published, blacks screamed racism, forcing Hitt to publicly apologize: “Just as many fans wear Afro wigs to the games, we wore them to salute the player and the team. I sincerely apologize to any members of the UCF family and community who may have been offended.”

Lyons, UCF’s leading scorer, told the Associated Press: “It’s a big deal to get the president of the university to put on an Afro wig. That’s an honor.”

This young man has good common sense _ a trait apparently missing in the Vines case. Given his long history of hiring and promoting blacks and easing racial tensions as chief in other cities, Vines should not have been fired.

“No matter what happens,” Vines said, “I want the people of St. Petersburg, especially blacks, to know that I’m not a racist. I want them to know I wasn’t treated fairly. I didn’t get any support from the administration. The mayor didn’t discuss anything with me before making his decision.”

Baker would not comment for this column, citing the advice of the city’s legal department.