'Working' Then & Now: Black Chicago Police Officer In 1971, Studs Terkel interviewed Renault Robinson, one of the city's few black officers. Robinson spoke bluntly about the role of race in urban policing.
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'Working' Then & Now: Black Chicago Police Officer

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'Working' Then & Now: Black Chicago Police Officer

'Working' Then & Now: Black Chicago Police Officer

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In the early 1970s, Studs Terkel, the author and broadcaster, went around the country interviewing people about their jobs.


STUDS TERKEL: How would you describe your work?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I'm a processing clerk.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm a carpenter from South Carolina.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm running an elevator.

TERKEL: What do you do?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I am the last live entertainment of the Sherman Hotel.


Studs Terkel recorded more than 130 interviews, research for what would become a best-selling book called "Working." For decades, the interview tapes were packed away in Terkel's office.

MONTAGNE: Our partner "Radio Diaries," along with Project&, unpacked the tapes and combed through them to produce a new series, "Working" Then & Now.

INSKEEP: And we'll hear one of those recordings now, the story of Renault Robinson, a Chicago police officer and one of the founders of the Afro-American Patrolmen's League.


TERKEL: I'm talking with Renault Robinson. And I'm thinking, Renault, why did you become a policeman?

RENAULT ROBINSON: Well, a policeman is looked upon, in the black community, as an important thing. Even though people are afraid of them or people have bad thoughts about them, the position itself is still one of importance. I quit a job paying more money to become a police officer. And sometimes I wonder if that was the best decision to make.

TERKEL: Could you describe your day, the day of a policeman in uniform?

ROBINSON: Well, first of all, you're given an assignment and a partner. Most of the white guys are wondering what black they're going to get today. And the black guys are wondering the same thing - which one of these fools am I going to get today?

TERKEL: (Laughter).

ROBINSON: Black cops are saying, the only reason I'm with this white cop is because they want to protect his life while he's riding around the black community, to ward off the bullets. And so, you know, there's hard feelings on both sides.

TERKEL: Well, what happens then during these eight hours? You're sitting with this white guy...

ROBINSON: Saying nothing to each other all. Can you imagine that for eight hours?

TERKEL: So there's no conversation?

ROBINSON: Very little or none. Very little or none.

(Laughter) I told Studs exactly what the situation was. My name is Renault Robinson. And when I first started on the police department, I went in there to do the best job I could as a policeman. But that became very difficult once I realized what the true circumstances were.


TERKEL: What led to your disenchantment?

ROBINSON: I think it was just seeing blacks being treated one way and whites being treated another. You know, majority of the policemen in my station were white. The opinions that they have of black people are that they're all criminals, they have no morals, no scruples, they're dirty and nasty, etc., etc.

TERKEL: So the trouble is with an ordinary citizen. Could you dwell on this then?

ROBINSON: Well, I would say about 60 percent of police-citizen contact start on a traffic situation. Certain units have really developed a science around stopping the automobile. In other words, in their minds, (laughter) if they stop a hundred cars in the black community, the likelihood of them finding one or two or three violations of some sort is highly possible. Now, of course, after you've stopped a thousand, you've got 900 people who are very pissed off - teachers, lawyers, doctors or just average, working people who haven't broken any law and are very irritated and aggravated about being stopped by the police. And black folks, or minority, tolerance of that police brutality has grown very short.

TERKEL: Of course they won't accept it anymore.

ROBINSON: They won't accept that treatment. They won't accept that dehumanizing, degrading treatment. That's why more young kids are being killed by the police than ever before.

Fifty years later, whether it's Chicago or Baltimore or Detroit or - the same thing is happening in all of these cities. It just feels like deja vu. At the time I joined the Chicago Police Department, I was young. And I guess I was very energetic about doing something about racism. You know, I remember they forced us to put sawed-off shotguns, police issued, in the squad cars, loaded with 00 buckshot. If you're a hunter, you know what that is.

I and, you know, a handful of other black police officers just felt that that was wrong. You're chasing a kid or chasing a stolen car and you've got something that could tear somebody's head off. So the Afro-American Patrolmen's League - we raised hell. We picketed. We marched. We did everything to get the police department to take those guns out of the squad cars.

Of course, speaking out on a regular basis made me a popular fellow in the police department. When you go into your locker room and you see in your mailbox is human feces and cigarette ashes and trash, you kind of know what that means. You go in the bathroom and there's a picture of you on the wall, dressed as a native with a bone in your nose, you know how they feel. They were all knicky-knack (ph) stuff just to try and force me out of the department.


TERKEL: I know the fact that you now have the reputation of speaking out, speaking your mind, every now and then, you're suspended.

ROBINSON: I've got a 30-day suspension pending now.

TERKEL: What do they use as grounds?

ROBINSON: Well, this latest one, I'm being suspended because I was passing out literature in the police station to black policemen about the patrolmen's league. I was arrested in the station. And I'm being suspended for conduct unbecoming a policeman.

In the end, I knew I had to go. I mean, I had fractured too many (laughter) - too many feelings and too many people who didn't want to hear what I had to say. And I left.

ROBINSON: I get a small pension now, and the beat goes on.


MONTAGNE: In 1973, Renault Robinson and the Afro-American Patrolmen's League filed a landmark discrimination suit against the Chicago Police Department. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the patrolmen's league. Robinson retired from the force in 1983. He still lives in Chicago.

INSKEEP: Our series "Working" Then & Now is produced by "Radio Diaries" with Project&, thanks to the Studs Terkel archive. You can hear more stories from this series this week on NPR and the "Radio Diaries" podcast.

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