Tho’ I’ve belted you and flayed you, By the livin’ Gawd that made you, You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

by Norman Horowitz

Ed Lawson was a better man than most.

The request by the authorities who “want to see your papers please” was an expression that I often heard in World War II movies. Today the request is made at airports and entries into different countries, and it appears to be the intention of several states to require you to show your papers to whomever they designate. It seems that we’re moving away from the direction of increasing everyone’s civil rights.

My friend for almost thirty years, Ed Lawson died a few days ago. He was 65 years old.

I’m very bummed at this moment. I’m bummed because he was involved in the struggle of a black man trying to exist as an equal in our racist society. I’m sorry that he’s no longer walking among us, and I use the word “walking” for a reason.  

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Ed, an African American, was to me the quintessential civil rights activist. He acted alone when he rebelled against the unreasonable “search and seizure” and “show me some ID” asked of him by primarily white police officers. It appeared to Ed that the unreasonable and uncalled-for “papers please” was because he was “walking while black” in a place considered inappropriate by the “law.”

Between March 1975 and January 1977, Lawson was detained approximately fifteen times, and asked to present identification; some detentions lasted minutes, others lasted hours and longer.

In 1975, Lawson, representing himself, brought a civil rights action against a San Diego Police Chief, taking the case through US District Court and ultimately to the US Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor.

[The Court declared that the] California statute authorizing a police officer to arrest a person for refusing to present identification was unconstitutionally vague.

Ed liked to walk, and as a tall, thin black man with dreadlocks, he would be accosted by the police and asked, “What are you doing here? Let me see some ID.” Ed would reply using words that would upset most policemen: “Officer, have I done something wrong?” Those words would almost guarantee that he would be hassled and taken into custody.

Ed objected when he had to prove his identity to a law enforcement bureaucrat because he was black.

As a society, it appears that the US government and some states want to compel us to “identify ourselves on demand.” Many in government want to disregard “probable cause” and change it into “I am a law enforcement person, and when I ask for your ID, I expect that you will provide it to me.”

Ed believed in the Fourth Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Because of Ed’s “transgressions,” I believe he was on the feds’ “no-fly list” and whatever they might call the “no-riding-on-trains list” as well. Here was Ed, unable to travel freely throughout his own country because he did exactly what? Ed was also restricted in his walking or driving a car. He was a perpetual target of so many in law enforcement because he was a black man in dreadlocks who looked menacing.

Years ago, I was fired by an Australian who had just purchased the company that I worked for. When asked why he had fired me, he responded something like: “I can tolerate Jews who know their place, but Norman does not know his place.”

Ed never knew his place, which, to the police, was to do whatever they told him to do.

I will miss Edward Lawson, and America will miss Edward Lawson who stood up for all of our rights.

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