February 2005: You See a Fugitive, I See a Friend

You see a fugitive, I see a friend;
In 1969, Joseph Pannell fled an attempted murder charge in Chicago and lived under an assumed name in Toronto until his arrest last year. As Pannell awaits an extradition hearing, Morgan Campbell describes the mentor he calls ‘Pops’.

6 February 2005 – Toronto Star

Joseph Pannell had just been escorted into the prisoners’ box during a November court appearance. Two seats to his right sat a defendant in another case, a black man in his early 20s.

As Pannell sat he locked eyes with the younger man and reached a closed hand across the empty seat, like a boxer’s jab, but slow and subtle. When the younger man extended his arm, Pannell tapped the man’s fist with his own, then nodded to him.

He wanted to reassure a young brother in trouble.

“Innocent or guilty, you’re a human being,” Pannell seemed to say. “Innocent or guilty, you can be better than this. Innocent or guilty, friend or stranger, I care about you, brother.”

That’s a whole lot of meaning to read into an exchange that lasted, maybe, five seconds, so how do I know what Pannell meant to say?

Well, I know because I know the man. To you he’s Joseph Pannell, but I know him as Gary Freeman. I still call him Mr. Freeman, sometimes “Pops.” I met him more than a decade ago through his two oldest children, and I love his family like I love my own.

Most media reports have portrayed him as a militant thug, a fugitive and a con artist, but to me he’s a family man and a thinker, a mentor, friend and father figure.

I learned of the charges against him last July, a few hours before they hit the news. His son, Jon-Maceo, phoned and told me that his father had been arrested for shooting a police officer in Chicago on March 7, 1969. Police say he attacked a cop, Mr. Freeman says he acted in self-defence.

It hurt. That may as well have been my own father, brother or uncle in handcuffs.

And it shocked me. I never expected to see a friend in the middle of a huge news story, arrested at gunpoint as police closed a 35-year-old cold case.

But it didn’t surprise me. Knowing the racial tension that gripped Chicago in 1969, I understood that no encounter between a white police officer and a 19-year-old black man could be simple, and that a young black man might feel compelled to defend himself.

Through media reports and court hearings I’ve heard a lot about Mr. Freeman since the arrest last summer, most of it unflattering.

But none of it has made me love him any less. In fact, learning of his past has made me love him more because now I understand him better.

I had always wondered why he is the way he is – so intense, so passionate and so urgent. Now I’m closer to knowing how events from 35 years ago help fuel his passion today.

As teenagers, if any of Jon-Maceo’s friends needed a book, we had two options: the library and Mr. Freeman (who in fact worked for years at the Toronto Reference Library).

If we picked Mr. Freeman we could return the book whenever we wanted, or keep it if we wished, but we knew that to get it we had to endure the talk.

“Yeah, I can give you this book on Jack Johnson, but you also need to think about why boxing has always been a special sport for African-Americans,” he might say. If you didn’t already know he was African-American, the rhythm of his speech gave it away.

He’d look you in the eye the whole time, standing in his doorway, inches in front of you. Your eyes would drift to the book in his hands. He’d gesture with it, thump it for effect, but he wouldn’t hand it to you until he had finished talking.

And that could take all night.

“Ask yourself why it has become sanctimoniously righteous for black athletes to worship the dollar,” he might say with the faintest trace of a lisp. “Now that we are so rich and famous in pro sports, where is true freedom for African-Americans? Where is the manifestation of our right to determine our own destinies? That’s the game being played in this era.”

At 17, I admit, I didn’t know what to make of Mr. Freeman’s speeches. I couldn’t believe one man could memorize so many facts or sermonize for so long.

And I couldn’t figure out why he would do it. He could have just handed over the book then headed back to the stationary bike he kept in his basement, or to his photography, or to his record collection – the largest I have ever seen. Instead, he took the time to talk.

Mr. Freeman’s talks became a running joke in our circle of friends. We would sit in his living room and snicker, then shake our heads in sympathy for whomever he cornered that night. His lectures on relationships were so intense we gave them titles: “The Bad Apple,” “Eskimo Pie,” “Love Equals Give.” At the end of the speech you’d feel both ignorant and enlightened. Ignorant because he had just flooded you with facts you hadn’t known, but enlightened because he wouldn’t hold it against you. He would encourage you to learn more. The look in his eye said he needed you to learn more, to make the leap from knowledge to understanding.

Knowing the facts of Malcolm X’s life was one thing, but Mr. Freeman would also want you to understand Malcolm’s historical importance, and that took some thought. And he wanted you to think, not just absorb information.

So he would pepper his lectures with questions, give you something to research on your own.

But why was it so important to him? My mind goes back to the criminal charges.

He could have been a preacher, a lawyer, or a university professor. His mind is that sharp, his passion for learning and teaching that deep.

Instead, at 19 years old, Joseph Pannell sat in a Chicago jail cell, charged with the attempted murder and aggravated battery of a police officer.

Any dreams he may have harboured had died by the time the cell door slammed shut.

When I picture that scene I see the source of Mr. Freeman’s urgency: Better than anyone, he knows the tragedy of wasted talent. He was determined that we would make the most of ours.

By “we” I mean all his children, the four who share his blood and the many others of all colours he has adopted, befriended or guided in some way. There are more of us than I can count.

His words were his way of making us better students, better sons and daughters, and better people.

I know he has helped me become a better journalist.

When I began my first job, an internship at The Detroit News, he preached patience, reminding me that awards would come with time.

When I came to the Toronto Star he would offer me more feedback than many of my co-workers did. Once, it was a three-word email: “We be watchin’.”

He hated email (“the e-shrine of pseudo-communication”), but I treasured his messages. I could send him four words – “how is Jon-Maceo?” – and receive a 1,000-word response that touched on minstrelsy, materialism and the slave trade. Like one of his speeches, except I could save it and send it to friends. And like his speeches, it wasn’t about him writing, but about me learning. To cherish my accomplishments. To avoid complacency. To think beyond mere facts.

He once sent me a two-page critique of a story I wrote, and at the end he wished me what he wished for all of his kids. “Peace and Power,” he signed it. “Pops Freeman.”

Even today as a journalist, uncle and volunteer football coach, I can see Mr. Freeman’s influence on me.

When a simple email from me to a team-member turns into a three-page treatise on preparing for life outside of football, I think of Mr. Freeman.

Just before Christmas I was talking with his daughter Tempie when something compelled me to make a point about African-American history.

Writer and professor George Elliott Clarke once explained to me the importance of musicians and preachers in African-American communities a century ago. Blacks in the Deep South were often denied formal education, but a vibrant “folk intellectualism” had always flourished in black communities, Clarke said, and it most often found expression in music and the clergy.

When I made that point to Tempie she smiled and shook her head. “You know,” she said. “When we all get older and have kids, you’re going to be just like my dad. Talking all the time. Giving lectures.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I laughed.

In my heart, I thanked her.

Copyright ©2005 Toronto Star
One Response to “February 2005: You See a Fugitive, I See a Friend”
Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] between sentences on this particular blog post, in fact, I’m trading emails with Gary Freeman, a mentor, friend and intellectual sparring partner who lovingly backhands me around the ring […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

  • Blog Stats

    • 104,334 hits
%d bloggers like this: