Remembering Thabiti Olatunji, Fighter for Hope and Law in a Crime-Ridden Neighborhood

After grief, the next thing that came to me when I heard about the death of Thabiti Olatunji was his story. It's not the one we normally tell.

Olatunji died two weeks ago. His first name is pronounced with a hard T, Ta-BEE-tee. I think he was 64 years old. As of this writing, I have been unable to reach his family, who are out of state, to confirm his age.

Olatunji's life is the story of this city in the last quarter century, but not the story on the front page or the TV news. It's a much more complicated saga, one we seldom even mention. But it's what's really happening.

He was in poor health for a long time, dragging an oxygen bottle around behind him to political events, skinny as a rail after having been too big at one point. But even when he was sick the thing about Olatunji was always the imposing figure he cut.

Charles Wilson, a friend, was older and ahead of him at Booker T. Washington high school. When Olatunji showed up as a freshman at Booker T., Wilson already knew this kid was somebody. Wilson had watched him play basketball at K.B. Polk Elementary, where Olatunji was head and shoulders over everybody else.

"I remembered seeing him running up and down that basketball court at K.B. Polk," Wilson told me. "That's back when he was still Larry Stephens. When he came to Booker T., I said, 'I know who you are.'"

For the last 20 years of his life, Olatunji was a community organizer and activist in a little area just east of Love Field, a neighborhood of less than 2 square miles usually called North Park, even though it has nothing to do with NorthPark Center four miles to the east. North Park is a largely isolated black neighborhood that evolved from a rural black enclave called Elm Thicket.

If neighborhoods could talk, North Park might never get done telling the story of its legitimate racial grievances. In the 1940s the city used eminent domain to seize much of Elm Thicket from black owners at very low prices, supposedly for airport expansion. But then the city sold the land to white owners for residential development.

A black physician, John Chisum, complained. City Manager Charles C. Ford replied airily to reporters that the negro owners were more than welcome to come in and bid for their property back, as long as they understood that it was worth a lot more now that the area was no longer black.

Somehow a solid core of black families was able to stick it out. The neighborhood that emerged was by the late 1960s still black but diverse in terms of income and housing. When a few white families announced they were looking for non-segregated neighborhoods in an otherwise rigidly segregated city, leaders in North Park welcomed them.

At the same time middle-class black families were inching their way east out of North Park toward more affluent streets in the Greenway Parks area, east of Bluffview. They weren't welcomed with open arms exactly, but nobody burned crosses on their lawns or tossed bombs in their houses as had happened in Dallas only a decade earlier. For a while it looked as if this part of Dallas might be the garden from which a more tolerant city would grow.

Things didn't turn out that way. By the time Olatunji, a computer programmer, came back to Dallas to work in the late 1980s, crime and drugs had taken a vicious bite out of his old neighborhood, especially on the streets of modest 1940s frame cottages closer to the airport. And the entire city had fallen into bitter racial division.

I met Olatunji in 2004, a little after David Kunkle was named chief of police. All I knew was that this tall somber man, always dressed in African robes, had led a delegation to police headquarters to make some kind of demands.

We in the media really only knew the story of one kind of demand. The story of black people and cops in Dallas fetched all the way back to 1989, crystallized on a day when an angry mob of white police and family members had packed the City Council chamber to demand that black council members Al Lipscomb and Diane Ragsdale resign. Ragsdale screamed at them that they were all racists.

We knew that story. Most of us completely missed the story that Bob Ray Sanders, then of KERA Public Television, reported as part of a national PBS series on drugs.

Sanders told the story of Fahim Minkah, the former Black Panther who with Peter Johnson and other black leaders was waging an incredibly brave war on drug dealers in southern Dallas. Minkah's group, African American Men Against Narcotics, marched on foot to dope houses, ringed them with chanting pickets, did surveillance on them with video cameras and demanded greater police presence.

Given the city's volatile history of enmity between police and black residents, theirs was virtually a death-defying act, a stunning commitment to the rule of law. For years the guy caught right in the middle of all that was an assistant city manager, Levi Davis, a black man who saw it from both sides. But nobody else did.

Olatunji was a member of AAMAN. When he went to Kunkle in 2004, it was with a version of the AAMAN demand — a demand for more cops, not fewer, for tougher law enforcement, not laxity, for a crackdown on the criminal elements he had found gnawing away at his neighborhood when he returned to Dallas to work.

A tough career cop with a special sensitivity to people who have been marginalized, Kunkle was eager to implement a philosophy called Interactive Community Policing, with an emphasis on personal bonds between police and community leaders. Kunkle's top people in the North Park area were David Brown, who is now his successor as chief of police, and Charles Cato, who is now first assistant chief.

Kunkle told me last week that a special relationship grew up quickly between himself, Brown, Cato and Olatunji, based in part on the confidence of the police that if they had his back he would have theirs.

"He gave us tough love," Kunkle said, "but he gave his neighborhood tough love too."

I saw that in action once during a meeting of the North Park Crime Watch in 2004, which Kunkle and his top people attended. The neighborhood had asked the police to do something about cars parked every which way, half on sidewalks and half off, usually belonging to drug dealers or pimps. The police had explained that the only way they could write tickets was to write them on any and all parking violators, not just the ones the neighborhood didn't like.

At that point in the meeting a nice-looking lady got up and started upbraiding the police for ticketing her husband, who had parked his car in the wrong direction in front of his own house. She was just getting into the part about, "Don't you have any real criminals to go after ..."

Olatunji gave the nod to some volunteers who quickly approached the woman and gave her a pamphlet on how to park a car. The obvious suggestion was that she might want to park her lip too, which she did.

He got it. I spent hours talking to Olatunji over the years, enough to know that he was deep and hard as a rock on the question of how things really work. He knew that the police and the law-abiding community absolutely have to be partners and that the partnership can only be a two-way deal.

You get our back. We get yours.

He was not a police suck-up. He was not an Uncle Tom. In 2008 when he felt he saw racism at work in a move to rename his beloved alma mater, Booker T. Washington high school, he went straight to war against it. And won.

But he also understood the rule of law and the life of communities at a profound level. He knew that endless stand-off, endless enmity and endless mistrust only empower the forces of lawlessness on both sides of the thin blue line. To solve that, he knew that somebody has to reach across that line and grasp the hand of a Kunkle, a Brown, a Cato.

He wasn't alone or unique in that belief. It's what Fahim Minkah was trying to do in southern Dallas in the '80s. It's what those older couples were saying — if you listened real hard — in the background of the coverage of the recent police shooting controversy in the Dixon Circle neighborhood. They thought it was tragic a young man had to die, but they supported the cops, not the angry mob in the streets.

After I heard of Olatunji's death, I got in my pickup and drove the streets of North Park. There are still some ragged edges visible, but North Park looks one hell of a lot better than it did 10 years ago. According to the crime stats on the city's web page, it continues to deal with challenges but less so than before. Things are moving in the right direction.

I know why we focus on confrontation in the news business. We're all about what people need to know right now, right this minute, and people need to hear about the big noise next door faster than they do the prayer meeting down the street. Explosions come before moral wisdom. That's just the dynamic of information and action.

Olatunji's story is so important, however, because it illustrates how wrong we can be about the longer direction of things. In his quiet, stern, imposing way, he was the beacon showing us the way to dignity and peace. His was the long direction, because in the end his was the only direction offering hope.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze