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One White Police Officer, One Black Family, and How One Bullet Ripped Us Apart
By Robbie Tolan
Foreword by Ken Griffey
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- ebook $13.99 $16.99 CAD
- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
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NO JUSTICE is the harrowing story of Robbie Tolan, who early on one New Year’s Eve morning, found himself being rushed to the hospital. A white police officer had shot him in the chest after mistakenly accusing him of stealing his own car…while in his own driveway.
In a journey that took nearly a decade, Tolan and his family saw his case go before the United States Supreme Court in a groundbreaking decision, while Tolan struggled with how to put his life back together. Holding him together through this journey was the strength of his mother and father, his faith in God, and an impenetrable belief that he deserved justice like any other American who’d been wronged.
NO JUSTICE is the story about what happened after the cameras and social media protests went away. Robbie Tolan was left with the physical and mental devastation from having his body violated by someone who was supposed to serve and protect him. His story reminds us that police brutality is not a theoretical talking point in a larger nationwide argument. This story is about Robbie Tolan courageously picking up the pieces of his life, even as he fights for justice for all.
FOREWORD BY KEN GRIFFEY JR.
When Robbie approached me about writing the foreword for his book, my answer was easy. I have known Robbie Tolan since before he was born. His mother, Marian, and my mother are practically sisters, and our dads were teammates in the Major Leagues. In fact, I used to mimic his dad’s batting stance when I was younger. His dad, Bobby, and I also share the Comeback Player of the Year Award as members of the Cincinnati Reds. Marian and Bobby Tolan are the godparents of my only daughter, Taryn. As you can see, the Tolan family is indeed very near and dear to me. They are my family.
In 1995, when I broke my wrist, Robbie and his mom were on the first flight to Seattle. Marian helped my wife, Melissa, and me around the house, and Robbie kept my son, Trey, well entertained. For many years Trey was Robbie’s shadow; he followed Robbie around the way Robbie followed me around. As a kid, Robbie had such a passion for life. There was always a smile on his face and a light in his eyes indicative of the greatness within him—a greatness that we were all excited to witness. On the night of December 31, 2008, that light went out.
My family and I were absolutely devastated when we received that dreadful phone call in the early hours of New Year’s Eve. I called Robbie’s phone a dozen times hoping he would answer and tell me that this was all just some sort of sick joke. My heart sank when my family and I were all forced to face Robbie’s reality.
Sadly, we all know Robbie’s story. Maybe you don’t recognize his name or know any specific details of his case. Maybe he hasn’t received a lot of publicity, but Robbie Tolan’s case is indeed the paramount case in the good fight for righteousness. His is a story that we all hear far too often in this country, especially in recent years. It is a story of grave injustice. It is a story that Robbie and I both heard often as kids, when our dads were not allowed to stay in hotels with their teammates or eat with them at restaurants.
Injustice happens whether we believe it does or not. Here is a man that has dealt injustice a mighty blow. A vast majority of the stories like Robbie’s are told posthumously. His life could have very well ended that night in December 2008. In fact, statistically, it probably should have. But thankfully, Robbie is here to tell his own story.
Robbie could have been angry and bitter about the hand he was dealt, especially since he was destined to join me in the Major Leagues. And I believe most people would agree that he would have been well within his right to possess those feelings. But the fact that Robbie has made a choice to be happy and joyful and optimistic says a tremendous amount about his character and integrity as a man. He is a man who we can all look up to. Robbie and I talk often, and I am always amazed at his resilience. Robbie is not just a survivor; he is a fighter.
This is undoubtedly an era for change. Robbie Tolan is leading that change. The quest for justice can be a long and lonely one. It is a road that endlessly bends. Robbie has fought for all of us. So let us stand with him, as he stands for us. After a good-fought round, let us patch him up in the corner and rub his shoulders before sending him back out to the middle of the ring to fight injustice. And should injustice send him back to us beaten and bruised, let us be his crutch when he is too weak to stand.
I have had a long career in baseball that spans over two decades. The same passion with which I approached my career is the same passion I have for helping Robbie share his story. It is a story that he will have to share for the rest of his life, and I am honored to stand with him to help him do so. So again, when Robbie asked me to write the foreword for this book, the answer was easy; it was an unwavering, resounding yes.
The strongest compliment I can give someone is to consider him or her as family. Well, Robbie Tolan is my baby brother. His spirit and his story will unspeakably touch you. Once you turn this page, you have crossed the Rubicon to this tome that is a triumph for the human spirit. Find out how Robbie is making a difference for present and future generations, and let us go and do likewise.
RIGHT PLACE, WRONG LICENSE
It’s such a unique experience for ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the world who’ve fortunately never felt a bullet violently enter their body that when people meet someone like me, a person who’s actually been shot and lived to tell the tale, well, they kind of want to hear my personal “what-it-was-like-getting-shot” tale. But first, they have questions. Boy, do they have questions.
What did it feel like to have a bullet rip into your body?
Did you think you were going to die?
Did you see a white light?
Is there a heaven?
Is there a hell?
Did you call out for your mother?
Can I see the bullet that’s still lodged in your back?
Did you piss yourself?
Were you wearing clean underwear?
Yeah, I’ve heard all of the questions.
It didn’t help that even the well-meaning people in my life inadvertently reduced me from being the person they know—the burgeoning athlete, the happy-go-lucky guy that everyone liked to have around because his personality is so warm, bubbly, and welcoming—to “the guy you read about in the news who took a bullet to the chest.” Even my father, the ex-Major League Baseball player Bobby Tolan, mentioned my experience to every single person we met.
“Did you meet my son, Robbie? He’s playing Minor League baseball for the Bay Area Toros. He loves sunsets, little puppies, and helping old people cross streets. And hey, did I mention that he was shot in the chest by a Bellaire police officer last year? Wanna see the bullet? Robbie, lift up your shirt and show the nice woman your gunshot wound. What was that? Oh sure, we’d love to super-size our hamburger order. Thanks for asking.”
The undeniable fact is that I became a celebrity for getting shot by the police, and I hated it. Oh, I didn’t hate the celebrity part. As a kid, I’d dreamed about being a celebrity, a sports star that little kids admired and wanted pictures of for their scrapbook, but I never wanted celebrity by painful happenstance like it happened to me. This was a cruel celebrity, where I’d turned into, at least in my hometown of Houston, Texas, a freak show. Nowhere was safe, not even the spaces where I used to feel like I belonged. I was bombarded with questions and requests as “that guy who got shot” from church members, restaurant diners, and even fellow moviegoers.
And being a private person in normal times, I naturally became paranoid, as I could hear the overly loud whispers from people around me. “Isn’t that the guy who got shot?” They’d stare, but ultimately were too afraid to come over to me and ask. I know that most people meant no harm, but it still upset me. I’m a human being. I have achievements and accolades for using my God-given talents, but it doesn’t take any talent to be shot, and I’m not proud that I’m the poster boy for being shot by the police. But regardless, Pandora’s Box had been opened, and control over how people perceived me was out of my hands because I’ve found that the public is endlessly fascinated with my story.
Maybe it’s because we see so much violence in our media that we’re captivated by the details of real-life gunshot victims but fail to recognize the long-term impact being shot has on real-life people.
Gun violence is so cartoonish to us. When Hollywood shoots someone on the big or small screen, the character taking the bullet is typically someone the scriptwriters have convinced us is bad. So after we’ve spent an hour or two watching their bad acts, we end up hoping they’ll get what’s coming to them in the form of a few slugs to the dome. After all, they wouldn’t be getting shot in the first place if they weren’t truly bad guys, right?
In my opinion, Hollywood likes making their criminal characters blacks and Latinos—the outsider others in this Land of Freedom, minorities who are by their very existence irrationally scary to good American God-fearing white people (and if you make the villain a Muslim, whoa baby, Katie bar the door, and watch how the bullets fly!).
So guess what? It turns out that you, the viewer, aren’t that upset when black or brown bad guys get shot by the white hero because you probably thought black and brown people were more likely to be guilty before you ordered your first ten-dollar bag of movie popcorn. And if it’s a heroic white cop doing the shooting and killing, well that’s even better.
“Do you feel lucky punk? Well… do ya?”
Remember Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan? The psychotic 1970s Dirty Harry cop character became one of the most popular movie characters of all time after saying that iconic line as he pointed his .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, at an injured black criminal’s head. What we tend to forget is that earlier in the scene, Eastwood had stood in the middle of the street, blowing away five other black bank robbers, while he never once stopped chewing on his sandwich. No time for that “You have the right to remain silent” bullshit in Callahan’s white cop fantasy law-and-order world. Just point, shoot, and sneer as the dead black bodies pile up at your feet.
And audiences cheered for Eastwood’s white policeman vigilantism.
They cheered with a sense of righteous indignation that the black bad guys had finally gotten what they deserved. No questions. I’m pretty sure white moviegoers would say that they didn’t see the color of the criminals, just that they were criminals. That’s what Americans do: pretend they don’t see race.
“I wouldn’t care if the criminal was black, white, or purple,” the self-proclaimed nonracist would say, making sure that all of the purple people were accounted for in their anti-racist world.” (I always wondered how the purple people felt about being named in the litany of people most people have no prejudices against). “I just wanted to see the criminal get his.”
I don’t believe these people. Why? Because these weren’t just criminals, but black criminals, and that made it different. Remember that America had once declared that black folks, as a general principle, had no rights a white man was bound to respect, as Supreme Court Judge Taney said about the enslaved African Dred Scott. So what the hell rights does a black criminal have? His black life doesn’t matter, and mine doesn’t either.
And that’s a crucial concept to grasp if you want to understand my story. How me being shot isn’t just some isolated incident, some unlucky circumstance that was an honest mistake that could have happened to anyone. But some people do believe that, mainly because they assume that most white police officers are naturally good when it comes to their interactions with black people. But no, me getting shot wasn’t an honest mistake. My being shot is part of a trend that has existed as long as this country has existed. And that leads to another uncomfortable belief about this country we call America:
I think America loves shooting black people.
Yeah, it can be argued that America loves shooting people in general, a sort of #allshootingsmatter philosophy, but I’d argue that it particularly enjoys shooting black people. Always has and always will. Even when lynching black people was as common in the United States as picking up a nickel bottle of Coca-Cola at the local five and dime, white Americans regularly riddled the lynched black dead body with bullets as one final exclamation point of violence. It wasn’t enough to be dead by hanging; the black body had to be shot, because even dead, the blackness represented an existential threat. And the only power the white people had to extinguish that threat in their white supremacist psyche was to unload as much lead as possible into the dead black body. Often we’d find out later that the white people knew that the black person they’d killed had been innocent all along, and still they’d shot the body to pieces with a maniacal glee. Innocence just didn’t matter, just like black lives didn’t matter.
Not much has changed.
It was the same maniacal glee George Zimmerman tapped into when he killed seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, a black teenager who was minding his own business as he walked through an apartment complex to catch the second half of the NBA All-Star game with a bag of Skittles, but Trayvon would die that day at the hands of a white man who thought his black presence on earth needed his personal justification.
America would label the innocent Martin a thug, a scary black menace to white society. They’d turn him into a drug fiend because Martin had the gall to be an American teenager who’d been caught with weed in his school locker. It was as though because he’d been born with black skin, he was a criminal first, with the right to be declared innocent only if he could prove it. Even in death.
“Do you feel lucky punk? Well… do ya?”
It was the same glee that cheered when Mike Brown was blown away in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white cop, Officer Darren Wilson. His dead body was left to lie for hours in the middle of the street, given less dignity than that of a dead dog being retrieved by animal services. Earlier, Brown had been seen on video allegedly stealing cigars from a local liquor store, and for that, a lot of white America judged that he deserved the death penalty, even as he knelt with his hands up to peacefully surrender to the police.
“Do you feel lucky punk? Well… do ya?”
Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old black kid playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park, was shot and killed in less than five seconds after two cops rolled up in a squad car. The white cops would say that Rice was “menacing,” and the head of the Cleveland police union would say that Rice was a “twelve-year-old in an adult body.” Take a second to let that sink in. Instead of taking responsibility or showing remorse for the tragic death of a child, a grown adult would try to justify the killing of a twelve-year-old kid by saying that he was a big kid.
Thug. Brute. Criminal. All gleeful words used to rationalize bullets entering black bodies across the country by police officers. Dead black bodies shot by white police officers spurred the Black Lives Matter movement and protests and the ubiquitous social media hashtags that identified the steady stream of black lives cut short by police violence, but in some corners of America, their killings were enthusiastically encouraged by people who chanted, “All lives matter.” I, too, was shot as a result of the same scared white passion for violence against black bodies that Dirty Harry had when blowing away his black perps. I was shot by cops, who, according to recent psychological studies, see “young black men… as taller, more muscular and more threatening than comparably sized white men, a bias that may prompt more aggressive law enforcement response towards them.” All of that was going against me, except something different happened when I got shot.
And that brings me to the evening that would change my life forever, when I was shot in the chest for doing nothing but existing in this world as a young black man. To the people who would love to criminalize me for my black skin, I want to say this:
I was innocent before being shot. I was innocent while being shot. And I’m innocent as I live today. And for all the questions I’ve been asked, most people miss the ones that I ask myself every day.
What is it like to have your life destroyed in mere seconds?
How do you psychologically, physically, and emotionally overcome nearly dying?
What happens when American society and the criminal justice system turns their back on you and say, “Your black life doesn’t matter”?
How do you get over the very real guilt of living through a shooting and the havoc that your continued existence has on the people who love you?
No one knows the answers to those questions except for me. And it’s been a ten-year journey into hell for me to find them.
My name is Robbie Tolan, and this is my story.
Bellaire is one of those predominately white bedroom communities you can find anywhere in America. Adjacent to the city of Houston, with its pesky black and Latino inner-city populations, the Bellaire suburb is a testament to the experience of white flight, with high property values, safe streets, and middle-class stability, whereas the black and brown communities in Houston are equated with ghettos, crime, and slums.
A planned community, Bellaire was supposed to represent a slice of pure Americana, with its streets named Holly, Maple, and Pine. There’s the ubiquitous Texas small-town water tower that celebrates the Bellaire Little League team, and at one point, the Houston Dynamo Major League Soccer team thought about building a stadium in Bellaire, but ultimately decided against it, having instead built in Houston. Bellaire is a quintessential small town, a place where everyone knows everyone, and with less than 2 percent black people, about 150 black folks in total, it wasn’t hard for white people to know who the Tolans were. We were the only African American family on our block.
Our house was located at 804 Woodstock Drive, and it’s ironic that the most violent episode of my life would take place on a street named after the 1960s musical festival that’s known for peace and love, but that’s where it all happened.
A lot of people talk about their neighborhood as being an archetype of the utopian neighborhood from the 1950s television show Leave It to Beaver, but my street really could have been a model for that show. Full of modest-sized ranch-style homes, with the occasional two-story brick house, our home could have been a model home for any suburb in Anytown, USA. We weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor either. We were living the American Dream of being solidly middle class, with middle-class values and middle-class attitudes.
Everyone on my block pretty much had a gardener come by once a week to keep the lawns neat and trimmed, because no one wanted to be that homeowner, the one who didn’t keep up their house. And as was expected in a neighborhood where streets were named Maple and Elm, trees were everywhere. Besides the trees lining the street next to the sidewalks, most homes also had one or two trees in the middle of their yards. We had three tall majestic trees, each reaching over fifty feet, standing guard over our house like Roman sentinels. To the right of those trees was a one-car driveway that was a short walk to the front door. Our house was right in the middle of the block, with a cul-de-sac about a quarter of a mile down at the end.
As I noted earlier, my father, Bobby Tolan, was an ex-Major League Baseball player, who’d been in the league for a dozen years playing for the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, San Diego Padres, Philadelphia Phillies, and Pittsburgh Pirates before retiring. He’d been one of the key cogs on one of baseball’s all time great teams, the 1967 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, a team featuring four future Hall of Famers—Lou Brock, Orlando Cepeda, Steve Carlton, and Bob Gibson.
Athletics is, and has always been, the family business for anyone with any connection to the Tolan bloodlines. It started with my uncle, Eddie “Midnight Express” Tolan, the first African American to be named the “World’s Fastest Human” after having won the one-hundred-and two-hundred-meter gold medals at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. And as I said, my father had more than a cup of coffee in the major leagues, but he’s not even the most famous family member to play baseball. That honor would go to my cousin, the Major League Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr.
I was a pretty good athlete at Bellaire High, and I’d played a bit of baseball at Prairie View A&M before heading to the Washington Nationals Minor League system. So yeah, when I hit the football field or the baseball field, I was used to all eyes being on me, to the point that, as a kid, I used to conduct my own “postgame interviews” as a way to entertain myself after playing Little League games, just like my big league idols.
“So Robbie, how do you think you did today?” I’d ask my eight-year-old self in the car after a game.
“Well sir,” I’d respond, trying to deepen my voice to approximate the voices of major leaguers I saw on television and people like Tony Gwynn, who we knew as a family friend. “I went three for four, with two home runs and a triple, but I really think that I could have done a little bit better. But we’ll get back after them next Saturday.”
Everyone, especially my parents, got a kick out of my “interviews,” but little did they know that they’d play an important role in how I’d deal with the media when I was truly put in the hot glare of television cameras from around the world. I was mentally preparing myself to answer questions, and I didn’t even know it.
But then again, it wasn’t like we were looking to be in the spotlight in the first place. We were the quiet black family in town who kept to their own business, never had an issue with our neighbors, and definitely never had any confrontations with the Bellaire police. There might have been one or two times during the fifteen years we’d lived in town when there was a complaint about noise from a party, but nothing serious. In fact, we were quite used to seeing Bellaire police driving up and down our neighborhood blocks, not necessarily to harass, but to serve and protect. Before I got shot, my family thought it was part of the community the police were trying to protect, but au contraire we soon found out. Perhaps if we’d been paying attention, we’d have noticed the warning signs indicating that all wasn’t well between the Bellaire police and people of color.
For instance, an incident that was eerily similar to what happened to me six years later happened to a guy named Jose Cruz, Jr. He’d been stopped by the Bellaire police for a missing front license plate, and on the face of it, that’s not much of an issue. The officer gives you a Fix-It ticket warning, you feel good about not getting an expensive ticket for speeding or an illegal lane change, and you go on your own way. It happens a million times a year all across America, except in Cruz, Jr.’s case he ended up arrested and jailed for a night for that missing license plate.
What made Cruz’s experience so weird to me is the fact that we have similar backgrounds. An alumni of Bellaire High School like me? Check. Has a dad who was also a former Major League ball player? Check. Jose Cruz, Sr. was a former Houston Astros player and coach and was a legend not only within the club but in Texas baseball in general. The Puerto Rican had been inducted into both the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame and the Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum. Come from a family of athletes? Check again. His uncles Hector and Tommy Cruz were also long-time Major League baseball players. But none of that mattered when the Bellaire police stopped him.
So why was Cruz, Jr. arrested for a missing license plate, which, he explained as his pregnant wife sat in the passenger seat, was only missing because the car was new? Did he resist arrest? Try to drive away from the scene? Get aggressive in how he interacted with the police officer? Nope. Cruz, Jr. was arrested because the Bellaire police falsely claimed there were warrants out for his arrest, and despite not having anything on his record, Cruz, Jr. was handcuffed and taken to jail. You can’t be surprised that Cruz, Jr. believed that he was racially profiled. It was a big deal in Bellaire, and despite the apologies from Bellaire officials, Cruz, Jr. never forgot and eventually moved out of Bellaire because of it.
After my shooting incident occurred, a reporter from the Houston Chronicle decided to interview some of the 150 black residents of Bellaire and ask them about their experience with the Bellaire police. There was a litany of racial profiling complaints.
One long-time resident, a caterer, had been followed from the grocery store and then verbally abused in front of his children. Earlier, the caterer had been stopped because the Bellaire police claimed that his Ford truck could have been stolen, so they needed to run his plates. It wasn’t stolen. It was clear to me that the excuse of a stolen car was the go-to reason for Bellaire police to justify a traffic stop.
In another grocery store incident, a husband and wife had been handcuffed and searched by Bellaire police after a store manager falsely accused them of shoplifting. A black anesthesiologist claimed he was stopped four times in his first year in Bellaire, with the harassment ending only after he went to police headquarters to complain. One story particularly resonated with me because of how absurd it was, and it revolved around something simple: Christmas lights.
One black Bellaire homeowner related the story of one of his black friends, who was putting up Christmas lights on his house one December. What could be more normal? It’s the Christmas season, and there are millions of Americans throughout the country untangling lights, climbing up janky ladders, and praying that they’re not going to fall and break their necks, all to run up their December electric bill in the name of holiday cheer. Nothing unusual, except in the eyes of the Bellaire police apparently, because when they saw a black man on a ladder holding Christmas lights, they couldn’t put two and two together and come to the conclusion that this black man probably owned the house. In other words, the police wanted answers to their unsaid racial prejudices as they stopped in front of the man’s house.
“An officer pulled up and asked him what he was doing and if the owner of the house knew what was going on,” the black Bellaire homeowner recounted about his black friend’s experience. “He told him that he was the owner. He said the cop looked embarrassed and drove off.”
- On Sale
- Jan 9, 2018
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Center Street