Remembering Mark and Jewell

One of the theater groups we’re in did a show a few weeks ago, and we went downtown to Hedback Theater to watch it.

After the show we all headed to The Woodstock Club for drinks, dinner and dancing. Club members can charge drinks to their monthly tabs, but for those of us who aren’t it’s a cash bar. I stopped on the way there to hit up a bank machine for some cocktail cash.

The most convenient cash machine on the way there was one I had been avoiding for 25 years or so. I stopped there anyway, though, and while I was there I talked to one of my college classmates.

Anyone observing me — and someone may have been, since security cameras are trained on the cash machine — would have seen a bearded white guy in a tuxedo apparently talking to himself, since no other person was visible. I apparently didn’t appear to be threatening, as my cash was dispensed and I left without incident.

My classmate hadn’t been as fortunate. His name was Mark French, and due to the similarity of our names we bumped into each other frequently in our political science classes. Mark was a black man in his early- to mid-20s, of slender build and medium height. He was friendly, soft-spoken and a diligent student.

Mark quit coming to classes after he was killed by the Indianapolis police at the bank machine I was using. He was there at night, getting some cash out of his account, just as I was. Unfortunately, while he was there the IPD responded to a false silent alarm from that location, and Mark ran. As he did, he was shot in the back.

An unfortunate mistake; Mark was collateral damage in the war against crime. No reprimands were issued for the shooting — he had run, after all. If only he hadn’t grown up in an environment where it was normal to be scared of police. If only he hadn’t been black….

Mark wasn’t the first person I had known who had been killed by IPD. But his killing took me by surprise, since he was a bright college student who seemed to have had a lot of things going for him.

Jewell Ervin had several things working against him: He was black, and big, and stubborn. And he was a very nice guy.

I came to know Jewell when I worked for the Indianapolis Public Works’ Division of Flood Control. It had started out as a summer job for me, but when I decided not to return to college right away after my freshman year I ended up staying longer. The work was menial — basically, we cleaned out ditches — but it was a broadening experience. There were very few white people who worked at Flood Control, so I became friends with my black coworkers and learned about what life was like for them. Eventually, I came to realize how fortunate I was to be white and middle-class. I could leave Flood Control to go on to better things, which I did. Cleaning muck out of ditches was as good as it was going to get for many of them.

Ervin (we all called each other by our last names) was a big, good-natured guy who had moved to Indiana from Alabama. His broad chest was peppered with dark scars, the result of having been shot with a shotgun. He was strong as an ox, and our go-to guy when a big log or piece of junk needed to be heaved into a truck. He was deathly afraid of snakes, so it was great fun to yell “ERVIN!” and throw a length of rubber hose at him any time we ran across one in a ditch. After he recovered from the initial shock and adrenalin rush, he would always react by reaching into his pocket for his big, hook-billed carpet-laying knife, flip it open and say, “Finch, I’m going to cut you four ways — long, deep, wide, and often!” (Sometimes he’d change it up by saying “consistently” instead of “often.”) After assuring me that he “wasn’t playin’,” we’d all have a good laugh.

Some time after I had left Flood Control, I read about Jewell Ervin in the morning paper. For some reason, the police had arrived at the house he and his wife shared to tow their car away. I don’t recall if it was being repossessed, if the plates were expired, or it was illegally parked, but in any case it was being towed and police were present. *

Ervin and his wife had recently had a baby, and there was a fresh package of Pampers in the car. Ervin wanted to get the Pampers before the car was towed, but the police said no. Ervin’s stubborn streak got the better of him, so he opened the car door to get them anyway. Faced with a big, black, belligerent man with a package of Pampers, IPD did what came naturally: They shot him dead.

A columnist for The Indianapolis Star, Tom Keating, wrote about what had happened to Jewel Ervin, but again no disciplinary action was taken. Keating died, and Jewel Ervin’s name disappeared from the pages of the paper.

He’s still in my memory though, along with Mark French. As I sat in the ballroom at Woodstock nursing my cocktail, I thought of them both. I hope they were with me there in spirit, and enjoyed the evening.

May 10, 2005

*Jewell Ervin’s name can still be found on the Internet, and the police report differs substantially from what I remember from Keating’s column.