David Carr's 'first story' about police brutality is relevant today

David CarrGettyDavid Carr

Revered New York Times columnist David Carr collapsed in his office and died Thursday night at age 58.

Following an unlikely career arc, Carr “wriggled away from addiction,” as the Times obituary puts it, to become the paper’s media columnist.

Carr, who majored in journalism at the University of Minnesota, experienced one of his biggest breaks exploring police brutality for the Twin Cities Readers, a now defunct alternative newsweekly in Minneapolis for which he eventually served as editor.

With the death of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice — to name just a few of the black males killed as a result of police action in this last year — Carr’s big break, written back in 1982, has booming relevance today.

Carr’s piece tells the story of a middle-aged, well-behaved white man who intervened during the arrest of three black males in Minneapolis. Tempers had flared during a routine arrest, and the police allegedly beat the one of the black men, named Robert Thomas.

“The locals watched and bitched, but they had seen bad before and they knew better than to confront a hyped cop,” Carr begins. “All except Peter Trebtoske.”

At around 8:30 p.m., two officers with the Minneapolis police pulled over a vehicle with three black males and two children. A routine check revealed the driver’s licence had been suspended, and officers also found a can of beer in the front seat.

The officers attempted to release the car and the children to Robert Thomas, the third man in the backseat, but they couldn’t verify he had a valid licence, although he insisted he did. (Information would later prove his claims true.)

The police started to get violent with Thomas. That’s when Trebtoske intervened. He asked a simple question: “Why did you have to do that?” according to Carr. And the police got violent with him, too — enough to send him to the emergency room.

Trebtoske, 49 and married with 4 kids, was charged with interfering with arrest and disorderly conduct — even though a judge found Thomas not guilty of providing false information and disorderly conduct.

“Peter helped me out when I needed it,” Thomas said. “Here I was in the back of a car with wo kids and no way home. What was I going to do?”

Trebotoske eventually filed assault charges against the officer, causing a rift within the community. The court offered to turn his charge into a misdemeanour, but he wanted to go through the judicial process instead.

Read Carr’s full piece here ยป

As it turns out, Trebtoske was a friend of Carr’s father, he told Aaron Sorkin during a Q&A for Interview Magazine.

“So I said to my dad, ‘Boy, somebody should do a story about that.’ And my dad said, ‘I thought that’s what you were doing — that you were a journalist.’ So that became my first story,” he recalled.

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