Long Story Short: Still kicking, still crazy, and Fillmore

Work on the Queen City Progression begins.

You’ll get a kick out of this

The popular Amazon Prime series Cobra Kai and the classic 1984 martial arts hit The Karate Kid, turn out to have a Western New York connection.

The cataract kid

Pat Johnson was born in 1939 in Niagara Falls. His father abandoned the family and his uneducated mother struggled to provide for her eleven kids. Johnson and several siblings were placed by child welfare in Sisters of Mercy Orphanage in Buffalo, where he remained until age nine. When his mother got a job at International Paper Mill in Buffalo, he and the rest of his "dirt poor" family reunited, moving into "the projects." There, Johnson was bullied by older children, who regularly beat him up.

Eventually, he adopted a strategy of lying in wait, pop bottle in hand, until one his foes rounded a corner, at which time he’d smack him on the head and run like hell. Then he’d take another beating later. Eventually the bullies got tired of having sore heads, and they moved on to less gutsy victims. 

"That's when I learned that you have to stand your ground no matter what," Johnson says in an interview with Black Belt magazine. "To this day I will never bother anyone unless they bother me."

Training, teaching, and a chance meeting

In 1962, Johnson entered the army and befriended a Korean named Kang Lo Hee who taught him the karate-based martial art Tang Soo Do in exchange for English tutoring. Turns out, Johnson was good at it and he earned a first-degree black belt in only thirteen months, before returning to Buffalo. There were no Tang Soo Do schools in town, so Johnson opened one called Kim's Studio, named after the only instructor he could find.

Johnson began competing in tournaments, and at a match in Detroit he met a young martial artist who had trained in Korea, Chuck Norris. Norris already had several karate schools, and he told Johnson to look him up if he ever got to California.

California dreaming  

On an impulse Johnson did just that, jumping on a Greyhound Bus with only a single suitcase and a little money. Norris asked him to take over one of his schools in Sherman Oaks, and it turned out the former Buffalonian was also a good instructor.

Johnson joined the Chuck Norris Competition Team, quickly becoming the team captain. Those early run-ins with Buffalo bullies, says Johnson, influenced his fighting style, in which he would wait for his opponent to strike, while giving him openings to sucker him in. In 198 matches, he won all but two, with one loss and one voluntary draw. Johnson eventually assumed responsibility for Norris’s studios, as the latter went off to be a movie star.

Another encounter leads to Hollywood

Through Norris, Johnson met Bruce Lee, who asked him to perform a small scene in Enter the Dragon. From there, Johnson got into acting, stunt work, chorography, and scriptwriting. When the movie The Karate Kid was in pre-production, Johnson was hired to train the actors. Having read the script, he chose to teach Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita with a gentle approach, while treating the Cobra Kai actors harshly. For fans of The Karate Kid and Cobra Kai, Johnson has something to say about Martin Kove, who plays the thoroughly evil John Kreese. "[He] was really a wonderful, wonderful man, and for him to act so mean on screen, it was just amazing." Ah yes, acting.

Still kicking

Today, at eighty-one, Johnson still teaches martial arts in California. He’s no fan of easily acquired blackbelts, out of concern that students are misled into thinking they’re more able to defend themselves than they really are. These poorly trained blackbelts then open their own schools and pass on the mediocrity, he says.

A trip to Caputo world

Where to begin?

Donald Trump’s recent appointee as Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), Michael Caputo, has a vivid imagination. The East Aurora resident and longtime Republican consultant has no medical or scientific background, but does possess a fondness for conspiracy theories. He also shares Trump’s inflated sense of self-importance. Over the past two weeks, Caputo’s paranoia and delusions of grandeur have merged with a persecution complex to put him smack in the center of the perfect media storm. 

The story begins

On September 11, it was revealed that Caputo’s health department was demanding to review the weekly scientific reports of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to make changes regarding the COVID-19 message, and control what infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci says publicly. This was all contained in emails sent by Caputo’s senior advisor, and obtained by Politico. The New York Times reports that current and former senior health officials with direct knowledge of phone calls, emails, and other communication between the agencies, say meddling from Washington is turning weekly morbidity and mortality reports into a political loyalty test.

Things gets worse

Last Sunday, Caputo posted an extended rant on Facebook, in which he made outlandish claims that seditious CDC scientists are working in a "resistance unit" to undermine the President. He also claimed that left-wing hit squads are preparing for an armed insurrection after the election: "And when Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin." He advised gun owners to buy ammunition "because it's going to be hard to get." This is the guy Trump chose as the spokesperson for the Health and Human Services of the United States!

Caputo’s rant also alleged that scientists "deep in the bowels of the CDC have given up science and become political animals." It’s hard to describe how mentally fragile and paranoid he sounds. Listen and judge for yourself. Caputo’s Facebook and Twitter accounts were deactivated sometime later that day.

Feeble pretext

On Tuesday, Caputo apologized to his staff for the rant, portraying himself, as he often does, as a victim. On Wednesday, he announced that he will take a two-month leave from the HHS for "necessary screenings for a lymphatic issue discovered last week." He seemed to be tying this to recent weight loss and erratic behavior, though these things would not appear to be related to the lymphatic system. He has also claimed publicly that his family receives death threats, which takes a toll on his emotional health. He has made the same claim previously, when he testified for Robert Mueller’s special investigation. 

Can we just take a moment and consider this? Caputo was a minor witness in the Mueller probe and he occupies a low-profile position in the federal government. If his family is getting death threats, then certainly many other current and former members of the Trump administration are also, but Caputo is the only one who regularly blames the threats for his behavior. Ever the martyr.  

Who is this man?

The Huffington Post reminded us last week that Caputo lived in Russia for six years and helped Boris Yeltsin get elected as president. Putin is widely known to be a murderous thug, but Caputo says, "at the time [he] wasn’t such a bad guy," leaving us to judge the HHS spokesperson’s grip on reality. He has since attempted to scrub his links to Russia from his Wikipedia bio.

Caputo seems to have only a passing acquaintance with facts. He’s quick to assert that others are misinformed or naive, claiming he’s privy to inside information. It should be clear now that this information largely originates inside his head. 

Shoot, protest, repeat

It boggles the mind.

At a time when police are under a microscope for their treatment of people of color, it took just fifteen minutes from the time a 911 call was logged on Saturday, September 12, reporting a man in a "mental health crisis," for the police to shoot him. The call said that an older black man had been shouting for about three hours. Where I live, near Buffalo State Hospital, such behavior occurs occasionally. It’s troubling and sad, but it doesn’t present a threat.

At least ten officers followed sixty-year-old Willie Henley for five blocks down Genesee Street at Elm as he tried to walk away, saying he didn’t call them. As is often the case these days, a witness followed and recorded the incident. 

Henley was carrying a baseball bat. Later it was reported that he carries that bat wherever he goes; he sleeps with it on the street and takes it with him for meals at Buffalo City Mission. He is known as a "very quiet, very peaceful" person. Carrying a bat is odd behavior, but there’s no law against it. The police report says that Alyssa Peron—a rookie officer with three days on the job—attempted to hit Henley with an expandable metal baton.

Pause here

A mentally ill man in distress is surrounded by ten police officers who won’t leave him alone despite his insistence that he doesn’t need or want them there. One of the cops attacks him with a metal baton—a self-defense weapon meant to strike, incapacitate, and evade attackers. Again, this is a mentally ill man with a bat! Is anyone surprised that he swung back at the attacking officer, hitting her in the arm and shoulder? Three bat swings take a bit of time; couldn’t Peron back away? Instead, Henley was shot twice by Karl Schultz, Peron’s field training officer. With ten officers, it seems like one of them could have tackled the senior citizen, rather than shooting him. Or better yet, they could have dropped back and followed at a distance if necessary. There are so many options to deal with the situation—all of them well short of two slugs in the gut. 

"Mr. Henley has no justification to use that baseball bat," said Erie County District Attorney John Flynn. Justification? It’s hard to know what might seem justified in a mentally ill man’s mind, but there’s no question that Henley was provoked.

Not the first time

Some police go their entire career without firing their gun in the line of duty. In 2012, officer Karl Schultz fired several shots at seventeen-year-old Wilson Morale during a traffic stop, leaving him paralyzed for life and costing the city $4.5 million dollars in a lawsuit settlement. He was the shooter again Saturday. Officer Schultz has had the most complaints filed against him over the past five years among Buffalo police, seventeen in his career, including numerous excessive force claims. He’s also a defendant, along with other officers, in a federal civil lawsuit for unlawful arrest in which he is charged with lying about the arrested citizen’s actions.

The story continues

Tuesday, the Buffalo Common Council approved a year-long contract between BPD and Endeavor Health Services, meant to pair licensed health care and clinical social workers with police, as part of a Crisis Intervention Team to respond to mental health crises.

Local social workers promptly spoke out against the plan. Why? Because they don’t want to be calming down people experiencing mental health crises, while simultaneously de-escalating officers like Schultz. Mental health professionals get the job done without bullets. Mayor Brown insists the plan will work, and the approach is endorsed by the National Association of Social Workers.

Peaceful protests

While President Trump and some local Black Lives Matter critics emphasize instances of violence during protests, Buffalo staged at least two demonstrations last week in response to the Henley shooting, without incident. Last Monday and Saturday, protestors gathered near the site where the shooting occurred to call for the resignations of Erie County District Attorney John Flynn, Mayor Byron Brown, and Buffalo Police Commissioner Byron Lockwood. Another protest Saturday evening was peaceful enough for my six-year-old granddaughter to attend. Her mom allowed her to chant along with the crowd.

Loose ends and final thoughts

At an earlier, widely reported protest at M.T. Pockets on Hertel Avenue, a seemingly mentally unstable white man held a Louisville Slugger baseball bat cane. Protestors shouted that he had a bat and attempted to disarm him. Police intervened on behalf of the man, who then ranted in their faces while wielding the bat. No one was shot.

Most Buffalo police are not equipped with tasers, which might have been used to prevent the shooting. Though tasers have been around for years, Buffalo was just due to purchase some when COVID-19 struck, cutting the budget.

On Monday, Mark Poloncarz announced the establishment of the Erie County Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative Task Force, naming the members. Schultz and Peron were put on administrative leave, standard practice in such cases. Henley is in the hospital in stable condition. Buffalo Police have charged him with second-degree assault and third-degree criminal possession of a weapon.

More on Fillmore

On September 6, the Buffalo News ran an article titled Council seeks input on stripping Millard Fillmore's name from Buffalo properties. Included were the following lines: "Through Oct. 1, the Council is accepting comments from individuals about the removal of Fillmore's name from city properties and renaming them. The opinions will be part of the public record and will count in the decision-making process."

I made a mental note to comment at some point before the deadline, because I’m not convinced that Fillmore should be expunged from the city, despite his involvement with the terrible Fugitive Slave Act. I briefly addressed this in a previous LSS article. There’s more to say, but people would be forgiven for thinking it’s already too late.

Two news sources 

On September 8, Newsweek ran an article titled, What Did Millard Fillmore Do? Here's Why a Buffalo Town Wants His Name Removed From Their Buildings. It includes the following line: "The Buffalo Common Council approved to remove the 13th President of the United State's name from properties throughout the city on Tuesday." It ends with the line: "What Buffalo will rename their properties remains to be seen. Through October 1, the city will be accepting suggestions to take under consideration." I was incredulous. The next day the Washington DC-based news website The Hill had an article titled: "Buffalo lawmakers approve motion to remove Millard Fillmore's name from city-owned properties." The first sentence of the article echoed the title.

I contacted my Council Member, Joel Feroleto, and asked what’s going on? His response: "The Council passed a resolution directing central staff to poll the city with what to do with Millard Fillmore's name on city owned property. No decision on removing/renaming; just asking for input."

Council Member Feroleto sent a copy of the resolution, which reads in part: "Resolved that The City of Buffalo Common Council- 1) Directs Council Central Staff to establish a poll on what city-owned property that bears the name Fillmore should be changed and what new name should take its place;" Despite the semicolon, that’s where it ends. Feroleto urged me to contact Council President Darius Pridgen, who sponsored the bill. I asked if Feroleto believed that these two prestigious news sources have it wrong. "They do," he said, "I’m sure if you emailed council president, he would get back to you and say same thing."

The email

On Wednesday, September 9, I emailed Pridgen, focusing on the wording of the resolution. I wondered why it uses the phrase, "what City-owned property," instead of "whether City-owned property." And why does it ask what new name should take its place, unless the purge is a fait accompli?

I didn’t receive a response the following day, so I followed up with Feroleto. "I spoke with Marc Pope [Pridgen legislative staff member]’" he replied, "and told him to look for email, and he said he will respond." Another day went by, and Feroleto said he would remind him again. Pridgen’s automated email response says that he will answer questions within four days.

The reply

A week later Marc Pope sent an email apologizing for the delay and explaining that a local news agency got it wrong, causing the erroneous national articles. "We did not put forth a resolution to remove the name," he says, "but to hear from the public on their thoughts of removing the name. It is not a done deal and Council Staff is still taking comments until the end of the month."

The takeaway

The question of Millard Fillmore’s legacy in Buffalo is not a simple one. Popular opinion—especially during periods of heightened sentiment—should only be one of several considerations. The wording of the resolution is poor (or maybe revealing). Pope didn’t address the phrasing in his response, and a follow-up email was not returned.

I have no vested interest in Millard Filmore, but I wince when decisions are made with insufficient consideration under emotional pressure. Apparently, the public can still comment. Just don’t expect a reply.  


Fit for a Queen City

Murals have become ubiquitous around town in recent years, but a new one now in progress stands apart from the crowd. Work on The Queen City Procession by Joe Völlan is underway. Völlan is a nationally known artist/illustrator with a distinctly eerie style he calls "doom folk art." The mural is curated by Revolution Gallery, a venue known for its dark and otherworldly pop surrealist vibe. The painting is located on a wall behind the gallery at 1419 Hertel Avenue, with access from North Park Avenue.   

Most of Völlan’s works are set in a postapocalyptic factory town, perhaps not unlike Buffalo in our darkest imagination. His imagery, which is dominated by anthropomorphized animals and skeletons, seems derived from children’s book illustrations—think Roald Dahl’s Mr. Fox via celebrating Day of the Dead.

Fifty but still youthful

Pop surrealism, which dates to the 1960s, is associated with lowbrow art, having its roots in hot-rod culture, underground comics, punk, graffiti, and heavy metal, among other influences. Though now over fifty years old, the populist style has a strong following among young people, partly because it benefits from a continuous influx of fresh cultural references.

Völlan works in a meticulous illustrative style, and though the mural is on rough brick, the artist is not forgoing detail. Unlike many murals, this one will be equally viewable up close as from a distance. "This is Völlan’s first ever outdoor mural," says Revolution Gallery co-owner Maria Pabico LaRotonda, "and it’s the first one he’s done in northeastern United States." The plan is to unveil the finished work on October 30.

Setting it apart

Most commissioned public murals lean toward safe but dazzling subject matter. Völlan’s work strives for a darker, more sardonic tone, in sync with Revolution Gallery aesthetics. When finished, the painting will depict a fairytale parade of creatures, some of which make recurring appearances in the artist’s work, and a couple uniquely familiar to Buffalo (Shark Girl makes an appearance).

Revolution Gallery is asking the public to help fund the Völlan mural through donations. Contributions of any amount are appreciated, but certain price points earn rewards. Those giving $250 or higher will receive a limited-edition archival print of the work, photographed by Buffalo Spree photographer, kc kratt

Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.

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