Baiting the 59th Street Vigilante

Combine a black radical protest with a media rat pack, a righteous homeowner, and a calculating attorney. The result is one surreal scene.

Just after 10 a.m. last Wednesday Patrick McCullough bounced down the steps of his porch on 59th Street in Oakland and took a walk up the block. At the end of the street he came upon a dozen people who had gathered to protest against him. McCullough, dressed casually in sweats and sneakers, carried a digital camera. Once he got within fifteen feet of his adversaries, he stopped, and aimed his lens directly at them.

“I want to know my enemies,” he said as he clicked away.

The group took notice. One guy raised his cell phone camera and aimed it right back at McCullough — a true Digital Age showdown. Another woman pumped her homemade sign that read, “Patrick McCullough: Judge Jury and Executioner. Snitch. Sell Out. Uncle Tom.”

“Who are these people?” McCullough muttered under his breath as he snapped photos. “And where the fuck did they come from?”

One man from the group called out to McCullough, “Yeah that’s right, he can’t shoot us with a gun so he shoot us with his camera.”

McCullough ignored the comment. He looked down at the gadget and fidgeted with the buttons. The battery had gone dead. He headed back down the street to get a new one. “The only thing these people got right is that the kid got shot,” McCullough said as he walked. “Everything else they’re saying is bullshit … This isn’t their neighborhood. This isn’t where they have to live. They should go back to where they came from and stick to making fucking sausage sandwiches.”

On February 18, McCullough shot sixteen-year-old Melvin McHenry in his front yard. The area around Shattuck Avenue and 59th Street has long been known for drug deals — and the homeowner has long been known for calling the cops. According to McCullough, he was chasing off yet another batch of hooded teenagers when he heard McHenry call out for a pistol and saw him reach into a friend’s waistband. Fearing for his life, McCullough claims, he shot first, hitting McHenry in the torso and right arm.

In McHenry’s version, he’d passed McCullough’s house with friends when the angry homeowner provoked the kids. McHenry told police McCullough had grabbed him by the arm and he punched back. After McHenry freed himself, McCullough shot him as he ran away.

Last month the District Attorney’s office declined to charge McCullough, having no evidence to disprove the shooter’s claim of self-defense. Since then, McCullough has been hailed by many of his neighbors as a guy who defended his turf against hoodlums. He has been portrayed in press accounts as a sort of folk hero who wouldn’t be intimidated by the bad guys. Two weeks ago, his wife taped a banner in their front window that spelled out: “I am not moving.”

More recently, though, anti-McCullough posters appeared on lampposts and power boxes in the neighborhood. Rather than praise McCullough’s vigilantism, a group called the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement painted McCullough, who is black, as a racial traitor. The group cites its main goal as “liberation for African people,” and winning slavery reparations from the government. The posters on 59th Street accused McCullough of “ethnic cleansing” — McHenry is also black — and called him an “agent of the state” who is now a “menace to the African Community.” The group called for a demonstration against McCullough last Wednesday morning.

The group’s organizer, Bakari Olatungi, led a chant for his peers:

“Who’s McCullough?/Don’t you see?/Just another snitch/For the O.P.D.”

While the group chanted, and McCullough returned with a new camera battery, a dozen or so media types gathered around and set up cameras. McCullough kept his distance across the street as Olatungi held court. “This shooting is being backed up by the white community,” Olatungi said to the press. “The white community wants this to happen.”

The protesters had their mostly white media visitors a bit confused. Why, one reporter asked, would the white community want this to happen? “They don’t want peace in these neighborhoods,” Olatungi said.

A reporter from the Oakland Tribune asked, “How is this bringing peace to the neighborhood?”

“Peace?” Olatungi barked. “We’re bringing justice to the neighborhood. The peace has already been broken here.”

Olatungi said McCullough “shot a kid in the back as he was running away,” and that the police were supporting him. This, he noted, was why there were two OPD officers at the other end of the street — the OPD worked in cahoots with McCullough. “He’s being protected by the police ’cause he doin’ their job,” a woman from the group said.

“What job was McCullough doing for the police?” a reporter asked.

She looked at her questioner as if he hadn’t paid much attention. “The more black kids you kill,” she reasoned, “the more the cops don’t gotta do their jobs.”

She went on: “Why don’t they stop the sideshows?” Her answer: “Because sideshows killin’ black people.”

The protesters’ logic was lost on their questioners. A Los Angeles Times reporter asked if the activists lived in neighborhoods fraught with drug dealers. And if so, did they stand up to them, or allow dealing to occur?

Olatungi’s response began as refutation of snitches, moved on to gentrification, and ended with a notion of a “land grab.” McCullough, he said, wanted to push out drug dealers so he and other — read “white” — people could buy up houses in the black neighborhood.

The L.A. Times reporter took a step back from the group and muttered into a cupped hand, “I feel like I’m in a Tom Wolfe novel here. I just haven’t figured out who the characters are.”

A little later, a Channel 7 reporter interviewed McCullough on the sidewalk in front of his neighbor’s home. As he spoke to the camera, Ivan Golde, McHenry’s attorney, approached. Golde stopped a few feet away, and appeared to be listening in. A stout guy clad in an overcoat and carrying a take-out coffee cup, he resembled Peter Falk’s Columbo.

McCullough looked over his interviewer’s shoulder and fixed his gaze on Golde. The reporter turned and realized she was caught in the nonverbal crossfire. She asked McCullough if he wanted to continue the interview down the street. And that’s when things got even more surreal. “I’m not gonna move for that creep,” said McCullough, himself a part-time lawyer. He raised his voice and stared at the attorney: “Is that the same Ivan Golde who got kicked out of my law school?”

Golde acknowledged McCullough with a laugh. What happened next was caught verbatim by the Channel 7 camera. The following paraphrased version of the exchange came from handwritten notes:

Golde: Hey Patrick, what are you doing today?

McCullough: Looking at shitheads.

Golde: What’s your definition of a shithead?

McCullough: You.

Golde: What am I? Why am I a shithead?

McCullough: You’re a shyster.

Golde: A shyster.

McCullough: That’s right.

Golde: Is that a derogatory statement because I’m Jewish?

McCullough: It is what it is.

Golde: A shyster is a Yiddish word that means…

McCullough: What are you going to do, call the FBI?

Golde: Maybe.

McCullough: Pull up your pants! Get a belt. And look at your boots. Wipe your nose before you go out in public.

Golde: You’re a sick man, Patrick.

McCullough: You’re a shithead.

Golde: I’ll see ya later, Patrick.

McCullough: I’ll see you the next time I sneeze.

Golde: What’s with you? Are you on drugs?

McCullough: Is your mother?

The Channel 7 reporter leaned over and chuckled to a fellow reporter, “I can’t believe I just heard that.”

Golde: What is it, Patrick? What? You wanna shoot me? Is that what you wanna do?

McCullough: No.

Golde: What do you want to do? Would you do something to physically harm me?

McCullough: No. But I’d do something that you wouldn’t like.

Golde: What would that be?

McCullough: I’d like to piss down your throat.

Golde: You’re sick. Why would you want to do that?

McCullough: Let’s pull down our pants and compare.

Golde: Compare what, Patrick?

McCullough: You don’t have any balls.

By then, one of the cops had walked up the street and moved toward Golde. “Young man, please cross the street and walk away,” he ordered. Golde stepped back, but stayed on the sidewalk. The tension dropped. The cop backed off, and for a moment, peace was restored.

But then McCullough walked toward Golde in a deliberate saunter — as if he were out for a walk on his street. Golde stayed put. McCullough got as close to Golde as a person can get to another without actually touching him. McCullough smiled.

“Officer!” Golde shouted. “This man is harassing me!”

The officer walked over again, even more perturbed. “No, he’s not. Now please, young man, cross the street and walk away.”

“Officer!” Golde protested.

“I’m not going to tell you again,” the cop interrupted. “This is the third time. Cross to the other side of the street and stop antagonizing.”

Golde finally retreated. “I’m going, I’m going,” he said. “You’re a sick man, Patrick. A sick, sick, man.”

A few minutes later the L.A. Times reporter sidled up to the two cops. “Sorry, guys,” he said. “I think that was for my benefit.”

The reporter explained that during an interview with Golde, the attorney had bragged he could bait McCullough. Golde, meanwhile, had followed the Channel 7 cameraman down the block to the news van. “I think I’m a witness in this case now,” Golde pestered the guy. “I should get a copy of that tape.”

Golde was asked whether, indeed, he had set out to provoke McCullough for the benefit of reporters. “I baited him, yeah,” Golde admitted. “What I mean by that is I tested him. I showed you guys what he truly is. He’s got a low threshold.”

Like the protesters who showed up on Patrick McCullough’s street that morning, Golde wasn’t from this neighborhood. After his appearance, he’d go home to another part of town and settle in comfortably. But they all came here to provoke McCullough — and they’d achieved their goal. Regardless, they didn’t recognize how their poking and prodding also had shed a new light on them, the provocateurs.

“You guys owe me for that shit,” Golde said, standing by the news van. “That’s fucking reality TV right there.”

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