It was the early morning hours of Oct. 6, 1976. Adolph Lyons, a 24-year-old African-American, was driving through Los Angeles with a broken taillight.
Two LAPD officers in a squad car pulled Lyons over, and approached with their pistols drawn. Lyons got out, the cops turned him around, spread eagle, and placed his hands on the back of his head. Lyons’ keys, still in his hand, dug into his scalp and he complained. One of the police officers called that resisting arrest and grabbed Lyons from behind, putting an arm across Lyons’ neck. The cop kept Lyons in the chokehold until he passed out and dropped to the ground.
Lyons awoke to find that he had urinated and defecated on himself and was coughing up blood and dirt. The police officers who had pulled him over then issued him a citation -- a traffic ticket for the broken taillight -- and let Lyons go.
Reporter Dave Gilson of Mother Jones Magazine rediscovered this story after the death of Eric Garner last summer. Garner had been put in a chokehold by a police officer on Staten Island, N.Y.; his death was later ruled a homicide. Gilson wanted to know if the use of chokeholds by police had ever come before the federal courts -- and it had.
Adolph Lyons sued the City of Los Angeles for violating his constitutional rights: the right to due process under the Fifth Amendment, and the right to equal protection, under the Fourteenth Amendment. His case rose all the way to the Supreme Court, where, in 1982, the high court included the nation’s first African-American Justice and the grandson of slaves: Justice Thurgood Marshall.
In this week’s DecodeDC podcast, host Andrea Seabrook and Mother Jones reporter Dave Gilson recount the case of Adolph Lyons and the legal battle over race, police and chokeholds. The case’s similarities with the case of Eric Garner are palpable and stunning. And the conclusions of Thurgood Marshall show that the issues of race, police and chokeholds struck people of conscience long before Eric Garner’s death.