Love & Loathing

Robert Love felt his heart race and palms sweat on the steering wheel of his 1993 Ford Explorer as he reached downtown Pahokee just before 9:30 p.m. on February 25. The police squad car behind him, driven by a rookie cop unaware of who it was driving without his headlights on, had just flicked on its cherries. Love, a 48-year-old black man and former drug dealer-cum-political activist, knew that this could be it. This could be the confrontation in an ongoing feud that would lead to his demise -- or the death of a small-town cop.

Love's peculiar mixture of street savvy and religion led him to believe that the devil and God were struggling for control over his next move. The devil was pushing him to keep driving, to take the easy way out, to coast just far enough to get to the Rardin neighborhood a few blocks away, the safety of black downtown.

"Come on downtown, Robert Love; let 'em shine the lights on you," the devil called. "C'mon downtown. Then when you get out, they ain't gonna do nothin'." Down in the 'hood, the cops wouldn't dare go too far. There had been too many times when the bottles and rocks had flown at them from the midst of a crowd.

But Love's good side prevailed. He stopped on the deserted main street, beside an old storefront festooned with weathered planks nailed over the windows. Here's where God would see to it that "everything'll get done," he believed.

Ten minutes later, Love was facedown on the concrete, with one cop's arm wrapped around his neck and another officer raining down a flurry of blows. Even by the officers' own accounts, it was a brutal encounter.

Officer James Levey, a plump-faced 27-year-old, who is white, slammed his retractable baton into Love's torso over and over. When the baton collapsed, he punched Love in the ribs with his fist several times. Fearing that Love was going to break his fellow officer's arm, Levey moved up and began punching Love on the side of his head. Finally, Levey cuffed the stunned Love and dumped him into a squad car.

His head swollen like a macabre melon and the bone around his eye a shattered mess, Love moaned for medical attention from the back seat of the car.

Love, however, who requires reconstructive bone surgery on his face, was not the only casualty of the night.

The incident had rapidly escalated from routine traffic stop to violent arrest to ham-handed police action, threatening to spill over into the city's troubled civic life. Police came within inches of throwing several city officials, including the mayor, into the slammer for asking questions. The city manager, long a critic of the police, stumbled back into her car when a deputy raised what she thought was a real gun at her -- an incident for which the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office is now investigating two of its deputies. Within days, Levey had resigned. Rafael Duran, the native son who'd returned home to run the Police Department, stepped down in lieu of termination after a rocky, 16-month ride.

At its most basic level, the bloody confrontation was the inexorable climax of a personal feud that consumed a handful of men. For more than a year, Love had been warring with the Police Department, claiming certain officers were corrupt and out of control. Love's confrontations with the cops had escalated, and they'd arrested him several times for everything from disorderly conduct to stalking.

In a greater sense, though, the dispute -- like a small-scale Rodney King incident -- was part of a struggle for control of the city, a clash of wills over what the volatile town can and should be.

There's something soothingly predictable about Pahokee. Trapped by thousands of acres of sugar cane to the east and pinned against Lake Okeechobee to the west, the town of 6,500 souls is so remote, it provides few diversions. So its residents have a knack for providing their own entertainment -- particularly in Rardin, the black neighborhood east of downtown named for the avenue that runs through its heart.

On a Thursday evening early in April, everyone's getting a jump on the weekend, buoyed by the extra sunlight brought by the sudden switch to daylight-saving time. The blocks of Rardin are alive, as though a festival has commenced. Middle-aged men sip bottles of Corona and set up homemade barbeque grills on the curb. Other would-be merchants splay their wares on the sidewalks and empty lots: baseball cards, clothes, snacks. Old men play dominoes. Teens and young men and women -- pegged by locals as "jitterbugs" for their constant motion -- bop up and down the sidewalks and around the handful of convenience stores on the main highway leading into town. Some sell drugs; some harbor grudges; quarrels are not infrequent.

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson