The Age Of Light
Whitney Scharer
Contributed by Elene Blackwelder
Chapter 3

Throughout this chapter, Swenson recounts the three teenagers’ (Ronnie, Rickey, and Wiley) arrest and detention. He also gives an account of Cleveland’s controversial history in the  1960s and 1970s. Swenson begins by describing the confused state the three boys found themselves in when a dozen police officers carrying guns and bright flashlights arrived at the Bridgeman’s house, in the early hours of the morning, and forced everybody outside. Coincidentally, Rickey had stayed over at the Bridgeman’s home. The three boys, together with Mrs. Bridgeman, were all frisked and forced into waiting police vehicles. Swenson describes the police as having “handled the fifty-seven-year-old woman like luggage, dragging her out of bed while her pained moans filled the hallway” (Swenson, 2019, p. 50).

At the police station, the three teenagers, together with four other young men, were all lined up for identification. After being allowed to make a call to his mother, Rickey saw a young boy from the neighborhood named Edward (Ed) Vernon, who was in the company of two detectives. Word had been spreading across their neighborhood that Ed was claiming to have seen Mr. Frank’s killers. This was when it dawned on Rickey that they had been arrested in connection to the murder. After being taken to court, Judge John Angelotta, the first judge to see the trio’s case, argued that the case was “woefully thin” due to the lack of physical evidence. However, an assistant prosecutor convinced the judge to have the boys remain in police custody, arguing that Anna Robinson, the other victim during Mr. Frank’s murder, was still recovering in hospital and was yet to see the suspects. The three boys would later be placed in separate rooms and coerced by detectives into confessing to the charges with the promise of getting a lenient sentence. When Rickey refused to agree to the charges, Swenson narrates that “fists continued rolling on him like beats of a drum”, with one officer thundering “a good man was killed, you fucking nigger!” (Swenson, 2019, p. 69).

At several intervals, Swenson shifts into narrating about the urban unrest that swept across many U.S. cities in the 1960s, including Cleveland, Harlem, Watts, Detroit, and Newark; the unrest reaching its height shortly after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. When Lyndon Johnson took office as the 36th President of the United States, he embarked on an ambitious agenda aimed at wiping out the root causes of the unrest. This agenda, which he dubbed the “War on Poverty,” mainly involved a series of federal programs and interventions that aimed at “mainlining job programs and welfare initiatives into the inner parts of cities” with the objective of improving the lives of alienated communities. However, the programs failed to calm the riots, making President Johnson believe that the unrest was down to instigators, and not a collective outcry over larger structural inequalities. President Johnson therefore shifted his administration’s attention away from dealing with poverty to law enforcement. Data-driven crime enforcement was adopted, with police departments given huge grants to offer incentives to the police on the front lines. Swenson explains that police would beat African American suspects, coerce information, or have them change clothes before a lineup “for an easier ID” — all for the sake of ramping up convictions. 


Swenson implies that the three boys were detained unfairly, especially considering that the police lacked convincing evidence. Swenson is keen to describe the manner in which the Bridgemans’ home was invaded, and everybody manhandled — including Ronnie’s mother, a fifty-seven-year-old woman — over something that they were not aware of or told anything about. This serves to showcase police brutality towards non-convicted and still–technically innocent suspects. Swenson also makes sure to reveal the reasoning behind the zeal that the prosecution and the police handling the trio’s case were displaying, trying to have them convicted despite lacking substantiated evidence. Swenson describes how the detectives involved used varying tactics, including coercion and beatings, to get the boys to accept the charges. 

Using a well-illustrated historical account of law enforcement behavior during the period, Swenson compares the boys’ experiences with the general behavior of police towards African Americans across the country. Swenson posits that the scale of police brutality was increased by President Johnson’s data-driven “war on crime” decree. Swenson is of the thought that the urge to win as many cases as possible, which was driven by various incentives including monetary grants from the federal government, compelled the police to use all manner of tactics to force suspects into pleading guilty without following the correct judicial procedures.

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