Painful chapter in Swann's life A new book recounts his 1974 run-in with police. Painful chapter of Swann's life emerges

Posted: June 18, 2006

HARRISBURG — He was 21 years old, and already a winner. The No. 1 draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Not just an athlete but a kid with a front-row ticket to a good life.

Lynn Swann, the Republican nominee for Pennsylvania governor, was living in San Francisco back then. It was 1974, and the city was under siege by the infamous Zebra killings. Police were on the hunt for suspects believed to be randomly killing whites for racially motivated reasons.

But on Jan. 31 of that year, Swann, his two older brothers, and a cousin were preoccupied with something entirely different: a night on the town to celebrate the wide receiver's being drafted by the Steelers.

What happened that winter night - a traffic stop that led to a street fight with police, a criminal trial, and a civil suit alleging police brutality - is a chapter of Swann's past that he has tried hard to put behind him, even though it could have changed the course of his life.

It is also one that the former football star, who is seeking to become the state's first black governor, has not discussed for decades - at least not in any public way.

But the story of that evening is now part of a new, though little-known, book White Male Privilege, which profiles minorities and their experiences with racism. One of the eight people interviewed for the book, written by Mark Rosenkranz, is Swann's brother Brian.

That book, together with news articles and court records, describes in vivid detail the events of that night.

It is a story, quite simply, about race.

And from Swann's perspective, it is a tale that's "not an unusual story in America," even these days.

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This much is certain: The plan was to go to a restaurant in San Francisco. So the Swann brothers and their cousin piled into their father's blue Mercury, and hit the town. They ate, they talked, and they played a then-popular arcade game called Pong.

On the way home shortly after 1 a.m., Brian Swann was behind the wheel. Court documents indicate that he ran a red light and was pulled over by two city police officers at Union and Van Ness Streets.

He was cited for running the light and for having a so-called mutilated driver's license.

Then an ugly street brawl ensued.

That is where the agreement ends.

According to court records, the Swanns and their cousin, Michael Henderson, said the officers - who were later joined by 10 others - kicked, beat, maced and struck them with batons, and called them, among other racial slurs, black monkeys and aborigines.

In White Male Privilege, Brian Swann also describes being handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police wagon with the three others. He said the driver deliberately swerved the vehicle and slammed on the brakes on the way to the station.

There, they were roughed up even more, according to the brothers, and then thrown in jail for the night.

In an interview Friday, Lynn Swann said he believes they were pulled over because of the color of their skin. "I have no doubt about it," he said.

The two officers who stopped them gave a different version.

According to court records, they said they were forced to call for backup because the Swanns and Henderson hurled insults and then attacked them, pinning one of the officers down on the street and stripping him of his nightstick.

Six police vehicles and 10 officers responded in the Swann stop, records show.

Both arresting officers - identified in court records as Walter Cullop and Dennis McClellan - declined to be interviewed for this article. One of the two lawyers who represented them has died; the other could not be reached.

When it was over, both sides were treated for injuries. The Swann brothers and Henderson were arrested and charged with battery on police officers.

The criminal trial started five months later. Swann and his companions were acquitted.

But it did not end there.

"We were unjustly stopped and beaten by the police - the whole process was a violation of our rights," Swann said in Friday's interview. "We weren't going to let it go."

The Swanns and Henderson filed a $2 million civil suit, alleging false arrest, false imprisonment, assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The four men alleged that police stopped them as part of the police department's effort to catch the Zebra killers. (Eventually, black extremists who were part of a splinter group called the Death Angels were convicted of the murders).

The officers countersued, also alleging brutality at the hands of Henderson and the Swann brothers.

The case was tangled up in the courts for nearly a decade. Dozens of people were called to be deposed as expert witnesses. Among them was O.J. Simpson, a friend of Swann's.

In a rather unusual resolution, both sides received jury awards. The Swann brothers and Henderson were awarded about $40,500 each. The two San Francisco police officers who stopped the Swanns were awarded a total of $15,000 from Henderson and the Swanns.

Even before he hit the campaign trail, Swann seldom talked about the incident - not during the myriad speeches he's given over the years; not as a promoter for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America; not as a football legend who inspired a generation of kids.

Even now, he said, he is talking about it only "because you're bringing it up." He said it didn't influence his politics, or his decision to seek elected office.

He said he does not dwell on the past - the night in San Francisco was something that happened a long time ago, before he went on to win four Super Bowls and get inducted into the Hall of Fame. And long before he went on to run for governor.

But the incident was traumatic, he said, and had a dramatic impact on his life.

He remembers, for instance, waiting for the verdict in the criminal trial. He said the district attorney prosecuting the case told him that if the jury found him guilty, he would ask for jail time.

"That a young man who had never been involved in any altercation, who had a spotless record, could end up in jail - I found that extraordinary," Swann said.

"Unfortunately, it's not an unusual story in America," he said. "There are many African Americans who have been profiled, who have been beaten and who have even died."

The experience is a lesson, he said, in how to use power in any profession, including politics.

"There will always be those who misuse their power - not just in law enforcement, but in any area, in the classroom, in business, in politics."

He said he was disappointed in the outcome of the civil proceedings because both sides received jury awards in a case in which, he believes, law enforcement did not tell the truth.

But he's not sorry he fought it. And he believes that, in the end, he got justice.

Although he agrees that people can learn from what he experienced, it's not a personal story that he feels the need to retell.

"I don't see a reason to," he said, adding: "I've moved on."

Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com.

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