Rage Against the Machine

All Dennis Williams wanted was a job with the city of Minneapolis. After five years of bureaucratic torture, what he ended up with was three months in jail and a shot at serious prison time.

How does a man fall apart? Does he wake up angry one day, shaking with equal parts rage and terror, powerless against the hate clogging his soul? Or does he disintegrate slowly, crack by tiny crack, until there's nothing left to rebuild?

Dennis Williams can tell you that when a man falls apart it's like shard after shard of ice is chipped from his being. Only that instead of revealing a precious, short-lived sculpture, one of the blows eventually shatters the core.

J. Matthew Rhea

Two months ago, on the first bitterly cold morning of the season, Williams found himself being led into a courtroom on the sixth floor of the Hennepin County Government Center. He wasn't there to defend himself against criminal charges--though he had been accused of threatening to kill eight city workers, his trial on that charge was a long way off yet. On this day, he was merely appearing to dispute his firing from a job he never had a chance to start.

The tables where prosecutors and defense attorneys usually sit before the judge had been pushed together for Williams's civil-service hearing. But the gulf between the two sides couldn't have been more obvious if it had been outlined in neon barbed wire. On one side sat Williams, in mirrored glasses and jailhouse-issue baby-blue pajamas. Too big for his chair, he spilled out of it in a posture that was half awkwardness, half studied cool. He had nowhere to put his knotty, oversized hands once the sheriff's deputies flanking him unlocked the cuffs. A speech impediment sometimes made his sworn testimony seem halting.

Across the chasm from Williams sat four white women, each of their fastidious business suits personalized by just a hint of scarf or gold, each head of hair coaxed into a soft frame around the face. Three of the women were staffers in the city's human resources and Public Works departments; the fourth, who rolled her eyes every time Williams's adviser spoke, was the assistant city attorney who had called them there. Instead of an attorney, Williams was represented by former Civil Rights Commission chair Ron Edwards, in blue jeans and boots.

In the course of the full-day hearing, Edwards and Williams argued that the city had acted unjustly in dismissing Williams. It had taken five applications, a discrimination complaint, and a lawsuit for him to get a menial job; he'd watched dozens of less persistent white applicants land the well-paid union position while city staffers lost his paperwork, made mistakes that cost him interviews, and--after he had the temerity to complain--put a "problem applicant" flag in his file.

By the time the city finally notified him that he had been hired, Williams had checked himself into the psychiatric ward of the Veterans Medical Center, more angry and depressed than he'd ever been in his life. And for the seven weeks preceding the court hearing, he had been sitting in the Hennepin County Jail because

a psychiatrist had told the city that Williams, in treatment, had spoken of his thoughts about "messing some people up."

A ruling from the civil-service commissioner who heard the case is expected in the next few weeks. But whichever way the decision goes, it likely won't do much to explain the events that led to this point. To understand what happened to Williams is to unravel a near-fantastic chain of snafus that the city has described as inexplicable "clerical errors"--but which to Williams, over time, came to look like an elaborate conspiracy to deny his family a decent livelihood.

Ask Dennis Williams how a man accumulates a load of anger so heavy it makes him cry for help, sets him fighting feelings so strong they scare him. And then ask him if it seems fair that the people who made his nightmares so dark want to put him in prison for the violence of his thoughts.

 

Landing a job with the city would have been a big break for a guy like Williams. Tending parks or working on a street-repair crew doesn't require any formal training; yet those jobs come with union cards and hourly wages that nudge $20 after a few years. They are also among the few remaining routes to benefits and paid vacation for someone lacking a résumé peppered with desirable skills.

Growing up, Williams never expected a fancy career. Neither of his parents had finished high school, and it was a constant scramble for them to support their seven kids. When Williams was very young, both his mother and father picked cotton in the South; after the family moved north to Memphis, his father took whatever work he could find in construction, sometimes traveling to take a job.

As a young man, Williams knew he'd have to be clever to escape that hand-to-mouth grind. When he was 17, he decided the military could provide him a way out--work hard, get along, and be taken care of. Less than four months after he joined the Army, however, Williams fell during a training exercise and permanently injured his back.

After an honorable discharge, he went to cosmetology school. But in the late '70s, there weren't many men styling hair, so he figured he couldn't make ends meet that way. His family had a small landscaping business and he worked there in between other odd jobs--baker's helper, grocery clerk, warehouse worker. In the mid-'80s, he did a stint as a custodian at the post office. That job paid $9 an hour, a decent income to Williams at the time. But eventually he decided he needed those bennies. He was entitled to health care from the Veterans Administration but his two kids weren't.

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