In the middle of my second term on the City Council of Iowa City, I got a call from the City Manager informing me about a police shooting the night before. Investigating an open door at a business in an area that had had dozens of burglaries in the previous months, a cop had pushed open the door and was suddenly confronted by a man with a small object in his hand. The cop, his own gun already drawn, reflexively fired at the man in front of him. That man was the owner. The object in his hand was a phone. The owner was dead in seconds, his chest ripped open by a single bullet.
For the next twelve months, Iowa City was torn apart as the dead man's family and friends vented their rage and grief in public. A quiet, safe college town was the subject of a NY Times column by Bob Herbert, as well as the focus of an ABC Prime-Time special report. Suddenly, Iowa City's police department was portrayed as being as out of control and gun-happy, and specific parallels were raised between Iowa City and other bigger cities. Charges of "cover-up" and "stonewalling" and "cowboy cops" flew back and forth. Calls were made for the police chief to resign and the city manager to be fired. Whether a councilmember was for or against the city manager became a political litmus test.
But there was one problem with this controversy. Within a few months, after a thorough investigation, the shop owner's death could only be seen as a tragic accident, a singular convergence of bad timing, unique circumstances, and faulty decisions by the cop who pulled the trigger. That cop was off the Iowa City police force within days of the accident. He had not followed the procedures he should have. He was too anxious to enter the building, too edgy after a long shift. But he was not a murderer, nor were his actions representative of a pattern that was endemic to the whole department. True, the investigation did reveal some flaws in training and highlighted other practices that had to be corrected.
But the "reality" of what happened had already been shaped in the minds of many people in Iowa City. For them, that cop and his actions were interchangeable with all the cops on the force.
As a councilmember, I was the target of much of that anger and confusion. But as the controversy continued, I was acutely aware of how the original accident had become irrelevant. That tragedy was merely a springboard to a larger political debate about how a community should be governed.
Back to ATHENS. Looking at that year in Iowa City history, I saw a story. But I wanted a story that was more than just THAT story. Make sense? I was fascinated by how people responded to that specific shooting, the public as well as friends of the dead man. I saw a lot of genuine grief, but also a lot of hypocrisy and political posturing, a lot of political arrogance. Then came the Clinton impeachment and the 2000 presidential race. I started to see Iowa City in a larger context, even larger than the initial police department story. How are issues defined? How are issues manipulated? How is the media manipulated? How do I examine those issues, but on a local level; make Iowa City represent itself and something larger? I suppose I could have written a non-fiction account, and somebody might still do that, but I'm not objective enough to be the one.
Looking at the big issues was easy. The trick was finding the characters to personalize those issues. Obviously, Athens is a version of Iowa City, but I knew that I would never use the actual victim of the tragedy. His life story belongs to his family only. Jack Hamilton, the black postal clerk, is totally original and has no model here in Iowa City. Joe Holly, the councilmember, is sort of a surrogate for me, but only at the margins. A lot of people in Iowa City will assume that know the model for Ken Rumble, but they would be wrong. The real inspiration was a national political figure, someone I had always admired but whose ego eventually overwhelmed his other contributions. The key to the core of the Ken Rumble character came after I asked myself a question about the real national figure: Who does he see when he looks in the mirror? And the giant deer? You figure it out. The Black Angel? Absolutely real.
"Public tragedy and private grief"----that's the phrase I use in my synopsis. And that is indeed the real story of ATHENS. Two different men with a lot in common even though they will never meet.
So, that's my story about the story.