When two Claremont police officers rolled into the parking lot of Howard Johnson’s Express Inn early last week, it sounded like just another routine call. The motel’s desk clerk had reported a stoned, agitated man in the lobby claiming his car had been stolen. Just another duster who wandered up from the rough-and-tumble streets of neighboring Pomona, they probably thought.

There must have been a tightening of doughnut rolls under those Kevlar vests when the alleged sherm smoker introduced himself as “Rodney King.” Claremont P.D.’s luck would have it that one of the most infamous victims of racist police brutality would have to choose their town for a little alleged chemical-enhanced R&R. King’s bust on August 28 comes as the Thin Blue Line in this college town, which claims the moniker of “the city of trees and degrees,” has been under increased scrutiny because of the 1999 racially charged fatal shooting of Irvin Landrum Jr.

All went smoothly enough in King’s latest tangle with the law. “He was very cordial about it,” said Lieutenant Gary Jenkins, who made a point of noting that everyone involved was on his best behavior — King didn’t resist, and all guns, batons, Mace and tasers remained holstered. After refusing a drug test, King spent a few hours in a cell at the station before he called a cab and was released.

While his uneventful arrest and time in custody drew a likely sigh of relief from the cops’ top brass and the City Council, King’s alleged wack attack again demonstrated the uneasiness of a police force and city that have taken more than a few lumps on race relations.

Before January 11, 1999, Claremont was known more for its prestigious collection of private colleges and its pristine small-town environment than anything else. But that was before police pulled over the 18-year-old Landrum — a traffic stop that would end the life of this young black man and rock this town from top to bottom.

Landrum had been driving home from his girlfriend’s house on Baseline Road, a socioeconomic demarcation line in Claremont that separates the rich (south of Baseline) and the really rich (north of Baseline). He was pulled over for speeding shortly after 1 a.m.

The official version of what exactly happened next would change a couple of times, but two white police officers ended up shooting Landrum in the neck, chest and ankle after he allegedly pulled a .45 magnum on them. Landrum lingered for six days before finally succumbing to his wounds.

The shit hit Claremont’s fan soon after, when inconsistencies in the police version of events opened a festering suspicion that Claremont cops (with tacit support from the city) routinely engaged in “Driving While Black” traffic stops and other forms of racial harassment. In Landrum’s case, authorities determined that the magnum he supposedly pulled on the cops (and then fired, in one officer’s statement) had not been fired and was last registered to a former Ontario chief of police.

As student protesters from the colleges staged angry demonstrations in front of City Hall, the city manager named the two cops who shot Landrum Claremont’s “Employees of the Year.”

Then Jesse Jackson came to town — and got pulled over. Jackson was on his way to a Landrum rally at Pitzer College, where he was to give the keynote address, when a Claremont motorcycle officer pulled over the van he was riding in, ostensibly because it failed to yield while entering a roundabout. In what is jokingly referred to around town as “the fastest traffic stop in Claremont P.D. history,” the officer not only quickly let Jackson and his entourage go, but escorted them to the rally. Ever the politician, Jackson promptly invited the officer to his 58th-birthday party in Beverly Hills.

Now approaching three years after Landrum lay dying on Baseline Road, the student demonstrations have faded away and the city has instituted a range of proposals to increase multicultural awareness throughout the city and its police force. Perhaps Rodney and the cops’ congenial experience last week is a sign of progress.

Claremont, it might finally be said, is trying to learn to get along.

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