The revolver pressed firmly against his nose, Norris Cooley thought he was going to die.
“What are you even supposed to do?” he said Thursday afternoon, miming the cold steel indenting his face. “I looked at him and thought, he’s gonna kill me.”
The 66-year-old, who grew up in North Carolina during the Jim Crow era, said looking racism in the face isn’t anything new. At least not to him.
He remembers drinking water at a different fountain than white people and having to use a separate bathroom. He remembers the feeling of panic he would get when he saw a white person coming toward him on the sidewalk, the mad scramble to cross the street so he wouldn’t get in their way.
But never in his life did he think his skin color would be the death of him. Until Sunday night, when in the dark of his north Spokane garage, Jason Edward Cooper, 32, and Donald Lucas Prichard allegedly punched him in the side of the head and shoved a snub-nosed handgun in his face. Cooper’s girlfriend described him as a white supremacist who has “white power” tattooed on his leg.
“He said, ‘I feel like shooting a (N-word) today,’ ” Cooley said of Cooper, his eyes welling with tears as he recounted the events of the evening. “I didn’t see that coming this time.”
Describing himself as a pacifist, Cooley said he turns to faith at such times, along with the words of his hero, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He said growing up in the South, before civil rights were a liberty he could hang his hat on, faith was the only thing he had.
He moved to Spokane in 1968, the year King was assassinated in Memphis. Following King’s death the country was suffused with waves of turmoil and violence, but as he drove north, Cooley remembers thinking the only time he’d see racism on the scale of his childhood would be when he checked the rearview mirror. And for decades things were good, he said. Until this summer.
For months, he said, Cooper, who lived just two doors down, would call him the N-word “every day.”
“For the whole summer,” he said. “He’s just one of those guys.”
Cooley said that racism hit a boiling point Sunday night, when his neighbor’s drinking binge with a friend turned violent.
After the incident in his garage, he said, he went into his home and called 911 to report the assault. But the lady on the other end said it would be a while before help would arrive.
Officer Josh Laiva, spokesman for the Spokane Police Department, said looking through the call log that night that Cooley reported the assault at 11:06 p.m., the call description stating, “Male came over and then called him a racial slur and punched him in the face, had a gun and threatened him.”
“I’m on the phone, and he’s standing there ranting and raving,” Cooley said. But officers never came.
Then at 11:28 p.m., another call. This time to report a shooting.
“I didn’t think they’d shoot us,” Cooley remembered. “I thought it was just some kind of bluff.”
According to officers’ accounts in court documents, at least one of the men shot six bullets into the front porch of the home Cooley shares with his roommate, Elizabeth Fisher, and her daughter, Allye Weaver, who were both inside with Cooley.
Cooper and Prichard were arrested late Monday night. They were charged Tuesday with first-degree assault and malicious harassment.
Cooley said that had officers come before, they could have prevented the two men from peppering the Wiscomb Avenue home, bullets flying past their heads into the living room. One bullet hit Fisher’s TV.
Laiva said Thursday he didn’t know what was said in the call, but was sympathetic to the situation. He said it was possible officers were tied up with other incidents and weren’t able to respond quicker.
“He called in to report the assault, and I know there was some time that had passed before the assault and the shooting before our officers responded to the shooting,” he said.
Police said Cooper is a 12-time convicted felon. As a 20-year-old he committed malicious mischief. His crimes continued, ranging from drug possession, trespassing and traffic offenses.
When he was 22, police arrested him for burglarizing a home and stealing firearms. He has since had convictions for drugs, assault, stealing guns, eluding police, burglarizing homes, identity theft, resisting arrest and possessing weapons as a felon. In 2014, he was arrested on suspicion of escape while in custody, however the charge was dismissed.
In response to the attack on Cooley, leaders from Spokane gathered at the Spokane County Courthouse on Wednesday. During the gathering, police Chief Craig Meidl said the department would “absolutely not tolerate this kind of hate,” and would “pull out all of the stops to bring further acts of hate to justice.”
Thursday morning, the FBI opened a civil rights investigation into the matter.
“The FBI will work with the Spokane Police Department to review all available facts and evidence to assess if there is a federal civil rights violation,” FBI spokeswoman Ayn Dietrich-Williams wrote in an email. “We are concerned about elements of the incident because any crime that is potentially hate-motivated is not only an attack on the victim, but threatens and intimidates an entire community.”
On Thursday afternoon, Phillip Tyler and other members of the Spokane County Human Rights Task Force purchased a new TV for Fisher and delivered it to her home.
“This is not about charity … it’s about community,” Tyler wrote in an email. “A community coming together to help, in one small way, to make this family whole again.”
Cooley said the police, FBI and community response have all been uplifting, but he didn’t really need them anyway. Even before he learned of the response, he said he’d get along “just fine.”
But what he can’t get out of his mind is the sheer randomness of it all – how those men, in those moments, chose him.
“I was trying to make him invisible, but it didn’t work,” he said. “This guy hates me for no reason. I don’t even know his name. I never even really met him.”
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