Bruce Thomas’ life can be divided into two parts. Part I: The events leading up to and including Nov. 28, 1980, the day Bruce says God spoke to him and he didn’t listen. Part II: Everything that has come after.
Today is one of those crisp, sunny afternoons in late autumn that makes a person glad to be alive and free. Bruce and dozens of other regularsbookworms and philosophers, college students and politicians, the self-employed and the underemployed, anyone with a schedule that can accommodate endless coffee refills and unhurried hours of hanging outpack the lawn at Weaver Street Market.
A cooperative grocery, Weaver Street Market, or the Weave, as many locals call it, is the soul of Carrboro, the town’s front lawn. And Bruce Thomas, many would argue, is the soul of Weaver Street.
He is hard to miss. He is a black man bobbing on a swell of white people. He is 6-foot-1, but since he is thin and wears his gray-streaked hair in a topknot he seems taller. He is dressed in a black turtleneck under a long black cotton jacket with a Nehru collar, loosely fitting black cotton pants and black yoga slippers. His neck is draped with wooden beads, his long, slim fingers are decorated with gold rings, and his ears are pierced with small silver hoops.
As he crosses the lawn, Bruce is so light on his feet that he appears to hover over the grass, rather than trample it. And because of his love of nature, he’d rather not trample it, anything or anyone. “I’ve had people ask me, ‘Why are you crying?’” he says, nudging a honeybee from the lip of a bottle of Vitaminwater. “And I tell them, ‘Because I saw a bird fly across the street.’”
Sometimes he sits at a table in silent meditation. Other times he reads. When the spirit moves him, he may break into song and unleash an ear-piercing falsetto, or he may dance, which is how he got his nickname, Footloose Bruce.
His dancing is unusual because when music is playing, Bruce moves not only to the beat but also to a universal pulse that only he can hear. He spreads his arms like a condor and bends his agile frame into a spontaneous series of yoga, tai chi and freeform poses.
“He’s not crazy, exploring spirituality through movement and meditation,” Gary Duncan, a longtime friend of Bruce, says. “He’s been on a journey. He’s in a good space now.”
When possible, he dances with kids because it reminds him of an innocence, a childhood that he never had. “When I first arrived in Carrboro, I didn’t dance,” Bruce recalls. “And then I saw a yoga teacher dancing around the tree with some children. And I wanted to dance with the kids. And the Lord said to me, ‘Face your fears; dance with the kids.’”
When he began dancing at Weaver Street, “it was like a window opened,” says Cely Chicurel. Bruce has lived with her and her husband, Bill, in Chapel Hill for nearly 10 years. “I’d ask him how his day was, and he’d say, ‘I had a good day dancing.’ Other times his face would be down, and he’d say, ‘I was dancing and somebody spit at my feet.’”
Most people in town know and love Bruce, but some don’t. They think he is trying to attract attention. They are offended by his expressive dancing. They cannot handle the force of his being, the intensity of his gaze.
“He’s kind of a street preacher,” Cely says. “He’s a free spirit, and his very presence can offend people who feel they have to be in total control.”
By now, nearly everyone in Carrboro knows that in the summer of 2006, Nathan Milian, whose company owns Carr Mill Mall and is the landlord for Weaver Street, banned Bruce from dancing on the lawn.
“It was like a spear in my heart,” Bruce says.
There are several theories as to why the an unknown complainant was bothered by Bruce, but a popular one is that a well-toned African-American man, wrapped in tie-dyed scarves and dancing in public, could be bad for business, although there is no evidence he drove anyone away.
“They would just as soon have nothing irregular going on,” says Kevin Quinlan, a Weaver Street regular and friend of Bruce since 2002. “They want things to be normal and not spectacular. In their mind, Bruce stands out and represents a threat to that.”
Milian says he won’t speculate on the motives for the complaint. “However, this is Carrboro and I cannot fathom that there is a racial motive to be found in anyone here.”
After Carrboro residents organized a protest at Weaver Street called Let Bruce Dance, the mall management relented, and now Bruce is allowed to dance.
“I am grateful they didn’t stop me from dancing or I would have shut down,” Bruce says.
Another dustup between Bruce and Carr Mill Mall over parkingMilian told Bruce he cannot park in the lot even if he spends several hours at Weaver Street or risk being towedinflamed the other main theory: that Bruce’s expressive dancing dredges up a deep-seated suspicion of blacks in a predominantly white town, a theory Milian calls “absurd.”
“There are a bunch of white people who sit here all day,” says a woman named Carol, who stops by Bruce’s table one afternoon. “But he looks different and he has a criminal past.”
“We don’t allow loitering,” Milian says. “However, the call on when someone is loitering is given broad consideration and we try to give individuals the benefit of the doubt. To the best of my knowledge, Bruce has been following the rules and we have given him broad consideration about loitering.”
(Bruce now parks his car across the street at WCOM, the community radio station started by Weaver Street general manager Ruffin Slater, which offered him a space.)
It is true that plenty of white people camp out at Weaver Street with a book or a laptop and nurse their coffee all afternoon. It is also true that because of his past as a gang member in the racist New World Nation of Islam, Bruce is extremely aware of racial affrontsreal or perceivedbe it white against black or black against white.
“If you think where Bruce has been in his life, I would imagine whatever difficulties he has today pale in comparison to where he’s been,” says Dan Coleman, a Carrboro alderman, who has known Bruce for several years.
“There’s so much depth to Bruce’s life,” Cely says, “you could never reach the bottom.”
Bruce’s friend Mickey Singer told him life would be difficult after Bruce got out of prison. “He was right,” Bruce says. “It was like starting over again. Every moment is new. People think it’s been easy, but it’s been really hard. Growing up around racism, when I see it, I recognize it immediately.”
A man in a Jeep with a Confederate flag license plate once tried to run him off the road, Bruce says. “And my neighborhoodI’ve been living there 10 years and I’m not comfortable walking around there. When I do, the police show up.”
Before Bruce became the soul of Weaver Street, he was a baker there about 10 years ago. Yet, he says, even in the soul of Carrboro, someone made racial remarks about him. “A guy says to me, ‘What’s up, my nigger?’ And people looked around but didn’t say anything.”
Bruce left Weaver Street bakery, which is not like you or I bailing on a low-paying job, kicking around for a few weeks and then picking up a new one. Since he is on parole, he must always work, yet many employers would be reluctant to hire him.
Nonetheless, Bruce soon found a position as a custodian at Orange United Methodist Church, where he worked for three years. Later, with help from Cely, whom Bruce met while working at Weaver Street, he became the custodian at Chestnut Ridge, a Christian camp and retreat center in Efland, where he still works.
“He’s drawn to churches,” says Cely, who worked as director of Christian education at OUMC. “He needs a spiritual environment and a place that will nurture him.”
The preschool children at OUMC loved Bruce, as did the preschool teachers. He speaks to kids as peoplehe looks them directly in the eyeand shares their openness to the natural world.
“I like pictures of the sky,” Bruce says, thumbing through a photo album at a patio table outside his home. It is nearly winter, and the chill is disarming. “Look at this day. It’s so beautiful. God is everywhere.”
Cely, a graduate of Duke Divinity School, and Bruce, whose father and grandfather were preachers, often discussed spirituality while they worked. “His experiences were very different than minea blend of Eastern religion and Christianity,” she says. “His connection with God is not what most people’s is. He has an unshielded connection that breaks him in two.”
Bruce does not attend church because the experience overwhelms him. “He feels uncomfortable in crowds,” Cely says. “He has visions and hears voices. A meditative state is not what mainline churches are used to seeing.”
Bruce is also required to have a permanent residence. That can be difficult because he doesn’t earn much as a custodian, at least not enough for a deposit on a place. And because he spent more than half of his adult life as a ward of the state of Florida, he is ill-prepared for routine business transactions like renting and keeping an apartment.
He bounced from the Kindness House, an intentional community near the Durham/ Orange County line that attracted spiritual seekers and former inmates, to Bill and Cely’s, then briefly rented an apartment in Carrboro. “When he lived near Weaver Street, he had some friends around, and I think he was afraid he would be unable to say no to a direction he knew he didn’t want,” Cely says.
So he returned to Bill and Cely’s, first in a guest room and now in a separate ranch house on the property, where Cely also holds after-school programs. “Here, he feels protected,” she says.
“He said he liked hearing Bill and I talking at night,” she goes on. “His early childhood experiences were not positive. He saw us as parents.”
Cely pulls out a greeting card she and Bill received from Bruce several weeks ago: “A Valentine for Two Special Parents: We learn to dream, to trust, to get along together.”
He pays a little rent and barters for the rest, cleaning their house, which, like his living area, is immaculate. “He likes cleaning,” Cely says. “Especially floors. Floors are important to him.”
Bruce arrived in North Carolina on New Year’s Day 1998, when he stepped off a private plane belonging to Mickey Singer, who had been his meditation teacher in prison. Bruce was greeted by members of Kindness House. Since New Jersey, Bruce’s home state, had told him he was not welcome there, Kindness House and Singer had arranged for him to come to North Carolina.
(Bruce later was a whistle-blower on abuses that happened at Kindness House. Singer later was indicted on federal charges of conspiracy and fraud related to investments in a medical supply business. His trial is scheduled for this year.)
Bruce had just arrived from Florida, where he had lived for the last 17 years as an inmate at Union Correctional Institution, the oldest prison in the state. There, he held several jobs, including baker, office clerk and dental clinic technician.
As a custodian, Bruce swept, mopped and waxed floors, including those that were slick with pools of blood after a fight or a suicide.
In the prison hospital, he read to dying prisoners, and after their deaths, washed their bodies and tagged their toes. “I helped guys pass over to the other side,” he says. “I told them, ‘Don’t fear dying. This isn’t the first time you’ve done this. There’s no such thing as dying; you’re just changing.’”
He also considered killing himself.
“Many times I thought about it,” Bruce says, “because I thought I would spend the rest of my life in there. But my faith and belief kept me going.”
Bruce had returned to Christianity after many years of being a member of a militant Black Muslim gang. He had climbed the ranks, and he was promoted to minister while at UCI. After four years in prison, he left the gang.
“Something in my heart said, ‘This isn’t right.’ I questioned things. I started reading about other religions. One thing I learned in prison is that God exists in all of us. I learned that there are beautiful white people. We’ve forgotten that we’re all one.”
Singer taught yoga and meditation to inmates. One day, during a session, Bruce cracked. “I was in a pissy mood that day,” Bruce recalls. “I was thinking, ‘I want to get out of here or just die.’ This man is talking, and all of sudden I feel his transmitting energy to me. I tried to suppress it. And then I hollered from the depths of my soul. I started sobbing like a baby. My heart just opened, and I’ve been like that ever since.”
These are the events leading up to and including Nov. 28, 1980.
That cool and overcast Friday morning, Bruce, whose alias at the time was Bruce Johnson, had finished painting his fingertips silver to hide his prints, slipped on a trench coat, and under it, hidden a sawed-off shotgun. As he opened the car door, he says he heard a voice call to him three times: “Don’t do it. If you do, you’re not coming back.”
“But what will my brothers think?” Bruce thought to himself. “They’ll think my heart pumps Kool-Aid if I don’t.’”
Bruce and his accomplice, Walter Johnson, approached a bank in Jacksonville, Fla., where they had arrived by car from New Jersey about a year prior. As they entered the bank, they pulled black ski masks over their heads, but not before Ronald Jordan, who was waiting on a nearby corner, saw them.
Johnson jumped over the bank counter. Bruce whipped out the sawed-off shotgun and ordered everyone to lie on the floor. He held them at bay while Johnson got the money and a set of keys to a bank employee’s car. They fled with $30,000 in cash.
“We were supposed to take it easy in the car,” Bruce recalls. “But Walter was nervous. He accidentally opens the hood, he floods the engine and takes off like we had just robbed a bank.”
Within minutes, police apprehended the pair. Then they drove Jordan to a waiting squad car, where Johnson and Bruce sat handcuffed in the backseat. Jordan identified them as the men he had seen don the ski masks and walk into the bank.
Bruce was placed in a Duval County jail cell with 15 other men. In his mug shot, Bruce’s eyes look feral, like those of an animal caught in a trap.
Unable to post bond, Bruce spent his 20th birthday in jail. The following July, he was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 70 years in prison.
“When I walked into my cellblock, I looked around and said, ‘God, you told me and I heard you. But I didn’t listen. I’m going to turn my life around.’”
Before that Friday in November when Bruce ignored God’s voice in his head and robbed the bank, he had chosen the Islamic name Rád Ali. Taken from the 13th chapter of the Koran, it means “the thunder, the warning before the rain.”
But before he became Rád Ali, he was born Kevin Bruce Thomas on Dec. 4, 1960, a day in Newark when the smoke and fog did not clear until noon.
Bruce’s father, a minister, regularly cheated on his wife, who eventually wearied of his gallivanting, although she too may have been guilty of the same. Even with four children, she threw him out.
“I remember being 3 or 4 years old, holding on to my mother’s leg when she told Dad to never come back,” Bruce says. “And he didn’t come back.”
Bruce remembers little about his mother, except that “she was an awesome dancer, liked to party, gamble and smoked Viceroys.”
Bruce resembled his father, which could explain, Bruce says, why his mother regularly beat him with extension cords. “I can’t remember any time that my mother told me that she loved me.”
He was a small boy, which could explain why his brothers and cousins also regularly throttled him. His family was poor, and Bruce did not have nice clothes, which could explain why the kids at his all-black school regularly beat him up. “Going to school was like a jungle,” he recalls. “I would be working at my desk, and boom, here comes a fist out of nowhere.”
After his mother died of a brain tumor at age 41, when Bruce was 10, he and his siblings were apportioned between two aunts. Bruce moved in with his Aunt Betty. “She was very nurturing. She gave me the love I didn’t receive from my mother,” he says.
Violence was endemic to Newark, which, in the 1960s, had the highest percentage of substandard housing and the second-highest rates of crime and infant mortality in the United States. Over four days in July 1967, when Bruce was 6, the city’s racial and political tensions erupted into a riot. The National Guard and state troopers were called in, sealed off part of the city and opened fire on rioters. Amid the violence, 26 people diedincluding a boy not much older than Bruceand 1,000 more were injured. Property damage was estimated at $10 million.
Poverty, violence and racial conflicts could explain why, at 15, Bruce joined the New World Nation of Islam, a violent, splinter group of the Nation of Islam. Its mission was to harm white people.
“It was a gang that was very racist,” Bruce says. “And like most gangs, they bring you in and brainwash you and send you on missions to prove yourself.”
But none of these explanations is a justification for the events of Nov. 28, 1980.
“I never learned racism at home,” Bruce says. “I don’t blame society. I blame myself and my black militant brothers who taught me to be racist, who taught me the white man is the devil. It was implanted in my mind, but not my heart.”
It is early December, shortly after Bruce’s 49th birthday and nearly 29 years to the day since he robbed the bank. The blinds are drawn in his meditation room, which is shrouded with purple tapestries. A lampshade is decorated with dried orange flowers. On an altar sit statues of a dancing Shiva, an angel, which “represents protection,” he says, a cobra, a framed copy of the Lord’s Prayer and photos of gurus and the Dalai Lama. The room smells sweet of sage and incense.
“Most of my life is beautiful and sweet,” he says, sitting cross-legged on a green and purple pillow. “But I am not always happy. There are rough times. I try to remind myself I wasn’t always a good person. I’ve done wrong in this world, too. And I have to remember struggles of other people.”
Bruce has a stack of at least a dozen testimonials, eloquent pleas written by community members to the parole board for Bruce’s early release.
“He has proven to be as honest and trustworthy person as I have ever known,” wrote Robert Pagliarello, a social studies teacher at Three Springs, a treatment facility in Pittsboro where Bruce has spoken about his prison experiences to teenage boys.
Thomas Newsome, a physician, noted that “kids flock to Bruce because of his positive energy … He is an African-American ex-convict living in a white, middle-class community. Nonetheless, he has earned the admiration and respect of countless people around town.”
Bruce is scheduled to make his annual appearance before the North Carolina parole board in August. Each time, he says, because of pressure from Florida authorities, the parole board has denied him. If he remains on parole for his full sentence, he won’t be released until 2069, when he would be 105 years old.
“I stand by the fact that I’ve created this,” he says. “I have faith that in time, it will happen.”
The terms of his parole restrict his movements. He can’t leave North Carolina without permission. (Several years ago, the state did allow him to visit his family in New Jersey.) He must pay $30 monthly in supervisory fees. He cannot vote. He must always have a job and a residence. He cannot break the law or he risks being sent back to prison.
“When I got out of prison, I decided I was going to be the best person I could be,” he says. “It hasn’t been easy, but I’m not going to let the world take what I have. I’m going to continually love.”