American Brother Malcolm

About 18 years ago, while I was still living in Lincoln, Nebraska, my brother-in-law decided to fly further west from being in Chicago for a Catholic Worker’s conference, for a little visit before heading back to Albany.  During his stay, we rented a car and made a pilgrimage out to Omaha for two reasons: to visit Boy’s Town headquarters — literally in the nearby village of Boy’s Town, Nebraska — for my father who was a fan of Father Flanagan, and to visit the birth-home of Malcolm Little, of course also known as Malcolm X.

Figuring we were very close to the house, we spotted a local social justice center in the city to ask.  We introduced ourselves, enthusiastically shared how we came all the way from New York and, well, Lincoln, and asked about some other possible details surrounding the house.  But the guy’s tone unusually erred towards disappointment.  After we told him the address of the house, he pointed over our shoulders and indicated, well, it “used to be” up that hill.

So we drove up, and from the side of the road all we saw was this plaque…

malcolm x plaque

And for some reason the text of the plaque was not even facing the road, but the woods behind it. “Is that it? (emphasis two different times, on “that” and “it”)!  I remember looking down to my left and still seeing the pole with street-signs for 34th and Pinkney mixed with the trees.  My brother-in-law and I both felt a big sense of disappointment and sadness, while mitigating a sense of outrage.  (I could not help but note the choice of wording in the text of “allegedly murdered”, as well as “became outspoken” as opposed to ‘spoke out against’.)

And with that said, fifty years ago this past February 21st happened to be the assassination of Malcolm, in New York City, at both the non-alleged hands and as a result of having spoken out against its ego-corrupted head of his former brotherhood.

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Black and Blue, All Over

In the early 1950s, President Eisenhower needed to nominate a new Chief Justice.  His attention ultimately centered on the three-term governor of California, Earl Warren. Warren, the more conservative Eisenhower felt, on paper, like a political moderate, and was enthused the two would relate.

However, as David Halberstam put it in one of my favorite books, The Fifties: “If Dwight Eisenhower had decided from Earl Warren’s record that the two of them shared similar attitudes and values, then he was wrong. They could not have been more different. They might have come from similar backgrounds, but Eisenhower had long ago removed himself from the complexities of contemporary American life by going off to the military; there he was largely isolated from the changes in the society.”

I loved this insight when I first read it.  One of my closest friends for almost thirty years has been a Marine now for about twenty-five of them.  And reading that paragraph instantly reminded me of the many rifts between civilians and many of his military friends and peers when we often hung out.

I can’t speak for them but I nor my friend were ever easily accepting of such rifts.  Marines can adapt a very clique-ish, walk-on-water attitude when out and about among civilians (and not to mention, among other branches in the military).  Such instances paid towards myself, I would quietly resent how all they pretty much had to do was sign their names on a dotted line and obtain an instant career — along with obtain future benefits like free travel and a free college education.

As an artist, I have always felt among the lowest scrapping along the opportunity totem-pole, with an ego just as big but an even bigger — that is, recognizable — inferiority complex.  So, in this sense, I know what it is like to feel shunned.  But, unlike regular folk, the common fear/point of view military and law enforcement people are trained for and more accustomed to is the enormous, practical responsibility of having to think in terms of enforcing general safety, every day.

However, it has become very easy to sense how this social disconnect has now drastically widened as police forces in unheard-of small towns and cities across America have become inexplicably militarized — courtesy of hand-me-down equipment like tanks and grenade-launchers, from our most recent wars.  Having been at war for now over thirteen years, we as a nation have certainly become very accustomed to it.  And these weapons have certainly handed down a tangible, offensive sense of amoral over-dramatization — and, overcompensated imagination — to tellingly drama-free areas.  I mean, there are reasons, say, here in upstate New York one can only see ‘Repeal the SAFE Act’ signs out on cricket-laden suburban and rural lawns — largely populated by whites — and only ‘Stop the violence’ signs posted around poor, inner-city neighborhoods — largely populated by minorities.

Meanwhile, and by absolutely no means to underscore, the real ‘thieves’ — the lobbying powers anchoring the revenue of guns, et al — continue to go about business as usual.

 

In the immediate aftermath of his death Eric Garner’s widow and daughter both expressed believing race had nothing to do with it.  A very wise declaration — as wisdom is yet again stubbornly lacking on both sides of this matter.  For one, saying this of course downplays any a potential riot that could spring at any time, any place, and under any circumstance, under their family name.  And on the flip-side, we can all see how difficult it can be to reasonably rule out race as a factor, in the abstract, upon gathering the facts from one such incident to the next.

We’ve all seen the video and read the key components about the Eric Garner incident:
– Why go to such great lengths to arrest a man for selling tax-free cigarettes?
– The local police had a history of verbally harassing Garner, over this, according to both what he kept saying in the video and in later accounts from his family.
– The two officers questioning him initially appeared as calm as can be.  It was in broad daylight, and there was no chase to get their adrenaline revved up.

And so when they finally motioned to make an arrest Garner backed up a little, held his hands back, and up, insisting, “Please, do not touch me.”  Then the one officer from behind slipped a choke-hold on him.  (Now, if one sustains an object while applying some type of force this can be referred to as a ‘hold’.  And if such a hold happens to be an arm wrapped around a person’s throat, then this can literally be referred to as a ‘choke-hold’ — which is illegal in the NYPD.)

At no point was Garner physically resisting arrest, even after he was pulled face-down, head pinned against the pavement, repeatedly heard pleading, “I can’t breathe”, while several officers now jumped in, and at some point as a result of all this, dying.

This is a very clear case of police-misconduct.

Trayvon Martin: in one particular defense of George Zimmerman’s character, he was among the few protesting a police beating of a black homeless man, Sherman Ware, in 2010.  By all accounts, it seems reasonable to assess that Mr. Zimmerman simply should not have created his own ‘Ground’ […sigh] by getting out of his out of his car, as a result of, well, manifested boredom.

Michael Brown was an upsetting result of differing eyewitness accounts.  But, later, in nearby Berkeley, Missouri, was a clear case of an actual armed [black] man having pulled his gun on a [white] police officer and the officer justifiably engaging in self-defense.  And in between, we have this interesting, recent post by a retired St. Louis police officer.

Tamir Rice is an extraordinary case of incompetence, immaturity, poor training and conditioning.  I mean, of course with complete respect to Tamir’s family, but this fool of an officer must have gone to the Reno 911 academy.

Akai Gurley is yet another clear case of lack of common sense.  If officers — in this case, an Asian-American officer — are ordered to patrol a housing project of poor residents, very late at night, as a result of some recent homicides, but there is no lighting in the building, then YOU CANNOT PATROL WHAT YOU CANNOT SEE!

Jerome Reid: despite being very loudly, clearly, and repeatedly warned not to move, with a gun pointed at his face, he started to step out of his car with his hands raised about shoulder level.  The officers then opened fire, killing him.  Reid and the man driving the car were black.  The Bridgeton officer who spotted the gun, Braheme Days, is black; his partner, white.  Reid had spent about 13 years in prison for shooting at three state troopers when he was a teenager, and officer Days knew who he was.  Days was among the arresting officers last year when Reid was charged with several crimes, including drug possession and obstruction.  Both officers have been placed on leave while prosecutors investigate.

Since the Rodney King travesty, in spite of the LAPD’s decision to undergo sensitivity training as they continue to largely, successfully conduct community outreach, there was the recent case of a California officer pummeling a homeless, black great-grandmother alongside a highway.  This did end up with a $1.5 million settlement in her favor.

 

There are countless scripts, even in our recent history.  Take the Central Park Five case from the not-too-long-ago 1980s: five black teens with five different, video-recorded confessions, charged with the rape of a white, female jogger, one night, in Central Park.  With each different video-confession presented in front of the jury, each of the five were still convicted of the same crime.  Or, personally, the stunning dozen or so instances my one friend rattled off in one conversation of being pulled over for DWB.  I never knew it was illegal, for one, to have something like an air-freshener hang from your rearview-mirror.  I suppose, because I never ‘fit the description’.  The perennially high percentage of mistrust minorities have towards law enforcement in cities and towns throughout the country reflects the high percentage who have a decreased confidence in our legal system.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, there is a chapter towards the end entitled, “Seven Seconds in the Bronx”.  This chapter I strongly urge reading for the sake of here conversation.  It extensively deconstructs — and proposes ideas and solutions, analyzed and practiced, among some local police forces — details surrounding the Amadou Diallo shooting.

The four officers in this famous case made a string of instinctively shallow and profoundly regrettable decisions: no real second-guessing of the subtly influential elements surrounding them, and very little precaution taken to better ensure self-defense.

Towards the end of the chapter is a quote by a psychologist, Keith Payne, that pretty well sums up everything here: “When we make a split-second decision we are really vulnerable to being guided by our stereotypes and prejudices, even ones we may not necessarily endorse or believe [my italics].”  The word ‘prejudice’ of course never automatically refers to racial-prejudice, but you can see how race can still be considered a factor, both directly and indirectly, in every case involving a law enforcement official shooting a usually poor, black civilian.

 

We are all very busy people, continuing to go about our daily lives business as usual.  And this does not forgive how easily sensationalized we can be from being more generally bored than we would care to admit.  And, so long as we are here, journalistic leads ought to exclude mentioning race in their initial reporting of these instances until more of the facts are gathered.

 

One of the first Supreme Court cases Chief Justice Warren presided over was Brown v. Board of Education.  He sought amongst his associates a clear, unanimous 9-0 decision (unheard of in today’s Court) in favor of desegregation as a means to signal at least a legal balance between liberals and conservatives alike. Naturally, a more conservative justice wanted to write his own concurring opinion and another continued to hold out at 8-1.  But, by May of 1954, the unanimous decision was reached.

This decision was long deliberated over, as a result of being very long overdue.  For later in life, a few years since retired now, Warren would be brought to tears when asked during an interview about his decision as California governor to intern 110,000 Japanese-American citizens living in the state, during WWII.  As a strong advocate throughout his career for young Americans to have a decent education, and to be treated with equity and respect, fear and misunderstanding obviously overtook reason at this point in time.  Oh, the inestimable power of conformity, and the difficulty — if ever — to think for oneself in the face of it.

Mass Silliness

In the midst of all the back-slapping and poignant hypocrisy (coordinated stump-speeches as televised eulogies are pretty tasteless, culminating in the Commander-in-Chief, the only Nobel Peace Prize winner with a kill-list, pleading we “Stop hurting each other” and “Peace”), the mayor of Boston, Tommy Menino, opened this morning’s edition of “This Week” with continued trumped-up stumping for what would be an entire episode covering the Boston Marathon bombing.

After incompetence on the part of the BPD in the accidental killing of a college student in the aftermath of the Red Sox winning the 2004 ALCS, the BPD’s Commissioner at the time stated how the police department “accepts full responsibility” for the death of the student, Victoria Snelgrove, “but” immediately thereafter went on to condemn the actions of some “punks” as deserving partial blame.

First of all, there ought to be no “but” after accepting full responsibility.  Also, let it be clear that in the immediate media-aftermath of that tragic incident, the originally worded “punks” started lazily getting lumped together with “fans” throughout the rest of the statement.  I remember how that sparked my ire.  Baseball is a game that can bring out one’s inner child (sometimes in not so good ways, particularly between Sox and Yankees’ fans), and fans of any sport should never be confused with actual vandals who would seek to seize upon a large crowd to commit individual, destructive acts.  Cheering in the streets, or even observing a celebration as Victoria was doing safely and legally atop a one-story parking lot across from Fenway’s left-field wall, is not destructive.  The vandals, or “punks”, are the ones who deserve the partial blame; the inference of accessories to her death.

I was there that night, standing only several feet away from when her unconscious body was discovered on the street.  Moments earlier, one of the riot-officers walking up my side of Landsdowne Street was aiming his pellet-gun up at the Monster, just as another on the other side of the street must have been doing when he fired up — unlike as he was required to, into the ground, in order for the pellets to explode and release their gas on impact.  These officers deserve, and have publically acknowledged the bulk of, the blame for her death.

I am not saying mayhem was not happening elsewhere in order to prompt a reaction from the police, there was just none going on from my vantage point.  Another fan passed right in front of me with his nose bloodied and broken by a mounted police-officer, according to his crying sister in his defense.  One officer, on foot, had a very geared up expression on his face.  Pepper-spray was fuming up the back of the Monster where strangers were helping others trying to safely climb down from the girders.  Then the aforementioned student standing along the edge of that parking-tier somehow had one of those pellets embed itself into her eye-socket, wield its chemicals to her brain where she then fell unconscious onto the sidewalk, where a fellow celebrator screamed in horror.  I did not want to leave nearby the scene until I saw some movement from her, which I did see.  It was not until the following morning did I learn she had died.

Considering the historical fashion of how the Red Sox had won the league championship that night, the historic rival whom they had beaten with only the loss of one year prior as the latest gut-wrenching chapter in that rivalry, the very bitter to very sweet celebration that ensued immediately onto the streets that night should not have only been expected by authorities as very cathartic, but more like a cosmic event.  And given how there was a trend at the time of such celebrations turning out of control in college campuses and towns across the country, in the aftermath of their area’s teams winning championships, in retrospect, I was surprised the BPD appeared so unprepared for this outpouring.

But it was the “but” that still lingered.  For the majority now generally being lauded for their stoic ‘heroism’ in the aftermath of the Marathon-bombing were then labelled partially responsible for this young woman being killed.  Such education in existentialism is not-so-subtly, persistently devolving, as that partial blame slowly culminated to full when the Commissioner and some representatives of the mayor’s office reportedly went as far as meeting with the parents of the deceased young woman a couple of days after the initial condemnation and managed to convince them to publically blame the “fans” for their daughter’s death (according to a banner headline in the Boston Herald which read, “Family Blames Fans”).

I am white, Irish, and lived in Boston for three months in the summer of 1995.  I am perhaps an odd blend of introvert and gregarious.  I intended to try and make a living there, seeing how the city is pretty much the literary capital of the country and I like to write, and about ninety percent of my family happen to be from towns around the south of Boston.  My parents and older siblings are originally from Brockton.  Maybe it was because it was a hot summer that year, as it is a big city of roughly three million residents, or perhaps it had something to do with my just having spent two years living out in a smaller and less crowded city in the Midwest, but a big reason I decided to last only a few months there was from having spent a lot of time walking around Boston-proper on days off from work and not one single passer-by returned a friendly smile.  The only friend I did manage to make was my roommate through a mutual friend, a very nice person from Ohio, whose previous roommate had actually moved out on her only after a short time for the very same reason as myself. 

So I don’t think “tough” is the word I would use to generally describe Bostonians.  Neurotic, distrusting, over-caffeinated, perhaps as a result of a Mr. Donut or Dunkin Donuts on practically every street-corner.  The dose of xenophobia that the “Euro-trash” get practically extends to anyone not from Boston.  Very old-school in terms of social politics.  (Little do people know that over a hundred years ago, the Irish were actually discriminated against by the Germans in Boston.)  I once saw a native Bostonian actually get out of his car in not-so mid-afternoon traffic on Boylston and confront the driver in front of him, yelling, “Go back to your fucking country!”

Cities right now in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, sub-Saharan Africa have to deal with the threat of bombing and random terror attacks on a daily basis.  These are cities well-acquainted with actual, unvarnished fear.  I have trouble understanding these conflicting messages of how Boston can on the one hand be referred to as “tough” yet also “a city paralyzed by fear”.  In very recent, post-9/11 America, it is near-impossible for me to believe the majority living in a city where those planes happened to take off could carry on unsusceptible to the possibility of future terrorism.  Old school politics press on.

If there is anything we the public have learned from this latest terror-incident, it is that America has a continued inclination to oversell.  Boston was a city largely paralyzed by inconvenience from being locked-down for a day, and overcrowded by multi-media tourists.  (How do police bypass peeking inside a resident’s big boat parked in his backyard, very near the scene from where the younger Tsarnaev had fled, bloodied?)  I wish we would learn to not perpetuate any possible, future tragic incident in this country with the disservice of tragically shallow perspective.

Heroes Shouldn’t Exist

The new BBC series “Sherlock” is Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson adapted to the post-9/11, Information Age.

The eponymous character’s eccentric work-ethic, adventurous curiosity, and supersonic observational skills remain illuminated in contrast to the humanism of his chief associate and Afghan war veteran, Dr. John Watson (although not quite so much and in comedic contrast to his older brother, sibling rival, Mycroft).  It is a thrill to see Sherlock Holmes put a smartphone (text included, scrolled along the television-screen) to good use, which has a bit of John Henry-type appeal – to go with a less bulky, flip-open, hand-held magnifier – run parallel with the show’s use of visual editing coinciding with his deductions, as well as the mix of Victorian-against-21st century architecture of London.

But what I most enjoy watching – and re-watching – is the dynamic, true friendship between Holmes and Watson.

Writing for this show must be a very complicated undertaking, hence the only three, 90-minute episodes, per season.  The genius of the show for me plays up the classic superhero-versus-super-villain, in a league-of-their-own battle of wits extremely well.  For the acting and writing of the seemingly incredible mindsets of the two adversaries, Holmes and James Moriarty, dueling it out in the modern maze of our collective unconscious, are made to feel tangible.

Take the following clip from a scene halfway through the season one finale, “The Great Game”…  Holmes and Watson had just fought the clock in order to solve a case dictated to them over the phone through yet another innocently connected hostage, by a so-called ‘fan’ of Sherlock’s (later, to no real surprise, confirmed to be Moriarty).  Although they solved the case, they are sitting in their living room having just watched footage of the hostage’s unforeseeable mistake in judgment: she had begun to reveal an ever-so-slight part of Moriarty’s identity, resulting in her and a large section of her apartment-building being ripped apart, killing 12, in total.  After shutting off the television news in disgust (something we should all do more often, in general) and deliberating over where the bomber might be with his latest case, Dr. Watson asks why he might be playing these ‘games’ with them in the first place.  Holmes then coolly replies in his suddenly detached way, believing it maybe because he is bored – or, as he puts it “distracted”.  This finally brings things to a head for the good doctor (not before muttering under his breath, “You two would be perfect together”)…  http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=5yN5O2XG-Mk

What an audacious thing to say from a self-proclaimed “consulting detective”, no less, to someone who is a doctor, war-veteran, and lives in reality at least as we know it.  But he gets no argument in return.  This to me would become the signature line/defining moment of the series.

Anyone has the capacity to be selfless.  S/He would, at best, humbly, mortally acknowledge any a special action.  Anyone else would more or less be considered an asshole.  Nor would anyone wish to be portrayed as some sort of valiant disconnect for any a villainous entity to seek to manipulate.  Thus, the term ‘hero’, in this sense, becomes completely relative and obsolete.

Make a difference, stay true to a calling, but not without some basis of understanding.  It is very fortunate many of us do not live where violence occurs in any of its forms, to various degrees, on a daily basis, but what of the many persistently made all too aware of such surroundings?  Instead of obliging to more shallow and rehashed manifestations of scapegoated fears, never intending to separate the ‘super’ amongst us to begin with, why not recognize our better capacities now?  It is enough for me to try and stave off cynicism, for the time being.