OK, today is Easter, and it’s time for the latest crucifixion news. I just wish I had some resurrections to report on along with them, but, alas, I don’t. By now, it is hardly news that Trayvon Martin, unarmed and in fear for his life, was murdered in cold blood by an armed neighborhood watch volunteer who, as of this writing, has not been charged with any crime, apparently on the grounds that he acted in fear for his own life, which, according to the “stand your ground” law promulgated in Florida and many other states, including Tennessee, by the American Legislative Exchange Council, excuses murder if you’re afraid of the person you kill. How’s that for a ‘get out of jail free” card?
When we drop back from the immediate facts of this case, it becomes another link in a long chain of black men who have been killed by whites, generally with impunity. This chain stretches back through the many murders visited on the Civil Rights movement, to the notorious case of Emmett Till in the early 1960’s, to pogroms that destroyed entire African-American towns and neighborhoods in the twenties, to the brutal repression of African-Americans in the post-Reconstruction South, to slave owners’ desire to break the will of any person of color who was perceived as “uppity,” or likely to fight back against oppression, back to the Nat Turner revolt and the forced origin of African-American immigration to the Western Hemisphere–virtually every African-American’s ancestors were kidnapped and sold into slavery. Oh, but that was centuries ago. No way our conscience could still be bothering us, right? Yeah, right. What in the world do they want “reparations” for?
Let’s put Trayvon Martin’s murder in perspective, by examining some similar incidents. Let’s start with the death of Eric Perez. One of the ironies of life in America is that this young man with a Hispanic name looks African-American, while George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s killer, bears a German name but looks Hispanic, not African, but still would almost certainly be discriminated against by any white racist who had the opportunity. Poop, as they say, rolls down hill, and here’s the story of how it hit the fan for the unfortunate Eric Perez. On July 9th of last year, 17-year old Eric was riding his bicycle after dark, and the bicycle didn’t have a light on it, so the police stopped him, frisked him, and found a small amount of marijuana. Because Eric was still on probation for crimes committed when he was 13 (and who isn’t crazy when they’re 13?), his probation was immediately revoked, and he was taken to the West Palm Beach Juvenile Detention Center. That night, under the guise of making sure he wasn’t taking any food back to his cell, guards at the jail roughed him up, banging his head on the concrete floor. When the dazed young man obeyed their orders to stand up, he fell and hit his head on a table. Within a few hours, he was nauseous and hallucinating, but the guards didn’t call 911, because they didn’t want to go to the trouble of filing an incident report, and the nurse who was ostensibly responsible for after-hours medical care at the jail didn’t return the guards’ phone call. Next morning, Eric Perez was dead, executed by neglect for the terrible crimes of riding a bicycle without a light and having a small amount of marijuana on his person–and it’s worth noting that defenders of George Zimmerman have attempted to slander Trayvon Martin by pointing out that he had been suspended from school for having a baggie with traces of marijuana in his pocket. People, America is not Singapore. Yet.
And what happened to the killers of Eric Perez? Well, they lost their jobs, after five months of paid ‘administrative leave,” but they were not prosecuted, because, the Grand Jury determined, “no existing statute applies to the facts of the matter.” Apparently, Eric’s death somehow does not fit any definition of murder, homicide, or manslaughter. However, in an official statement,the Grand Jury did urge “… the Florida Legislature to enact a statute that criminalizes the neglect of anyone in the custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice.” Just the thing Rick Scott and his Tea Party buddies in the Florida legislature will jump right up and do…not. In a further insult to Eric’s family, the state offered $5,000 to help with burial expenses, then stopped the check, before reissuing it. Talk about “jerking people around.”
So that’s the murder of Eric Perez–killed by prison guards because he didn’t have a light on his bike and he did have a baggie in his pocket, and might be taking food to his room. Next, let’s look at the murder of Kenneth Chamberlain, who actually did have all his ducks in a row–and was shot dead in his own home by police at point-blank range anyway.
At five o’clock in the morning last November, the African-American former Marine and prison guard, who was under treatment for a heart condition, rolled over in his sleep and accidentally set off a “life-aid pendant” used by many older Americans so that, wherever they are, they can alert 911 in the event of a medical emergency, and so 911 operators dispatched an ambulance and police car to see what the matter was. Perhaps because Mr. Chamberlain lived in a public housing project, where common prejudice has it that crime is more prevalent than elsewhere, the police were not satisfied when Mr. Chamberlain told them he was fine and declined to get out of bed and let them into his one-room home at such an early hour. “I know my rights,” he told them, and asked them to leave. The police, apparently, did not know theirs, and cursed at the accidental object of their unwanted attention, demanding that he let them in. They called for reinforcements, until there were eleven officers in the hall outside the apartment, and then they broke in and tasered the unfortunate but completely innocent occupant, who was clad only in his underwear and making no attempt to resist their unlawful entry. When tasering didn’t knock him down, one of the officers ordered the minicam on the taser shut off, and shot him twice. The second shot killed him. He had done no wrong. There was no contraband of any kind in his possession. And he was dead, just like Trayvon Martin, Eric Perez, and so many before them, and, as has all too often been the case, no criminal charges have yet been filed.
Another irony emerges in this story. Many people, including me, have expressed concerns about the increasing intrusion of security cameras into our lives. In this case, the entire incident was caught on tape by security cameras, not just on the taser, but in the hall of the apartment, and by an audio recorder on Chamberlain’s 911 device, which did not get turned off, giving the lie to the police story that the 5’6″ heart patient had threatened them, and for that reason they had used deadly force. Like Trayvon Martin, Chamberlain had been on the phone as he felt his doom approach. Chamberlain was talking to the 911 operator, pleading with authorities to call off their attack dogs–er, police officers, and letting the 911 operator know he was in fear for his life.
When I took a break from writing this story, I discovered that Chamberlain’s murderer has been identified, thanks to Democracy Now! reporter Juan Gonzalez, as Anthony Corelli, who, in spite of being indicted and about to go to trial on Federal civil rights violations in another case, was still on duty. And I also learned that the white New Orleans police who shot peaceful, unarmed African-Americans trying to escape the city after Hurricane Katrina have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms….seven years after the fact. I wish I could take some satisfaction in that, but I can’t. What we are dealing with here is widespread and systemic, and punishing individuals for acting on the basis of conditioning that was instilled in them when they were too young to think, and that they were never encouraged to question, is not an answer. Jail time is unlikely to change anybody’s mind, and more likely to simply breed deeper fear and resentment. We need a more creative solution, a way to transform people. Except in rare cases, putting people in jail doesn’t transform them, it deforms them even further.
I could spend the rest of this radio show, and many more, detailing the European-American-generated tragedies that have unravelled the lives of people who just happened to be born African-American. And much has been written already about the deep cause–the seemingly insatiable European drive to conquer, exploit, convert, and control every person and acre of ground on this little blue ball we call home. The question is not so much “what’s the problem?” as it is, “what can we do to heal this ongoing, world-wide wound?” As a human being of pretty nearly unadulterated European descent, this is an extremely personal question for me, one that I have grappled with ever since, in my early teens, I began to become aware of just how much privilege I took for granted.
I didn’t quite realize where this story was going when I started writing it. My head was full of the switcheroo in the early 80’s, when big corporations responded to the expansion of ecological and social justice consciousness in this country by moving their operations beyond the reach of American law, thus beginning the destruction of the middle class, leaving people less time for reflection and activism, and the linked switch from the War on Poverty to the War on Drugs. The War on Poverty was offensive to the corporatocracy because it empowered people and led them to question the status quo. The War on Drugs changed the government’s primary focus from empowering the poor to imprisoning–and disenfranchising–them. The U.S. prison population is now seven times what it was in 1980, despite a dropping crime rate–thank you, Ronald Reagan! Thank you Bill Clinton! But I digress…that story will have to wait for another time. We’re going deeper than that.
Becoming a hippie solved some of my conflicts about being born into such a privileged situation. The exploitation and destruction of the natural world is driven largely by clean-cut white guys in business suits, and so from an early age I did my best not to be one of those. I can’t do anything about the color of my skin or the y chromosome in every cell of my body, but being clean-cut and wearing a necktie are two things that a white guy can abandon, and, in the process, get at least a little taste of what it’s like to be a member of the powerless, dark-skinned underclass. And hey, all it takes is a shave, a haircut, and a suit, and you are once again indistinguishable from the oppressor class!
But being powerless has its own difficulties, especially when coupled with a desire to make the world a better place for everyone. In the early 70’s, my fellow counterculturalists and I hoped to prevail by sheer force of numbers and the fact that we were having more fun than our square, bought-in counterparts, but time, fear, and financial fetters conspired to erode those attractions for far too many of my unindicted co-conspirators, many of whom (including, some would say, me) have taken the easy way out and accepted the privilege of our heritage. Since the 70’s, the crisis we perceived then has only snowballed in severity, and there is no sign of any let-up. Were we wrong to bail on the lives we could have led, to attempt the creation of a counterculture in which black men, and everyone else, young and old, need not fear for their lives, rather than to fully enter the mainstream and attempt that same work in the belly of the beast? Was Margaret Thatcher right? Is no alternative possible?
No. Margaret Thatcher was wrong. Not only is an alternative possible, it is imperative. The only way to change a society as steeped in fear and domination as ours is to do all we can to create a real, living, breathing, wake-up-to-it-in-the-morning alternative, to the very best of our admittedly limited ability. Patience, tolerance, and flexibility are core values for this new society, and one way to practice them is to apply them to the limitations we all have due to our deep conditioning to, and inescapable links with, the impatient, intolerant,inflexible culture that confines us. It’s not an easy job, but it’s the only game in town, besides the one that is so afraid of its own shadow and the evil it has visited on others that it excuses the murders of innocent people whose skin happens to be the wrong color, or who happen to maybe smoke the wrong kind of cigarettes, or who happen to live in places where fossil fuels or other deadly drugs could be produced. Our success is not certain–but if we don’t try, our failure is inevitable.
music: Eliza Gilkyson, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”