“yesterday we learned that it’s okay to kill a black kid”

Last night after dinner my husband and I walked to J.P. Licks — the local ice cream shop, about a mile away — and we were able to return from that outing to our home unaccosted. This is one of the many privileges we enjoy as white people.

I had just settled into a chair in the living room to read when my phone buzzed with an alert from The New York Times: “George Zimmerman acquitted in killing of Trayvon Martin.” I yelped. I read the alert to my husband, who sighed and said, “I’m not surprised.” I abandoned my book for the night and begin to watch reaction to the verdict unfold on social media. (I don’t have TV, so I wasn’t able to watch anything live.)

I wasn’t alone in being upset. I know there are plenty of people who exulted in last night’s verdict, but thanks to the wonder of feed curation, I don’t have to know anything about them (except when someone, say, makes the unfortunate decision to retweet Ann Coulter).

The eternal optimist in me was surprised at the verdict. And then just as quickly, the realist in me was not. Other people who have followed the case more closely than I have written — and will write — better analyses of the trial: Andrew Cohen, for one, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, for another. As far as I can tell, the verdict was proof that our criminal justice system works exactly as it is designed to do: Maintain white privilege, power, and control. Mission accomplished. (And if you’re not convinced that is what it is supposed to do, I beg you to read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.)

And from my limited perspective — and by the way, unless you were one of the six women on the jury, your perspective on this will always be limited — the verdict was probably basically right. Zimmerman was probably “not guilty” (in the strict legal sense) according to the law as written in Florida. And everything about that sucks.

Following are a few notes, in highly unparallel form, mostly directed at my fellow white people, based on the social media activity that I observed..

1. Yesterday was not “the day we all learned that it’s okay to kill a black kid” (or some variation on this melodramatic statement). Maybe yesterday was the day *you* learned that. But lots of folks, particularly people of color, already knew that. Have always known that. Because their lives have depended on their knowing that.

2. You are not Trayvon Martin. If you think that “we are all Trayvon Martin” — and you’re including white folks in that “we” — then you’re missing the point entirely. This situation does not happen to white kids.

2b. A corollary: Don’t wear a hoodie. Find another way to express solidarity. Start by calling people out on their racism. And when when you say something racist (and yes, you have and you will), own up to it without defensiveness, apologize for it, and work to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

3. This is not the time (and I actually think it’s never the time) to try to convince folks that not all white people are racist. That makes the conversation about you. It’s called derailing, and it is unhelpful. Destructive, even.

4. You don’t understand exactly what people of color are going through just because you’re Jewish, or disabled, or gay, or [insert minority to which you belong]. Nobody wins Oppression Olympics.

5. Banning Florida, and Texas, and North Carolina, and [state that has passed or upheld a law you find repugnant] is not the solution. You are sorely mistaken if you think that state-sanctioned racism doesn’t happen in blue states.

6. Vote in every election, advocate to change laws (and to prevent laws like Florida’s from being passed in your own state), and DON’T TRY TO GET OUT OF JURY DUTY.

As I went to bed last night — and slept fitfully — I wondered how Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton could bear this. But I quickly realized that I’m not able to go there, not least because I’m not a parent. Whatever children I might have won’t be at risk of being shot as they walk through whatever neighborhood we might live in.

As the brilliant Audre Lorde wrote in Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference (h/t Blue Milk):

Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you; we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs on the reasons they are dying.

sex and murder

helter skelterThis spring I ended up reading two books on eerily similar topics. Well, the fact that the subject matter — accounts of spectacular criminal trials — overlapped is not that much of a surprise, since I love true crime. Both proceedings, 40 years apart, garnered excessive media attention because of the suggestion of sex-fueled ritual murder.

Recommended by a friend of a friend, Helter Skelter is the story of what has come to be known as the Manson Family murders. The title refers to the Beatles song from which cult leader Charles Manson derived the harrowing philosophy of racial warfare that led him to order the killing of at least 11 people in the Los Angeles area in the summer of 1969.

The book was penned by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who managed to get Manson convicted of all of the murders committed by Manson’s cult — even though he wasn’t present at any of them. Bugliosi indicted Manson on charges of conspiracy, a legal technicality that allows for co-defendants to be convicted of crimes that any of the group did; he just had to convince a jury that Manson had control of his disciples.

That turned out to be easier than you might think, because Manson wasn’t reticent about the power he cultivated and wielded. He never admitted outright the command to kill, but he told Bugliosi plenty about his “Family,” the term Manson used for the followers that he assembled, lived with, and directed in orgies at a ranch in the hills west of Los Angeles. And the Family members were equally frank about their slavish loyalty to the man they considered “G-d,” or “Jesus Christ.”

Bugliosi didn’t take any chances, though, and he tells with fastidious, fascinating detail how he shaped the case that put Charles Manson behind bars, where he remains to this day. The thoroughly compelling account is only slightly marred by the fact that Bugliosi writes himself as the only competent character on both sides of the legal team; the LAPD detectives in particular come across as buffoons, while Bugliosi saves the day (by doing their work as well as his).

Overall, though the book is great, one of the best non-fiction accounts I’ve read in a long time. I highly recommend it — though perhaps not, as I read a good deal of it, alone, late at night, in a house that backs up to a wooded expanse. The Manson Family, as it turns out, selected their victims pretty much at random, and I was irrationally sure I was next.

waiting to be heardThe other book I tackled was not of the same quality. But that wasn’t really the point: As soon as I heard the release date for Amanda Knox’s book (April 30, timed to coincide with her first post-prison interview), I went to the Brookline Public Library’s online catalog and requested a copy. I got it on May 7, and I had read it by May 9. Like many, I followed the infamous case — the four-year journey of a murder conviction that was ultimately overturned — partly because it was portrayed as so lurid, and partly because I just love the genre.

Waiting to Be Heard is not great literature, but it is a good read. In November 2007, 20-year-old Amanda Knox had been in Perugia, Italy, for just five weeks when her British roommate was found brutally killed in the villa that the two shared with two other Italian women. Knox and her boyfriend of one week were later arrested, tried, and convicted of the murder — which conviction was overturned in 2011, leading to their release. The book is the story, told with help from a ghostwriter in a voice that I can only imagine actually approximates Amanda’s own, of those years.

The narrative is marked from the beginning by her defensiveness about almost every action that led to her arrest, somewhat understandably since they were all, to a one, used against her in the trial. And they were the actions of an immature young woman, just barely not a teenager anymore. Knox is as staggeringly naive as Manson was creepily controlling. I can understand a college student with no conception of police tactics or criminal investigations, leading to wince-inducing efforts to cooperate with an increasingly hostile prosecutor. However, Knox also expresses shock — shock! — that the family of her murdered roommate seems angry at her when she first encounters them in a courtroom after her arrest. The police, the media, fine — but the victim’s family thinks I’m guilty, too? And it’s not entirely clear that her years in prison did much to disabuse her of that naiveté. But maybe that’s a blessing. I was genuinely disturbed, when, before the verdict her retrial, she wrote a list of things to do if she received a life sentence: stop writing letters homeask family and friends to forget mesuicide? But the end of book makes clear that Amanda Knox will find her way again.

Since I always do in my true crime stories, I’ll weigh in here, too. Manson: guilty; Knox: not guilty. Manson in all likelihood was precisely the monster he was made out to be, while Knox simply couldn’t have been the sex-and-drug-addicted femme fatale as she was portrayed.

and hell followed with him

It’s time to play catch-up with my book reviews, even though I haven’t read as much as usual and these are not the most popular posts. But I like reflecting on and writing about what I’ve read. This summer I finished three books dealing with death and its pursuant hell: of war, of the criminal justice system, and of the otherworldly variety. It was not as gloomy a turn as it sounds. Plus, all three were fiction, which is unusual for me.

It started at the beginning of the summer with The Shining, my first Stephen King novel. A few days after moving to Boston, I joined the Brookline Public Library, a branch of which is just up the street from our apartment, and on a whim decided to pay homage to New England’s adopted son. I did this with not a little trepidation, since I generally can’t stomach anything in the horror genre. And it probably didn’t help that I read most of the book while at a remote Mexican resort during Tropical Storm Debbie, making leaving even the room, let alone the grounds, almost impossible. And, yes, the image to the left is indeed the cover art of the book I checked out: It probably should have been harder to scare me with visuals like those, but King is a master. The story has become such a part of popular culture — particularly because of Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, starring Jack Nicholson — that even I was familiar with the plot, though I was surprised that some of the most iconic features of the story are from the film rather than the book. I won’t call it great literature, but King certainly knows how to write a page turner and a scary, suspenseful story: I couldn’t put it down, even would it would have been advisable to do so as I grew stir-crazy, trapped in a hotel of my own. Tortured writer Jack Torrance, his conflicted wife Wendy, and their clairvoyant son Danny all provide their perspectives on the events that occur when Jack accepts the winter caretaker position at the haunted Overlook Hotel in Colorado, leading to their months’ long isolation with only the company of the ghosts of residents past. It’s hard not to want them all to make it out alive, which the survivors do only with the help of cook Dick Hallorann, an early occurrence of the unfortunate “Magical Negro” stock character. Overall I am glad I read it, if for nothing else than the fact that I now get the references to it (even if most of them are from the movie). I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that my previous knowledge of the book had come from a Friends episode in which Joey and Rachel trade favorite books. “‘What’s so great about The Shining?'” Joey asks incredulously. “The question should be, ‘What is not great about The Shining?’ — and the answer is, ‘Nothing!'”

I next tackled Téa Obreht’s highly acclaimed The Tiger’s Wife, which was the only decent choice in the Cancún airport after I had disposed of The Shining. It was another page turner: I finished it on the return journey to Boston (which admittedly was made longer than it should have been by delayed flights). Despite its glowing reviews, I didn’t love it. And I should have! Obrecht has been compared to some of my favorite authors, including García Márquez, Hemingway, Bulgakov, and Dinesen. And the novel was quite a good story: A young doctor in a war-torn Balkan country, searching for answers in the mysterious death of her beloved grandfather, turns to the magical stories he told in her childhood. His fanciful folklore is told against the backdrop of a country, based on Obrecht’s homeland of the former Yugoslavia, enveloped by a heartbreaking succession of wars. Maybe it was the crankiness of travel that intruded on my reading experience. Conceivably the narrator’s attempts to justify a character’s beating of his wife — she actually says, “Luka was a batterer, and here’s why.” — lost me. Or perhaps I found distracting the photo of the author, who looks all of 12. I realize these are not all good reasons; then again, I’ve disagreed with award bestowers before (see The Inheritance of Loss).

Finally, I just finished Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, recommended as a summer beach read by one of my favorite blogs, CrimeDime. I’ve loved Atwood’s fiction in the past, and this one did not disappoint. Like the two above, it was also a quick read. Based on the true story of a 16-year-old Irish servant convicted of murdering her employer and his housekeeper and lover in antebellum Canada, the book jumps between the young woman’s story and that of the physician she tells it to during her incarceration. Atwood also makes use of contemporary historical accounts as interstitials. The real Grace Marks was one of the world’s most notorious criminals at her trial in 1843. She and a fellow servant were convicted of murdering their employer; after receiving death sentences, the trial for the murder of the housekeeper was deemed unnecessary. Her accomplice was hanged while her sentence was commuted, mostly due to her age, and public opinion — as well as that of those closest to her — remained divided about whether she was femme fatale or naif. Readers will likely remain as confounded, as Marks claimed not to remember the murders and later gave at least three different versions of what happened at the time of the deaths. Atwood writes to give Marks the chance that she wouldn’t have gotten in her time to tell her story — but draws no conclusion. Trigger warning: Atwood brings to light the issues of gender and class (but only race incidentally) that permeate the 19th century, most of which seem to be sexual advances of powerful men towards vulnerable women. In Atwood’s imagining, Marks holds herself a victim, and thus, she relates, her stints in an asylum and a penitentiary constitute a special hell for her.

What were your enjoyable, light summer reads?