Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Real People. Really Bad News.

I remember the moment in my early television news reporting days when I paused to consider the truth.

These were the old days of journalism - the ones in which opinions were not allowed unless labeled editorial and the tenets of Who/What/When/Where/How were the basics for every story told. Truth was our business.  We told it without bias or personal reflection.

But the day I stood at the perimeter of a police line watching as a young dead man was lifted from the twisted wreckage of his pickup truck, I experienced something small that altered forever my interaction with the news world.

It was a routine, bloody, if-you-run-it-they-will-watch story. I had gathered the required information - Who was this man/What had happened to cause the mess/When did it happen/ Where was he going/How did he die?  My photographer was filming every grisly, observable detail to air alongside my riveting copy.

But I had to linger a bit too long at the scene, which allowed some real truth to gnaw at the reporter's callous indifference around my heart.  Suddenly, this was not just traffic fatality #87 or drunk driver #200 or news story #896.  This was a guy who had gotten into his truck with every intention of arriving at his destination.  He had done that less than an hour before I stood gawking at his bloodied corpse with a note pad in my hand and a pencil behind my ear.

In other words, he had had a day much like mine.  Except it ended like I prayed mine wouldn't.

I have been an intense, behind-the-obvious observer of people in the news ever since that day. I find I am particularly drawn to the stories of the "bad guys."  I never hear about a suicide bomber at a wedding or a 16-year old pirate on the open sea or a mass shooter on a rampage that I don't stop to wonder the same few things: Who loves this person/What was he doing yesterday/When did violence become embraceable/Where did he go for coffee/How did so much go wrong?

Which brings me to the cover of The Rolling Stone.

The excited uproar and banned sales and general ranting over this cover stem not from the story on accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar "Jahar" Tsarnaev - but from the photo, which opponents say projects too sweet and sexy an image for a terrorist.  How could the magazine present such a likeable looking guy to its impressionable young demographic?  Some have even said the cover gives Tsarnaev a Bob Dylan-like celebrity.  Sigh.

So suspected/convicted terrorists - people who instill fear through acts of violence against generally non-combatant innocents - are not allowed to be portrayed as real people?

I find that startling and sad and, frankly, offensive.  I can't believe an enlightened, free people do not want to understand, at the most basic human levels, what turns an otherwise "sweet and sexy" looking young man into an accused street bomber. How and when does the friend become the enemy?   I can't see how we are ever, ever, ever going to evolve in the direction of peace, love and understanding if we refuse to drop the labels we slap onto people and see them - even for as brief a moment as it takes to look at the cover of The Rolling Stone -  as real, live, breathing, loving, coffee-drinking, friend-having people.

I have read the well-researched and carefully-written piece on Dzhokhar, which The Rolling Stone has made accessible to anyone on the internet.  As I read, my mind was full of images of troubled teenagers who have made their way through my own front door over the years. I know at least a half dozen potential versions of this boy.

That is not an excuse for anyone.  It is just the truth.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a real person.  He may have become a real terrorist, too.  But until we are willing to look at the ground between us and them as knowable and walkable - at least imaginable - this world will never be anything but big and hard and generous on the side of hate and fear.


Sunday, July 14, 2013

From the Statesman Archives

The American Statesman Online Archives

Police racism lives, and not only in L.A.

DATE: October 11, 1995
PUBLICATION: Austin American-Statesman
It was 1964 in Nashville, Tenn., when I first encountered the hatred of racism. I was 11 years old. My mother asked me to call a restaurant to find out whether ``they served colored people.'' Our housekeeper had worked late, and mother wanted to take her out to dinner.
``Yeah, we serve 'em,'' was the bitter answer. ``We have to. It's the law.'' I knew by the tone in the man's voice that our beloved housekeeper would be served but would not be welcome in his restaurant. We did not take her to dinner that night. I thought we were cowards. I thought good people should stand toe to toe with that kind of hatred and not be intimidated. I thought that for 30 years. In fact, until recently I honestly believed that good people had wrestled the ugly beast of racism to the ground. I have been ignorant.
Two weeks ago my white-skinned 8-year-old son and his dark-skinned 14-year-old friend were riding their bicycles on our suburban Williamson County street. They were three houses from our front door when a sheriff's patrol car made a dramatic U-turn in the middle of the street and cut them off. Seconds later another patrol car arrived with an officer who bounded out of the vehicle and fired questions at these two young boys.
``Where have you been? What is your name? Where do you live? How old are you?''
After a brief radio exchange with another officer, these authorities got back into their patrol cars and took off. No explanation given ... no apology. Just two shaken children left standing on a corner with a neighborhood of wondering onlookers.
When a sheriff's deputy responded to my irate and incensed call for explanation later that evening, he said there had been a house burglary in the neighborhood and that the boys looked like their suspects. An 8-year-old on his bicycle in broad daylight three houses from home looks like a burglary suspect? 
Only because of the color of his companion's skin. (photo below of those criminal looking boys)
We have spent years teaching our children that police officers are to be respected, that police officers are our helpers and our friends. In one brief encounter my 8-year-old learned something new: Police officers are bullies. The incident also opened the door for our 14-year-old friend to talk about many similar encounters with the police. Apparently, young black children are used to this kind of treatment.
In the Austin American-Statesman, Austin police officers said they believed Mark Fuhrman's racism would unfairly paint officers nationwide. And I wonder, is it an unfair picture? Does skin color have absolutely no bearing on the reactions of police officers in this city? Nationwide?
In relating my son's experience to an African American friend, a professional black woman, my eyes were opened even wider to our racist, authoritarian system. She asked, ``Did you actually speak to the police officer with that tone in your voice?''
I assured her I had, that I had let the officer know I was extremely upset throughout our conversation, and that I thought his treatment of the children was horribly out of line.
She told me she would never have spoken to a police officer that way. That, if she had, she believed she would have been treated like a criminal, too. When she said that, I realized that the deputy's first question to me when he telephoned me that evening was, ``Which boy was your boy?''
So I say to us all, wake up! We are not the enlightened society we think we are. We have not pushed racism into some extremist's camp. We are still looking at people as us and them, good and bad, innocent and suspicious simply because of skin color. Our African American brothers and sisters have not been allowed to ``get over it.'' Racism is alive and well in every corner of their lives.
Most of us have changed our language. We are not as hideous as Mark Fuhrman. But it appears to me that many of us have the same dark hearts that 30 long years ago bitterly said, ``Yeah, we serve 'em. We have to it's the law."

My 8 year old and his friends Chaze & Charmus.

Lone Rangers for Justice

We were having tacos at 1 AM this morning after a late movie when we read the news:

I'm not completely sure how we ate the food in front of us.  

Then it was hard to sleep.  I checked Facebook and Twitter to make sure I was not the only person feeling absolutely blindsided by the news.  I typed and re-typed angry status updates I never posted...most of which cited, quite incredulously, the last line from the pledge to the United States flag: with liberty and justice for all.  


I was not in that courtroom in Florida.  I was not on the jury.  I cannot speak with any real authority except to wonder aloud, like so many are doing today...

How is it okay for a non-law officer to go hunting for wrong-doers with a gun in this country?  
How is it standing your ground when the person you are standing against is running away in fear? 
How is it possible to acquit a man who was told by police to leave the investigation of Treyvon Martin to them? 

I woke up this morning and the news had not changed.    
I woke up this morning and America had not changed.

On October 11, 1995, I wrote an op-ed piece that was published in the Austin American Statesman. The motivating news of the day was the OJ Simpson trial and the accusation of racially motivated misbehavior in the case by a police officer named Mark Fuhrman.

Police racism lives, and not only in L.A.

Here's the part of that 1995 editorial that was the scab scraped to bleeding this morning when we read the news about the Zimmerman verdict:

We are not the enlightened society we think we are. We have not pushed racism into some extremist's camp. We are still looking at people as us and them, good and bad, innocent and suspicious simply because of skin color. Our African American brothers and sisters have not been allowed to "get over it." Racism is alive and well in every corner of their lives.

If you are a black person in this country, this is the truth - liberty and justice for all is not a concept that applies to you.  Think I'm being too harsh?  Have you read the other story from Florida yesterday?  

Fla. mom gets 20 years for firing warning shots

Which brings me to the movie...the one we'd just seen when we were eating tacos over bad news in the wee hours of the morning.  With apologies to all who have boycotted The Lone Ranger over Johnny Depp's Tonto, I confess that's where we were last night.  There is a great scene in the film that comes to mind today...

The Lone Ranger and Tonto are running from a mob of well-meaning folk enraged over the presence of a "savage Indian" in town. As the people close in on the Lone Ranger and Tonto, the Ranger - who has just returned to his frontier hometown from law school in the city - looks over his shoulder and says, "What is wrong with these people?"  

We could talk all day long about the message there...about society's lesser-thans, mob mentality, the work of a lone ranger or two....

I know which role I want to play.  
Asking always - What is wrong with these people?