What’s Wrong With This Picture?

This Saturday, two police officers – Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos – were ambushed and murdered in Brooklyn. Their killer, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, had a history of mental illness, at least one past suicide attempt, and an extensive rap sheet. Before killing Liu and Ramos, he shot his ex-girlfriend in Maryland and took a bus to New York, proclaiming on Instagram that “I’m Putting Wings On Pigs Today They Take 1 Of Ours…… Let’s Take 2 of Theirs #ShootThePolice.” After killing Liu and Ramos, Brinsley fled to into a subway station and shot himself.

This June, two police officers – Alyn Beck and Igor Soldo – were ambushed and murdered in Las Vegas. Their killers, Jerad and Amanda Miller, committed these killings as an explicit act of political revolution. Jerad had had his own run-ins with law enforcement and developed a conspiracy-theory-heavy, anti-government ideology that led him to join the militia and “States Rights” activists at Cliven Bundy’s ranch during the rancher’s standoff with law enforcement. Miller was supposedly kicked off the Bundy ranch for encouraging others to shoot Bureau of Land Management personnel. Whatever the case, he and his wife, who both viewed all cops as “pigs” and frequently likened them to Nazis, eventually decided to take violent action on their own. And so they shot Beck and Soldo at point-blank range in a pizza joint and draped their bodies in a Gadsden flag, shouting “This is the start of a revolution!” Jerad’s last post on Social Media the night before read: “The dawn of a new day. May all our coming sacrifices be worth it.” After killing Beck and Soldo, the Millers ended up dead by their own hands in a local Walmart, where they also killed an armed civilian who had attempted to stop them.

What Jerad and Amanda Miller did was terrorism, full stop. It was linked, both in terms of ideological motivation and a history of actual group affiliations to a spectacular incident of armed resistance to law enforcement. But after the Millers killed Beck and Soldo, authorities didn’t descend upon the Bundy ranch, nor did they call for the remaining armed activists there to disband or even disarm. The Las Vegas Police Union and PBA certainly didn’t accuse US Senator Dean Heller, who had previously called those at the Bundy Ranch “patriots,” of “having blood on his hands.”

What Ismaaiyl Brinsley did, on the other hand, is more ambiguous. His multi-state rampage began with a loved one and then ended in killing two cops; his beliefs are only beginning to become clear, and it’s uncertain if he ever participated in any of numerous recent protests against police brutality, whether in Georgia or Maryland or New York or elsewhere. A hallmark of those protests, incidentally, is that they have been overwhelmingly nonviolent and have involved acts of civil disobedience where participants  allowed themselves to be arrested – not faced off cops with their own guns drawn. And yet, after Brinsley tragically murdered these two NYPD officers, not only have the police and media blamed nonviolent protestors and the #BlackLivesMatter movement for those killings, but they’ve pressured New York City’s mayor into asking peaceful protestors – protestors rightly infuriated by police brutality, but who also denounce violence against police – to stop protesting.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Sandy Hook, “White-on-White Crime,” and How Privilege Kills

A memorial to the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings at the intersection of 5th and Cecil B. Moore, a so-called “Murder Corridor” in North Philadelphia. From 2007 to 2013, 299 children were murdered in city; the majority of these victims were black, and shot to death in North Philly. Photo Copyright Jason Francisco (2012).

A memorial to the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings at the intersection of 5th and Cecil B. Moore, a so-called “Murder Corridor” in North Philadelphia. From 2007 to 2013, 299 children were murdered in the city; the majority of these victims were black, and shot to death in North Philly. (Photo Copyright Jason Francisco 2012).

It’s been two years now since December 14, 2012. On that morning, twenty year-old Adam Lanza, a young man with an extensive history of mental health problems, shot his mother four times in the head while she slept. He then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut, which he had attended as a child. Wielding a Bushmaster XM-15 and carrying a pair of pistols, Lanza entered the school at 9:35; stalking the halls and classrooms, he shot and killed twenty children and six adults before shooting himself in the head at 9:40.

There’s been a lot of ink spilled about Adam Lanza since Sandy Hook: a mountain of coverage, including several books, and a slew of government-commissioned reports, among them one produced by the Connecticut State Attorney’s office – a document that, as I wrote at the time, raised more questions than it answered. Yet another report was made public just before this past Thanksgiving, this time from the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate (OCA). The OCA report fills in many of the gaps in previous analyses of what led up to events that December day, and merits close attention – I will turn to it shortly. But reading this report, it’s impossible not to think, too, about what else has been happening since Sandy Hook. I’m referring not just to the escalating number of school shootings that have occurred since Newtown, but also to the ongoing protests over the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, and the scores of other young black men and women killed by police. It’s impossible not to think about these deaths while reading the OCA report, because, if any one thing leaps from its pages, it’s the fact that what Adam Lanza did at Sandy Hook would not have been possible without the enabling forces of white privilege, white wealth, and white impunity. Indeed, with pundits cynically trying to derail discussions of structural racism and police brutality by speciously concern-trolling about so-called “black-on-black crime,” it’s time to talk about Sandy Hook in a different way: not just as an act of “white-on-white” crime, but as an event that is inseparable from the white supremacy that helped produce it.

At just under a hundred and twenty pages in length, the OCA report reveals that what happened at Sandy Hook would have been utterly unthinkable if not for the selective attentiveness, determined along racial lines, of multiple American institutions – from our schools to social services to the prison-industrial complex. Before turning to the report itself, it’s important to stipulate the reality of how these institutions function when it comes to dealing with black youth, whether or not they suffer from psychiatric problems, and particularly when they do.


Our school system is marked by systemic racial discrimination. Black children are disproportionately penalized by teachers and administrators from pre-K on: “While black children make up 18 percent of preschool enrollment, close to half of all preschool children who are suspended more than once are African-American.” As they progress in school, so too does consistent discrimination: rather than being offered special education classes, black children are disproportionately likely to be shunted into woefully-underfunded remedial education courses, and to be punished or even expelled for behavioral “infractions” under “zero tolerance” policies. In Connecticut specifically, which ranks in the lowest quintile of states in terms of providing assistance to black children with special needs, no less than 44% of the youths admitted to its main juvenile detention facilities are black. When young white students act out, their misbehavior is frequently characterized as mischief, or “being a handful” – when black students do, it’s perceived as a sign of budding criminality (see this piece by Lisa Wade for more). The bias of treating black children as deviant troublemakers while excusing or ignoring white children’s misbehavior continues into adolescence. As Jamelle Bouie has powerfully argued, the overall landscape of our schools thus constitutes “a status quo that’s nearly designed to deliver the worst outcomes to African American students.”

To make matters worse, black children are consistently misidentified by whites as being older (and hence more “threatening”) than they actually are. This manifests particularly during their interactions with authority figures like police (recall how, after they shot twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, police officers standing over his body as he bled out identified him as “maybe twenty”) and also when it comes to appearing before judges, juries, and prosecutors: black teens make up no less than 62% of all youths tried as adults in American courts. Psychology experiments have shown that implicit biases lead whites (not just police) to attribute “imperviousness to pain” to blacks, to regularly misidentify black teens as armed, and to “shoot” them when given the option in simulations. Outside psychology labs, on our nation’s streets, black male teens are twenty-one times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts. And although nationwide data regarding police violence is shockingly insufficient, reading the FBI’s own statistics (which offer, at best, only a glimpse at numbers that are almost certainly much higher) reveals that, in incidents of the use of excessive force by police, “the less clear it is that force was necessary, the more likely the victim is to be black.”

If they’re not failed by our schools, or brutalized by police, the odds that black youth will end up in juvenile detention, restrictive residential placement, or prison are likewise disproportionately high. Black youth are four-and-half times more likely than whites to be arrested for the same crimes and four times more likely to wind up in residential placement. Together with other minorities, blacks make up two-thirds of all youth in the juvenile justice system – and while arrest rates for other minorities has steadily fallen to below 1980 levels, this trend has not extended to blacks. Meanwhile, the shameful over-representation of black adults in US prisons is a matter of common knowledge and public record; in 2010, when blacks made up 13% of the nation’s population overall, they comprised 40% of the prison population. In that same year, in Connecticut specifically, while only 10% of the state’s overall population was black, nearly 41% of the people held in its jails were.

When mental illness enters the mix, the risks faced by young people – and particularly by black youth – are even more acute. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that only 6% of Americans suffer from a serious mental health illness, and studies indicate that only 4% of violent crimes involve perpetrators who are mentally ill – in fact, mentally ill persons are considerably more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators. And yet encounters between police and the mentally ill regularly turn tragic, fast. As my friend Harold Braswell has compellingly written, poorly-trained police consistently and disproportionately respond to calls involving mentally ill suspects (armed or otherwise) with overwhelming violence. The “irrationality” exhibited by mentally ill individuals can prompt police to apply deadly force when non-lethal means would otherwise suffice: in states like New Mexico, nearly 75% of suspects shot by police are mentally ill. And when the mentally ill person in question is also black – as the recent cases of Kajieme Powell and others suggest – the impulse to lethally “neutralize” them appears even harder for police to resist.

Unsurprisingly, a similar pattern – of acute discrimination against blacks, the mentally ill, and the black mentally ill in particular – plays out in our prisons. Our adult penal system essentially “warehouses” the mentally ill to the point that the three largest de facto “mental health institutions” in the country are Riker’s Island in New York, Cook County Jail in Chicago, and the LA County Jail. Likewise, the juvenile justice system is jam-packed with children who suffer from mental health issues, some of which are outright debilitating. As the National Alliance on Mental Illness outlined in a 2010 report: “Seventy percent of youth in the juvenile justice system also experience mental health disorders, with 20 percent experiencing disorders so severe that their ability to function is significantly impaired.” Of some 13,000 people who were incarcerated in Connecticut in 2010, 3,400 were mentally ill – a number that does not take into account those held in local jails. Unsurprisingly, research data also indicates that, across the board, black youth with mental illnesses are drastically less likely to receive meaningful mental health treatment while in the penal system, or even to be flagged as in need of care in the first place. In fact, in states for which data is available, black youth with mental illness are considerably more likely to be sent to juvenile jails (as opposed to inpatient treatment centers) than their white counterparts. With this backdrop in mind – a continuum of systematic anti-black discrimination at every level of our nation’s educational, police, judicial, and penal infrastructures, and an intersecting and synergistic brutalization of the mentally ill – let’s turn to the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate (OCA)’s report on Sandy Hook.


Unlike previous reports, which have been primarily preoccupied with tracking the events on December 14 specifically, the OCA report concerns itself with what led up to the massacre, systematically chronicling all of Adam Lanza’s interactions with various institutions and individuals from teachers to school counselors to mental health specialists to ER doctors. And the picture of these interactions the OCA report paints is damning, not just because it reveals an utter lack of communication between these actors and institutions (a “silo-ing” of information), but also because it demonstrates that, while countless “red flags” about Lanza were raised, the consistent attitude of authority figures was to unquestioningly defer to and accommodate his wealthy mother’s tragically misguided insistence on overruling their recommendations as to Adam’s treatment in a way that the report itself makes clear would have been unthinkable if she were nonwhite or poor.

From the start, Adam Lanza clearly had problems – with sensory integration, language processing, and more. But unlike countless children, Adam’s parents had abundant financial resources and, at least as far as his mother was concerned, near-limitless time and willingness to devote to managing his issues. Until she lost her job in what appears to have been a case of workplace discrimination stemming from her second pregnancy, Adam’s mother, Nancy, was a high-powered, successful Boston stockbroker who left her job with a large settlement in her pocket and then turned her energies toward raising her children full-time. When Adam’s father, Peter, became a Vice President for Taxes at a major subsidiary of GE, he purchased the family a 3,100-square foot home in Newtown, a wealthy bedroom community where the median family income hovers around $100,000 a year. Peter was a workaholic and a self-identified “weekend father” who left the domestic labor to his wife, but when they divorced in 2009, their separation was amicable. Peter left Nancy the house and committed to making alimony payments that ranged from $250,000 to $290,000 a year, assuring her she would “never have to work another day in her life.” Crucially, Peter also committed to keeping Adam on his own insurance plan and to footing his medical bills.

Just as Adam’s family could afford to pay for the individual care he needed, there were dozens of providers willing and eager to offer it. The OCA report chronicles countless encounters with pediatricians, child development specialists, and mental health practitioners who diagnosed Adam with a more-or-less consistent suite of comorbid problems: Sensory Integration Disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Anxiety and Major Depression, Anorexia, and Asperger’s (the latter of which has since been superseded in the DSM-V by the broader category of Autism spectrum disorders). As Adam’s primary caretaker, Nancy Lanza was regularly recommended treatments for Adam, ranging from boutique talk therapies to high-tech neurological scans, all of which she consistently declined. Instead, Nancy opted for a direct, hands-on approach in which she served as the primary, even sole caretaker of her son, and as the ultimate arbiter of what “truly” ailed him. To this end, Nancy retained the services of a “community psychiatrist,” a private practitioner who did not cooperate with the OCA, and who appears to have only seen Adam infrequently. This psychiatrist’s primary function seems to have been to write doctor’s notes for Adam, at first excusing him for missing classes and then justifying his withdrawal from school altogether – over and against the dire warnings of numerous mental health professionals that what Adam needed was not less interaction with children his own age, but more.

The OCA report exposes an undeniable pattern: as Adam’s symptoms worsened, as more people around him became more concerned about his welfare, and as more opportunities were made available to him for care, his mother correspondingly exerted herself to downplay the severity of his condition, to accommodate his symptoms, and to shelter him from institutional interventions. What matters here is less Nancy Lanza’s motivations – although I will address these below – than the fact that authority figures consistently deferred to her even when it was clear that her decisions were actively contributing to Adam’s deterioration.

As far as interactions with healthcare institutions are concerned, two examples will suffice. Consistent with his diagnostic profile, Adam’s OCD symptoms increased markedly during his middle school years, to the point that, in September of 2005, Nancy took him to a Danbury emergency room for a “crisis evaluation.” In the ER, the report documents, “Mrs. Lanza described AL [Adam Lanza] to health care providers as having had ‘borderline autism’ in the past, but having since outgrown it. She reported that AL was having trouble in school, trouble in groups, and exhibiting repetitive behaviors which had gotten worse in recent days…[She] reportedly feared the ‘beginning of possible autism.’” Staff psychiatrists, clearly troubled by Adam’s agitation, his unwillingness to be touched, his hyper-vigilance, and his cowering, “overwhelmed with fear,” recommended that he be held for an extended evaluation. They encouraged Nancy to pursue placement for Adam in a therapeutic educational program in Connecticut’s Center for Child and Adolescent Treatment Services (CCATS), and additionally offered to do a full clinical evaluation of Adam in order to expedite his admission into the program. Nancy declined both the evaluations and the referral, and instead demanded that Adam be discharged immediately so she could take him home, where he would be “better off” and “more comfortable.” In fact, as she explained to hospital staff, her sole reason for coming to the ER in the first place was to get Adam issued an absence note for missing several days of school due to the “agitation” produced by the hospital visit. ER staff gave her this note, with the caveat that she promise to seek a consultation with a specialist to arrange an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for Adam within three days. And yet this meeting did not occur until December, a full three months later. Why hospital staff were so quick to accede to Nancy’s insistence that Adam was better off with her than under their supervision, and why they appeared to have not followed up on his discharge remain unclear – but whatever image Nancy projected to them, they clearly deferred to it.

Nearly a year after that ER visit, Nancy (in part apparently due to Peter’s insistence) brought Adam in for evaluation at the prestigious Yale Child Study Center. The clinical psychiatrist who evaluated him was deeply alarmed by what he saw. Quoting the report:

“[The doctor] diagnosed Adam with “Pervasive Developmental Disorder or Autism Spectrum and he recommended further evaluation to clarify cognitive, social, and linguistic strengths and weakness. Psychological and speech and language evaluation was seen as essential. Treatment, the psychiatrist stated, would be difficult to implement outside of a broader therapeutic day school setting.”

Like the Danbury crisis team, the Yale evaluators stressed the need for Adam to be placed in a specialized therapeutic environment instead of keeping him in a traditional school. They were also clearly troubled by the character of Nancy’s engagement with Adam’s teachers: by this point, Nancy had been regularly maintaining an at-times daily correspondence with them, dictating details ranging from what Adam should do in class, to how he should be treated during fire drills, to what he should and shouldn’t be allowed to read (“[a]nother thing we might have trouble with,” she wrote, “is boy-meets-girl type [of literature]…an adapted reading list is being provided as a substitute for the standard curriculum.”). Against this type of hovering micro-management, the Yale clinicians wrote:

“We believe it is very important to reframe the discussion with school from issues of curricular content to much more urgent issues of how to accommodate AL’s severe social disabilities in a way that would permit him to be around peers and to progress, rather than regress, socially, as well as academically.”

They were even more worried by the possibility – which ultimately did come to pass – of Nancy withdrawing Adam from school altogether and securing “homebound” status for him:

“We believe that there is a significant risk to AL in creating, even with the best of intentions, a prosthetic environment which spares him having to encounter other students or to work to overcome his social difficulties. Having the emphasis on adapting the world to AL, rather than helping him to adapt to the world, is a recipe for him to be a homebound recluse, unable to attend college or work productively into his twenties and thirties and beyond with mother becoming increasingly isolated and burdened.”

The Yale team was also concerned about the extent to which Nancy herself appeared to have entered a relationship of toxic co-dependence with Adam and about her increasing accommodation of his OCD symptoms and controlling behavior – for example, changing her shoes so that the clicking of her heels would not trouble him, or taking particular, pre-determined routes through various rooms so as not to upset him. Presciently, one of the clinicians who evaluated him in a series of follow-up visits noted both the toxic situation in his own household and the potentially tragic trajectory that could result from increased confinement there:

“His judgment about how social/family dynamics work in a therapy situation is no more on target than his views regarding doorknobs and hand-washing…He wants to control how the treatment goes because his anxiety is nearly unbearable if he can’t feel he knows what’s going to happen. I understand that. At the same time, he can’t control the treatment because his thinking is distorted and irrational. I can’t agree to follow his lead! … I told him he’s living in a box right now, and the box will only get smaller over time if [he] doesn’t get some treatment.”

Predictably, Nancy was not happy with the Yale evaluators or with their recommendations. She told them that they were “torturing” her son – much as, a year earlier, she had perceived the Danbury ER Crisis Team’s holding him for evaluation as the equivalent of “abusing” him. In one of her last emails to the Yale group, Nancy struck the same business-like, directive tone she also adopted in communicating with his teachers:

“I wanted to let you know that the options you presented are not going to work at this time. I would like to save you any further investment of your time… As I mentioned during the telephone conversation previous to our meeting, AL’s OCD component is strongly tied to Asperger Syndrome and he is adamantly opposed to medication. The OCD component is now based on superstition or in an effort to influence outside events or luck. I thought I had been clear that I was looking for individual intervention, perhaps some sort of behavior modification, for the Asperger Syndrome foremost, sensory integration disorder, and the two OCD like components that are impacting his ability to attend school. His refusal to take medication would make it impossible for him to be part of the study group and will just further agitate him. He was quite angry about the line of questioning that the interview took. As you might expect from an Asperger child, he had no understanding of the metaphors, and was quite disturbed by the fairy godmother scenario you gave him. You mentioned that the wait list for treatment for Asperger is quite lengthy, and that the study group was the alternative. However, participation in a study group, with the implied possibility of medication, will not be helpful in this case. So while I very much appreciate your effort, this is not the right course of treatment for him.”

Nancy ultimately cut off further follow-ups with the Yale group, and when Adam reacted negatively to medications he had been prescribed, she stopped giving them to him. From then on, Adam’s sole encounters with mental health professionals appear to have been with his community psychiatrist, only infrequently at that. For her part, by this point, Nancy seems to have been preoccupied only with accommodating her son’s ever-increasing obsessive demands and palliating his symptoms, not with offering him meaningful treatment – much as, several years prior, when Adam’s obsessive hand-washing became so vigorous that his fingers and knuckles grew bloody, she had taken him to a pediatrician, who gave him a prescription for hand lotion and sent him home.¹ After 2008, it appears that Nancy no longer sought any medical treatment for Adam whatsoever.

When it came to Adam’s interactions with various teachers and school officials, the pattern should by now be familiar: Adam shuttled between numerous schools, watched over closely by his mother, who took a highly directive role in all aspects of his schooling. Nancy expended tremendous amounts of time and energy making sure that teachers treated Adam in the ways she deemed to be in his best interest. Working to formulate Adam’s Individual Education Plan (IEP), Nancy took a “hyper-vigilant” stance when it came to communicating with the “educational team” tasked with Adam’s care:

“There are times when emails between Mrs. Lanza and school staff were being exchanged every day of the week. The tone of the emails—which were often efforts to specifically manage AL’s day or his academic experience—was often one of cordiality and even partnership…It is clear in the correspondence as well from present-day interviews with district personnel, that the educational team felt they were ‘thinking outside the box’ for AL, and making deliberate and well- intended efforts to meet AL’s complex needs through careful and extensive partnership with his mother. However, the emails appear indicative of a partnership around a strategy of habituation, or even of appeasement, without a skilled, therapeutic, expert-driven approach that would help AL adapt to the world.”

Yet there were red flags throughout Adam’s time in school. In one particularly striking episode, Adam and a fifth grade classmate collaborated on an illustrated booklet called “The Big Book of Granny,” in which the eponymous “Granny” and her sidekick, “Dora the Berserker,” go on a series of ultra-violent adventures – shooting children, eating them, setting them on fire, and stuffing them to make taxidermic specimens. “I like hurting people . . . especially children,” Granny pronounces, before she herself is murdered by Dora. Although the assignment itself was only 500 words, “The Big Book of Granny” clocks in at no less than 34 pages. According to the OCA report:

“‘The Big Book of Granny’ suggests that while in many ways AL appeared to be positively developing, by the age of ten, on some level, he was deeply troubled by feelings of rage, hate, and (at least unconscious) murderous impulses…While many children, and especially boys, of this age contend with anger and violent impulses in their play and creative productions, “The Big Book of Granny” stands out, to mental health professionals, as a text marked by extreme thoughts of violence that should have signified a need for intervention and evaluation.”

Despite this, the report notes, “there is no evidence of communication in any form between the school and AL’s parents about this book.”² Meanwhile, as Adam matured, the red flags grew even more alarming. As one teacher recalled: “I remember giving creative writing assignments to students, instructing them to write a page or two on whatever they wanted to talk about . . . AL would write ten pages obsessing about battles, destruction and war…I have known 7th grade boys to talk about things like this, but AL’s level of violence was disturbing.” And still, no action was taken.

When Adam floundered in school, his mother would regularly intervene to prevent disciplinary action from being levied against him. The report notes:

“Mrs. Lanza appears to have navigated his disabilities entirely through hypervigilance and management of his symptoms. She wrote to a school staff in 2007 that AL had a bad day and therefore his homework was not complete. She explained that she had ‘interrupted him’ by cooking her dinner the night before, even though she knew the smell of food upset him. She added that a repairman had to come to the house in the morning and that as a result AL was ‘highly agitated.’ She said that the staff member should make the day ‘as smooth as possible,’ and that she would sit in the car and come if he couldn’t tolerate class.”

When Adam did manage to show up for classes, “[Nancy] seemed to want to set up each day for him as he could handle it, but to ensure that he would not know of any special treatment or accommodation.” As to why teachers and school administrators were so willing to accommodate not just Adam but her, the key factor appears, once again, to be her self-presentation as “on top of things”: “The overall impression school professionals had was of a concerned and engaged parent who knew how to manage her son’s unique needs.”

And when it came to pulling Adam out of school entirely, which Nancy did for two years – during the eighth and ninth grades – it appears that the system failed to provide any meaningful oversight or supervision, once again deferring to Nancy’s apparently unquestioned credibility. Despite the Yale team’s fervent recommendations that Adam be kept with children his own age in a therapeutic setting, Nancy got her community psychiatrist, who had previously been incredibly cooperative with absence notes, to sign off on a document formally recommending that Adam be placed on “homebound” status – a special category under Connecticut law distinct from home schooling that is reserved specifically for children “deemed too disabled to receive services in school even with modifications and supports.” On the community psychiatrist’s word, and apparently unaware of the Yale group’s recommendations, Adam’s school IEP team appears not to have “considered any potential detrimental effects of this home-bound placement for AL, [even though homebound status is] one of the most restrictive alternative educational options.” Moreover, the entire process of Adam’s placement on homebound status appears highly irregular, both from its inception to the blatant lack of supervision throughout:

“[Adam] was initially informally withdrawn from school by his family, provided a medical “excuse note,” and then via the special education planning process his IEP team agreed to a recommendation that he would be placed on homebound status…Although AL was entitled to receive up to ten hours per week of tutoring from the school district and to work towards the goals in his IEP, at certain times all educational supports from the district were refused. It is not evidenced that these hours were provided, or how many home visits or hours were refused and why.”

It is unclear what happened inside the Lanza household during these years. It appears that he became increasingly withdrawn, that his symptoms worsened, and that his codependence with his mother increased (as Andrew Solomon reports, Nancy was apparently shocked that her son could tie his shoes without her help – at the age of sixteen). When Adam eventually did return to school, his mother arranged not simply for him to graduate early, but even to begin taking classes as at a local community college, further isolating him from his peer group. By this point, his symptoms had worsened: from moving furniture from his room to blacking out its windows with garbage bags to cutting off contact with his father to communicating with his mother solely through email, nearly all of what the Yale nurse had predicted with her image of Adam’s living in a “box growing smaller” had proven true. Adam had almost entirely retreated from the world. And in the interim, he had developed a preoccupation with researching school shootings online, communicating with a network of like-minded murder enthusiasts, meticulously editing Wikipedia pages for serial killers, and otherwise developing an “obsession and attention to detail with mass killing” that the FBI Behavior Analysis Unit has described as entirely “unprecedented.”


How could all this happen? Time and again, it appears, the recurring theme in the OCA report is that Nancy Lanza tirelessly advocated for her child – no doubt with his best interest in mind, but in a way that clearly contributed to his decline. And she did so, time and again, in the face of virtually no resistance from institutions that treat other children quite differently indeed.

To be clear: I am not interested in vilifying Nancy Lanza on a personal level. She appears to have had troubles of her own, including clinical depression and a hypochondriacal conviction that she was suffering from a terminal illness – she told numerous friends that she had been diagnosed with MS, even though a postmortem survey of her medical records revealed no such diagnosis, and an autopsy showed no signs of the disease. Her apparent disconnect from reality also extended to her conviction not only that Adam was far less troubled than he actually was, but also that he was secretly brilliant.³ That said, I do think that her seeming willingness to ignore his increasing depression, abusive behavior, and preoccupation with violence, while simultaneously providing him with access to weapons and firearms training, crosses the line from negligent irresponsibility into the territory of outright denial and moral culpability. Nancy was a firearms enthusiast, and, as the report notes:

“AL grew up in a home where it was common place to use guns for recreational activity. It cannot be overlooked that as his mental health deteriorated and his isolation from the world increased dramatically, his access to guns did not diminish. His parents, and certainly his mother, seemed unaware of any potential detrimental impact of providing unfettered access to firearms to their son… Additionally, there is no mention of access to or use of firearms in any other available educational, medical, or mental health records.”

Nancy didn’t just let her son use her guns, she bought him guns of his own – potentially illegally, given his age – and took him with her to the firing range to “bond.” Between the two of them, Nancy and Adam owned at minimum five firearms – and when police raided their home, they discovered 1,600-odd rounds of ammunition, edged weapons including a spear and three samurai swords, and more. And although Adam reportedly “disliked birthdays, Christmas, and holidays,” police also discovered a check from Nancy made out to Adam as a gift, with a memo indicating that he was to use it to buy himself a CZ 75.

At which point, we can return to the question with which we started: would any of this be thinkable if Nancy and Adam Lanza had been black? We can work backwards, starting with the guns: in a nation where a black teenager can be shot when a federal marshal mistakes his Three Musketeers candy bar for a pistol, or where Tamir Rice can be summarily executed for holding a toy gun in public, how many black mothers would not just give their mentally ill teenager access to an unsecured arsenal, but actually gift him a handgun for his personal use?

And what about the interactions between Nancy, Adam, and his various teachers? Even if a black Adam Lanza had had as relentless an advocate as Nancy in his corner, would his teachers have been as willing to accommodate him when he acted out, or would they have just disciplined him or suspended him? Likewise, if a black child had written “The Big Book of Granny,” would his teachers have done nothing about it? It hardly seems likely, especially since “expressive play” (including violent imagery) by white children is often either ignored or praised, while similar conduct by black children is frequently stigmatized and punished.⁴

Likewise, whereas by all odds a black child with Adam’s attendance record would have had child services show up at his house and potentially haul him away for truancy, Adam’s mother kept him holed up in her cul de sac and hired a psychiatrist to write him notes, first excusing his absences and then pulling him out of school altogether.

The OCA’s report openly wonders: “We cannot know the degree to which Mrs. Lanza may have heightened or mollified the school’s concerns about AL, and she certainly presented as invested and concerned for his welfare.” Although much of that persuasive self-presentation may have derived from Nancy Lanza’s dogged willpower, managerial savvy, and fluency in navigating otherwise baroquely bureaucratic institutions, we’re kidding ourselves if we deny that a large part of it also depended on the simple fact that she was white and had money.

To be very clear: I am not calling out Nancy Lanza as a racist, or as a white supremacist. Nor still am I condoning the heavy-handed, racist interventions of the educational juvenile justice system or the school-to-prison pipeline. Instead, I am pointing out how, in this case, Nancy Lanza existed at the nexus of various intersecting social realities of privilege that allowed her to look the other way as her son deteriorated, that let her throw money at the problem as though that alone could fix it, and that ultimately enabled her son to commit an unspeakable crime. The OCA report itself is not blind to this issue. As its authors ask:

“Would a similar family from a different race or lower socio-economic status in the community have been given the same benefit of the doubt that AL’s family was given? Is the community more reluctant to intervene and more likely to provide deference to the parental judgment and decision-making of white, affluent parents than those caregivers who are poor or minority? Would AL’s caregivers’ reluctance to maintain him in school or a treatment program have gone under the radar if he were a child of color?”

The questions here may be rhetorical, but, by this point, we should have no hesitation in answering: “No, no, and no.”


Scientists are currently sequencing Adam Lanza’s DNA in hopes of somehow determining what went wrong with him. The boutique technologies his mother waved away from helping Adam while he was alive are now being used to examine him after both of their deaths, in the vain hopes of explaining what “caused” the Sandy Hook massacre. But we don’t need ultra-expensive laboratory equipment to see what facilitated Adam Lanza’s actions, what made them possible. The answer to that is staring us in the face.

Here’s the hard truth. If Adam Lanza had been a young black boy, raised by a working-class, single mother, the odds are we wouldn’t know his name. He’d likely be dead now, but not by his own hand – some cop would’ve seen to that, and quite possibly well before Lanza even hit his teens. Or Lanza would have spent his childhood shuttling between juvenile detention, foster care, and ultimately in and out of jail, a “frequent flier,” in police lingo. Or he’d be rotting in some high-security mental health facility, doped to the gills on Seroquel and on an indefinite psychiatric hold, with no release in sight. Or he’d be just another mentally ill young man, charged as an adult, thrown in with gen pop, left to fend for himself.

All of these alternative scenarios are unequivocally vile. If Adam Lanza had been black, and any of these things had happened to him, it would also have been horrible. The discrimination and violence inflicted upon black youth by our nation’s schools, police, and courts represents a travesty for which history will judge us and which we must strive to change in our lifetimes. But there’s also a vileness to the double standards that allowed Adam to escape scrutiny and intervention from institutions that were keen to help him even as they refuse to help, and indeed, actively persecute black children. Indeed, in a peculiar way, it was Nancy Lanza’s cultural and financial capital – her entitled attitude towards interacting with institutions on her terms alone, and her privileged blindness to the disaster brewing in her own home – that doomed her, her son, and the innocents that he killed. And here lurks another hard, vile truth. It’s something that becomes clear as you survey the wreckage Lanza wrought, and then contemplate what did (and didn’t) follow it. In less than five minutes, Lanza butchered twenty-six toddlers and teachers, nearly all white, in a posh suburban school in one of the wealthiest states in our country. And yet for all the hand-wringing that followed Adam Lanza’s rampage, not only has the subsequent lack of decisive legislative action been appalling, but gun manufacturers have reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in profit specifically because his actions ultimately increased market demand for their product.

In other words, the repulsive truth is that while we live in a nation where people are staging die-ins and bravely mounting protests to broadcast a message that should be obvious – that Black Lives Matter – we also live in a society where, from the start, Adam Lanza’s whiteness mattered still more, and where money mattered, and continues to matter, even more than that.


Notes

§1: The report describes this encounter, which occurred in 2005, as follows:  “Looking at the pediatric record, the pediatrician knew that AL [Adam Lanza] had significant diagnoses, was losing weight (at times), anxious, obsessive compulsive, had repetitive hand washing that led to excoriation, experienced numerous somatic and probably psychosomatic complaints, and was not attending school with his peers. The pediatrician knew that AL was, for a time at least, seeing a psychiatrist in the community, though there is no indication that the doctor had information from this mental health provider or knew what the frequency and duration of this service was. The doctor also seemed to know that despite his recommendation for a neurological consultation, none appeared to take place, as the doctor received no updates or reports from a specialist. Certainly, as stated earlier, this information was enough to warrant careful follow-up and care coordination from the pediatrician. There is no documentation of efforts by the pediatrician to engage this family with appropriate and sustained mental health care.”

§2: In light of Adam’s Lanza’s toxic home environment, and his highly enmeshed relationship with his mother (which is attested to in their email correspondence), the OCA’s interpretation of “The Big Book of Granny” is suggestive: “What the book does tend to show is a boy who is struggling with disturbing thoughts of extreme violence that seem to have poured out in the form of stories and visual images of a caregiver and child-like character who are alternately victimized by and victimizers of each other.”

§3: As the report notes: “While it is not uncommon for parents to struggle to identify and accept their child as suffering a disabling impairment, the Yale Child Study Center clinicians who evaluated and treated AL felt that his parents, and certainly his mother, may have had greater than average difficulty with accepting the extent of AL’s disabilities…Overall, the psychiatrist and APRN at Yale both indicated, in present-day interviews, their view that AL was profoundly impaired by anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and that his parents, and certainly AL, may not have understood the depth or implications of his disabilities. It may have been easier for the parents to accept that AL was a youth with a “high functioning” disorder, conceptualizing him as someone who was gifted but who had odd or challenging behaviors that needed behavioral modification… AL’s parents (and the school) appeared to conceptualize him as intellectually gifted, and much of AL’s high school experience catered to his curricular needs. In actuality, psychological testing performed by the school district in high school indicated AL’s cognitive abilities were average.”

Adam Lanza appears to have also maintained this impression of himself: not only was he apparently convinced that he would be able to attend college without difficulty, his first-choice school was Cornell – to which his academic transcript clearly precluded him from having even a tenuous chance of admission. Likewise, despite the counsel of his father, Adam adamantly insisted that he try to take no less than five courses a semester at the local community college he attended after graduating early from High School, all of which he either dropped out of or failed. The OCA report notes that these frustrations may have played a precipitating role in his decline.

§4: As psychology researcher Tuppett Yates has argued: “For white children, imaginative and expressive players were rated very positively [by teachers] but the reverse was true for black children. Imaginative and expressive black children were perceived as less ready for school, as less accepted by their peers, and as greater sources of conflict and tension.”

Postscript

I want to thank Janelle Christensen for many of the resources I link to here – many of which are available via Sociological Images; I’m also grateful for the abundant and edifying resources produced and maintained by Mariame Kaba at Prison Culture. Finally, I’m grateful to my friend Jason Francisco for allowing me to share the photo from his remarkable series, “These are the Names,” and to Jim MacMillan of #GunCrisis:Philadelphia for directing me to police data about gun violence in the city.

Any errors in my writing are mine and mine alone – please reach out, let me know, and I will correct them accordingly.

Darren Wilson’s Demon

“I then looked at him and told him to get back and he was just staring at me, almost like to intimidate me or to overpower me. The intense face he had was just not what I expected from any of this.”

Reading Darren Wilson’s testimony about his encounter with Michael Brown, you can’t help but notice two things. First, not just how implausible the whole story sounds, and, second, how important faces are – and aren’t – to it.

For starters, there’s the fact that when Darren Wilson supposedly received the report of the theft of some cigarillos from a local market, he apparently didn’t get a description of the perpetrators beyond that one was  wearing a black shirt. Next, there’s the fact that, when he later encountered Michael Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson, he didn’t notice anything about them other than that they were two individuals walking in the street and that “either the first one was really small or the second one was really big.”

But then faces, and descriptions of faces, get really important. Seeing how and why requires summarizing Wilson’s account. Encountering Brown and his friend walking in the street, Wilson pulls up on them in his car and demands that they move to the sidewalk. When Johnson tells him that he and Brown are almost at their destination, Wilson presses them to get off the road, and Brown, according to Wilson, replies with “Fuck what you have to say.”

Wilson finds this response “unusual” and begins to scrutinize Brown. Earlier, all he claims to have noticed was Brown’s size and the fact that his socks had images of “marijuana leaves as a pattern on them.” Now, Wilson says, he sees that Brown is holding some cigarillos; he connects that observation and Johnson’s shirt with the description of the young men from the gas station incident.

Wilson cuts the young men off with his car, and then demands of Brown, “Come here.” Brown refuses – well within his rights, as he’s not being arrested and hasn’t been told that he’s being detained. When Wilson tries to open the door to his vehicle, Brown supposedly then slams it shut. Wilson’s reaction to this is telling:

 “I then looked at him and told him to get back and he was just staring at me, almost like to intimidate me or to overpower me. The intense face he had was just not what I expected from any of this.”

What happens next unfolds quickly, is hard to parse, and harder still to believe. Wilson claims he tried to get out of the car yet again, but that Brown closed the door on him once more and then began to pummel him through the open window, hitting Wilson’s face. According to Wilson, while still leaning into the car, Brown then calmly handed the cigarillos to Johnson (“Hey, man, hold these,” Wilson recalls), at which point Wilson grabbed him.

Here Wilson begins to sound a theme he will hammer away at again and again: Michael Brown was some species of superhuman monster, somehow possessed of both an ominous cool yet consumed with an animal rage, and nothing short of deadly force would stop him. The vocabulary and imagery Wilson uses to paint this picture are nothing short of ludicrous.

“And when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old hol ding onto Hulk Hogan.”
“Holding onto a what?”
“Hulk Hogan, that’s just how big he felt, and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.”

By his own description, Wilson is 6’4, and somewhere around 210 pounds; Brown was 6’4 and 292. And yet Wilson, an adult man, a trained police officer, describes making contact him as like clinging to a professional wrestler.

Desperate to save himself – and specifically to protect his face – Wilson realizes that none of the several weapons at his disposal will save him from Brown’s assault. His collapsible baton won’t open in the car; his heavy flashlight is too far away – reaching for either, Wilson says, would require him to drop the hand he’s using to protect his face. And although he’s trained to use one, Wilson isn’t carrying a Taser, incidentally, because he finds it uncomfortable. Instead, he has Mace, but he can’t use it, because, if sprayed in his car, it will potentially incapacitate him (he’s wearing contacts). And so Wilson goes for his gun. “It is kind of hard to describe it, I turn and I go like this. He is standing here. I said, “Get back or I’m going to shoot you.”

Having already invoked the World Wrestling Foundation, at this point Wilson goes full Hollywood, making Brown into an action movie villain. “He immediately grabs my gun and says, “You are too much of a pussy to shoot me.”

This supposed reaction strikes me as having all the plausibility of George Zimmerman’s claim that, making a play for Zimmerman’s gun, Trayvon Martin screamed “You’re going to die tonight!” But it doesn’t matter, because these young men aren’t here to tell their side of the story, and the men who killed them are. And in Wilson’s case, the man putting words into the mouth of the teenager he shot also has a suite of visual aids and a very helpful pair of assistant prosecutors on his side. Because it’s at this point that the grand jury is shown pictures of the gun, and of Wilson’s face – his threatened, fragile, damaged face.

“Does it look like swelling?,” Wilson is asked. “You know your face better than we do, does that look like swelling?
“I can’t tell with that angle with the ruler.”
“You can’t tell on that one? What about this one?”
“That one I can tell from down by my, down in this area looks swollen to me.”
“Okay.”

Wilson’s face is in danger. The photos show it. “[There was] a significant amount of contact made to my face.” Wilson stresses this vulnerability. “I mean it was, he’s obviously bigger than I was and stronger and the [sic], I’ve already taken two to the face and I didn’t think I would, the third one could be fatal if he hit me right.”

And so Wilson fires, or at least tries to – there is a series of apparent “clicks” where the gun doesn’t discharge. But one round eventually does go off, shattering the window. At which point Brown undergoes yet another metamorphosis, this time into a “demon.”

“And then after he did that, he looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”

Brown, rendered here not just “no angel” but now fully in league with the powers of darkness (all senses of that phrase intended), readies another charge at Wilson. “I just saw his hands up, I don’t know if they were closed yet, on the way to going closed, I saw this and that face coming at me again, and I just went like this and I shielded my face.”

That face coming at me…I shielded my face. Covering his face, Wilson fumbles with his weapon and fires blindly, finally striking Brown. Wounded, Brown flees; Wilson pursues. And then, for no apparent reason, Brown turns on him.

“He turns, and when he looked at me, he made like a grunting, like aggravated sound and he starts, he turns and he’s coming back towards me. His first step is coming towards me, he kind of does like a stutter step to start running.”

After supposedly yelling at Brown to get down, Wilson opens fire, but Brown continues to come at him. And now Wilson relates Brown’s final transformation: from Hulk Hogan into the Incredible Hulk, a man-beast who can shrug off bullets like raindrops, ready to charge through them and rip Wilson to shreds.

“At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him. And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way… like he was going to just tackle me, just go right through me.”

Wilson continues to fire, twelve shots in all.

“I remember looking at my sites [sic] and firing, all I see is his head and that’s what I shot. I don’t know how many, I know at least once because I saw the last one go into him. And then when it went into him, the demeanor on his face went blank, the aggression was gone, it was gone, I mean, I knew he stopped, the threat was stopped. When he fell, he fell on his face.”

There is much that could be said here. We could observe that Wilson’s testimony is orchestrated with an almost cinematic eye for drama, that he seems also to be attributing to Brown a near-textbook example of so-called “Excited Delirium Syndrome,” in which, as Rei Terada has brilliantly written, “superhumanity functions as subhumanity; it allows the nonhuman to be eliminated while releasing the perceiver from having to answer for seeing someone as nonhuman.” We could also note how Wilson’s warped usage of quasi-religious vocabulary, and his apparent fear of Brown as simultaneously demonic-and-magical yet sociopathic-and-bestial, harken back to some of the oldest, vilest tropes in the American racist imagination.

For all the attention shown in court to Darren Wilson’s face, to its cherubic gleam, to its lamented injuries, and to his own preoccupation with saving it, there appears to have been quite as much, if not more, emphasis on denying, erasing, and distorting Michael Brown’s.

Defiant youth, stone-cold gangster, jacked-up wrestler, demon: Michael Brown never had a human face for Darren Wilson. He was a space of projection for Wilson’s worst fears, insecurities, and prejudices. And what face Brown did have – Wilson had to shoot the life out of it, to leave it blank, and finally to obliterate it altogether. “When he fell, he fell on his face.”

Dead Man Running

Reading the official St. Louis County Michael Brown autopsy, it’s hard not to feel the limits of what laypeople can glean from a forensic pathologist’s report – and to feel a corresponding temptation to rely instead on vague memories of CSI episodes and to tweet about gun shot residue and powder burns as though we knew, for sure, what we were talking about. It’s also hard not to feel that many of the talking heads on TV springing into action either to give credence to or discredit the report are speaking first and foremost to audiences who have already made up their minds about what happened between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. I imagine, too, that for some, it’s likewise hard to avoid the temptation to let the whole mess of competing voices drown one another out, shrug, and write off the entire affair as somehow inscrutable, turning whatever actually happened on that Ferguson street this past August into a 21st Century St. Louis Rashomon. This last reaction would, I think, be a tragedy – and I hope that pressure from both media and protestors will lead to substantive, public inquiry and to an open, transparent treatment of Brown’s death in a court of law (beyond the ongoing Grand Jury proceedings).

But still, we have this new autopsy, newly and dubiously leaked, as have been so many other elements of this case. I’m not a forensic pathologist, and so will leave its more technical nuances for others to pick apart, although I will eventually give it a more thorough reading alongside the findings of the family-requested autopsy and with my copy of Brian Heard’s Handbook of Firearms and Ballistics in hand (and will do the same if and when the Department of Justice’s autopsy is released).

For now, though, since I am trained to read texts closely, to pay attention to how we use words to describe events, and to reflect on how descriptions of one event resemble those of others, I do have some thoughts on this document. Specifically, I hear echoes of two other texts in it: first, Radley Balko’s excellent Op-Ed, “The Curious Grammar of Police Shootings” and second, Rei Terada’s brilliant reflection on the “superhuman strength” (so-called “Excited Delirium syndrome”) that police and media reports regularly attribute to unarmed people whom cops shoot dead.

Balko’s piece makes clear how official documents regularly obscure the agency of individual police officers in favor of bloodless, passive constructions. One episode Balko relates is officially described as follows: “Sheriff Wooten said a deputy, who was not named, was approaching the property when a dog ran up to him. The deputy’s gun fired one shot, missing the dog and hitting the child. It was not clear if the gun was accidentally fired by the deputy.” The contorted passive construction here not only renders the killing of a living, breathing child into a hard-to-parse syntactical trainwreck, but also works to absolve the individual (unnamed) officer of even grammatical agency, not to mention moral culpability. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people, we’re so often told – except, it seems, when it’s a police officer’s gun that does the killing. Then it’s just the gun.

It’s impossible not to think about such Orwellian ethico-linguistic obfuscations when, reading the Mike Brown autopsy report, you come across sentences like this: “During the struggle the Officer’s weapon was un-holstered. The weapon discharged during the struggle. The deceased then ran down the roadway.” The weapon discharged. The deputy’s gun fired one shot. Mistakes were made. A child is being beaten. The torturer’s horse scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

“The deceased then ran down the roadway.” What a strange sentence this is. A dead teenager runs. Although already shot at least once, he is still alive, and running. But he is also already deceased. Dead man walking; deceased teenager running. Michael Brown was dead even as he was stepping back from the car, already dead even as he was running. Of course, while witnesses claim that Brown ran away from the car, and then turned to surrender (an account which the previous autopsy arguably supports), the official narrative accompanying the new autopsy claims that “Officer Wilson then began to chase the deceased…. [and then] the deceased turned around and ran towards Officer Wilson.” This reading of events, of course, jibes with the argument of Right-Wing pundits who have argued that Brown was not actually unarmed, because in fact his very body was somehow a lethal weapon. It’s here that I think of Rei Terada’s essay, on so-called “Excited Delirium Syndrome” – the “superhuman strength” exhibited by unarmed people who can (supposedly) only be stopped by deadly force. These people, we are told, are mentally ill, perhaps high on drugs of some kind – PCP, “bath salts,” LSD, what have you. They are irrational, “impervious to pain.” As Terada writes:

“The phrase ‘superhuman strength’ reflects police discomfort with mental illness–or even just ‘irrationality’–on the one hand, and with the unaccountable phenomenon of resisting arrest on the other…Superhumanity is invoked to explain their choice not to give themselves up, making it sound less like an ability and more like an involuntary condition. (Police officers themselves never show superhuman strength, even when they’re agitated by adrenaline in struggle; they show fortitude and tenacity—at least when they don’t cut matters short by shooting.) From the perspective of the police, resisting arrest is necessarily irrational: they perceive irrational people as resisters, even if that isn’t their intention, and resisters as definitionally crazed… You don’t have to be Foucault to see that superhumanity functions as subhumanity; it allows the nonhuman to be eliminated while releasing the perceiver from having to answer for seeing someone as nonhuman.”

One could note here how much coverage of this latest autopsy emphasizes that Michael Brown had marijuana “in his system” when died. One could also note that Officer Wilson was not drug tested after killing him. One could further remark on the similarity between these circumstances and those surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin – whose body was tested for drugs post-mortem even as George Zimmerman (who appears to have been regularly taking a cocktail of amphetamines and benzodiazepines) was not. But instead, let’s focus on what I take to be the upshot of Terada’s piece. In many cases, the institutional logic runs as follows: if you were shot, you must have been resisting – and if you were resisting, you deserved to get shot. It’s a perfect, hermetically closed circle.

But what is “resistance”? What does it mean to “resist”? In many technical vocabularies (in physics, electrical engineering, etcetera), resistance means blocking the flow of power, impeding its free operation, obstructing it. Recall why Michael Brown was accosted by Darren Wilson in the first place – for (supposedly) walking in the street, obstructing traffic. In other words, by simply walking where Wilson didn’t want him to, he was resisting. Now, I’ve never been called over to a cop car for being in the street, and I’ve jay-walked right in front of dozens of them. But Michael Brown’s mere presence in the street – that was resistance. Not coming over promptly when Darren Wilson told him to? Resistance.

What does it mean when simply walking about, minding your own business, and not coming-hither immediately when ordered to do so, equals “resistance”? It means that just being in public space can be construed as an obstruction, a resistance. Resistance to what? To power. To white supremacy. In other words, for some people, simply existing equals “resisting.” And it’s very clear what happens when those folks “resist.” They wind up arrested, beaten, or worse. For them, the demand, “Stop resisting!” is more or less the same as the injunction, “Stop existing!” and that injunction produces, very frequently, the outcome of their no longer existing at all.

There are some things the autopsy can tell us, some things it can’t, and some things we will hopefully learn more about down the line and in a more public way. But for now, I can’t help but dwell on this scene: “Stop resisting!” yells the police officer, a man with a badge and a gun, at a teenager. And Michael Brown runs, very much alive, and yet already deceased – it’s just that the adjective hadn’t caught up with him yet, erasing his name, much like the remainder of Darren Wilson’s bullets hadn’t yet caught up with him, obliterating his body.

Michael Dunn, Jordan Davis, and Anita Sarkeesian

On Friday, Florida judge Russell Healey sentenced Michael Dunn, the murderer of 17-year-old Jordan Davis, to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Healey also gave Dunn an additional ninety years for three thirty-year counts of attempted murder (against the other occupants of the vehicle into which Dunn emptied his handgun), and a further fifteen years for “for shooting or throwing deadly missiles.” This sentence is richly deserved, and I hope it brings Jordan’s family, including his mother, the remarkably brave and dedicated Lucia McBath, some measure of peace.

In the wake of this verdict, I want to say two brief things.

First, despite the pervasive coverage of the Davis killing as the “loud music murder,” it is imperative that we not let this use of language cloud our actual understanding of Davis’s tragic death. Jordan Davis did not die because his music was too loud. He died because Michael Dunn, a 46 year-old man who appears to have been drinking heavily, decided to empty his handgun into a car with Davis and three of his friends inside. Michael Dunn – an adult man – chose to murder a child because he was on a power trip, decided Davis’s life was worthless, and snuffed it out. Davis was no more killed by his music than Trayvon Martin was killed by his hoodie, and using language that suggests otherwise, as so often when it comes to how we describe violence, diminishes the responsibility of those to blame and perpetrates a very real kind of violence in and of itself. We can hear a similar shirking of responsibility in Dunn’s own words at his sentencing hearing, when he stated, “I am mortified I took a life, whether it was justified or not.” Setting aside the fact that his gesture toward justification, much like his initial attempt at a modified Stand Your Ground defense, is offensive on the face of it, it’s interesting that he chose the word “mortified.” Nowadays, people use the word “mortified” more or less to mean that they’re deeply embarrassed and ashamed (“My fly was open during my speech? OMG, I’m mortified!”). But the word originally derives from a Latin verb that means “to put to death.” And let’s be clear – only one person was put to death here, and that was Jordan Davis. In fact, Davis’s parents specifically asked prosecutors not to seek the death penalty for Dunn.

Second, let’s recall that when Dunn killed Davis, he used a gun which he was legally licensed to carry concealed. Earlier this week, after receiving assassination threats, feminist cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian cancelled a planned lecture at Utah State University in light of Utah’s ultra-permissive Concealed Carry laws. In response to her decision, there was a backlash against her in some sectors of the gun rights community. Much of this response hit predictably sexist notes, and one major outlet even featured a piece based entirely around unsourced slander. The recurrent theme in this criticism, as in some of the feedback I’ve gotten about this blog, is that it is “irrational” for people like Sarkeesian to fear people carrying concealed weapons. Although my attitude towards concealed carry is not entirely negative, I want to stress how frequently  these accusations of Sarkeesian’s being “irrational” recycle predictable, sexist tropes of women as overly emotional and incapable of logic (as though being afraid of people bringing guns to an event at which you had been told you would be shot was somehow unreasonable!). Moreover, they are also frequently voiced by the same folks who oppose gun restraining orders for those accused of domestic violence, and who otherwise are inclined to pre-emptively dismiss the experiences of women who come forward about domestic abuse as “false accusations.” And even if we were to temporarily bracket the grim data about women and gun violence in this country, I think it’s about time that we banish the canard that Concealed Carry permit holders are somehow inherently reasonable and responsible. Being a bigoted, frequently-intoxicated rageaholic or psychopath who feels entitled to murder children whom you decide are “thuggish” or to assassinate women whom you feel “have it coming to them” isn’t something that we can detect when issuing a Concealed Carry permit – and being afraid of such people is eminently rational. So let’s dismiss the knee-jerk #notall-ism, and recognize that default presumption of maturity and responsibility to all permit holders for the wishful thinking that it is. There are intelligent conversations to be had about Concealed Carry, but dismissing as “irrational” or otherwise mocking the fear of people who regularly face threats to their well-being – or who have to wonder daily whether their kids will come home alive or instead wind up dead at the hands of some trigger-happy vigilante – is not a way to start them. If you think otherwise, well, maybe you should try walking a day in Anita Sarkeesian’s shoes – or asking Jordan Davis.

 

 

 

Campus Speech in the Crosshairs

Last night, Anita Sarkeesian cancelled a speaking event, scheduled for today, at Utah State University.

Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic who addresses the representation of women in video games (and does so, I think, quite brilliantly) has been a consistent target of violent threats for some time. Such threats against Sarkeesian and other women in the video games industry have only escalated with the development of the so-called #Gamergate “movement” (for a primer on Gamergate, check out this article). There’s a lot to be said about Gamergate, about the culture-war identity politics at play in it, and about how its most strident, misogynistic voices exemplify the paradoxes of fictimhood at its most distilled – they are at once shrilly pseudo-aggrieved while simultaneously they threaten people who are genuinely marginalized – but that’s not the purpose of this post. Instead, I want to focus on the background and circumstances of Sarkeesian’s cancelling her talk.

As Utah State University News indicates, Sarkeesian received threats prior to the talk, which the FBI determined were “similar to other threats that [she had] received in the past.” Among these was the specific threat of “the deadliest school shooting in American history” targeting her and other “feminists.” However, Sarkeesian – who has bravely and regularly faced down threats of violence in the past – cancelled her appearance not simply due to this threat itself, but because Utah State officials informed her that licensed Concealed Carry permit holders would be allowed to carry loaded weapons into the speaking venue. This is not a matter of University policy: in fact, Utah State law specifically prohibits public colleges and universities from banning concealed carry on their campuses. Although the State Board of Regents retains some limited authority when it comes to regulating the presence of guns for campus, this only extends to allowing students to request to share dorm rooms with roommates who aren’t licensed to be armed, and to maintaining no more than one “secure area” where guns are not allowed in which to conduct private “hearings” (IE, for grievance procedures, disciplinary hearings, firings, etcetera); that “secure area” ceases to be a gun-free space, by the way, the moment the hearing event is over. When it comes to a public event like Sarkeesian’s, then, Utah State’s hands are tied. And although Utah is the first state in the country to have laws like this on the books, other States are poised to enact similar ones soon, and Georgia (where my own university is located) appears to have already “accidentally” enacted similar legislation this summer.

Now, in case you’re curious, the requirements for getting a CC license in Utah are listed here. As these things go, the requirements are fairly high (in that you have to take a course with a certified instructor), but Utah also maintains reciprocity honoring licenses issued by numerous others states, including, for example, Georgia, where all you have to do is fill out some paperwork, undergo a background check, and wait about a month or so for your permit. In other words, beyond having that, a gun, and a willingness to show up at a Utah college and murder someone in public, there’s really nothing stopping you: unless you’ve already made your identity and intentions clear (and most of Sarkeesian’s threats are anonymous), campus security will wave you on in.

Of course, gun rights advocates will doubtless say that the presence of guns on campus should make things safer, rather than less (in fact, there’s a national Students for Concealed Carry group that makes this case explicitly). Whatever the statistical odds of dying in a “random” mass shooting, the primary threat against which Campus Carry groups advocate arming oneself, the situation with Sarkeesian is entirely different: she is being specifically and personally targeted with the threat of assassination. Against that backdrop, her desire not to have an audience containing armed people is eminently reasonable – and far more reasonable than, say, suggesting that a “good guy” with a gun could somehow manage to get the draw on a “bad one” before the bad guy manages to get a shot off at her. At which point, what is Sarkeesian supposed to do? Bring a gun of her own, and keep it in one hand to sweep the audience with while she holds a laser pointer for her PowerPoint in the other? Roll in with her own coterie of pistol-packing supporters, forming a human shield around her, maybe?

All of this is at once ridiculous, tragic, and terrifying. As I have argued elsewhere, the presence of guns at contentious public events inevitably changes the dynamic – there’s a chilling effect on expression, an ever-present implicit threat. Knowing that random members of the public are in your audience carrying heat is something that certainly should and will impact what you say, particularly when you’ve already been told that someone will show up to your event and shoot you. While I readily admit that I also find the prospect of ludicrously over-militarized campus security personnel toting M-16s and grenade launchers likewise toxic when it comes to impacting speech on campus, and in quashing student dissent in particular, I believe that colleges and universities are supposed to be places where ideas can be exchanged freely and without fear of violent repercussion. They should not be places where speech hangs in the balance of who’s better armed or who has the quicker draw – and certainly not places where a speaker should be silenced from the get-go by the prospect of having to speak in the crosshairs.

Playing the Fictim: Identity Politics and Being a “Gun Owner”

Unlike some other posts, this one is going to be a little more free-form and abstract. It’s something I’ll expand further as part of a longer project, but, for now, I just wanted to put this out here.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how in American political media we frequently hear denunciations of “identity politics.” According to one of the dominant narratives, people “play” identity politics when they either implicitly or explicitly invoke their demographic affiliations as a kind of token in a political game. For example, politicians play identity politics when they appeal to where their constituents were born and live (“Unlike my opponent, I grew up in this district! – I’m no a Washington outsider!”) or gesture to their gender and class status (“As a working middle class mother, I know what it means to raise a family, and care about what happens in our schools!”). Playing identity politics in this sense means making a claim to a specific identity in order to signal that you share a particular perspective and set of concerns with your target demographic. That identity claim serves as a touchstone for building coalitions, cementing solidarity, and turning out votes from people who identify with you.

But identity politics don’t just involve a politician making claims about their own authenticity – they just as frequently involve branding their opponents as inauthentic, or branding them as stigmatized. Unsurprisingly, then, in the contemporary landscape, the idea of identity politics as a “game” that is “played” is thus most often encountered when it comes to race. On the Right in particular, where condemnations of identity politics, like denunciations of “Political Correctness,” are most frequently encountered, this phenomenon paradigmatically takes the form of accusations of “playing the race card.” The game here, though, always seems more than a little bit rigged – Barack Obama and Eric Holder are perennially accused of “playing the race card” when they talk about events involving race, as they were in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, or in response to events in Ferguson. But while when black Democrats simply talk about race or class, they’re “dividing the nation,” when Karl Rove blasts Obama for being “a Chai-swilling, golf-playing, basketball-trash-talking, leading-from-behind, I-got-no-strategy President” or when Newt Gingrich calls him the “Food Stamp President,” they’re not “playing the race card” at all, they’re simply calling things as they see them – which of course involves no race-based blind-spots or craven identity-politics dog-whistles whatsoever.

But unpacking the nuances of “identity politics” in its various configurations in the American political landscape is far beyond the scope of this blog. What I want to reflect on is something else: the increasing prevalence of the term “gun-owner” as a term of identity politics in its own right. Americans self-identify as “gun owners” in polls and frequently vote for or against politicians based upon their supposed affinity for that identity, with numerous organizations claiming to represent “gun owners” the way organizations like La Raza or the NAACP claim to represent their constituencies. Indeed, not only does the NRA describe itself as “America’s longest-standing civil rights organization,” but Gun Owners of America, which stands to the right of the NRA as “the only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington,” proudly proclaims “a record of helping pro-gun candidates defeat anti-gunners in hundreds of races across the country over the past 30 years, and will continue to do so as long as our supporters provide the necessary financial resources.” “Pro-gun candidates,” “anti-gunners” – all these terms function as identity politics labels, without question. Likewise, Democratic politicians, particularly rural “Blue Dogs,” will regularly claim to be as “pro-gun” and even personally identify themselves as gun owners, often in order to avoid alienating their gun-owning voters.

But does possessing a gun automatically make you a “gun owner” in the way that a group like Gun Owners of America says it should? That is to say, does it necessarily mean that you are a member of an identity-based coalition, or even, as the NRA or GOA might suggest, that you suddenly become a member of a minority whose civil rights are under threat? Let’s set aside the complicated data on who owns guns and why, and likewise bracket the fact that many political figures who are accused of being “anti-gun” actually own guns themselves – including Joe Biden, who’s encouraged people to buy shotguns to defend themselves, and Mark Kelly, the husband of Gabrielle Giffords, who owns several guns. The question I’m asking is this: what is the status of “gun owner” as a term of identity politics? Is “gun owner” an identity in the same way as being black, female, Hispanic, or gay is?

Recently, Open Carry Texas tweeted that “owning guns is the ultimate respect for defending life” Think about that for a minute. Owning a product represents the ultimate respect for a value. Not just that, but owning a weapon (not, say, a defibrillator, or an organ donor card) represents the ultimate respect for human life. Likewise, for many folks, owning a gun represents a patriotic duty – a synecdoche for authentic Americanness. But how many other powerful political interest groups and voting coalitions are defined by the mere fact of owning a particular product?

Here’s the thing. “Gun owner” as a phrase is clearly a term of identity politics. But unlike being black or lesbian or poor or from West Virginia, being a gun owner is an identity you can buy. Only in America does spending $1000-plus on an AR-15 or $75 on a Bryco .380 not just equal expression of respect for a sacrosanct value – it gives you a claim on an identity, and not just to being a patriot, but, as we’ll see in a moment, to something much more. But buying a product does not make you a thing. It just means you bought something, laid down cash, swiped your credit card, wrote a check, whatever. You became an X-owner. If manufacturers of X branded it as whatever, and you embrace that identity, then good for you, I guess. You bought in. But the truth is that buying a gun makes you an American patriot about as much as buying a tiara turns you into a princess. This should be obvious, but just because you bought something doesn’t make you somebody. It just means you gave else someone your money.

Then again, from a certain perspective, I suppose, an identity-you-can-buy represents perhaps the most quintessential example of identity politics, American-style, that I can imagine. But there’s a rub here, too. Because although Americans arguably brand more products with patriotism than any other culture out there, half the time, gun manufacturers aren’t even American themselves – they’re multinational corporations, Italian, Russian, Austrian. Chatting with me about this over the weekend on Twitter, Ross Golowicz pointed out that Chrysler brands itself as “Imported From Detroit.” Imagine the same phrase, advertising a gun: “Imported from Detroit.” Of course, in reality, it should be more like “TEC-9. Imported from Miami. Bought at a gun show in Alabama. Smuggled to Detroit.” Or even: “The SKS. Imported from Tito’s Yugoslavia. To South-Central LA. The Ultimate Respect for the Value of Life.” But, sure, brother, that $700 you dropped on that Bulgarian AK, the $500 you spent on that Austrian Glock, that makes you a true American. And it means you respect life more the value of life than the person who didn’t, or who maybe spent that paycheck on rent or a trampoline or cocaine or a sofa instead.

And here’s the last bit – more often than not, condemnations of playing identity politics from the right are coupled with an accusation of “playing the victim.” Consider how often figures on the Right blame African Americans in particular for being duped into a culture of “victimhood.” But despite the fact that the personal right to bear arms is more secure under the Supreme Court than it ever has been in American history, the defining feature of both the NRA and GOA’s activism on behalf of American gun owners is “protecting” them – as in serving them in a civil rights struggle wherein their constituents are a deeply imperiled minority: in other words, where they’re victims. And the language of victimhood isn’t even subtle. In response to efforts in Massachusetts last year to impose legal limits on magazine size, the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action issued a press release to state residents entitled “Your Governor Wants to Personally Victimize Law-Abiding Gun Owners.”

My friend Jennifer Nelson, who’s a brilliant scholar out in Michigan, has a word for tone-deaf, misguided folks who seek to position themselves as the “real” victim of imagined wrongs – they’re “fictims.” I think it’s a simply genius turn of phrase – they’re fictitious victims, with their fictimhood serving not just to deny the actual victimhood of others, but to actively prevent reflection on their own complicity in that suffering by pre-emptively co-opting it. The Men’s Rights Advocates out there who decry sexual harassment laws and complain that they’re the “real” victims of sexism when 20% of women in this country are likely to suffer a sexual assault? Fictims. The angry white folks who deny the existence of structural anti-black prejudice and bemoan “reverse racism” while never having had to have “the talk” with their kids? Fictims, the lot of them.

Frankly, I can’t think of an identity-politics based group more prone to the shrillest flights of fictimhood than some segments of the militant pro-gun movement. To take but one example – I once got some threatening mail from a man I believe to be associated with a specific extremist group, a guy who, among other things, made it pretty clear he wasn’t fond of black folks since, in his words, they represented a “large, perpetual race-grievance based dependent class.” He also wasn’t that fond of me since, according to him, the simple discussion of any regulation of the right to bear arms – not just a renewed Assault Weapons Ban (which, again, I don’t support), but universal background checks or any limitation on what any civilian could conceivably own in any possible world – not only represented the “complete and total rape” of his “human rights,” but also made anyone who might initiate such a discussion, in his words, a “slaveowner.” As he wrote:

“You’re a slaveowner because you believe the rights of others falls under your control… I just want you to know, I fucking hate you and everyone else like you. You are pure fucking slaveowning scum and I am so very, very tired of having to tell you to stop presuming you can speak about the rights of free men and how best to violate them…I hope you understand, if you and your kind keep pushing for this, it’s a war. A real war.”

This strikes me as gun ownership identity politics in its most distilled fictimhood. There’s such a huge cognitive dissonance operating here – a self-righteous and histrionic attempt to co-opt the role of righteous victimhood attributed to slaves underwriting an appeal to violence against the alternate evils of the Federal Government and government-dependent criminals and social parasites who are, inevitably, stereotyped as black. Having a black man as President, of course, allows for these two threats to fold together into a kind of perfect nightmare for these people – the ginned-up fear of roving hordes of urban blacks merges with paranoid, insurrectionist fantasies of going full-Wolverines against home-invading Federal jackboots. And all this histrionic, fear-driven distortion – a grossly warped view of the history of slavery, a skewed understanding of our current economic crisis – perpetrates yet another distortion. It frames the “real” victims of our contemporary national struggles with gun control and gun violence as those primarily white gun owners who may potentially have their consumer choices somewhat more regulated, instead of the actual victims of gun violence, who are disproportionately poor, young, and black.

One last thought. In some ways, the idea that becoming a true American hinges on owning a piece of property (in this case, a gun) seems obscene in a very modern way – hell, from a certain cynical perspective, it’s part and parcel of life under globalized capitalism, a state of affairs in which being an American is itself a brand identity, something we like to think we can export, like democracy and McDonalds and Google and Law & Order spinoffs. But on another level, if we go back to the beginning, to the documents composed at the founding of this country, we have to acknowledge that, for the framers, the ownership of property was the criterion for being a true American, for being a “free man.” And we have to admit, too, that in many cases that “property” in question included other human beings. Whom “real” Americans, “free men,” kept in line at gunpoint.

At which point, then, I have to ask, if, by buying a weapon, you buy an identity, and that identity comes marked with an attitude of co-opted, histrionic fictimhood – who’s playing identity politics now? What identity, ultimately, are you really playing at – and what are you buying into?