Tag Archives: race

Real Talk

I’m going to be frank here. In the wake of Charleston, there’s been a lot of thought-provoking conversations about mass shootings, gun violence in general, and, inevitably, “gun control.” Many of these conversations seem divorced from reality at multiple junctures. Here’s what I think should be stipulated as the stark facts against which the seriousness of any discussion of “gun control” should be measured. They are specific features of our political process, our contemporary cultural landscape, and past history that demand acknowledgement, whatever your position on “gun control” may be.

1. There are at minimum 280-310 million guns in private hands this country. Plenty of their owners vote, and a hard-core group that will not compromise on gun rights does so with particular regularity and high impact in party primaries in key states.

2. The market for guns is not slowing down. Moreover, polling and market sales data indicate that there is a particular growth in favorable attitudes towards gun ownership and a correlative increase in gun purchases among African Americans. If you are white and scorn that impulse, I think you should reflect hard on why – and you should probably read this book, too. In any event, that expanding market of consumers is unlikely to vote against their own gun rights, especially since “gun control” has on numerous historical occasions been wielded specifically to crack down on African Americans owning guns.

3. If the murder of twenty-six toddlers and teachers in one of the wealthiest communities in the nation wasn’t a tipping point in terms of generating a counterbalancing grass-roots mobilization of pro-“gun control” voters in this jaded, violence-numbed country, then no single dramatic event ever will be. Period, full stop, end of story. There might be cumulative impact years down the line, but that’s a complicated discussion for another time.

4. On the national legislative level, lawmaking in the House is broken, and dominated by legislative capture. Not only is the Senate just as broken, its makeup skews votes on gun issues in favor of extremely low-population Western States where gun ownership and a fierce protection of gun rights is baked into voters of all affiliations.

5. On the state level, militant pro-gun actors have successful pressured legislators into expanding gun rights through a series of bellwether actions. Open Carry activists have entered State Houses and the personal offices of opposing lawmakers to tell them that voting against expanding gun rights is treason – with the obvious penalty being death. If you don’t think that impacts legislator behavior, you are fooling yourself. Because as Texas has proven, this tactic works. And mark my words – we will see much, much more of it in the next two years.

6. As far as the courts are concerned, since DC v. Heller, SCOTUS has enshrined individual Second Amendment rights more firmly than ever in American history. This has sparked a cascade of ever-expanding State-level court challenges and “preemption” laws which will only broaden gun rights. This also is not going to slow down.

7. President Barack Obama arguably never could have brought about “gun control” even if he had made it his sole priority in his first term; the fact that he couldn’t after Newtown only cemented this. The particular character of events in Charleston, in my opinion, pre-empts any substantive action on his part from the outset, and makes “gun control” a dead letter for the rest of his Presidency.

Now, even if all the above weren’t true, and “gun control,” somehow, miraculously, were to manifest on the horizon as an actual possibility, I think any serious talk about such “gun control” should also acknowledge as realities that:

8. “Gun control” and gun violence have been equally and inextricably bound up with white supremacy and white supremacist violence since before this country was founded.

9. Any Federally imposed registration process, mandated buyback program, or massive confiscation would quite likely generate violent resistance unlike anything this nation has seen since the Civil War — while also inflating an already abusive Security State apparatus ridden with white supremacy. And, as Alex Gourevitch compellingly argues, any such effort at “gun control” would also inevitably be marked by profound racial disparities and injustices in enforcement.

Whatever your position on “gun control” is, I think these are basic premises that should inflect it one way or another. They should also shape your choice and consideration of analogies when comparing “gun control” in the US to other places (Australia among them).

For my part, in addition to these premises, I believe some other things. I think that gun violence in general and mass shootings specifically implicate white supremacy at nearly ever possible juncture: in their genesis, their enactment, their representation in media, their treatment by our medical and criminal justice systems, and more. Hell, you can’t even define what a “mass shooting” is or count how many we have without immediately encountering complexities of racial framing: per most law enforcement calculi, “mass shootings” encompass acts of violence (gang shootings specifically) which decidedly do not correspond to the popular media association of the term with rampage killings carried out by young white men. I think this terminological instability is itself an index of the power of white supremacy to shape how we frame violence and measure the value of some lives over others. Likewise, I believe even Sandy Hook itself would have been unthinkable if not for white supremacy, and that the gendered dimensions of gun violence also implicate white supremacy as well.

I know some people may take issue with these other beliefs, but I think the nine assessments listed above share a sound grounding in reality. If you disagree, let me know, and I’m glad to talk. Because talking is important. We need to talk about Charleston, we need to talk about white supremacy, we need to talk about racist terrorism, we need to talk about gun violence, and we need to talk about mass shootings. But as Jennifer Carlson wisely cautions, and as I also believe, we should beware of facilely collapsing discussion of one concern into another or of gesturing at them all while saying nothing substantive about any. And all these conversations have to be reality-based — because at the end of the day, it seems to me, talking about things is only meaningful if you intend to actually do something about them.

A Sick and Broken People

A sleepless night; a morning torn between tears of rage and grief. I should not be writing, but I am. I want to say three things. What I say will perhaps be intemperate, but at least it will be honest.

One: this is terrorism. Even given the countless ways in which the label of “terrorism” has been warped, abused, and cynically evacuated of meaning over the past decade-and-a-half, refusing to call this what it is is intellectually and morally indefensible. If anything was ever terrorism, this is. If this is not terrorism, than nothing ever was. This is white supremacist terrorism, and terrorism made possible by white supremacy. Full stop.

Two: the impulse to narrowly pathologize the shooter serves the interests of white supremacy. If, once the identity of the shooter is known, we roll out a tired, ready-made media narrative that solely focuses on his background, upbringing, personal frustrations, and other life details – in short, that paints him as a mentally ill “lone wolf” – then shame on us. This framing not only slanders the mentally ill, who are vastly more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators, but it also ignores the fact that the term “lone wolf” is not an exculpatory psychological explanation. The historical origin of the contemporary phrase refers to an explicit strategy for recruiting and mobilizing terrorists. And not just any terrorists either: the first self-described “lone wolf” terrorists were proudly white supremacist ones. And yet now, when media figures and politicians use the phrase to talk about white mass murderers (but not, tellingly, those supposedly “radicalized” by Islamic fundamentalism) they do so to effectively obscure their shared racist ideology and instead beguile us into focusing on them narrowly as merely misguided or tragically demented individuals. In other words, it’s about whitewashing, and like all whitewashing, it preserves and protects white supremacy.

All this is because, three: We pathologize individual white terrorists so we don’t have to talk about the collective terroristic pathology of white supremacy itself. In May, a group of openly armed white men picketed a mosque in Arizona and menaced and harassed the congregants. Now, another armed white man has decided to murder nine people inside an African Methodist Episcopal Church. Once we know more, when the shooter is apprehended, or killed, or tried, we can talk about pathology, fine. But then, and now, we need to be talking first and foremost about another pathology – not an individual pathology, but a collective one. And this conversation shouldn’t be for purposes of exculpation: it should be about indictment. Because how many more places of worship need to be desecrated with the tears and blood of other human beings before White America shows at least some bit of spine and confronts what it has wrought, what it will not stop wreaking, and what is consuming what we have left of a soul from within? If we do not confront this, then we are a sick and broken people, and if the judgment of history shows us any mercy, we will not have deserved it.

—–

*Update, 2:15 PM.

I wrote the above at around eight this morning and posted it a bit before nine. Since then, the alleged shooter has been identified as a twenty-one year-old man named Dylann Storm Roof, and has been captured in North Carolina. Descriptions of events inside the Church have also become available. Per the New York Times:

The gunman walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church after 8 p.m., and the first call to police came shortly after 9 p.m. Among the dead was the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, pastor of the church, who was also a state senator. Sylvia Johnson, a cousin of Mr. Pinckney, told NBC News that she had spoken with a survivor of the shooting who told her the gunman reloaded five times. The survivor, she said, told her that the gunman had entered the church and asked for the pastor. Then he sat next to Mr. Pinckney during the Bible study before opening fire. “I have to do it,” the gunman was quoted as saying. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

The alleged gunman (Roof) walked into a place sacred to other human beings. They welcomed him among them. He sat with them as they prayed. And then he murdered them in cold blood. I cannot bear to imagine this scene; the mind reels. South Carolina’s governor Nikki Haley appears to sympathize, stating that: “We’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.”

At face value, this strikes a chord: some things some people do, we will never understand.  When it is not being marshaled as a distraction, as a sideshow to keep us from confronting white supremacy, even the most astute psychopathological workup of a single individual can only ever take us so far. Haley’s brief statement seems to gesture at this, asking us to see what happened in the Church as a “senseless tragedy.” Senseless: beyond comprehensibility, beyond reason itself — not an act of political violence or the recognizable product of an ideology historically cultivated and shared by more than a single, deranged person.

And yet: In the photo accompanying the NYT piece, Roof appears wearing a jacket stamped with the flags of Apartheid-era South Africa and the defunct white supremacist Republic of Rhodesia. According to the relayed witness testimony, during his attack, the shooter invoked one of the most durable and vile tropes of the American white supremacist imaginary, straight out of The Birth of a Nation. He also essentially articulated an agenda of ethnic cleansing in the name of nationalist irredentism. And he did all this while assassinating a black State Senator and eight other people inside the Emanuel AME Church.

Sometimes you do not have to understand the why of a thing to recognize it for what it is. Pathologizing Roof as an individual is besides the point here, because what we recognize in him is nothing unfathomably inscrutable at all. It is actually very, very familiar, and the pathology in question implicates all of us insofar as it is the pathology of white supremacy itself. So the questions then become: how up-front are we willing to be about this, and about ourselves — and what are we going to do about it?

Life is Not an Integer: On Aurora and James Holmes

Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.

– Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9; Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 37a

From the beginning of James Holmes notebook, via The Denver Post

From the beginning of James Holmes’s notebook, via The Denver Post

Life matters, life is valuable. A life matters, a life has value. Lives matter, lives have value.

These are platitudes, sure. But read them again, a few more times, until the words look weird, until they sound odd, until “life,” “matter,” and “value” float on their own, a little denatured, a little strange, and then sense how much you may feel a relation tugging the concepts together, an affinity pulsing between them. Maybe you don’t, maybe you won’t, but try it all the same.

Life matters, life is valuable. A life matters; a life has value. Lives matter; lives have value.

This seems profoundly reasonable, doesn’t it, these symmetries, between living and mattering, between mattering and having value? Your life matters, life in general matters, and your life and the lives of others have value. It would be vile for a third party to say otherwise, wouldn’t it? Likewise, isn’t it obvious that the things that matter to us in life, or that should matter to us, have some value, at least insofar as they deserve our awareness, if not expenditures of our dollars and votes, our care and our time? Life itself is precious, a thing to be cherished, and lives have value in and of themselves, on their own terms. These are premises that, to be sure, we can dishonor or forget, but which we presumably can be brought back to respect, or be educated to more compassionately and expansively recognize in the real world. Part of the power of #BlackLivesMatter, for example, leverages precisely this possibility, and pivots on our implicit equation of mattering with having value. To say that “black lives matter” is to state the obvious, or rather, to state what ought to be obvious, and thereby throw into sharp relief our gross social and personal failures to recognize that fact. Unarmed black people are twice as likely to be shot and killed by police officers than unarmed whites. These are human lives – they matter, they have value. Your brunch? Not so much.

Life matters, life is valuable. A life matters; a life has value. Lives matter; lives have value. Repeat this to yourself until it becomes a mantra; clutch it close. It is a life raft, a board to cling to in the horror of the headlines and the numbness of the day-to-day.  But it can also be a plank, a gibbet, and a cry of despair.

*

After two years of legal wrangling, the James Holmes trial is finally well underway. His name may mean nothing to you, which is fine: in a world of limited economies of attention, that you do not immediately recognize the name of a yet another American mass murderer may well be a sign that your care is productively and righteously distributed elsewhere. On some level, James Holmes should not matter to you – or at least, he should matter far less than the dozen people whose lives he took, or the seventy he wounded. Arrested without incident despite wearing body armor and being holed up in a car with at least four guns and various grenades, James Holmes should certainly matter less to you than the toy-carrying children or the mentally ill individuals who pose no harm to anyone but themselves, but whom our nation’s police nonetheless seem disposed to summarily execute “in fear for their lives.” When so many innocents die apparently undeserving of media attention or public memory, dignifying a mass murderer with our attention seems perversely to focus on what shouldn’t matter.

And yet by some common metrics of value – education, prestige, and, above all, money – James Holmes certainly matters, or at least did.  Before withdrawing from his studies, Holmes, now 27, was one of only a half-dozen applicants to make the cut for an elite neuroscience Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado, Denver, and successfully applied for highly competitive NIH funding; he would later give himself the job description of “laborer.” Even after he dropped out, his cash was certainly as good as anyone else’s: he spent thousands of dollars on a pair of pistols, an assault rifle, a shotgun, body armor, a gas mask, 6,000-plus rounds of ammunition, tear gas, and bomb-making materials, all legally, and all without raising any red flags; unlike other mass shooters, he also appears to have had no compunctions about paying for sex. After dying his hair like The Joker and shooting up a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colorado, on July 20, 2012, Holmes and his mental state became the subjects of a series of legal inquiries and court hearings that cost the State some $2.2 million, all before his trial even began. Meanwhile, the cost of the ongoing trial is still unclear, the price tag of his defense remains uncertain, and the impact, financially and otherwise, for the families of those he killed, paralyzed, wounded, and traumatized, is incalculable.

Or so you would think. But against this horrifying accounting of who matters to whom, and why, and how much, we have a remarkably clear, methodically logical rejoinder from an unexpected source: James Holmes himself. Because, you see, Holmes says he knows exactly how much a life is worth. And while Holmes may be insane – and I certainly concur with clinical diagnoses that classify him as schizophrenic – his insanity reflects back to us a madness that is collective, presenting in stark, clear terms the true calculus of the value of a life, and of how much a life matters, that governs how we live now.

James Holmes has no problem endorsing the proposition that life has value, that a life has a value, that lives are valuable. As reported in the Associated Press, in interviews between Holmes and state-appointed psychiatrist William Reid, videos of which are currently being shown to the jury, the question of the value of human life is a recurrent theme. From the AP:

James Holmes believes he gained a specific amount of self-worth for each of the 12 people he killed in a Colorado movie theater, but he regrets that one of the victims was a child, according to a videotaped conversation between Holmes and a psychiatrist played in court Monday.
In a flat, emotionless voice, Holmes tells psychiatrist William Reid he collected one “value unit” for each person who died.
“I was worth 12 more people than I was before,” Holmes says.
Did the wounded count? Reid asks.
“I only count fatalities,” Holmes replies.

A life, a “value unit.” The erstwhile young scientist who conducted neuronal mappings of finches and ultra-high resolution photographs of the muscles involved in the flight of hummingbirds offers us the weight of a life in a simple, tautological equation. One equals one. A life has the value of one unit of life. Of course, the “value unit” of a human life, Holmes goes on to elaborate, is not a matter of inherent dignity, but rather an existential opportunity cost:

On another part of the video, Holmes tells Reid that human life has value, and by taking lives, he added to his own worth.
“Anything they would have pursued gets canceled out and given to me,” he says.
Asked by Reid if that calculation still makes sense to him, Holmes replies, “Yeah.”

The cool, quantifiable observations of a scientist overlap with the grim and inexorable efficiency of the free market, of professional precarity, of a worldview wherein life is win-lose and always zero-sum. A document in his writings, titled “Insights into the Mind of Madness” and scrawled in a classic lab Computation Book, Holmes reiterates this cruel, unflinching logic. “What is equal equal to?” he asks. “All men are created equal,” comes the first response, written in tiny letters. But this is clearly only a prima facie answer, marked as provisional by a tiny asterisk. The real answer follows next, larger and more authoritative. “All men are uncreated equal.” A diagram fleshes out the corresponding calculus: one stick-figure killer turns ten standing (living) stick figures into ten stick-figure corpses (laying sideways, eyes X’ed out), followed by a “= ?” As to the value of that “?”, Holmes notes, it could be “1 or 11 or -9” but, “Regardless, value of murderer ≠ 1.” And whereas all the victims are only “1s”, being anything other than that, even a negative number, must presumably be better – ergo, kill as many people as you can, to your own greater glory.

Holmes does not “count” non-fatal casualties, even the people who testified in front of him, including a recent father whom he had shot through the eye, and who told his story, haltingly, from a wheelchair. These folks are “collateral damage,” not his problem. “I didn’t figure the collateral damage had anything to do with me after the crime.” Although Holmes does “count” the child he killed, he has indicated that he chose a late-night showing of a PG-13 movie precisely in order to avoid killing children. The child he did kill, Veronica Moses-Sullivan, was six at the time. According to reports, “The 58-pound child was shot four times before she died. A bullet tore through her liver, spleen, kidney and pancreas. Another went through her right buttock, her hip and her bladder and remained lodged in her 4-foot-4 frame.” Holmes supposedly regrets this death, although he does admit, when pressed, that he would have done the same thing anyway even knowing that children were there: “I think I still would have carried it out.” For Holmes, Moses-Sullivan’s life did matter, a bit, but not so much that he won’t not take credit for killing her in his tally.

At this point, setting aside the complexities of mens rea as a technical legal matter, one wants desperately, in plain language, to insist that Holmes must be insane, since only someone who is something other than sane would methodically plan to massacre strangers based upon their notebook calculations whereby the value of a human life is a singular, numerical quantum. But, the thing is, Holmes’s logic, however insane, converges with the logic of the State precisely insofar as they deploy shared vocabularies of value, even if what “value” denotes for the law, the everyday speaker, and James Holmes are not at all the same. When the courts make determinations of value, it’s frequently in terms of damages: statutory, nominal, or otherwise, value is quantifiable. When it comes to punitive damages, judges or lawyers may also come close to speaking about values qua principles the significance of disrespecting which monetary fines or years in jail can only gesture to, but never encapsulate, repair, or make whole. This latter use comes close to what ordinary speakers frequently denote by “value” when they speak about human lives: an absolute, indivisible value that inheres in every human being above and beyond quantifiable determination. This value is understood to be universal, but also unique to the person in question, as irreplaceable as they are; it is the value that animates slogans like “People, not profits!” Holmes’s worldview at once appears to come close to each of these senses, but is in fact radically different: as he states, all lives have value, and equally, but that value is determinate. It’s singular, but not in the sense of being related to uniqueness or individuality; rather, it is, quite literally, a unit of one. And these units, like people, are, for Holmes, interchangeable, liquid, and disposable. Everyone may be “created” equal, but the value of a person can be taken from them by “uncreating” them, that is, by taking their life, at which point its value becomes yours, and no one can take it from you. In other words, the lives of other people mattered to James Holmes only insofar as he could gobble them up like Pac-Man eating dots. And thus, under questioning from the District Attorney, the psychiatrist observes that “Whatever regret [Holmes] had, he makes it clear that getting the points and killing the people was worth it.” In the eyes of the law, this is both a sane-enough acknowledgement of the “value of life” and the sign of a premeditated plan to disregard it nonetheless. It only follows, then, that the State, in full realization of the principle of an eye for an eye, seeks to take Holmes’s life in return. But of course, since the State cannot kill him a dozen times, Holmes, who acknowledges that what he did was “legally wrong,” will nonetheless see himself as the winner to the end, as always more than just 1. For him, life is an integer, positive or negative. It may be measurable as an absolute value in the narrow mathematical sense, but this is the exact opposite of what we mean, in a moral sense, when we say life has absolute value, when we say a life has value, that each life matters.

**

If Colorado prosecutors succeed in their objective of getting Holmes the death penalty, and current challenges to the death penalty in state courts are overcome, the mandatory appeals and cost of the execution will likely run in the tens of millions of dollars. If Holmes’s own accounting is a sign of insanity, this seems like a different order of insanity, a different species of madness. Commit a massacre, and Colorado will spend tens of millions of dollars prosecuting and then (maybe) executing you. Meanwhile, if Aurora police are found legally liable for the shooting death of Naeschylus Vinzant, a 37-year old unarmed black man whom local officers killed this March, one might well wonder how much any trials involved might cost, and how much the municipality might pay his family in damages, and what could be inferred, from that, about the comparative value, in dollar terms, of the life of an unarmed black fugitive parolee gunned down by police while “resisting arrest” versus that of a white mass murderer whom the state will quietly tie to a special bed in an brightly lit room and inject with a sodium thiopental cocktail before an audience of witnesses.

But there is yet one last bit of madness on display in Aurora. Jessica Redfield Ghawi was 24 when James Holmes killed her in Aurora. In an eerie prefiguration of events in the theater, Ghawi had missed being present for another mass shooting in Toronto by a matter of mere minutes only a month before. When Holmes shot Ghawi six times with his Smith and Wesson M&P15, an AR-15 style assault rifle, a friend tried to administer first aid to her until he discovered that part of her skull had been blown apart, exposing her brain – at which point, unable to do anything else, he prayed as she died in his arms. Two years later, with help from lawyers from the Brady Center, Ghawi’s mother and stepfather, Sandy and Lonnie Philips, brought a suit against several of the online retailers from whom Holmes had acquired his ammunition, body armor, high-capacity magazines, and tear gas grenades. This suit did not ask for damages, but instead sought an injunction to stop the retailers’ “negligent and dangerous business practices.” This suit entered into complicated legal territory, involving not only the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which shields ammunition and gun manufacturers and retailers from suits by shooting victims, but also several Colorado statutes. The merits of this particular suit, and the issue of online retailing of guns and ammunition are topics worth discussing another time, but what matters for our purposes here is the outcome of the Phillipses’ effort: not only did a US District Judge throw out their suit, he ruled that the Phillipses should be on the hook for the online retailers’ legal fees. The total amount? Some $220,000.

Life matters, life is valuable. A life matters, a life has value. Lives matter, lives have value. But how much? The parents of the victim of a mass shooting owe the people who supplied the shooter with his gear just shy of a quarter of a million dollars.  The police officer who killed Naeschylus Vinzant in what coroners have since ruled a homicide is back at work, albeit confined to desk duty; the coverage takes pains to observe that he “has been honored for helping save lives during the Colorado theater shooting.”  And the Colorado theater shooter himself will consume our attention and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, sitting there, implacable, as his victims and their families lay out how much the lives he ended mattered, trying to express, impossibly, the value of the lives he took. And if Colorado does ultimately kill James Holmes, returning to him what he visited on others, he will leave this earth in confident self-vindication. For the State will have not just ratified that he matters enough to prosecute and to kill, but, in so doing, in his eyes, it will let him walk away with the balance sheet in his favor.

Life matters, life is valuable. A life matters, a life has value. Lives matter, lives have value. We will tell ourselves and each other these things, and we must, even though we know the words mean everything, and yet nothing. And James Holmes may well be telling them to himself, too, and to anyone who listens. But when he says them, he will speak neither from hypocrisy, nor from heartbreak, but from triumph.

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.

On Not Being an Angel

“Let’s go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could.” – Pat O’Brien, as Father Jerry Connolly, in “Angels with Dirty Faces” (1938)

Today, Michael Brown, eighteen, was laid to rest in a closed casket ceremony. This morning, the New York Times seized the occasion to piss on his grave. You can find the piece in question online easily enough. I’m deliberately not linking to it, but I will paste the following paragraph, which you’ve probably already seen.

“Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life. Shortly before his encounter with Officer Wilson, the police say he was caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars, pushing the clerk of a convenience store into a display case. He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar. He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor. At the same time, he regularly flashed a broad smile that endeared those around him. He overcame early struggles in school to graduate on time. He was pointed toward a trade college and a career and, his parents hoped, toward a successful life.”

Setting aside the dubious release of the video in question, or the status of the incident it allegedly depicts, the Times piece then goes on to list a whole bunch of ways in which Mike Brown “was no angel,” tracing his delinquency to his earliest years, where he climbed over a toddler gate separating rooms in his house, banged loudly on things, and drew on walls with crayons. Clearly, these behaviors, utterly unthinkable for a normal child, all marked young Mike from the start as a troublemaker. If you don’t believe me, check the DSM: being a “handful” as a toddler and drawing on your home’s walls appear right alongside torturing animals, bedwetting, and compulsively setting fires on the differential diagnostic checklist for malignant psychopathy. In fact, if you draw on the walls with a Sharpie instead of something that can get scrubbed off with a Magic Eraser, the DSM’s recommended interventions are either immediate administration of 100 CCs of Thorazine or a Glock 17 full of hollowpoints, depending on your Health Plan, the child’s melanin pigmentation, and whether or not it’s a psychiatrist or police officer administering treatment.

What’s particularly striking about the Times’ level-headed assessment of the factors that led to Mike Brown’s so clearly deserving to die is its juxtaposition alongside a profile of the police officer who shot him, Darren Wilson, which I’m also not linking to. In that piece, we learn a great deal about how Officer Wilson is by all accounts a quiet, respectable, and low-key man (did we mention quiet? and gentle? and soft-spoken?). Strikingly, this profile offers precious little insight into the type of information that the Times seems to think it’s so vital for us to know about Mike Brown. For example, we are given no glimpse into Wilson’s behavior as a toddler, whether or not he got into any fights in high school, what his grades were, whether or not he had college ambitions, what type of music he may have listened to as a teenager (let alone how violent its lyrics might have been), or whether or not he may have – gasp – drunk alcohol while underage or even – the horror – smoked weed. While the Times can doubtless be forgiven for passing over trivia like whether or not Officer Wilson received training on racial profiling, or what his marksmanship test scores were, I have to admit that I’m shocked, simply shocked that these other critical issues remain unaddressed.

One thing does come, up, though. You see, Officer Wilson had an “unsettled” childhood, insofar as his mother, it turns out, was convicted of felony theft and forgery for stealing the identity of a neighbor in order to purchase “tens of thousands of dollars of candles; home decorations; furniture; clothes, including some from American Eagle Outfitters, which [the neighbor] says was Officer Wilson’s favorite store at the time; and hockey gear.” But whereas Mike Brown was falsely accused of possessing stolen property while in High School – an iPod, the receipt for which his mother had to bring to school in order to exonerate him – the fact that Officer Wilson appears to have spent many of his teenage years wearing stolen clothes makes him an object of pity.

I have no doubt that Darren Wilson’s childhood was hard. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have your mother die young, let alone die in infamy. But contemplate the counterfactual here. What if Brown’s mother had had a similar record to Wilson’s? If it suffices to elide Mike Brown’s residence in a “community that had rough patches” into the broader narrative of his own being insufficiently angelic to be worthy of human life, can you imagine the headlines if his mother had stolen tens of thousands of dollars to spend on bric-a-brac? But we don’t have to imagine the counterfactual – we can just contemplate what’s in front of our faces, printed in our nation’s paper of record. In the case of Mike Brown, his parents’ disciplining him to keep his grades up was a sign their son was out of control, a loose cannon – no angel. Meanwhile, Darren Wilson’s mother’s multiple felonies are none-too-subtly suggested to be what inspired him to pursue a career of quiet, selfless service as an exemplary police officer. In other words: when a black family shows care and discipline toward their teenager, it’s an indictment of his character – he’s no angel. When the white officer who killed him turns out to be raised by a career criminal, it renders him an object of pathos, a paragon of respectability and angelic restraint. Simply being a human being isn’t enough for Mike Brown to deserve life, or respect in death – he has to be angelic to qualify. Meanwhile, every time a black kid is shot, a white cop or vigilante gets his wings.

Smart advice is that you shouldn’t write publicly when you’re angry. But reading these pieces side-by-side I can’t shake it off, and I just have to say it: fuck being an angel.

If being an angel is the bare prerequisite for deserving the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, then we’re all write-offs. If being an angel is the minimum condition for being worthy of mourning instead of slander after you’re gunned down like an animal in our streets, then we’re all fair game.

But of course, and this is the rub of it, it’s only open season on some of us, on the streets and in the press.

When I was a toddler, I was a handful. I’m told that, once, when I was maybe five, sitting in a parked and playing “cops and robbers” with my Dad, I asked him to close his eyes, which he did, and then I promptly hit him over the head with a small fire extinguisher. He needed stitches for that. At summer camp, when I was eleven or twelve, a couple of times, when I got hit by bullies, I pushed back – and I’m ashamed to say I also shoved another kid who hadn’t done anything wrong to me at all; it was just because I was angry and thought that that display would result in my own getting pushed around less (it didn’t). When I was a teenager, I listened to Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, Snoop, Busta Rhymes. I shot thousands of digital monsters and Nazis and generic enemy commandos playing computer games, and watched dozens of ultra-violent action movies (John Woo’s “Hard Boiled” was a particular favorite – 307 people are killed on screen in 92 minutes). I snuck into Central Park at night to drink with friends and smoked the occasional joint at a concert. Like pretty much every young boy in this country, I suspect, I showed a “rebellious streak.” Hell, at one party, when I was nineteen, I distinctly remember a cop pulling a gun on me, and that looking down the barrel of that Sig Sauer .40 was like staring down the longest, widest tunnel in the world. When you’re a young boy – a young man – you try on personas. Sometimes, you get into trouble. Sometimes, you don’t. Sometimes, you just get lucky – like the character played by Pat O’Brien in the 1938 James Cagney gangster flick (whence the quotation that begins this piece,) sometimes you just run faster than your buddy.

Or sometimes you’re white. Call me crazy for the speculation, but if my 18-year old self had somehow wound up dead in the street under uncertain circumstances, with at least half of a police officer’s sidearm emptied into my face and chest, I suspect that the New York Times wouldn’t have published a bio of me invoking my teenage angst and toddler hijinks to draw the conclusion that I was “no angel.”

The word for “angel” comes from a Greek word for “messenger” – somebody who brings news. Reading the news this morning, on the day a young man is laid to rest, the day a mother and a father bury their child, I have to observe that while a St. Louis police officer’s Beretta can carry 10-15 rounds, more than twice what Darren Wilson pumped into Mike Brown’s body in order to leave him perforated and dead in the street, and although breaking news suggests Wilson fired a full eleven rounds, it took the New York Times only 1,100 words to assassinate Brown’s character in print.

Fuck being an angel, and fuck these messengers.

Ferguson, Open Carry, and the Ghost of Huey Newton

Two encounters on social media, and one news item; together, a bleak picture.

On Tuesday, there was a post in my Facebook feed, written by a tenured professor at a Midwestern university, a white man. In a few brief, blistering lines, he shared an article about supposed New Black Panthers directing traffic in Ferguson, denouncing them as being “governmental,” and insufficiently “revolutionary.” A few moments later, presumably realizing that this perhaps crossed a line even by his own bilious standards, he deleted the post, replacing it with a borrowed quote from a black anarchist writer, former Black Panther Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin, calling upon black people to arm themselves and meet police in Ferguson with a show of force.

A few days earlier, in my Twitter feed, there was an announcement from CJ Grisham, the founder of Open Carry Texas, that his group would stage an armed march in Houston’s Fifth Ward. The Fifth Ward is a predominantly black neighborhood, and members of the community there had not only made clear that OC Texas’s presence was unwanted, but that, if they were to show up, they should be prepared to encounter residents also bearing arms. When I asked Grisham whether, in light of events in Ferguson, he was reconsidering his group’s sortie into a largely black neighborhood, he replied: “What happened in Ferguson is exactly why People should be armed.” He then doubled down on questioning what I was referring to by events in Ferguson in the first place, asking: “You mean where a thug and criminal was killed after robbing and threatening a store owner?”

At that point it seems worth observing not only that what exactly happened in that store is now very much in question, but also that while Michael Brown had no criminal history whatsoever when he was shot dead, Grisham himself does have a criminal conviction, from a 2013 incident involving an altercation with law enforcement. Moreover, this episode arose while Grisham was carrying a weapon – unlike Michael Brown, who no one disputes was entirely unarmed when he was shot to death (or even during that alleged “strong arm” robbery). And yet Grisham, who is (no matter what you think of him) a criminal in the most precise legal sense of the term, appeared to see no contradiction in slandering the dead young man, who had no rap sheet or convictions to speak of. Grisham then proceeded to insist,“We won’t bow to the Black Panthers or Quannel X. We won’t be intimidated by bullies. This is America…All of it.” And then, a few days later, OC Texas called off its planned march in the Fifth Ward in favor of a “book drive” to benefit young students there.

Wednesday, news broke of a planned event by an organization in Texas calling itself the Huey P. Newton Gun Club. This group, made up of “black and brown residents of the city of Dallas” is named after the Black Panther leader who famously observed that “The gun is where it’s at and about and in.” The Huey P. Newton group is planning an “armed self-defense patrol” along Dallas’s Martin Luther King Boulevard, standing against police brutality and in support of its members’ own right to bear arms.

Stipulating – explicitly – that I do not begrudge the Supreme Court’s recognition of an individual right to bear arms, I admit that this development, like Grisham’s planned march, has left me deeply troubled. On the one hand, this escalation has a feeling of inevitability to it: as I have written elsewhere, once guns enter the public arena as a means of protest, once they are deployed as a kind of speech, it is arguable that the only equally powerful response is a countervailing display of arms. But the thing about shows of force is that they have a tendency to escalate without warning or plan. And I fear that, as events in Ferguson suggest, any intervention on the part of law enforcement in a confrontation involving armed black protestors will not favor the latter, no matter how well equipped or righteous they may be.

But I admit, too, that these developments also have a kind of all-this-has-happened-before, all-this-will-happen-again dimension to them. Indeed, the open carry protests of Black Panthers in the 1960s and 1970s were themselves largely responsible for a political backlash that more or less determined the shape of gun control politics going forward. Likewise, the role of guns in what many frequently remember as a solely non-violent Civil Rights Movement is also paradoxical and complicated (for an excellent history of this, see the work of Charles Cobb, Jr.). But much as differing voices today will by turns vilify and praise Black Panthers movements both New and Old, so too are the memories of black luminaries of the earlier Civil Rights Movement co-opted by unlikely, ideologically motivated figures, including Glenn Beck, who dedicates his book “Control” to “Martin Luther King, Jr. … who owned several guns but was subjected to the worst kind of gun control—and deprived of his basic right to defend himself and his family—when police in Alabama denied him a concealed carry permit in 1956.” Never mind the fact that I suspect that even Beck himself would admit that a concealed carry handgun license would likely not have saved Dr. King from James Earl Ray’s sniping at him from across the street with a .30-06 Remington rifle. For all these figures – for the anarchist professor in my FB feed, for CJ Grisham, for Glenn Beck – the image of armed black activists represents a malleable target to appropriate for their own dubious ends, whether they be furthering Leftist revolution, justifying threatening, racially coded displays of Right-Wing aggression in a black neighborhood, or just simply selling books.

But not only are these images of actual people, people who can speak and do speak for themselves, and who don’t need white people to ventriloquize them, the power of those images in the media derives from a history that is very real and far from settled. Indeed, one way or another, it is the events of the 1960s and 1970s, and their consequences – from race riots to white flight to police militarization to mass incarceration to the war on drugs – that have led us to our present situation. And that present situation is a continually unfolding tragedy that encompasses, among other things, what is happening in Ferguson, pervasive racial violence, uncounted and overlooked acts of police brutality, and a nationwide body count due to gun violence that reveals stark racial disparities, particularly among children.

And so while I do not know what happens next, I do not see how repeating the same brew of escalating gestures of further political violence can lead any of us anywhere good. I hope that in spite of the joy that trigger-happy radicals of whatever persuasion may take in the increased presence of guns in our political landscape, we can de-escalate, step back, and find another way forward.