Tuesday, July 6, 2010
I want to be sensitive, but in the end, it's still a post about outrage and tragedy and tough solutions. I welcome thoughtful comments, whether they agree with me or not. And I always learn from and respond to them. I do not approve racist comments. Most abusive comments under other headings will also be denied.
This is a 2003 photo of the man charged with killing two Tampa police officers, Officer David Curtis and Officer Jeffrey Kocalb. They were shot from close range as they tried to arrest Dontae Morris on a bad check charge on June 29, 2010.
Below are the photographs of the two officers. If I had pictures of his other victims, I might possibly defuse the racial divide they seem to represent. Because I expect he shared race with those other victims. But I don't know for sure. I can't find those other photos.
This is a mug shot, so Dontae Morris is not happy. Below, official portraits of men who were being sworn into the Tampa PD, the outcome of an accomplishment. So the contrast in facial expression is situational.
Dontae Morris was acquitted on an earlier assault/robbery charge in 2005. He served prison time for drug charges. He is also implicated in two other murders as a 'person of interest'. If true, that's four murders since he was released from prison in April this year.
Damned by Faint Praise
The Tampa Bay dot com St. Petersburg Times has done a haphazard biography on Dontae Morris with the tools available: court records and interviews. It's important to read between the lines as always.
Morris is one of seven children. He dropped out of school in the eleventh grade. He has done at least one significantly nice thing, taking a sixty-five-year-old woman to the hospital who fell off her bicycle. Almost no one else remembers him well, or, they're not saying. The implication is, this is a young man who passed sight unseen, whose dreams are almost unknown and whose life passed unnoticed by all who should care, except for a mother who does read the Bible enough to know Psalm 27, or at least took the advice of her minister and posted it on Facebook.
It's one duty of the press to show us the other side. What they show us this time are the most lukewarm defenses in the face of official outrage. The police chief calls him a 'cold-blooded killer" and one of the few defenses is a temporizing one: "I wouldn't call him a cold-blooded killer." That's it. Like maybe he's a alcohol-and-crack-fed killer, or a hot-blooded killer, or some-other-adjective kind of killer. And now he's a cop-killer and possibly a civilian-killer.
The use of a clergyman as a spokesman for the family is actually virtue-neutral. Ministers are accustomed to public speaking, and they serve the function of press agent under these conditions. These conditions cause only trouble and distraction from the incipient next source of trouble for his flock. The pay, if any, comes from the secondary source of notoriety. Some ministers find this a source of political or economic power. I have no way of telling about this minister, so I assume he has much good intention. Certainly he has not thrust himself in front of the camera.
What is significant: the lack of voices in outcry for Dontae Morris or his family. Nobody is saying much. It means, for whatever reason, he was not popular, either as a means of largesse or a funny happy guy or as a stand-up character. No: it sounds like the neighbors don't care that he's gone. They just have to live there. They have to say something nice. Or, nothing.
Cinder Blocks, Broken Bottles, Blood, Sweat, Tears, and Shouts
There is no telling how many mothers and how many sisters cringed when he came around, no telling how many fathers or older brothers tried to lessen his influence. No telling how many people he frightened or hurt or who had to clean up after him in the kitchen or in their minds. There is no telling the prayers, the shouting, the tears this man caused as he ran unseen or unchecked through the cinder-block mansions, $400.00 a month, in the Florida heat, drinking, selling crack, smoking weed, and inviting accomplices to robbery and murder. And there's also no telling how automatic or unfinished this effort was to excuse him. The good people in the neighborhood are scared to apathy. Malingerers in the neighborhood excuse themselves when they excuse Dontae Morris.
Dontae Morris went from cinder-block apartments to cinder-block prison, was released, and returned to what he knew. And where he was tolerated. And where he was aided and abetted, however willingly or by default.
I believe he was accepted exactly as he chose to contribute, just another factor to be dealt with in the landscape. That it is part of a normal cycle of "I've got something on you/your cousin/your boyfriend" that keeps the ghetto neighborhood self-involved and increasingly dangerous. I'm talking about a fiscally extortionate, emotionally blackmailing set of connections that ensures almost nobody rises above. Normal is bad. That's the quick description. And like most people of any socio-economic group, people there just go with the flow.
Anybody who wants to get out is generally pulled back by one crisis or another like crabs in a barrel. The strong get weaker every minute. Or the strong succeed in bending the extortion and blackmail to their own purposes, as in organizing it to do greater harm and be even more connected. Dontae Morris doesn't seem like a leader. All his charisma seems to be founded on the fear and the convenience of the moment.
You have to wonder about his parenting, his schooling: was he given anything? His mother looks decent, self-respecting. So does his girlfriend/accomplice in many photos. What is the moral implication of punishing someone who might never have been given a chance to live rightly? Or who might have been twisted around from birth? Or who could have reached out for help in any number of places? Was he equipped to reach out? How far? Does it matter now?
Dontae Morris was tried for the 2005 assault of James Wright in 2005. James Wright lived after a blast in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun. Morris was acquitted at a trial that 'went badly'. Mr. Wright is still suffering from his wounds, the loss of vitality, medical bills, and probably lost earning power.
Derek Anderson died in May of this year. Harold Wright died in June. I don't know enough of their story to detail the losses to their families, friends, neighbors, or businesses. Dontae Morris is a 'person of interest' in those crimes. I don't know how that will unfold.
I do know that Tampa's Officer David Curtis was 31, and had a wife and young sons. I do know that Tampa's Officer Jeffrey Kocalb was also 31, and is survived by a wife and unborn baby. I know that two men died trying to enforce the law, and I know that they should not have died.
Wherever I read, I don't see a solution in work from outside the community. I don't see one inside the community, either. In Dontae Morris, we are talking about the product of a self-referential neighborhood too afraid of consequences, and perhaps justly afraid of them. A neighborhood that tolerates these deeds and these people because they are somehow connected, by family, fraternization, and proximity--and yet the personal connections seem to have less and less meaning. Proximity seems to count the most: the landscape.
The tipping point for virtue in these neighborhoods is over to the bad. The lever it would take to push it over to the good would involve resources these neighborhoods don't have and sometimes just don't give. Whatever spine anyone has is mostly used just to get by in the day-to-day.
Outside the neighborhood, we are too afraid to meddle in what we don't understand, or we shout each other down, pretending that this is somehow going to be fixed with the programs and allocations for assistance and law enforcement we send. Nope. It won't get fixed the way it is now. That's what I'm reading, seeing, fearing.
Official programs made no difference to the virtues of Dontae Morris. Private opinions also made no difference. This boy and then man slipped in and out of radar and he was a killer. Let that blame sit squarely on him where it belongs. And then let's take a look at what made him who he was.
Call to (?)
All of us, inside the cinder-block housing and far from it, need to think how long we want this situation to repeat itself. How long we intend to be afraid, how long we will cling to buzz words that have lost all meaning. If we say 'no longer', then we have to get busy.
As far as I can tell, we are not solution-based in this country when it comes to poverty and crime. That goes for the 'jail them all' partisans on across to the 'forgive them all' partisans. We have to re-think this and we need to do it quickly. The other part is that a good sector of our economy makes money on the way things are. We'd have to sacrifice there too. Solutions would also change international stock portfolios, our pension fund investments, as well as local crime patterns. We'd shift tax allocations, which would be loud and uncomfortable. We'd be uncertain--downright scared, even--so we'd have to be resolute.
Anyone who gets close to the top of the barrel and a solution gets pulled back down by the lesser crabs. It's going to take a heap of climbing to get this worked out. it's going to take an abdication of a so-called 'guarantee' for everyone. I suggest we start by listening to the families of those who have been hurt by Dontae Morris. I suggest we start by identifying the nearest stake-holders in the neighborhood--from police to convenience store clerks to school children and beyond. Let's see if we can give these stakeholders a chance to succeed.
I suggest we get behaviorist about this, and a bit ruthless, and start rewarding only those who want to improve--and stop bribing those who wish us harm just to stay away. Because as far as I'm concerned, this institutional bribery we pay is the root example of the other extortion and blackmail. We're all in this conspiracy. We just don't seem to know it. We all live under false guarantees. We only see the falseness on other guys' side. That has to change.
The things I envision could be explosive in the short-term, both in the political arena and for crime and trouble in the cities. Therefore, it would change the landscape and disrupt the status quo for every class in every city. But is this not happening already? I submit to you that the status quo is changing even as I type--we cling to a rudderless, captain-less boat being run without consideration since before I left grade school.
People, we're headed to the reef. The hull is already compromised. If we deliberate and move, we can still steer this ship to some place of repair. For those who think I'm anti-poor, let me just say: those in the hold of the ship sink first and in the greatest number. The waves are already crashing in. I don't think the bottom-dwellers can make it out unless somebody opens the door to the deck, and enforces an orderly evacuation. I think what we have now is an open deck hatch and no orderly evacuation at all. Instead, everyone's fighting to see who goes first, like crabs in a barrel. Anybody who tries to give it order gets hurt first, whether they originate from the deck or the hold.
Last of all, but certainly not least, my opinions about our public assistance model should be separated from the discourse regarding Mr. Morris' victims. Neither Officer Kocalb's nor Officer Curtis's death should be taken advantage of by anybody, least of all me. I suppose even saying this is counter-productive, but I do mean it. Any opinions in this post are submitted as mine and mine alone.
I offer my condolences to the family of David Curtis. I offer my condolences to the family of Jeffrey Kocalb. I am so sorry.
Rest in peace, officers. We needed you here, and you deserved a long happy life. I regret your deaths very much.
Tampa Bay Flash photo array of 167 pictures related to this post. The St. Petersburg Times has done a good job of covering this horrible incident.