Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Dontae Morris and the Cinder Blocks


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.


Reading Photographs

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?

Enduring Legacy
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.

What is the Moral?
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.

Further references: 
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.

15 comments:

Bob G. said...

Ann:
I think you can tell where I usually come from when it come to living in a place that went from NEIGHBORhood to GHETTOhood in about a decade.

As an "outsider" (read law-abiding white), that automatically (and erroneously) labels me a "racist", but ANY aspect TO race does not come FROM me, but rather TOWARDS me (from ethnics) IN this "community".
But enough about the whole race issue...it's never all about that.

What it IS about is a disconnect within society in general, and often the black community in particular.

We've rewarded "bad" behavior, and allowed criminal elements to manage a hostile and wholesale takeover of once nice areas in many citites.
Look at Detroit, or Memphis, or Atlanta...or my hometown of Philly - the list grows every year.
And so do the problems.
You present SO many cogent and well-thought-out points, I won't begin to list them all.

Anyone that is privy to such "activities" in blighted areas of any city already know what I know, and what you have described.

I;m not scared to apathy...quite the reverse, but you DO have to pick your "skirmishes" carefully.
Thwe real challenge is trying to find ALLIES that share similar midsets in wanting to make the area BETTER forEVERYONE, regardless of nationality, race OR religion.

But that's just *my* opinion.

Excellent post!
Kudos!

The Bug said...

I have several thoughts.

The first is that Dr. M & I watched a documentary some years ago where there was an attempt to take some families from the projects & shepherd them through getting jobs/housing outside the projects. To try to give them a leg up, as it were. Most of the attempts failed - the people were pulled back home, to what they knew.

Second - (I may have mentioned this before) the church I used to attend in Cincinnati used to focus on the problem of teaching black men to be family men. They had developed a program utilizing all sorts of resources, aimed at helping exconvicts learn to be husbands and fathers. I think the program eventually got going, but outside the church. Now the church concentrates on helping illegal immigrants - although there are still strong connections to the African American community.

Third - the thought of my former rector & others involved in the program was that most of the anti-family behavior was rooted in the issue of black manhood during slavery. That we never have created a new model that works - that racism has just kept the old model on the books.

It's a complicated mess & I certainly don't have the answers.

The Bug said...

I have several thoughts.

The first is that Dr. M & I watched a documentary some years ago where there was an attempt to take some families from the projects & shepherd them through getting jobs/housing outside the projects. To try to give them a leg up, as it were. Most of the attempts failed - the people were pulled back home, to what they knew.

Second - (I may have mentioned this before) the church I used to attend in Cincinnati used to focus on the problem of teaching black men to be family men. They had developed a program utilizing all sorts of resources, aimed at helping exconvicts learn to be husbands and fathers. I think the program eventually got going, but outside the church. Now the church concentrates on helping illegal immigrants - although there are still strong connections to the African American community.

Third - the thought of my former rector & others involved in the program was that most of the anti-family behavior was rooted in the issue of black manhood during slavery. That we never have created a new model that works - that racism has just kept the old model on the books.

It's a complicated mess & I certainly don't have the answers.

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob,
I do think there is a racial divide, and statistics bear it out. But the language and stereotypic images of racial disharmony are interfering with solutions on both sides.

Mostly I think a solution based on poverty extrication, race-neutral, is going to be the only thing that gets people out. Many people don't believe in 'race-neutral' solutions and point to cultural differences.

But maintaining cultural differences is only devaluing one culture further. There's a lot of cultural exchange at almost every level: entertainment, commerce, government, and social. What poor people need, regardless of race, is the tools to move up--not a permission to sit still, or apathy to the conditions that freeze them in place.

The will to do it has to come from all sides. Perhaps it will not be a national movement. That isn't working now, anyway. But I could wish that we would incentivize federal and local assistance.

More on that later, though, first hot water first.

Thanks for writing in. I hope that cultural exchange opens up your neighborhood to a wave of community and a better society. I hope for better for all of us. No man is an island.

Sincerely,
Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear The Bug,
Thanks for writing in.
As to point number 1, the saddest book I ever read was The Children of Sanchez by Oscar Lewis. In it, a slum-living family in Mexico city is followed for decades. One of the daughters almost gets out. The reasons for her slipping back down and becoming totally incapacitated are at once ordinary and devastating. What I learned there is that poverty has terrible rules.

As to point three, I think this is true and I am always amazed that people don't think of it first off. On the other hand, there are strong families in the history of black America, and they should be models to us all of trial under adversity.

The family structure that 'is' in poor neighborhoods has to be dealt with 'as is' until we can get some stuff squared away. This is what we do in foreign aid and that model is not a bad one for us now.

More and more to talk about!

Thanks for stopping by!
Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Note: Dear The Bug,
I don't mean trial under adversity, I meant strength under trial and adversity. My bad!
Ann T.

the observer said...

Ann T:
Wow, what an extraordinary post! There is so much here I don't even know where to start, and as a caveat, I do not have the answers either.
We have a blogger who is also a regular commentator on TKC, who regularly says, "We are a tribal people, we like to keep with our own." I was thinking on this in light of the violent crime that afflicts the poor Black neighborhoods of KC. I was thinking about the tribe of "Black Eastside" needing to get to work within their own community to solve some of the problems. Then I realized that very few are able to do this. There is what you write of, that people trying to get ahead are clutched at and pulled back into the mire. The second are those whose thought is "Get out of Dodge!" and don't look back, but flee for safer communities with better amenities.
I like what you said in the comment, that we need something that can rise above cultures. Right now, much in the poor Black community culture works against positive change. The judgments have to be pulled away--for example, no more criticism for the scholastically oriented Black child by the Black community at large for being an Oreo and trying to be White.
This is interesting, and just popped into my head. In Vermont (almost all White), there are people like Morris and whole families of generations of bad apples. I think there's a class issue too, and a responsibility issue. I think the solution does have to come from within, and may have to start with more truth telling and confrontation. The church might want to pick up on some of that.
Stretching the limits of Blogger comment length, The Observer

Ann T. said...

Dear The Observer,
Stretch all you like! You need not apologize. I take a long comment as a compliment, and also a chance to give a long comment back!

I do think that poverty creates hardship and also behaviors that are characteristic. I wonder sometimes if the combination of poverty behaviors have been lumped with cultural behaviors and therefore it makes it harder to analyze from without and within.

If we insist on only talking in terms of poverty alleviation and skill-sharing and incentives, then a bunch of this stuff can be handled without insults I think. Then it leaves everyone with a heritage to be proud of and access to that heritage as they see fit.

So I would say, bad students should not make fun of good students--though they often do--or did to me, anyway, I remember this "white-on-white" abuse. But calling someone an Oreo is a racial comment, or a comment on integrity, or both. I was never called whitey by co-students, or whatever.

That name-calling is universal by those who don't work against those who do work. To remove poverty, we have to reward the work and enable the good student to withstand the insults--racial or otherwise.

We are not going to shut the bad guys up. We can reward the good guys, or give them the tools they need to overcome envy and insult and even the guilt trip inherent in the Oreo epithet.

IMO, we need to unpack race from this discussion, whether it crops up or not. It's as you said--about poverty and how it causes its own troubles.

Sincerely,
thanks for a good comment,
Ann T.

Slamdunk said...

Thought-provoking post Ann T.

Just a few comments:

1) I am not sure the Chief should be commenting on the case with the "cold blooded killer" stuff. It simply offers the defense ammunition for motions involving a venue change and accusations of tainting the jury pool.

2) When you ask: What is the moral implication of punishing someone who might never have been given a chance to live rightly? I think the criminal justice system is not equipped and should not be used to make such a determination. The CJ system functions to maintain a safe society. If Morris is found guilty, he will be removed from society.

3) You mention that Morris may be responsible for other murders--the chief
believes the total may be at least 3
.

Ann T. said...

Dear Slamdunk,
1. Oh, yes. I think the Chief let her anger move her to say more than she probably should have.

2. I also agree that CJ cannot deal with these ethical questions. This is part of our problem, all right, that we have become confused over who is supposed to be kept safe and what function belongs to whom. I wasn't clear enough that I think the family and the neighborhood permitted bad behavior in Dontae Morris, or didn't intervene at some earlier stage--

3. This guy got out of prison two months ago and has been on some kind of rampage ever since. I did not know about the third (fifth) possible murder.

Thanks for allowing me to clarify!

As always, I appreciate your dropping by!
Ann T.

Christopher said...

First, I love the poetry in your writing. "No telling how many people he frightened or hurt or who had to clean up after him in the kitchen or in their minds." Love that line.

Second, I respectfully disagree with Slamdunks (who's writing and blog I greatly admire). I think one of the reasons we are failing so badly is because criminal justice doesn't involve systemic thinking. We tend to focus on a very narrow scene in a very big picture. The solution will come when we recognize how interconnected all of our social issues really are. Can criminal justice get there? I think we can, and we have to, or like your analogy indicates, this ship is sunk.

Ann T. said...

Dear Christopher,
Well, now I find myself in the position of the 'waffler', which is not my favorite place.

When Slamdunk writes about CJ, I start thinking about the limits of judges trying to make things right on the bench and sending trouble back to the curb. I don't think the bench can fix this for the people to whom a recidivist returns, and who can never seem to get ahead.

I worry about the glutted and overworked criminal justice system we have.

We are supposed to have adversarial argument in court. Therefore some obstruction must be necessary. Yet it seems at every point the system is jammed by a limitation unrelated to guilt or innocence or even procedure.

Both the curbs and the prisons and the courts are somehow stuck with too much on their plate.

I keep hoping for a transformation, in thinking, related to even a vocabulary change--which would be society-wide. So yes, between transformation, vocabulary, and traffic, I think I am looking for a systemic change.

Thanks for writing in! Each comment causes me to maybe waffle and then move forward. I've already changed my mind about family issues from the start of this comment thread, and now I have more thinking to do.

And thanks for the writing compliment. I treasure those, and your time in stopping by.

Ann T.

Capt. Schmoe said...

Ann T,
It is hard for me to come up with any shred of sympathy for the defendants in this case. If I had to present a simplified reason for the defendants actions, I would have to say that he was born a "taker".

Few takers end up as murderers or cop killers.

His temperament,upbringing, social environment and education through the "system" all helped create this destroyer of lives.

That "takers" are born cannot be changed. The other influences that contribute to the creation of murderers, cop killers and other criminals - perhaps.

People who live outside the hood are getting tired of seeing vast amounts of money being thrown into them with little long term effect. What keeps the money flowing in is a fear of what might happen if it is cut off.

True change will have to come from within, those from the outside have slipped into containment mode.

Thanks for your well thought out post. I have grown to expect nothing less from you Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear Captain Schmoe,
Oh, yes, true change has to come from within, all right. Containment is very real. I do think we can change some features of that containment to force some internal shifts.

Thank you very much for the compliment! This post took me days to write, and I was afraid of it, too. But for sure things can't go on as they have.

Sincerely,
Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Once again,
I have the best comments in the universe.

Thanks to everyone who has written in, and who read such a long post!

Ann T.