A Nation Forever On The Brink

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VALDOSTA, GEORGIA – A little before eight a.m. this morning, roughly ten hours after shots were first fired in downtown Dallas, Texas, and less than five since the suspect had been killed, Officer Randall Hancock was dispatched to the Three Oaks apartment complex in Valdosta to investigate a reported vehicle break-in. Nearly twenty minutes later Officer Hancock stepped out of his cruiser and was struck by three bullets, two of which hit his protective vest and the other which found his abdomen. Hancock returned fire and disabled his assailant, twenty-two-year-old Stephen Beck, the man who had called the police.

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Tonight there’s virtually no sign of the ambush or resulting shootout. Gone are the strands of crime scene tape. Missing are the roadblocks. Three Oaks is like any other apartment complex languishing in the dog days of Georgian summer. Residents walking to and from their homes are glistening with sweat. A couple lifting their groceries from the back of their Ford Focus have soaked through their shirts. A man in a white dress button-up, his prism blue tie bouncing too long past his belt, is dotting his forehead with a silk handkerchief.

The only sign that anything’s amiss is the note taped to the door of the leasing office. The office is closed and it’ll be closed tomorrow too. On either side of the door are planters with miniature American flags assumedly left over from the Fourth of July.

***

I had to tear myself away from the TV last night to try and go to bed. Depending on what channel you watched, who you listened to on Twitter, what your darkest imagination could conjure, the situation in Dallas had either been contained or was spiraling into an ultraviolent anarchy from which our culture might never escape. When I laid my head on my pillow and closed my eyes I saw the footage.

Crowds of protestors screaming and sprinting for cover.

Police ducking behind their cars.

The raw clip of the shooter scrambling from pillar to pillar and then executing a cop on my television.

In the morning, I felt like I was fresh off a bender. My head hurt, my eyes were tired, and my stomach seemed incapable of facing the day. The news said the shooter, veteran Micah Xavier Johnson, had been killed by a bomb, either one of his own or one belonging to the Dallas PD, the resolution allowing a new political battle to begin.

The far right laid the blame at the feet of a new black power organization that no one had ever heard of and nobody could even confirm existed.

The New York Daily News’ front page screamed CIVIL WAR.

The massacre hadn’t even ended by the time The Drudge Report assigned responsibility to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Conspiracy crackpot Alex Jones had labeled it a race war by eleven in the morning.

Then, in Bristol, Tennessee, another veteran, Lakeem Keon Scott, mowed down a newspaper carrier and injured three others, including an officer. In an interview Scott confirmed his motive was anger about the recent police killings of black men.

Twenty-five miles outside Ferguson, Missouri, a police officer was shot three times after pulling over suspect Antonio Taylor.

By the time the Valdosta shooting was reported by the Associated Press, it wouldn’t take much convincing to think that the United States were torn in two and sliding into oblivion.

***

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Outside Valdosta, the marker stands on the side of GA-122, not far from Meeting House Creek. Across the street sits an abandoned trailer. The grass isn’t cut. Nearby is a DO NOT TRESPASS sign keeping me from a drive and a cluster of trees I stare at and try not to wonder if that’s where Mary Turner was hung.

Under a vanilla sky strewn with cumulus clouds, I read the plaque:

Near this site on May 19, 1918, twenty-one year old Mary Turner, eight months pregnant, was burned, mutilated, and shot to death by a local mob after publicly denouncing her husband’s lynching the previous day. In the days immediately following the murder of a white planter by a black employee on May 16, 1918, at least eleven local African Americans including the Turners died at the hands of a lynch mob in one of the deadliest waves of vigilantism in Georgia’s history. No charges were ever brought against known or suspected participants in these crimes. From 1880-1930, as many as 550 people were killed in Georgia in these illegal acts of mob violence.

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A blood-curdling story, no doubt, it’s sobering to find that even this grotesque account has been sanitized. In all truth, pregnant Mary Turner was hung upside down, soaked with gasoline and oil, set on fire, and then, while still alive, her baby was cut from her and stomped to death. Mary was then shot and buried in an unmarked grave.

All of this took place in 1918. Less than a hundred years ago. When I first happened across Mary Turner’s story I assumed it was from the 19th Century, Reconstruction at the very worst. Instead, the slaughter of Mary Turner and her child coincided with the waning days of World War I. America was still dreaming of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points when a mob of monsters did their worst.

As if the indignities visited upon her weren’t enough, in 2013 somebody shot the plaque five times, leaving the marker, much like Mary herself, marred and riddled with bullet holes.

***

The amazing thing about video is that you can’t escape it. In the era of smartphones and high-speed internet the world is so small and feels so knowable.

In Baton Rouge we watch Alton Sterling get held down and shot to death for no reason at all.

In Falcon Heights, Minnesota, Diamond Reynolds streams live-footage of her fiancé Philando Castile dying as an officer continues to train his gun through the window.

There’s something purifying about the transparency. It takes the work out of a situation, leaves us with no choice but to face reality as it is. If you watch these videos, I mean, if you watch them with an open mind, you will see the injustice. It is there and it is unavoidable and if you have so much as a scrap of a heart it will break that scrap of a heart to the point it can never be repaired.

If you watch you can’t dive into the seedy underbelly of the web and search for prior arrests and traffic violations. You can’t blame what the victim was wearing or argue they were carrying themselves in a threatening way. The truth is on display and is unwavering.

The videos from Dallas are similar, if not as personal. We see officers running toward the gunfire. We see them braced against what the rest of us could only understand as a nightmare.

I watched the videos again this evening. First Alton, then Philando, then the clip where Micah Xavier Johnson, his long gun in tow, carries out his military maneuvers and extinguishes a life well before its time. Then I went back. I watched Eric Garner being choked to death on a Staten Island sidewalk. I watched Walter Scott, unarmed, being shot in the back.

There is a shared injustice because injustice is injustice is injustice.

***

The radio says a massive protest in Atlanta is teetering on the edge of disarray. They’re protesting the recent murders of Sterling and Castile, but they’re also calling for an investigation into the death of a black man found hanging in Piedmont Park yesterday, a day after reports put the Ku Klux Klan in that park handing out recruitment flyers. Protestors have been told by police they’re free to march as long as they don’t wander into I-75, a move that would endanger them and disrupt Atlanta’s already legendarily unbearable traffic. The crowd disobeys the order, blocks an entrance. The police are lined up parallel to the protestors and if you can think of a better metaphor for this moment in American History then goddamn it, I’m all ears.

From what I hear from a friend marching, the crowd is skittish. Every loud noise leads to a collective jump or, in some cases, a spontaneous sprint for safety. Dallas is still fresh in everyone’s mind.

Back there we’re learning more about Micah Xavier Johnson. Investigators have gained access to the house where he lived with his mother and have already found bomb making supplies, weapons, and journals full of detailed military tactics. Neighbors are remembering him as an odd man who, clad in camouflage and dressed in his gear, performed “obstacle courses” and “drills” in his mother’s backyard.

All day the media has been painting the portrait of Johnson as a black power militant, a radicalized Black Lives Matter protestor who took things too far.

It’s obvious now how sick Johnson was. The tour in Afghanistan. The obsession with military maneuvers and playing soldier in his backyard. He didn’t take position in that building to further an ideology. He’d been planning something for so long, something awful and murderous, and this march downtown gave him cover and, more importantly, gave him opportunity. He was, like every other mass murderer in these United States, a deeply disturbed individual.

And then I think of the men who tortured and brutalized Mary Turner. Who took everything from her in front of her very eyes. Men who terrorized entire generations of African-Americans, men in white robes and other men in suits and ties, who gave birth to the systemic racism and inequality that still poisons us like an infection gone unchecked. An infection that chokes and shoots our African-American men, that rapes and kills our women.

I think fascism is fascism and I think it’s plagued our species since there was a species to plague. It is the sickness of might makes right that underpins this unfair economy, this patriarchy, this subjugation of people of color through our judicial system, social programs, and very reality. It has been here all along and it subsists because it so perfectly conceals itself in the cracks of our society.

Fascism can hide behind a badge.

Fascism can hide behind an ideology.

Fascism can hide behind the barrel of a gun.

Fascism can hide in every facet and corner of life.

And when you look at it that way, when you search for the cracks where hatred and its demented sons hide, you can start to see a world where, surprisingly enough, we’re all on the same side.

There’s Us and there’s Them.

There’s those of us who just want to live our lives and there are those who can snuff it all on a whim.

***

The absence of a detectable crime-scene in Three Oaks is so flummoxing that I have to circle the complex three separate times before I find the parking lot where Stephen Beck unloaded on Officer Hancock. I cruise past the basketball courts where the backboards are missing their rims. Stacks of mattresses sitting in front of dumpsters. A laundry facility where a girl in pajama pants and a tank top is trying her damnedest to balance a hamper on her hip while closing the door and talking on her phone.

Two lots down from the scene of the ambush, I find a black police cruiser with bumblebee yellow stripes and assume it’s stationed there to calm the tenants’ nerves or prevent an aspiring copycat from getting any bright ideas. But there’s no driver behind the wheel. It’s a tenant. A police officer lives here.

Right here.

And in the time it takes for me to gawk at the cruiser, a minivan with his neighbors, an African-American family, pulls in three spots down. They step out of their van and don’t even acknowledge the cruiser. Just like the rest of us, they’re going about their day.

God willing, we’ll all get out alive.




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About Author

A born and bred Hoosier, Jared Yates Sexton is the author of An End to All Things (2012, Atticus Books), The Hook and the Haymaker (2015, Split Lip Press), and Bring Me the Head of Yorkie Goodman (2015, New Pulp Press). He currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University.

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