Thoughts on Serial, my killer ex, and Whose Lives Matter

I’m finally listening to the series Serial that everyone’s talking about (or at least all of my intellectual liberal White friends). It’s about a guy who’s been in prison for 15 years for killing his high school ex-girlfriend except he maybe didn’t do it.

(As an aside, I’m on episode 8, and finally an attorney from the Innocence Project at UVA just said something I found myself thinking in episode 1: It’s interesting that the guy in prison was pretty much their only candidate even though the case was pretty shaky, and that they described his “dark side” and how he was “controlling” in their relationship even though the ex hadn’t experienced him that way. He’s Pakistani, which is why I found the descriptions of his personality interesting. Hello, profiling.)

Listening to the show and all of the evidence gathering and so forth reminded me of my own brief interactions with the Baltimore PD back in 1996. I googled my ex-boyfriend who is still behind bars and came across a quirky after-the-crime story. He brought a case in 2000 demanding that Johns Hopkins University grant him the degree he had earned; he finished his degree work in December 1995 and killed his best friend on campus in April 1996. Hopkins didn’t offer early degrees, so he would have received his degree in May 1996, but the university decided that killing a fellow student on campus was grounds for withholding his diploma. The court supported the university’s decision. The homicide unit called me in the immediate aftermath of the 1996 shooting to ask a few questions but weren’t all that interested in my answers because it was such an open-and-shut case. (The ex’s defense attorney was much more interested in me because he had read all of my ex’s and my emails and said he felt like he knew me. If you wonder why I care about internet privacy, it’s because I know how embarrassing the violation of internet privacy feels.)

We’ve fallen out of touch over the years, but I remember the ex telling me in a phone conversation maybe 6 months into his sentence that the inmates were watching a cops-and-robbers movie and everyone else was cheering for the robbers, and he was still rooting for the cops. He definitely didn’t think he belonged there.[1]

Another article said he had been placed in a psychiatric program within the prison because he suffered from several conditions including OCD and paranoid delusions.

I’m also listening to this show at the intersection of two particular issues swirling around us all in America: on the one hand, the #BlackLivesMatter campaign which is currently focused on issues of police brutality and also unconscious racism embedded within the criminal justice system (hello, witness #40 in the Darren Wilson case and multiple prior misconduct cases against Daniel Pantaleo in regards to Black males). On the other, the deaths of two police officers (one Asian American and one Latino) hours after the killer shot his ex-girlfriend in the stomach and shortly before he killed himself on a Brooklyn subway platform.

I find myself thinking of the former police officer that led cops on a manhunt in southern California with his killing spree against police, leaving three dead. And I find myself thinking about the half-Asian half-White guy who went on a killing spree against White women for not dating him (although his first three victims were his Asian American roommates). I find myself thinking of the many disturbed people in our country I wish didn’t have access to weapons in our nation. I find myself thinking about the parents of the young man my ex shot, who sued him for $60 million dollars for the loss of their son and who were counter-sued for $110 million for abuse of the legal system. All of these are horrific, individual acts of unstable individuals. And in each of them, our national response has been moved by the fact that the victims’ lives matter. In Sandy Hook and in Columbine and in Aurora, we also believed the victims’ lives mattered, but we were at least as perplexed as we were angry, because the White shooters’ actions were horrifying to us, and we spent huge swaths of time asking about mental health issues in our nation. With the the former police officer and the half Asian guy and the “revenge” killer yesterday, the discussion had much less to do with mental health, and I find myself wondering why. Whose lives matter?

The Police Benevolence Association in New York has been collecting signatures for a week from officers telling Mayor DeBlasio not to attend their funerals if they die in the line of duty, because he said police brutality is wrong. Police brutality is part of a system that repeats itself constantly. (#every28hours)

I am struck this morning by the raw humanity of the people involved in the violence that reverberates throughout this nation whose ground is saturated in the blood of conquest and in the blood of oppression and in the blood of revenge (often unhinged and irrational). I am struck by the irony that two men of color were killed and a woman of color seriously injured and several news articles still talk about this as a revenge killing (without revenge in quotation marks), as if it might be part of a nationwide plot.

And I think it raises the question, whose lives matter? And whose lives are perceived as a threat collectively versus individually?

I know many of my friends, colleagues and heroes in the current struggle for the full human dignity and rights and safety of Black people in this country are afraid that this lone and incoherent action by one person will have the effect of stalling out the momentum in the wake of the grand jury non-indictments. I pray this is not so, and I pray more people learn about the amazing, creative acts of civil disobedience by young Black leadership not getting media attention.

I fear that there will be rhetoric that those of us protesting systemic racism in the criminal justice system care more about Black lives lost in the street than the lives of people who risk their lives for us every day. And that will layer on top of the accusations that we care more about Black lives lost to police brutality than the more frequent loss of Black lives in gang and drug and random gun violence in our communities, even though the people I see protesting police brutality are the same people I see seeking solutions to gun violence in our communities.

And I also fear that in this moment, we might muddy a random act with the conversation about systems with power behind them to perpetuate the persecution of one community because our nation was built to preserve power for a specific group of people, and the rest of us are either pawns or victims (and usually both) in that system. That’s really what’s behind all of these protests: a demand for a system that does not rely on the exploitation and devaluing particularly of Black people and which incidentally also devalues and dehumanizes or renders invisible or marginalizes or exploits almost every other group to ultimately protect property and privilege for White patriarchy.

And I also know that we have to find a way in the coming days to move beyond the “you’re either for us or against us” of the police who hate DeBlasio and the supporters thinking that this shooting was the logical result of the protests happening across the country, and beyond the “you’re either for us or against us” that leads me to forget that I have relational work to do with the regular on-the-street officers in my community who aren’t in any way intending to participate in a system of oppression but are for the most part actually interested in protecting and serving but who also aren’t interested in throwing under the bus the very people who will potentially save their life in a dangerous situation.

And I still wonder if, in that conversation, we can be honest about whose lives matter, and whose lives are perceived as a threat.

Long story short, thanks, liberal intellectual friends, for making me listen to Serial. Really helpful. (What’s the emoji for sarcastic?)

[1] It wasn’t until the Elliot Rodgers shootings that I started really thinking about the strange role our culture of white supremacy can play in the minds of murderers in “crimes of passion,” but this conversation stuck in my head because I didn’t know what to do with it at the time and knew it offered a key to his bizarre self-understanding in the wake of having actually turned himself in moments after killing his friend and yet not feeling like he belonged there because no one missed his “little buddy” as much as he did. When we talk about exonerating White men for race-related crimes, we often talk about the burden of having to live with the knowledge of the crime, whether it be a BART police officer like Mehserle or a movie star like Mark Wahlburg. We rarely say that about men of color.

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