Memorial Days, Past and Present

According to this article by Dave Roos, the earliest Memorial Day commemoration took place May 1, 1865. Formerly enslaved people and white missionaries staged a parade around the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in Charleston, South Carolina, which during the war had been pressed into service as a prisoner-of-war camp for Union soldiers. After the mayor of Charleston surrendered on February 18, 1865 and Confederate troops left the city, newly-freed people exhumed over 260 Union soldiers from a mass grave behind the racetrack’s grandstand and gave them proper burials in a new cemetery. Exhuming and properly burying so many bodies took two weeks.

Like too many stories of the African-American experience of this country, it could have remained in the realm of solely oral tradition (if not lost entirely). But a Union veteran’s written remembrance and the persistence searching of historian David Blight (among others) led to a news account of the event in The New York Tribune (founded by Horace Greeley) and another in the Charleston Courier, brought this origin story of Memorial Day into the light.

Memorial Day 2023, the remembrances of American military veterans who have died will include those killed in action as part of Ukraine’s foreign legion.  Malcolm Nance, a U.S. Navy veteran intelligence officer and commentator for MSNBC is perhaps the highest-profile of these volunteers, having joined the legion after his contract with MSNBC expired. He (and others) have done this as private citizens, despite repeated warnings not to do so from the Biden administration. In explaining his reasons for volunteering, Nance referenced the story of Eugene Bullard, one of a small handful of black pilots during World War I, and the only one who fought on behalf of France.

I’m especially struck by the story of Cooper T. Andrews, a retired Marine Corps sergeant who reported died last month at age 26 in a mortar attack while helping to evacuate people from Bahkmut, Ukraine (which recently fell to the mercenaries of Wagner Group). Andrews grew up around Cleveland, Ohio and according to his mother his passion for social justice was fueled at least in part by Tamir Rice’s death at the hands of police in 2014. Also according to his mother, his experiences with his Ukrainian unit were better than those during his service in the Marine Corps, where he experienced racism from his fellow Marines. This in particular reminded me of what I’ve read in history about the Harlem Hellfighters, who fought under French command during World War I. As of this writing, Willow Andrews (the mother of Cooper) is still fighting to have her son’s remains returned to the U.S. for burial, having struggled to do so via the U.S. State Department.

It saddens me that even today it can still be the case sometimes that an African-American finds more kinship and common ground abroad with the fighting men of those countries than in the country of their birth and citizenship. 

A Nation Without Mercy

Yesterday, Daniel Penny was charged with second-degree manslaughter for the death of Jordan Neely from his chokehold. In response, Florida governor and presumed presidential candidate Ron DeSantis tweeted the following:

The anti-Semitic dog whistle is bad enough, but DeSantis’ branding of Penny as a Good Samaritan is equally troubling to me. DeSantis has plenty of company in this opinion, including the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, and the congressional representative of Texas’ 38th district:

I presumed this branding to be an egregious perversion of the meaning of the parable itself, but found it to be even worse than I recalled when I went back to read the parable in its full context. I reproduce it below (with my own emphases):

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[a]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]

28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Luke 10:25-37, New International Version

It is easy to forget that the original context in which Jesus told this parable was in response to the question: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It is this that should be, but too often is not, the animating principle of those of us who call ourselves Christians. The expert in the law quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 when Jesus asks him what is written in the Law. I highlight verses 29, 36, and 37, because it is how many of those in social media have answered the question “who is my neighbor?” that reveal us to be a nation without mercy.

As we observed last week (and unfortunately continue to observe even now), the prevailing sentiment of too many on social media (and in the nation at large) regarding Jordan Neely can be summed up as “he had to die, just in case”. Within hours of his death on the floor of the F train, the media made sure we knew about Neely’s mental illness, his long arrest record, previous violent assaults, even one of his public anti-LGBT outbursts. This latest impromptu obituary of a black man after a violent death had the same effect of those written before–to tell the public that the dead man deserved his fate.

The priest and the Levite in the parable are understood to be fellow Israelites–who nevertheless left their countryman in the road to die. The Samaritan by contrast, despite being someone for whom Israelites had such contempt they would not travel through Samaria or associate with them in any way, had mercy on the man. So if there is any parallel to be drawn between the parable of the Good Samaritan, and what happened on the train it is this: we are the priest and the Levite. By “we” I don’t just mean the people on the train, I mean all of us. A journalist named Issac Bailey has written this sentiment far more eloquently than I have, despite having treated a homeless man in New York City with far more humanity far more recently than I have in the place I call home. My days as a soup kitchen volunteer, feeding the poor and the homeless in the greater Washington area are years behind me. Far more recently I’ve stared past them, pretended they weren’t there, anything and everything other than actually trying to help them.

Beyond the immediate moment, we haven’t pushed back against the active and ongoing dehumanization and criminalization of the poor and mentally-ill. Both the rhetoric and the legislation of those we put and keep in power are an unfortunate reflection of our national contempt for those Jesus called “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” in yet another parable, that of the sheep and the goats. That parable too, like that of the Good Samaritan is really about eternal life and how our earthly deeds reflect whether or not we love God, and our neighbor as ourselves.

Murder on the F Train: Vigilantism is America’s New Normal

On May 1, 2023, Jordan Neely breathed his last breath on the floor of the F train after another passenger, Daniel Penny, held him in a chokehold for approximately 15 minutes (a few of which were recorded by a freelance journalist named Juan Alberto Vazquez). As is seemingly always the case when a black man dies a violent death in this country, we very quickly learned every possible negative thing there was to learn about Jordan Neely: his mental illness, his dozens of arrests, time spent in prison, previous violent assaults, even a verbal attack on the LGBT community. Even learning Penny’s name took quite a bit longer to learn than the entirety of Neely’s life story, despite his being questioned by police and released without charges.

Despite Neely’s past (none of which Penny could have known before he murdered Neely), the most physically-aggressive action he reportedly engaged in during this encounter was throwing trash at other passengers and throwing his own jacket on the ground. Beyond that, he yelled about being hungry and thirsty and verbally threatened to hurt anyone on the train. And for this–not even a wound to another passenger–Penny attacked Neely from behind and strangled him to death while other passengers watched and two reportedly helped Penny hold Neely down, ultimately leaving him to die on the train floor in his own waste as he’d involuntarily soiled himself as he died.

As I write this on May 8, social media continues to be filled with ex post facto rationalizations of Neely’s murder. The volume and frequency of these pro-vigilante, pro-murder takes was such that it brought to mind a literal, Biblical description of the degree of wickedness that prevailed in the world before the flood:

Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, Listen to my voice, you wives of Lamech, Pay attention to my words, For I have killed a man for wounding me; And a boy for striking me!”

Genesis 4:23, NASB

An uncomfortably close parallel to the words of Lamech in Genesis might be those of Filemon Baltazar, who Neely assaulted in 2019.

Everyone in different situations has reasons for what they do. The Marine shouldn’t be punished. Who knows what that guy might have done to other people,” Balthazar said of Neely, who he insisted “should have been in some rehab center.”

Alec Schemmel, The National Desk, May 5, 2023, CBS 6 Albany News

At least he suggests that Neely should have been in a rehab center. Others lack even that modicum of sympathy.

Here’s Batya Ungar-Sargon, an opinion editor with Newsweek:

Note the complete absence of any connection between what actually happened, and the hypothetical she’s spinning. Note also the shot at men who “just sit there and pretend it’s not happening.” For Ungar-Sargon, what happened to Neely doesn’t happen enough.

This execrable New York Post opinion piece leads off by saying Neely’s murder followed “a struggle with other passengers” and uses his death to advocate for involuntary commitment, despite the decades-ago push for deinstitutionalization of the mentally-ill led by Ronald Reagan as governor of California, and again by Reagan as president at the federal level. Reagan signed a bill repealing the vast majority of The Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, signed into law by Jimmy Carter. This legislation would be the only attempt at the federal level to improve mental healthcare in this country for the next 30 years.

Beyond the usual bots and low follower count trolls on Twitter amplifying longstanding political, racial, and other divides the country has, two commentators stand head-and-shoulders among the chattering class in their response to this murder: Thomas Chatterton Williams and Conor Friedersdorf. Both have displayed over the course of days levels of ignorance, cynicism, and moral bankruptcy I still find shocking despite their previous displays of most of these same qualities in different circumstances.

LARPing is “live-action roleplaying”–Williams is accusing people protesting Neely’s murder of pretending to be concerned. He goes on to blame “the state” for Neely’s death (instead of Penny, who actually murdered him). Friedersdorf goes on to display an ignorance of the impacts of the Montgomery Bus Boycott so profound, so fundamental, that I actually felt despair that someone so illiterate in this country’s history continues to have the platform he does to shape the viewpoints of people who actually hold power in this country.

Conor Friedersdorf being clueless about the impacts of the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Today, Williams exceeded his previous heights in advocacy for vigilantism with this gem:

When I read this, I was reminded of Tucker Carlson’s defense of Kyle Rittenhouse’s vigilantism in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Like Ungar-Sargon, he refers to Neely’s past actions–which no one on the train could have known about beforehand. Williams projects these past actions forward as a justification for Neely’s murder. Instead of seeing Minority Report as a cautionary tale, he sees it as an affirmative path to take only worse–because civilians should feel justified in using deadly force against someone who *might* do something.

Thankfully, Janelle Bouie pointed to Williams’ admitted violent past to highlight the manifold flaws in his hypothetical.

William’s response is not merely inadequate, it fails to even acknowledge the numerous examples of youth not being a defense when you are black and male. Trayvon Martin was just 2 years older than Williams (and hadn’t assaulted a girl in front of multiple witnesses) when George Zimmerman decided to follow him (and ultimately kill him). Ahmaud Arbery was just 25 years old when he was lynched by 3 men attempting to “detain” him for a crime they believed he’d committed.

In my view, Neely’s murder, the recent wave of shootings of people who accidentally went to the wrong house (or car, or driveway), or were playing hide-and-seek too close to the wrong home, and a recent attempted vehicular homicide against homeless people are all connected. So is the militia movement that has taken it upon itself to “police” the southern border, and those who volunteer to “protect businesses from rioters”. More and more often, these vigilantes are aided and abetted by officials elected to maintain law-and-order and/or paid and trained to do so (such as the police). NYPD tacitly endorsed Daniel Penny’s vigilantism by not taking him into custody. Governor Hochul’s comments effectively blamed Neely for his own death. Hochul does not share a political party with Greg Abbott, but her comments about Neely are no less dehumanizing than his regarding the victims of a recent mass shooting. He called them “illegal immigrants”, completely ignoring the fact that they were victims of murder in the state he is governor of. The proliferation of so-called “stand your ground” laws not only remove any requirement for those who own guns to demonstrate competence in their use, they eliminate prosecution and penalties for incompetent use–even if it results in the death of innocents. Despite the strong correlation between weaker gun laws and higher rates of gun violence and gun death, states controlled by the GOP continue to weaken the laws further.

Despite the high-minded talk of those who claim to value life, all the available evidence points to life being even cheaper than ever. The backlash against the “racial reckoning” that some thought would happen in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the police has proven so strong that we’ve retreated to the point where a black man like Thomas Chatterton Williams is loudly advocating in favor of a vigilantism that has often claimed black men as victims not just in this country’s long-ago history but in its recent past and present.