Honoring the Dead

After a rough week, I wanted to reflect on what it’s like, emotionally, to work on this particular dissertation. I read and write about too much violence and death. It gets to me.

Nearly every single day, for the past five or so years, I have been researching and writing about the policing of poor urban black communities in the two and a half decades after World War II. This includes the devastating riots of the 1960s. Thus, nearly every single day, I come face-to-face with life’s violent, often lonely, end—a teen in Detroit shot in the back by police in 1963, who dies, alone, in some dark alley.

Whenever I hear people today discuss riots in the register of abstract political statement—as uprisings or rebellions—my thoughts turn to the thousands of people in the sixties who lost something, whether property, a loved one, or a piece of themselves, in these often devastating events. The countless number who lost their homes to fire, who lost their first steady job in years; the hundreds upon hundreds shot at and struck by police, jailed on trumped-up charges, held on impossibly high bail, and confined for days on end in awful, frightening, unconstitutional conditions.

I also think of the riot dead. At this point I’ve become familiar with the final moments of nearly 100 people who died in the sixties riots. Almost all of them are black. More than three-quarters died in Watts, Newark, and Detroit. A large proportion were shot in the back by police, often for looting. A small number were caught in the crossfire between police and an imagined sniper, who often turned out to be not a militant holed up in an apartment but another cop or National Guardsmen firing one block away.

I think of Hattie Gainer. Like many black residents of Newark’s congested, dilapidated Central Ward, Hattie Gainer shared a rented apartment with extended family: her daughter, Marie, and Marie’s three children, Michelle, 7, Laura Ann, 5, and Johnny, Jr., 3. Hattie spent her final moments surrounded by her grandchildren.

As Marie tells it in a deposition, on Saturday, July 15, 1967, she and a friend, Carmetia, were on the third floor of her apartment watching state troopers shoot rifles into the Hayes Homes (a public housing project). The troopers then walked onto the Gainers’s block and began firing into people’s homes across the street. Marie and her friend were not the targets; they felt relatively safe. Then, suddenly, the troopers turned and started firing in their direction. Marie ran downstairs.

I had a conversation with my mother, face-to-face, minutes before the State Troopers started shooting at the projects. While Carmetia and I were running down the stairs and while we were between the third and second floors, I heard my children shouting in fear, ‘Mamma, Mamma’ (my children are used to referring to my mother as ‘Mamma’ and to me as ‘Marie’). The next voice I heard as I was running down the stairs, was that of Henry. Henry shouted, ‘Miss Gainer is shot. Michelle, open the door.”

By this time, I had arrived at the door, and Michelle, in hysterics and trembling, opened the door and was still screaming, ‘Mamma, Mamma’!”

I saw my mother laying on the floor,  her left side covered with blood, and with blood oozing from her mouth. I stooped over, held her right arm and said to her: ‘Mamma, Mamma.’

My mother barely cracked open her eyes and sighed. The time now was approximately 8:30 p.m.

Approximately five Troopers entered my mother’s apartment while I was stooping over her. They walked to the front of the apartment where myself, Carmetia, Henry, another friend named Willie and all my children were, and the Trooper ordered everyone to go to the rear of the apartment. Everyone obeyed the order.

One of the troopers asked me, as I was standing in the kitchen of the apartment: ‘Who was shooting from here?’ I said to him, ‘No one.’ The trooper then said to me, ‘Well, we just killed an innocent person.’

End of deposition. Sometimes there are no words left.

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