It Didn't Take An Atticus Finch To Solve This Case...
When certain incendiary stories break in the news, I have found that it is almost always better to step back, let a little of the dust settle, and then weigh in. Some stories are so dangerously radioactive, yet pull you towards them nonetheless—oftentimes due to their emotional and historic freight. They hit notes within us that resonate endlessly, like that final chord in The Beatles' “A Day In The Life”—rumbling “wow”-ing, humming, trilling, ringing with a sustain that just goes on and on.
It's that initial hammering of the chord that gets you going, though. That strike that vibrates through your very soul. You feel it in your gut—low and sour. Old, and familiar....but no less discomfiting.
One such story is the whirlwind tale of one Ms. Ashley Todd, the College Republican and McCain campaign staffer whose shooting star of infamy began with a heavenly flash of purported vicious abuse against her person—and a floundering campaign's prayers being answered, streaked across the media sky trailing questions and second looks, and ended cratering in a manure field—smoldering, earth-torn and eye-wateringly stinking to beat the band.
If you've been away from your T.V. or radio for the last ninety-six hours, well...you missed the whole sad and sordid spectacle. I almost don't want to re-tell it, but the level of evil and rank stupidity involved, and the speed at which it was exposed is just too rich to pass up. So if I may, here are the events in question. The operative words here? In question.
THE DRUDGE REPORT, of late reduced to posting only borderline favorable or close polls by outfits with as much accreditation and accuracy as an applause meter at a Junior High School Talent Show, has been a bit down lately. Most of the reputable pollsters and pundits sense the end for “The Eggman's’” beloved flyboy-fantasy candidate, and Ol' Drudgie'd been looking for something—hell, anything to boost the spirits of the desperate loons who turn to him every day for talking points and what to think about when not breathing and pooping. Then, a story was funneled to him, we have come to find out, by Pittsburgh College Republicans. A sordid tale timed just so, election-wise. A young woman, ironically enough, a College Republican herself, and a McCain supporter / campaign worker had been brutally robbed while at an ATM in a dodgy part of town, and then further brutalized by sexual fondling, beating and then, facially mutilated by an angry, strapping (six-foot-four, WHY, JUST LIKE OBAMA, DAMMIT!) Black hooligan, who had been content to simply take her money until the McCain sticker on her nearby car set him off into a Nat Turner-esque rage. She reported it to the police—after a while, and to her fellow College Republicans, and once Drudge got his yolk-drenched hands on it from said Winger Youth...he picked up the ball ran with the story like so...
Let us all take a moment to curse and blaspheme God above for despoiling this earth with the cur who invented the animated GIF siren...seriously.
But then, like Leon Lett, Drudge screwed up after going upfield with it a good ways, waving the ball around, and embarrassingly fumbled the canard-slicked ball away, as the damned thing couldn't be held on to anyway.
The story stank, like a wet dog in sleeping in a carton full of rotten eggs and sauerkraut. The “B” so callously scored into Ms. Ashley's blush pink cheek—evidently with little more than a spork...was done backwards. Not “Little Rascals” ain't-it-cute backwards, but rather, in “WTF? Can't your ass spell or at least write the alphabet?” backwards. Minds turned to Morton Downey Jr.'s faked attack where supposed Nazi skinheads supposedly scrawled a swastika on him—backwards also—and inadvertently revealing that it had probably been (later proven positive) done intentionally before a mirror to get it right, but forgetting the simple optical trick to get it right. This of course didn't stop the worst and most desperate elements on the right from running with the ball also. There will be no links to these troglodytes as I would rather not foul your computers with the virus of racist stupid, but it wouldn't take much for you to find them. (Do it on a public computer you don't give a damn about—rope-belted law professors and venomous C-level wingers shall abound...). But inspiringly, a few of the usual suspects as well as “Real” America—a.k.a. SANE America—caught the awful stink of duplicity all over the story. One entity that did NOT catch that whiff, (as if they would have wanted to) and actually fanned the fetid cloud around so that everyone could smell it was the John McCain campaign itself. The story went straight up the food chain from the nowadays manic / depressive Drudge to the grasping McCain camp and they not only oversold it, but got caught embellishing it, using media back-channels to push that the dyslexic “B” had been mayhem-gouged in honor of, you guessed it....“B-arack”.
At which point, every media-phoning flack on McCain's staff and the candidate himself should have had a badly-penmanshipped “L” spork-carved hard into their doughy faces.
“L”, for “Loser”, that is.
Because Ms. Todd's tale began unraveling as it sprang half-knitted from her lying mouth. There were “inconsistencies” in her story to the police. “Problems” with the aforementioned forensics. There was odd and obvious “Friday-afternoon-at-five-minutes-of-the-end-of-the-soap-opera”-grade foreshadowing of the event on her various online journals. And then, as rightful doubts began a'swirling, a desperate bit of lily-gilding—the new claim that she'd been “sexually fondled” by her dusky, politics-incensed attacker—the ultimate attempt to buttress and then juice up the story as it began to fall apart. This attempted “Parlock-ing” was not holding up.
And it failed of course. She gagged on the polygraph. The timing and ATM video didn't match up. She never went to the ATM she claimed the attack occurred at. The black eye was little more than Alice Cooper-ish, brushed-on stagecraft. And then...she recanted, while huffily blaming the media for blowing her own arson-fueled wildfire out of proportion. (WTF'-ing F?) A few of the more dispirited wingers who didn't go for the bait still bemoaned not the damage Todd's claim could have caused (which we'll get into later), but rather, how it damaged McCain by making his more rabid supporters appear to be whacked-out, desperate racists—which is of course soooooooo not true. And some double-dealing apologists on the right opted to play the “pity” card as a dodge for the 400 years of racial TNT Todd tried to light the fuse of with her antics. Some well-meaning folks on the left chose the path of some forgiveness as well, citing Ms. Todd's 'obvious but heretofore undiagnosed' mental issues. I applaud those on our side who can be so magnanimous. I think they're as wrong as grape jelly on liver and onions, but hey...that's just me.
No, let me amend that. That's NOT just me. That's a lot of people I know. Everyone in my family and pretty much all of the people I talk to in my daily doings. Do I think Ashley Todd has some serious problems? To paraphrase her bubble-headed idol, “You-damn well-betcha!”
Do I also think that she knew the cultural, historical and violence-packed dynamite she was messing with here, too? “You-damn well-fucking-betcha!”
It's a story as old as time in this country, trotted out and perpetuated by folks for various sub-rosa reasons, but always circling back to the obviously evil root—that bitter cocktail of racist hate / fear and sexual hangups—that has scrambled America's brain for from 1621 onward. People have at times used the hoary, wild-eyed stories to distract attention from other transgressions.
To “give a reason” (lamely, as if there needed to be one for these folks) for physically acting out their hatred of darker peoples.
To instill a sense of fear in and increase the perception of power against said darker peoples.
And there's good 'ol simple racist “shits and giggles” too. We can't forget that.
In spite of Ms. Todd's post-admission 'Duh. I dunno why I did it. I was all mixed-ed up I guess.' ass-covering for her bigotry, it's pretty clear she knew exactly what she was trafficking in, why she was trafficking in it, and the desired effect of trafficking in it. You tell me...what are the odds of a McCain campaign worker, knowing the desperate situation of that campaign—a campaign praying for a game-changer—just happening to play up a race-hate based hoax (playing to “Birth Of A Nation”-grade stereotypes) in the waning days of the election in perhaps the key swing state as a “can you imagine that” coincidence?
Are the odds so impossibly great that Ashley Todd just randomly played the card that got countless Black men lynched across this country on many times the mere word of a complainant, or...the perception of someone standing in chivalrous stead for a complainant? The card that gets the good ol' boys fired up like none other?
The green-eyed “Joker” that got The Scottsboro Boys railroaded and then imprisoned for years on end in the early 20th century for a rape they didn't commit?
The same one that got a fourteen-year-old boy named Emmitt Till beaten, strangled, shot twice in the head, mutilated, then drowned in a muddy southern river with a seventy-five pound cotton gin fan chained around his neck at the century's halfway point? Because he was accused of “sassing”, looking at, or winking at a White woman he didn't know. The card play that got Till killed (and his murderers allowed to get away with it, laughing up their sleeves at “justice”) scarred the nation...and touched a generation of Black folks personally—my family included...
You see, they kidnapped him. (Till) They beat him, tortured him, killed him deader than dead and desecrated his body with such extreme a prejudice (shot, eye gouged out, beaten and then tossed into a river with a 75 lb. cotton gin fan tied to his neck) that it shocked the world when it became public in 1955. And if you are a Black person born between 1900 and 1970 or so, you remember, as sure as you remember your name—where you were and who you were with when you saw that infamous picture of Till's shattered "body" in the open casket (WARNING—NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH) his mother insisted he be seen in by all who could. Jet Magazine ran that sea-changing photo in its September 15th, 1955 issue.
My mother saw it that week, a girl of thirteen in the deep south. It affected her greatly.
It drove two of my uncles to leave the south as soon as they were able, at the age of 17, just a few years later.
It deeply affected a young man from Louisville, Kentucky by the name of Cassius Marcellus Clay. You now know him as Muhammad Ali.
And it affected every Black person I know near my own mid-forties age, because Jet Magazine would annually run that photo on the anniversary of Till's death for many years afterward. I saw it in 1975. My mother saw me looking at it quizzically. I just couldn't wrap my brain around the idea that the "thing" depicted there was ever a person. I was twelve.
“Can I see that?”, my mother asked.
“Ummmm. Okay.” I handed the magazine to her.
She looked at it and her eyes went cold. A muscle in her neck tensed. And then she relaxed.
"Do you know who that is?", she asked.
“It said, 'Emmitt Till'.”
“Did you read what happened to him?”
“Not yet. I was...just lookin' at the picture.”
“Well...what do you think about that picture.”
“It...I dunno. It doesn't look like a person.”
“It doesn't, does it.”
“I always thought he looked like a scarecrow there.”, she mused.
“You're right. It does look like a scarecrow.”
“He”, she said forcefully. “Not “it“. “He” “That was a boy. Two years older than you. And a buncha White men killed him. And messed his body up like that. He was a beautiful boy just like you. They killed him because he was Black, son. And they smashed his body up because he was Black. Look at him.”
She held the picture up for me to look at again.
“They turned a pretty Black boy into an ugly scarecrow. To scare us, son. Look at him. You can be disgusted. Be disgusted. But do NOT BE SCARED.”.
I would love to say that picture did not ever scare me. But as I became older, and wiser to some of the more awful ways of this world, and would catch that picture at an odd, unprepared moment,, it would chill me to the bone, turning my stomach, and make me realize again, the depth of man's inhumanity to man—right here in the United States of America.
Context. It gives me context for things. To this very day.
It is the card that got hundreds of Black Bostonian men harassed, arrested and in many cases “legally” roughed-up when Chuck Stuart gut-shot and killed his nearly full-term pregnant wife for insurance money and he blamed a manufactured Black assailant for the crime—and then macabrely picked out of a police-hustled lineup one Willie Bennett to cover for his devilish act? While Beantown's Finest went berserk casing n*ggers up until they were on the verge of beating a confession out of one unlucky one they arrested on unrelated issues (Yes, Boston's PD had announced they were close to a murder confession and an imminent indictment from a man didn't do it and was prepared to lock him up for the rest of his life in jail?), but had to cut him loose when Stuart's own brother crumbled under guilt's weight? But what if Stuart hadn't gotten nervous? Or his brother hadn't dimed him out? This ugly event coming at the century's 7/8th mark—a mere heartbeat ago.
And what of Susan Smith's bottom-deck dealing when she slow-drowned her kids in a shallow lake and blamed a random, manufactured negro car-jacker for the slaughter? Cried for days on TV pleading for the phantom Rastus to bring her babies back to her un-defiled, until she got caught in her own web of lies and re-canted. Only after a dragnet went out and innocent Black men stayed the hell inside their homes lest they be rousted and then “tuned-up” by law enforcement for info—this as the century wound out. Almost yesterday.
Yes...Ashley Todd was just misunderstood and confused, and gosh-darnit!—played this whole drama out unprompted and unbidden by the weight of the deed throughout American history. How could she have known? It's 2008—where's her frame of reference?
Jena brings it all sickeningly home. Teens. Kids. Decades at least, removed from the last picnic/lynching to take place in their neck of the woods, by so-called decent people, somehow knew, in their stupid little turf battle, just what mega-trope, what ultimate nullifier to go to to let those wandering n*ggers know that they meant business about keeping one's place.
We can sing “kum-ba-ya” til our throats sound like Miles Davis after a bender of Sloe Drano Fizzes, but at the sick core of America, racism still infirms this country's aspiration to greatness.
I use the word “infirms”, loosely. Because the pat analogies about America's racial “sickness” are so very, very flawed. Racism in America isn't a wound,—as so many describe it. No. Wounds heal. And it isn't a cancer—because you can remove a cancer, should you catch it early enough, or if not—at least bomb it with enough countering toxicity where you can seriously impede its progress.
Racism in America is neither of these things—a wound, or a cancer.
It is quite simply...akin to a living, festering parasite that feasts on the very soul of the country, and what makes it work. It's a vicious tapeworm. Picked up long ago, and living there, deep in the American belly...it's very guts, in fact. Not killing, mind you...but in there nonetheless, all slimy and sickening, so intwined with what makes this place simply exist, that it's supremely difficult to remove.
Those 'never-seen-a-lynching' kids in Jena knew about the power of the noose. And Ashley Todd knew about the gravity of her incendiary charges too. It's gut-deep in America, twisted 'round her innards and un-purged even as we facetiously scream “We are cured!” Because when times get tough, or a sacred totem is threatened—such as access to the office of President—up the bile rises from those depths, an utterly “natural” reaction of course when you think about it. Time was tight. Something needed to happen. And Todd made that thing happen—plying a disgusting trope as old and sturdy as a soaring, rope-scarred southern poplar—badly, but make no mistake...she tried.
Is she unbalanced? Could be. Was also she smart enough to know the explosive power of the dynamite she was playing with? Almost certainly.
And with that, my sympathy for her begins and ends. Whacked out of your gourd or not, when you have your marbles in enough order to run that desperate game at a desperate time—a game which has cost the lives of hundreds of people who, yeah...happen to look a lot like me, a game too death-freighted for Black folks to joke about “darkly” beyond ourselves (and where said in-group snark is pretty much “whistling past the graveyard”—literally), and a game so ingrained in the American psyche that when you see it played out in pop culture, it isn't even doubted, but rather, accepted as common cruelty (Yes, “To Kill A Mockinbird's” infamous plot arc—the wild accusation by protagonist Mayella Ewell, the sham “trial” of Brock Peters' “Tom Robinson”, and Robinson's subsequent murder by mob in spite of his innocence), there is no benefit of the doubt left.
You are fucking with democracy.
You are fucking with people's lives, Ms. Ashley / Miss Mayella
With your...harmless (to you) tales of “chifferobe bustin” gone horribly awry.
A card usually well played, Ms.Ashley / Miss Mayella...except that you clumsily marked the Goddamned deck, and your partner 'cross the table's got no poker face at all. Yes, I mean you, Senator McCain.
You, Senator McCain, you signaled for this. Called for it with the over-the-top rhetoric of late that has damaged you and that you will not own up to—in spite of the whole world seeing it for what it is as plain as day. In sheer panic and desperation, you—and your aide de camp Governor Palin blew your racist dog whistles for all it was worth, and then clumsily denied it.
Trouble is...dog-whistles beget bark-backs. And this one? This one was “Lassie-needs-help-at-the-well” loud.
She worked for the campaign. She proudly repped for the party. While others cried “Socialist!”, “Commiie!”, “Terrorist!” and “Kill Him!”, Ms. Ashley / Miss Mayella went with the old school approach.
“A n*gger touched me.”
Yes, it reeks a bit of the times of the buggy-whip and flagpole-sitting, but it's an evil evergreen, and still pretty damn effective. Trust me. I live its effectiveness every day when my antennae are gauging the people around my Black self. The clutched purses and furtive recoils from the high-strung...
I deal with it.
I am watchful of those who seem snap-ready. Those who cannot cope. It's sad to say that in 2008, but it is how we—Black men—still have to live sometimes. You enjoy yourself in mixed company, but are always sadly at the ready to be boogeyman-ned. I still remember the summer day I was playing football down the street from my home and a red seventies-style “Love” van stopped in front of the house, and four White female school friends of mine tumbled out, giddy and in retrospect probably more than a little bit drunk from a night of “Foxes”-style carousing—gracing me with an impromptu and bodacious daytime visit. I'd been dropped off at night a few times before after hanging out after school with them, but always with discretion. Quiet area. Residential. Open the car door and a hushed, “I'll see you guys tomorrow.” Ka-chunk! This unexpected weekend drop-by, replete with hugs and loud laughter and easy camaraderie was wonderful for me, but it disquieted my parents a bit—Mama trimming the azaleas now with an arched eyebrow, and Daddy's near-his-easy-chair curtain pulling back at the liviing room window repeatedly, as if to say “What the fuck?” We laughed and joked for a few minutes, and then, the girls were on their way...off to ambush some other unsuspecting boy in the circle of friends I supposed. And I remember my father, this man of the time of “Till” asking me pseudo-casually, but still with a palpable worry after the girls had gone, “They seem mighty friendly. I mean...I know they like you, but do their folks know about you? How ya'll deal? 'Cause I know they're your friends, but you've gotta be careful with that. You don't wanna be in no jam 'cause someone can't deal...Things ain't quite what you want 'em to be just yet.”
Oh, Daddy didn't lie.
That was 1979. I still remember his words. They still have heft. They still matter in America. I so wish they didn't...but they do.
It would be great if the reason Ashley Todd's stunt went up in flames so quickly was because this land has moved beyond buying into that kind of stupidity. We have- a little bit, but what exploded this cigar Yosemite Sam-style in the faces of those who went all-in on the “scandal” was the fact that information is disseminated and counterbalanced a lot differently than it was even ten years ago. An agenda-driven powerhouse like Drudge and FOX can be fact-checked, fisked and found a liar easier and faster than ever before. Sources and background can be scrutinized. Once-cold trails fading into the mists of disinformation and passing time can blaze alight with the digging of an engaged and information-rich opposition.
So, are we “better” than we were because this bit of psychotic rat-fucking failed? Yes...incrementally. And it's nice to see that if someone rat-fucks enough times that they eventually get “rabies”. But it's still a bit early for the balloon-drop over this country getting past the demons of bigotry. We got lucky that Ms. Todd was a sloppy Machiavellian, and her bosses so ham-handed at spinning her evil into electoral gold. Should Barack Obama be elected, expect all manner of racist plays from “Buchahan Purple-d” agonizers. You will see an army of secessionists, and “not my president” declarations. The truly sick among us will plot half-baked schemes at re-instating the status quo. And their just as twisted but mainstreamed brethren will probably hatch better schemes, so they are most definitely to be watched.
We were all just a little bit more grown up though, about Ms. Todd's fantasies-cum-“October Surprise” than we have been in some other instances. Everyone that is, except the usual suspects who fanned the flatulence about, and those who dealt it—Ms. Ashley Todd, and the handlers and flacks for—as well as the man himself, the dangerously flawed John Sidney McCain. Ms. Todd's newfound claims of mental issues don't make this act any less heinous. And the McCain camp doesn't get to pooh-pooh this away as the loopy act of an unstable girl. They validated this smear with open support when it broke, and pushed the “B is for Barack” Sesame Street-garbage to anyone within reach of a Blackberry™ just as surely as they've been pissing in the punchbowl of electoral discourse over the last six weeks. No. They...and he, don't get off the hook for this. Fox News VP John Moody shockingly said of McCain's entanglement in this embarrassing debacle...
“If the incident turns out to be a hoax, Senator McCain's quest for the presidency is over, forever linked to race-baiting.”
They own it. Utterly.
Because again...“dog-whistles beget bark-backs.”
And that's a little something you'd think a so-called pit bull and an ornery son-of-a-bitch would know.