News As Ritual

When does news become a religious rite of passage in which only the names of the bereaved change? I don’t know, but it has happened with a gang who share one sort of skin pigmentation beating up or killing a lone victim who has been intrepid enough to take a stroll on their turf.

Mircea Eliade defines myth as a timeless event into which individuals are elevated as details in a history simultaneously in the past and the present. It is also a fair description of trauma and neurosis. On one page the Daily News published three articles on the myth for the delight of the faithful. They headlines say it all: Boardwalk Beating Case. Teen: we wondered if we left him for dead..

Those expecting one version of the rite were disappointed by a picture of the victim: a young Black named Alfred Jermaine Ewell. Gangs of young Black men beating up Whites may happen is not news; it is one more day of mugging in the big city. Any Black doing any harm whatsoever to another Black person is not news unless one is also robbing a profitmaking business like a grocery store.

The story does not mention that the D.A. in Nassau County got one of the Whites to turn state’s evidence against the only one being tried for the assault on the young Black. The defendant is improbably named Shannon Seigel. Jews don’t do well in this mythic landscape. A non-Jew betraying a half-Jew committing violence his ancestors attributed to pograms and goys is an interesting wrinkle. Seigel’s main accuser is his buddy David Donahue. It may be the stuff of tragedy or melodrama, but such data is irrelevant as news.

Below that, one read the article: Poll: Few Favor All-Civilian Board. Finally, Top Cop, Blacks Huddle On Hiring Exam. These are hagiographic or demonological footnotes, depending on what sort of racism is to your taste, that presume Whites are hired by the system to exclude Black candidates, that largely White cops work in Black neighborhoods, and are responsible to nobody in the neighborhood. Add teachers, social workers, sanitation and fire department employees, and you’re right: the charge isn’t broad enough.

It is not proven that if they were all Black the woes of these communities would change. The presumption is that in Black neighborhoods crime is the only problem: not education or family and community infrastructure, Hiring all Blacks in Black neighborhoods might give all of the employees enough money to move out to Long Island. Black or White, some communities are not pleasant places to live.

The real problems of Blacks and Whites and their relations are beyond the parameters of the myth and what we call news. The truth is that the local government is practically and on principle the enemy of both Black and White people. And so are the newspapers. Any time Black communities evolve local solutions from the bottom- because they really are like everybody else- it is never reported. Part of the myth is that Blacks are victims, inferior. They need help. With such help one doesn’t need enemies.

Let’s take up the kindness of the government first.

To undermine the equity of the homes. to bring violence and mayhem into the lives of one of the most extraordinary groups to come to New York: the Carolina Blacks on the l940s, the government invited anybody who wanted to be on Welfare to live proximate to them. Every other state had a one year waiting period of residency. Our local government did that to swell the adipose rolls of their own employees.

At the rate of 60 clients per caseload, every 600 more indigents from anywhere produced ten more workers, one more supervisor, two more desks and office room needed, a set of monitors and important dollars for the electricity and oil bill. Some congressmen like Vito Marcantonio paid the fare of such candidates for charity and met them at the airport. As a result, the best were forced into the company of the worst, until they could figure out how to get to Long Island. Sound familiar? Change the color and you’ve got the basic complaint of White bigots. They never think the biggest victims of paying taxes to a system which worked to destroy your world were Blacks.

Secondly, on principle the government forced upon this Welfare class a fatherless home. The generally anti-male sexism now prevalent in some urban privileged circles first surfaced in Welfare as an attempt to force families to be run by single androgynes. With pious abandon the theories of some people about disenfranchising men generally was taken up as an experiment worthy of Auschwitz on Blacks.

If the father was around, the government gave them no money. Very Pavlovian, no? The principal victim of mugging in New York, though it never is in the news, is Black women, the older and weaker the better. Some of this animus of muggers can be traced to the response of young males from fatherless homes to government fiat androgyny nobody anywhere voted for. .

Thirdly, in the best of times, the government, not satisfied with not hiring Blacks in classical working jobs that helped other groups normatively ascend from poverty, also never enforced civil rights laws forcing banks to lend to businessmen and homeowners irrespective of color. If it is a truism among Blacks that if you see a White in their neighborhoods he has a job for the government, it is as much true that you better have straight cash for any business you start or any home you buy in the inner city. In Long Island a Black knew he could at least get a mortgage.

Shannon Seigel and his White bigot buddies are dealing the same fears as any Black living in Harlem or Bed-Sty. But not even they are willing to take up the solutions many Blacks have evolved to deal in their communities with the same sort that scare decent Black people. Siegel and the boys don’t have to. In Harlem or Bed-Sty one never spends a night without hearing gunshots. Most, even all, of an Honors high school class I recently taught poetry had, at 14, had some friend shot and killed in their neighborhood.

There are some streets- junkie streets- one does not walk down with impunity. Blacks being killed by Blacks are often not reported, almost always not news. Imagine living in such a nightmare. What would you do?

You may not like some of these solutions. You’ll certainly never heard about it in the news. It is not part of the racist myth. Many people have taken up Christian and Muslim fundamentalism. It enforces morals, it keeps families together, it focuses youth on goals, it produces peace and trust among peers. Can one say the same for what the government did? the youth of such communities read the Bible and are brought up strictly, in defiance of the sacred and terrifying ideas of the Bureau of Child Welfare.

When you walk down their streets or meet their kids you are glad they have rebelled against government notions of what is good for them. And when you walk down the other streets, you are dealing. White or Black, with an absolutist dreamworld created by the government.

The other response is that everybody has guns to even up the odds. And vigilantes roam some projects killing scores of crack dealers and addicts. It is all never reported, never news.

Thus the myth and ritual hides what no newspaper reports and which no readers want to read about. They prefer to have their opinions about Howard Beach and Yankel Rosenbloom.

Published in Downtown Magazine, 1991