The importance of place

Amy Davidson has written  a piece for the New Yorker summarizing the last year using seven addresses.  It must have been on my mind after I read it last night because early this morning in that time when you are not quite awake and yet not asleep, I tried to name the street and visualize all the places I’ve lived.  I don’t, of course, remember the first place I went after I was born except from a vague memory of visiting as a very young child.  I do remember with some effort the other places.  Some of them – particularly early rentals as a young adult – were actually pretty awful.  I even remember a couple of the landlords.  But the last, almost 40 years, I’ve only lived at three addresses.  All of them were/are wonderful in their own way.  The seven addresses Davidson picked to remember 2014 evoke feelings from horrifying and sad to wonderment.

Davidson begins with West Florissant Avenue, Ferguson, Missouri and Bay Street, Staten Island, New York where Michael Brown and Eric Garner died at the hands of the police, events which have the potential to change policing as well as the way we talk about race.  Her next set of addresses are where Thomas Eric Duncan was exposed to Ebola and where he first became ill:  72nd Samuel K. Doe Boulevard, Paynesville, Liberia and The Ivy Apartments, Fair Oaks Avenue, Dallas.  Duncan’s illness set off an extraordinary and irrational panic here.  An epidemic never materialized and so, in the American way, we have mostly forgotten that people are still dying in West Africa.  One consequence is that people there no longer seek medical help for problems that have cures because they fear medical facilities and Ebola causing the number of deaths from ordinary medical problems to rise also.

A memorial for Eric Garner at the site where he died, on Staten Island.

A memorial for Eric Garner at the site where he died, on Staten Island.

Have you heard of this next address?

Nathan Road [Hong Kong], which is six lanes wide and cuts through the central Mong Kok district, was closed for weeks this fall, as students and others assembled to protest what they saw as Beijing’s broken promises about free elections. It, along with other gleaming thoroughfares, was the scene of standoffs whose contrasts—crowds holding up umbrellas amid teargassing near destination boutiques and offices—embodied some trade-offs that have accompanied China’s economic rise in graphic, or geographic, terms. (Traffic or democracy?) The barricades on Nathan Avenue were mostly cleared away in a major police action at the end of November. Cars are passing through again, but the story is not complete, for either side.

We hear almost nothing about the students and their supporters these days unless one listens to the BBC.  Right now, no one is sure where the protests are headed and protesters themselves are divided about whether to continue or to rethink tactics.

I had never heard of this next address:  Naem Roundabout, Raqqa, Syria.

The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, also known as ISIS, has been geographically disorienting: it has made sudden, sweeping moves into Northern Iraq, threatened the Turkish border, and put out videos, shot in indeterminate stretches of desert, in which hostages are mocked and killed. But there are moments when the group’s brutality and degraded character can be given an exact address, as when, in Raqqa, the Syrian town that serves as its base, prisoners were beheaded and their remains put on display along the Naem Roundabout. (Naem, in Arabic, means “bliss.”)

Davidson ends with the wonderful address of Comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The Rosetta spacecraft’s trip to this address took a decade and covered four billion miles. On November 12th, after a couple of bouncy knocks, Rosetta’s Philae module landed on the comet’s surface—the first such visit in human history. The lander settled in a shady spot and then, over a frantic fifty-seven hours, scientists at the European Space Agency performed all the experiments they could before its solar-powered batteries shut down. Philae is sleeping on the comet now, but it may wake up again next summer, when the comet next turns toward the sun.

Thinking about the world and one’s own life through place is a fascinating thing to do.  Try thinking about all of your addresses and how they shaped your life and how they will shape your future.  Think about places you have been.  And I can’t wait to see if Philae wakes up next summer.

Photograph:  MARK PETERSON/REDUX

 

 

Grand juries, Ferguson, lots of questions and incredible sadness

What do I feel this morning after the grand jury failed to indict Officer Wilson on any charge?  Just incredible sadness and weariness.

I served on a grand jury in Boston.  It was supposed to be a six month gig, but turned out to be over a year because we were following evidence in a case.  We heard maybe 75 or 80 different cases and I can only recall two in which we didn’t indict.  One was a drug deal complete with very bad video and audio.  We decided we just couldn’t see or hear well enough to know what was going on.  There was another case, don’t remember exactly what it involved, where there was also not enough evidence.  If I remember correctly, the prosecutors can find more evidence and present again to a different grand jury.  In both cases where we declined to indict, they came to talk to us about why we didn’t do so.  In my year and a half, we heard many cases of unemployment insurance fraud, one child porn case, several Big Dig contractor fraud cases, and the biggie, a public corruption case.  We were constantly reminded that we were not a jury deciding guilt or innocence, but were just to decide if there was enough that a jury should hear the case.  We were often given the option, as was the Ferguson grand jury, of indicting on one of several charges.  We heard the prosecutor’s case only as the process was designed to determine if the prosecutor had enough evidence to go to trial.  It is an interesting process.

We have no idea what went on inside that grand jury room.  We don’t know if there were jurors who voted to indict and on which charges.  (Grand juries usually need a minimum, but not unanimous, vote.)  This was a special grand jury which heard no other cases.  We do know that in this instance, the grand jury did hear from Darren Wilson the defendant.  According to the New York Times summary of the case

The prosecutor usually chooses the evidence that a grand jury will hear, but in this case, the grand jury was given more latitude in calling witnesses and issuing subpoenas, according to Susan McGraugh, a law professor at the St. Louis University who has followed the case extensively. Grand jurors viewed photographs, forensic evidence and medical reports. Witnesses who testified include people who saw the events and police officers who worked on the investigation. While it is unusual in grand jury proceedings for the defendant to appear, Officer Wilson also gave testimony.

I watched Prosecutor McCulloch give his lengthy and sometimes repetitious statement on why the grand jury decided not to indict and I was left with several nagging questions.  There had been an altercation at Officer Wilson’s car and Officer Wilson was the only one who fired a weapon.  Michael Brown was clearly not armed.  Why was he shot, from the front, twelve times?   Why the press conference at night?  John Cassidy, writing in the New Yorker this morning, has many of the same questions.

A protester stands with his hands on his head as a cloud of tear gas approaches after a grand jury returned no indictment in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri

A preliminary question to ask is why the St. Louis authorities scheduled such an incendiary announcement for after dark, even though the news that the grand jury had reached a decision had become public hours earlier. Surely, it would have been wiser for Robert P. McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecutor, to have met with reporters earlier in the day.

A more important question, also unanswered in anything but the most general terms, is this: Why did the grand jury decide not to indict the police officer, Darren Wilson? McCulloch’s press conference, when it eventually took place, was notably lacking in detail about the shots that killed Brown.

But we didn’t learn precisely how far away Brown was when Wilson shot him fatally, or what persuaded the police officer that his life was in danger, which is one legal justification in Missouri for shooting someone who is unarmed. According to some accounts, Brown had his arms raised when he was shot for the final time. Other accounts say that he was charging at Wilson. McCulloch, beyond saying that some eyewitnesses provided contradictory statements, didn’t say what evidence the grand jury had relied on in reaching its decision. He did say, though, that the grand jury had met for twenty-five days and heard from more than sixty witnesses.

I’m sure that there will be extensive analysis from legal scholars in the coming days and I look forward to reading them.  I hope someone answers one of my questions which is:  Did hearing from Darren Wilson make the grand jury feel this was a trial where they were to determine guilt or innocence?

Meanwhile, if the grand jury decision makes me sad, the reaction of the fools on the streets makes me even sadder.  I’ve seen this too many times before – when Dr. King was killed, after Rodney King, right after Michael Brown’s death, etc. etc.   John Cassidy writes

Perhaps the grand-jury transcripts, some of which were released late on Monday, will help clear up what actually happened. More likely, the exact sequence of events will remain in dispute, and so will the grand jury’s decision. Americans who believe that the legal system generally works well, and fairly, will be inclined to believe that the members of the grand jury reached the right decision. Those who believe the criminal-justice system is stacked against minorities, particularly against young African-American men, will be inclined to believe that this was another whitewash.

I am among those who can’t understand the grand jury’s decision, but burning police cars and Walgreen’s will not change the racism in the criminal justice system.  There is more than enough blame to go around.  The announcement made after dark and the declaration of martial law and calling out the National Guard before the decision created a confrontational atmosphere and, in the end, didn’t prevent anything.  Prosecutor McCulloch’s long non-explanation explanation.  The rioters who through their actions fulfilled every stereotype.  There are no good guys here.

It just leaves me sad and frustrated.

Photograph:  ADREES LATIF/REUTERS