Long Island is probably best known to many people across the United States as the place where Howard Stern, the early morning radio talk show personality and now best-selling author, was raised. If they listen to his show or read the book, they may conclude that Long Island is a place that, for whatever reasons, produces people able to say something bad about everybody and to do it with great vulgarity. But, that is hardly the whole story. The recent assault (early December, 1993) on a commuter train of the Long Island Rail Road demands that we have more than a superficial acquaintance with “the Island.”
As probably most readers know, Colin Ferguson, a thirty-five year old black man, has been charged in the murder of six individuals and the injuring of nineteen more. Mr. Ferguson, according to the terrified surviving eyewitnesses, moved through a car on the evening commuter train rather emotionlessly and fired off approximately thirty rounds from a nine millimeter automatic weapon – beginning pretty much as soon as the train passed the city line. In the hours and days following the shootings, anyone and everyone had something to say about the accused shooter or his victims. Some of the victims’ stories were especially hard to be unaffected by – one father lay dead, while his only son lay close to death, certainly paralyzed, in a nearby hospital.
I imagine that I know a lot of people like that man and his son and I think I know something of the terrible ache that people experience when those they love are ripped from life too soon. Indeed, I even know someone who was in the car and, although he was not injured, he obviously remains shaken up. While I might understand human pain, I don’t pretend to understand the terror that the passengers felt as the gunman did his work.
But, at the same time, I worry that too many of us are missing something rather important in the story of the assault. One cluster of analyses has been preoccupied with trying to understand how Mr. Ferguson could have done it. We have read of his relatively privileged childhood on the island of Jamaica; we have learned of his troubled marriage; we have been told that many saw him as someone prepared to see a slight when none was intended. It is probably obvious that Mr. Ferguson was deeply troubled. But, without intending to excuse what his troubles led him to, I’d like to suggest that his troubles need to be examined.
Apparently, Mr. Ferguson came to the United States in 1982. Although he was relatively well-educated, he was not able to secure well-paying employment. And he apparently came quickly to see that life for a black man in New York City was a bit of a set-up. Among the notes explaining his actions found in his clothing after he was wrestled to the ground by three of his potential victims was the following (in the version printed by The New York Times) :
The sloppy running of the #2 train it is racism by Caucasians and Uncle Tom Negroes
The false allegations against me by the filthy Caucasian racist female on the #1 line P. to
The jottings could easily be written off as the words of a madman. But, the Times also printed excerpts from a letter that Mr. Ferguson had mailed to the police commissioner in December of 1992 and that letter suggests that the madness may have been nourished by the realities of life in New York City. Apparently, Mr. Ferguson had been arrested in February of 1992 as the result of a complaint by a woman passenger on the #1 train, a subway line that runs up and down the west side of Manhattan and the Bronx. He believed that the arrest had been a wrongful one and he pursued legal remedies. The letter was worded as if it had been written by a group of sympathetic individuals but the name on the return address was Mr. Ferguson’s and it is almost certain that he wrote it. The letter reads as follows:
Please be advised that Mr. Colin Ferguson has contacted us, his close friends in the “black” professional community, to advise and assist him regarding his numerous requests for the immediate return of all documents, records, photographs, fingerprints, and negatives, related to his racist and false arrest of Feb. 17, 1992. This, of course, constituted the first arrest of Mr. Ferguson’s life.
A review of the documents in our possession revealed the racism and corruption within your agency, as you attempt to deny Mr. Ferguson the fundamental guarantees provided for under our system. …
The above mentioned arrest was particularly viscous (sic) and racist for the following reasons:
1) Mr. Ferguson had been sitting in the same well defined seat on the #1 train for eight (8) or more stops before his racist caucasian accuser and her racist caucasian female friend boarded the train demanding that Mr. Ferguson move over.
2) The accuser was not denied a seat since she did sit down. She knew that the row of seats on that train does not accommodate its capacity comfortably, especially in the winter when commuters overdress.
3) The two racist caucasian police officers pushed Mr. Ferguson to the platform violently where he sustained shock and bruises.
4) A caucasian man with a pitbull on the subway platform impersonating a police officer had his dog jump on Mr. Ferguson’s chest. He was allowed to go free although thirty or more commuters demanded that he be arrested.
5) The twelve (12) caucasian police officers refused to take the names of the fifteen (15) or so witnesses who came forward for Mr. Ferguson.
6) The N.Y.C. Transit Police has consistently engaged in a racist campaign of targeting “blacks” using the subway system in an effort to improve arrest statistics within the subway, which is then publicized with the hope that more caucasians will utilize the subway system.
Perhaps, not surprisingly, the accounts offered by the woman passenger and the police involved differ substantially from what Mr. Ferguson described and it is not likely that the discrepancies could be resolved. However, most New York subway riders will confirm that the seats on the cars used on the #1 train are too small for most adult passengers. But, I would not attempt to argue that Mr. Ferguson’s account is necessarily the more accurate one. I would argue that the scenes his letter describes could have been taken from the pages of the lives of all too many of the city’s young black men.
In New York City, those young men live in a twilight zone of fear and uncertainty. Every public act of foolishness, impatience or hostility can easily result in real trouble – most often with the police. While the police have the discretion to do otherwise, they often respond with insults, threats, beatings and arrests – which is, quite obviously, what they did with Mr. Ferguson in February of 1992.
What’s perhaps different about Mr. Ferguson’s experience is that he was spared the parallel harassment and humiliation that is the fate of black youngsters in the city’s public schools (evidenced rather transparently in the inordinately high rates of referrals to special education) and that he didn’t experience the routine denial of work opportunities until he was already a grown man (evidenced in rates of unemployment among black teenagers that are too high to count).
For the past twenty years, young black men have been treated as if their complaints were the products of over-sensitive personalities. Perhaps some of those young men have been able to find some solace in the stories told by their friends that they had experienced the same treatment. But, the larger social world has allowed for little verification of their hunches that they were being singled out. (Occasionally, of course, there appear confirmations, in research studies or the news media far removed from the scenes of their lives, that what they suspect is indeed all too true. Recent examples include the research done by the Urban Institute in Washington which revealed that young black men with equal qualifications and experience as white men were routinely denied jobs that the whites were given and the acquittal of a black Newsday reporter on charges of fare evasion on the subway. The reporter in question rested his case on the argument that the transit police routinely harassed young black men.)
This is not, lest you think otherwise, a situation unique to New York. As I wrote this essay, I came across an article in The New York Times which reported that one out of every three young black men in the city of Denver is considered by the police as a probable gang member – based on hard evidence such as preferred clothing styles.
But, my story is not really about what those young black men think and feel. My story is about what the commuters think and feel. Several days after the event, the Times did an analysis of the responses of Long Island residents. The whole article deserves scrutiny (and we’ve reprinted it on page ___) but let me just highlight a few points. Although some of those interviewed for the article express surprise or shock at the event while others insist they are not surprised, the overall point is that this is not supposed to happen in Long Island. Quite obviously, the same story couldn’t be written about many neighborhoods in the city since death before their time has become almost a routine occurrence for people in neighborhoods such as Brownsville, Mott Haven and South Jamaica. No, the whole point of Long Island is that it’s not supposed to be like the city – and, in this case, the city means a place where black people live and die. But, the use of code words can easily obscure this. One Long Island office holder was quoted as saying, “It shook up a lot of people out here. I think that this gunman pierced this almost invisible barrier that we all felt between ourselves and insanity. What makes it even more frightening to us is that the gunman was delivered to us by our own railroad.” (Emphasis added.)
In any case, the event and the aftermath reminded me of an article on white panic (on two occasions separated by more than two hundred years) in New York that I have been trying to write for this issue of Race Traitor but, for a number of reasons, have not quite been able to get to. Some readers will recall that, in the days following the acquittal of the police officers in Simi Valley, rebellions occurred in a number of major cities. But, in New York, nothing quite that dramatic occurred and the mayor, David Dinkins, was applauded by all for having kept the peace.
But, what did happen in New York in April of 1992 was a panic. I was at work that day and was supposed to leave early to get to Brooklyn in time to coach a Little League practice. I forget most of the details, but I was told in early afternoon that all hell was breaking out in the city and that various groups of people were marauding around and threatening people. I was told that Penn Station had been attacked and was closed. I was more than an hour from home and I had to try and figure out if we should call a dozen kids and tell them to stay home. But, no one really seemed to know anything.
It turned out that very little had happened. There had been a march and marchers had expressed their anger at the events on the west coast by breaking some store windows. That was about it. Nonetheless, offices and stores closed all over town; people were sent home early and many were convinced that they were in great danger. I think perhaps that the reason why so many were so willing to be convinced is that, deep in their hearts, they know that there is reason for the rage that might have taken to the streets. With that knowledge, they live in a state of near panic most of the time. You can hear it quite clearly in the voices of the callers to the most outrageous of the radio talk shows.
Ironies multiply. Penn Station is the terminal of the Long Island Rail Road, “our” railroad and if that was attacked, what were “we” to do? The Long Island Rail Road actually has two major routes within the city – one from Penn Station, the other from Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. The Brooklyn route goes along Atlantic Avenue all the way to Jamaica, the major junction of the two routes. The Jamaica station is located in one of the largest black communities of Queens and virtually all of the neighborhoods adjoining the train tracks in Brooklyn are populated by black people. For the residents of these neighborhoods, the elevated tracks are an imposing reminder of the people who get to travel away from the misery of Brooklyn’s streets. For those on the train, the scenes from the window are reminders of all that they’re not forced to live with.
The people on the trains are not stick figures; they need not be caricatured. They include men who work long hours to allow their kids to ride bikes down streets without traffic; they include women who do the same. They include Little League coaches and people who’ve worked too long at jobs where no one appreciates them. They include people who go home at night to take care of elderly relatives. (Those same relatives might very well be taken care of during the day by black home health care workers who travel out from the city to find work.) But, at the same time, the people on the trains are the beneficiaries of a complex social system which makes their share of life’s difficulties not quite as large nor quite as difficult to manage as the share parcelled out to those on the streets they pass by.
People, being what people are (meaning, for most of us most of the time, that we’re not able to tell very well if our good or bad fortune has much to do with our own behavior), think about the apparent discrepancies and conclude that they must be due to something in their nature. And nothing, perhaps other than gender, explains nature better than race. Since race comes more or less equally divided between the genders, and since the better lives on the suburban divide are distributed without too much regard to gender, race becomes paramount.
And people talk, sort of. They don’t really talk. Instead, they trade attitudes. These attitudes can get pretty vulgar at times. Last year, I went to a wake for an old friend of my mother. She happened also to be the mother of someone I had attended elementary and high school with. He now lives, with his wife and two kids, in Connecticut – another suburban retreat for ex-New Yorkers. During one of those somewhat hushed conversations that take place in funeral parlors, he told me that, just the day before, he had travelled to the funeral parlor (located in the neighborhood that he and I grew up in and that his and my parents continued to live in) by a route that took him through exactly the neighborhoods that the Long Island Railroad’s Brooklyn tracks pass through. He explained that he wanted to give his kids a chance to see “Showtime” – meaning the degradation of burned out houses, empty lots, police sirens screeching, men standing on corners, and so forth. I didn’t pursue the topic so I don’t know for sure if he intended the “show” to teach his kids how lucky they were or how depraved the black residents of Brooklyn were. It doesn’t much matter since the point was that people were living in two different worlds.
In mid-December, a study out of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education reported that New York State had the most segregated schools of any state in the country and that both New Jersey and Connecticut were not much better. The Commissioner of the State Education Department in New York State, Thomas Sobol, responded that the state indeed did effectively have two different school systems – one urban, impoverished and black and the other, suburban, well endowed and white. He renewed his previous commitment to equalize the two. But, it will not happen so long as the whites on the trains want to keep their distance from the blacks on the streets.
There are now quite a few black folks who live in the towns and villages of Long Island. But, the part of the Island that doesn’t lie within the boundaries of the city of New York has, for at least the past two generations, been synonymous with white flight. Many white folks have been prepared to rather readily forsake their families’ neighborhoods in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens and to face hours-long commutes on the roads or railroads and to pay scandalously high real estate taxes – all to avoid living in close proximity to blacks. But, at the same time, the economic fortunes of almost all those who reside in the Island’s suburbs are tied to the economics of the city.
Numerous issues of the metropolitan area’s political life reflect the uneasy balance. For example, many members of New York City’s police force live in the suburban counties of Nassau and Suffolk on Long Island and, with predictable regularity after some rather blatant example of police brutality, one newspaper columnist or another argues that they should be required to live within the city lines while, with equally predictable regularity, another responds that those who qualify to be on the force should not be subjected to unconstitutional restrictions as to place of residence. This too will not change so long as the whites on the trains want to keep their distance from the blacks on the streets.
All whites have not always been so determined to be apart from blacks. One of the most striking examples of early fraternization occurred during what has been called the “New York Conspiracy” in 1741. That conspiracy resulted in: “Thirteen black men burned to death at the stake. Seventeen black men hanged. Two white men and two white women also hanged.” The burnings and hangings were punishments for the alleged participation of those convicted for setting fires to many of the city’s buildings in the late winter and early spring of that year.
In the mid-eighteenth century, New York City was a slave town. Then, as now, times were hard and many of the city’s residents, white and black, were being pushed close to the edge of survival. Each day, small battles were fought over wealth and power. Thefts were common as people tried to get something to eat and arguments over freedom of movement were frequent. The preeminent historian of the 1741 conspiracy, Thomas Davis, wrote that, “Instead of being gratefully obedient as the slaveholders hoped, blacks seethed with resentment.” They sought out and found whites who were willing to lend them a sympathetic ear and a hand. Among those whites were Irish soldiers and tavern keepers. The attitude of many of the black slaves was typified in the words of a man named Sandy: “God damn all the white people. If I had it in my power, I’d burn them all.” The attitude of their white allies was expressed by Private Edward Murphy: “Damn me if I won’t lend a hand to the fires as soon as anybody.”
Davis concludes that, although the authorities saw grand conspiracies where none existed, many of the accused had indeed lent a hand to the setting of the fires and that the collaboration between whites and blacks was what drove the authorities mad. A series of successful trials responded to the panic of most of the city’s white residents who feared that the whole town would burn down. But, the trials were intended to do more than convict the guilty.
Daniel Horsmanden, one of the principal architects of the prosecution, wrote that he hoped:
“the people in general might be persuaded of the necessity there is for everyone who has negroes to keep a very watchful eye over them and not indulge them with too great liberties which we find they make use of to the worst purposes, caballing and confederating together in mischief in great numbers when they may. . . . The principal inducement, therefore, to this undertaking [meaning the trials] was the public benefit; that those who have property in slaves might have a lasting memento concerning the nature of them; that they may be thence warned to keep a constant guard over them; since what they have done, they may one time or other act over again, especially if there should in future times appear such monsters in nature, as the Hughsons, Ury the priest, and such like who dare be so wicked as to attempt the seducing [of] them to such execrable purposes.”
Horsmanden and his allies apparently were convinced that the revolt of the fires had been led by a white person since they believed that “blacks were incapable of serious thinking and planning.” That they thought so is probably not too surprising. But, they also thought that not even “the scum and dregs” of the white population “would on their own stoop so low as to reject the society’s basic values by making common cause with blacks.” Thus, they looked for a leader who was “an outsider, or someone bewitched or thoroughly corrupted by foreign ideas.” This led them to “Ury the priest.” There is debate about Ury’s actual role but the point remains that while the black slaves were to be more closely watched, the whites were to be warned as well.
In the two hundred and more years since the events of 1741, New York has seen precious few whites who were prepared to be “monsters of nature” and to “reject the society’s basic values.” Until we see more of them, the oppression that fueled the rage of Colin Ferguson will be the lot of those who are passed by the people on the trains.
It seems that the lessons taught by the prosecutors of 1741 has been learned all too well by whites. But, lessons can be unlearned. Part of that unlearning will necessarily involve a new language of social responsibility where we can begin to understand that responsibility for oppression does not depend on an intentionality to cause oppression. The people on the Long Island Rail Road, for the most part, did not intend to oppress anyone but they, and we all, are often prepared to look away from the facts of oppression as we ride home – on the subway or on the railroad. It’s high time to look hard at the realities again.
If the panic is not challenged with a new kind of reason, the blinds of whiteness will obscure what we need to see most clearly.