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January 21, 2003

What is "Murder"?

In my In Defense of Al Sharpton post, I discussed the Crown Heights conflict here in NYC and referred to "the anger behind the murder of a young black man."

A few comments objected to referring to this as "murder" but I thought after the back-and-forth it worth reaffirming my use of the word, both to discuss the legalism of what constitutes murder but also to highlight why the resistance to the word is itself part of why the black community rioted back then-- and why the attacks on advocates like Sharpton themselves in many ways continue the double standards that devalue the lives of non-whites.

Let's start with the converse, the way the comments to the post referred to the death of seven-year-old Gavin Cato as a "car accident", the standard phrasing of all those who sought to portray blacks in Crown Heights as overreacting and even mindlessly savage. This "accident" was not some kind of fender-bender or even failing to see a child in the street. A car cavalcade was speeding through a black residential community at 45 to 50 miles per hour in a 25-mile per hour zone. The car driven by Yosef Lisef ended up driving up on a SIDEWALK and killing Cato. See here for more.

To refer to as an "accident" this kind of reckless driving leading to a car ending up killing someone is exactly the "shit happens, tough luck" that enraged the black community, the same kind of rhetoric that justifies Amadou Diallo being shot like a dog as normal police "accidents", as if the same accidents happen routinely in white Beverly Hills nieghborhoods.

But was the death of Cato murder? Legal language in the technical sense gets complicated, since speeding and unintentionally killing someone is considered homicide under the statutes. See here and here. Lisef (and the other cars) were violating speeding laws, not casually but as a group with total disregard for the residential nature they were driving through, and the result was not just a car pileup, but Lisef driving up on the sidewalk, giving the children killed and hurt really no ability even to act defensively to protect themselves.

Now, New York makes lots of legal distinctions within the "homicide" category- from criminally negligent homicide to manslaughter to murder, so one could argue the fine points of what kind of homicide to describe Lisef's actions as. But for the black community, the outrage was that he was charged with no crime at all. And in common language, since many places would describe this event as "murder" (see here for an example- search down for "vehicular murder") and here, I find the hair-splitting on language by those who would prefer to dismiss this crime as merely an "accident" to be emblematic of the propaganda war against the black community in the Crown Heights conflict.

And it goes to the double standard-- when a cop dies in any way, say by his car going out of control in pursuing a thief, the police in NYC demand that the person being pursued, even though all they wanted was to get away themselves, be charged with murder. See this:
PBA President Pat Lynch..."When you contribute to the death of a New York City police officer, you should be charged with murder." So this goes to the double standard where the lives of the black community are neither valued by the police, whose rogue elements kill them with little threat of punishment, and the legal system devalues their lives by not even charging someone like Lisef with even the lesser homicide charges that were obviously warranted here at the minimum.

But this situation went beyond the mere reckless killing of Gavin Cato. Having helped perpetuate this crime, the Jewish group involved brought in a private ambulance and took the injured driver away WHILE LEAVING THE HURT CHILDREN BEHIND. Gavin Cato died from his injuries, partly in the minds of the community because he was not taken immediately to the hospital but had to wait for a later ambulance. See here.

So you combine reckless driving leading to death with leaving the victim behind in favor of taking care of the life of the perpetrator of the death, and I don't think murder is uncalled for as a term. Part of what is involved in distinctions between manslaughter and murder in conventional legal discrussions is the issue of whether there is a "malignant heart" or a "disregard for human life", and this latter act of leaving the children hurt by Lisef's act behind seems to fit that definition. That this was not merely an individual act, but a collective act-- illegally speeding through a residiential neighborhood in a group of cars, calling an institutional ambulance, and choosing to leave the children behind to die-- is what turned this from individual outrage to group conflict.

And the continued denial that a crime even occurred against Gavin Cato quite justifiably continues the outrage.

Because Yankel Rosenbloom was killed by a black crowd, that no doubt encourages some people to try to downplay the killing of Gavin to avoid making Rosenbloom's death seem justified. Which of course it wouldn't be if Lisef had pulled out a gun and shot Cato in the head, since Rosenbloom had nothing to do with it.

So if there is no justified relation between the two events, why do so many in the white and Jewish community feel such a need to downplay the gravity of Cato Gavin's murder?

Partly I think because it is not isolated, that such muders of black people, from lynchings in the South to police brutality in the North to the systematic lower penalties for the killers of black people in all forms, accentuates what I would call the social murder of the black community. There is a "malignant heart" in society of "reckless disregard" for black life that cares little if they die, whether from police killings or speeders. So better to avoid the word "murder" and stress "accident", and hope people will ignore the fact that whites seem to suffer these "accidents" in far fewer numbers.

But the malignant heart of racism is still there. And the word murder is appropriate.

Posted by Nathan at January 21, 2003 08:05 AM

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