Why Some Lives Matter and Some Don’t:
Black Children, White Women, and Selective Outrage
Our wintry spring has impinged on my work life. Hustling through one nor’easter after another, I’ve not attended to news as much as I usually do. In spite of my relative inattention, two news stories resonated. National Public Radio sounded a familiar drumbeat: “Police shoot unarmed black man, father of two, in his grandmother’s backyard.” I heard those words, all carefully selected, repeated several times throughout the day, with the shrill, persistent urgency of a tornado warning. Tornado warnings demand that you abandon what you are doing and move to a shelter. “Police kill unarmed black man” demands that you abandon your idea of your nation and yourself and move to a new cognitive dwelling, one your betters have constructed for you.
The other news story was not a drumbeat but rather the “ping” of an appliance alerting the user to some minor emergency. I heard this headline three times only. An SUV had plunged over a cliff in northern California. The van’s eight inhabitants were all presumed dead. It was a mystery. This report did not require me to readjust my relationship to the world. I could waltz right past it, and not be inconvenienced by so much as a flicker of sadness for any of the eight departed fellow humans.
I did not stop doing laundry or watching “bomb cyclone” weather reports to turn up the volume and focus my attention. Even though I was using only the cells in my brain devoted to background awareness, those cells determined the following: “The media is lying to me in order to comply with the dictates of Political Correctness. Understanding those dictates, I can fill in the blanks.” Propaganda is so pervasive that my brain, on autopilot, concludes such things. Realizing that gave me an Orwellian feeling.
Powerful people want me to believe that a black man was relaxing in the spring sun, playing on the swing set of that most sacred geography, grandma’s house, when a white policeman drove by, and, aroused to murderous frenzy by his victim’s skin color alone, shot the young father dead in front of his sons. NPR was obsessively repeating the skin color of the dead man: black. NPR did not mention the skin color of the police officer. I concluded that the accused officer was black as well. Had he been white, NPR would have repeated the words “white police officer” as obsessively as it was repeating “black victim.” I also decided that the black man in question was not shot in the daylight, but probably at night, and that he was located in his grandmother’s backyard not as part of a social call, but somehow in relation to an alleged crime.
The fallen death van, at first, seemed unconnected to the shooting headline. I realized, the very first time I heard this headline, that there was nothing mysterious about the death van. Someone had driven that van over the cliff on purpose. What would cause police officers to be so cagey in accounts that they provided to the media, or the media’s handling of such accounts? The person who drove the van, and his or her relationship to the deceased, was protected by political correctness. I wondered if we’d ever learn the truth about that one.
The death van story is probably easier to tell. Jennifer and Sarah Hart were a white, lesbian, married couple who owned a home in Woodland, Washington, close to Portland. In photos, Jennifer and Sarah appear young and attractive, with long hair and high-wattage smiles. One can see them with their six black and brown adopted children, holding signs saying “Free Hugs,” “Embrace the Revolution,” “Love is Always Beautiful,” and wearing eight, matching, Bernie Sanders t-shirts at a Sanders rally. The Associated Press described them as “the Hart Tribe, a free-spirited family of two women and their six adopted children who raised their own food, took spontaneous road trips and traveled to festivals and other events, offering free hugs and promoting unity.” Friends described them “as loving, inspiring parents who promoted social justice and exposed their ‘remarkable children’ to art, music and nature.” Another friend said “They are beautiful examples of opening arms to strangers, helping youth, supporting racial equality … They brought so much joy to the world. They represented a legacy of love." Investigators of their van’s deadly plunge at first said that there was “no evidence and no reason to believe that this was an intentional act.”
News sources now acknowledge that the Harts abused and starved their adopted children. CNN provides a timeline including numerous complaints going back ten years. On March 23, 2018, officials visited the Hart home. The van was discovered on March 26. The Harts responded to notification of this new investigation, evidently, through murder-suicide. Three of the adoptees were found dead in the van; three of the children have still not been found. Devonte Hart is among the missing. Devonte gained international attention when he was photographed at a 2014 Black Lives Matter rally hugging a while police officer. Given what we know now, it is hard to look at this photo and not guess that Devonte might have wished that this white police officer would take him home and rescue him from his abusive parents.