Lashawn Marten was playing chess when he announced, “I hate white people.” Then he began hitting random white people who were walking by. By the time he was done, several were wounded and one lay dead.
I have walked by countless times and seen the chess players sitting near the overhang of the Union Square subway entrance; mostly black men daring white passerby into a money game. At the fountain to the left, Moonies squat on a blanket and sing their sonorous chants. To the right, the remnants of Occupy Wall Street set up tables to collect money and dispense buttons.
In warmer weather, break dancers perform on the stairs and office workers sit beneath the statue of George Washington expelling the British and eat lunch. Elderly Puerto Rican men push makeshift wooden carts piled with unlabeled bottles of homebrewed soda pop.
Jeffrey Babbitt, the man Lashawn beat to death, looks familiar to me because he has that type of New York face that you pass on the street. You see it worn by plumbers and high school teachers. It’s the badge of the vanishing New York City working class.
No conclusions will be drawn from the murder. Lashawn Marten was obviously mentally ill. And if his mental illness took the form of violent racism toward white people, that is an incidental fact. The murder is an incident. The details are incidental. No conclusions will be drawn from what happened between the chess tables.
Incidents take place all around us, but patterns have to be articulated. The incident is insignificant. It’s the pattern that counts.
The incident is something we have to learn to get over so we can get back to shopping in downtown Manhattan or walking through Union Square. The pattern is a social problem that we must dedicate ourselves to fighting. The incident isn’t supposed to define our lives. The pattern is.
The murder of Chris Lane was an incident. The murder of Jeffrey Babbitt was an incident.
The Boston Marathon bombing was an incident. So was the Fort Hood Massacre. So was 9/11. No conclusions can be drawn from them and no pattern can be used to tie them together. They are to be processed separately and discarded as having no further meaning than the private pain of their victims.
The media is not that concerned with suppressing incidents. It is concerned with suppressing pattern awareness. No one can deny that the occasional racial murder takes place and that the perpetrators look like Obama’s sons. And no one can deny that Muslims sometimes set off bombs or fly planes into buildings. They deny only that these incidents form a pattern.
Every Muslim terrorist attack is met with media chatter about an Islamophobic backlash. The backlash never materializes, but it doesn’t need to. The mere repetition of it does the trick and sets the pattern. It tells readers that the attack is the incident, but the backlash is the pattern.
The attack is only an incident and not characteristic of Muslims while the backlash is a pattern and characteristic of our bigotry and intolerance.
White racism is a pattern. Black racism is an incident. Racism is characteristic of white people, but not of black people. The crowds passing through Union Square are subdivided into the oppressors and the oppressed. Their lives are color coded for morality and justice. Jeffrey Babbitt, who dreamed of being a motorman, loved comics and took care of his elderly mother, was an oppressor. His death is an incident that in no way detracts from the pervasive pattern of white racism.
Jeffrey Babbitt was an oppressor and Lashawn Marten was one of the oppressed. This social dynamic was imposed on them at birth. The occasional death of an oppressor in no way alters the fixed pattern of the oppressors and the oppressed.
The pattern of American intolerance is likewise unmoved by September 11 or by two Chechens who set off a bomb near an 8-year-old. The blood and ashes of 3,000 dead is nothing but a stain on the liberal pattern. More people die of cancer or in car accidents, the liberal can always answer. Numbers alone do not make a pattern. And if the pattern is not recognized, then it does not exist.
We live in this world of unreal patterns and real lives where inexplicable things happen all the time.
Overhead, I see two beams of pale light piercing the sky and reflecting at an angle. The towers of light remind us of an incident. Not a pattern. After over a decade of war, no one in authority will admit what we are fighting or why. All that ash and rubble, the twisted steel and the falling bodies, are not part of a pattern. But when a Muslim cabbie is stabbed by a drunk, that is a pattern.
Most of us see the real patterns, even if only hazily, like the beams of light cutting across the sky. And we see that the unreal patterns, the obsessions with Muslim backlashes and the martyrdom of Trayvon Martin, are unreal things. Not true patterns, but false patterns that reflect at an angle from the true light.
We do not speak of these true patterns. But we know them. They stir in us when the right moment appears. They keep us alive.
Millions walk through life with this double vision, the lenses of their minds blurring the real and the unreal, paying lip service to the grave threat that someone will spray paint a mosque while nervously studying the Muslim sitting in the seat in front of them or voting for Obama but moving out to the suburbs.
Patterns are power. The pattern-makers and pattern-dealers derive theirs from being able to dictate the problem and the solution. They are determined to understand things for us so that we will see the same patterns that they do. They know all too well that if we stop seeing their patterns, their cause and their power will die.
For now it is men like Jeffrey Babbitt or the spectators in the Boston Marathon and the soldiers at Fort Hood who die. They die caught in an invisible pattern that they cannot see.
We live in a world of phony patterns, of global environmental apocalypses made to order, of shadows and illusions, of phantom fears, panics and doubts. But even in the liberal world of ghosts and shadows, where rogue air conditioners and cow flatulence are a greater threat to the planet than the nuclear bomb, where Lashawn Marten was oppressed by the unconscious white privilege of Jeffrey Babbitt who died for what he did not even know he had and where Muslim terrorism is a phantom fear of bigots, these true patterns intrude.
Terrible acts of violence momentarily tear apart the illusory false patterns with blood and fire and reveal the terrible truth.
On September 11, thousands of New Yorkers standing at Union Square looked downtown to see a plume of smoke rising over Broadway. I was one of them. Some fell to making anti-war posters on the spot. Others enlisted in a long war. On another distant September, some New Yorkers came to the defense of a 62-year-old man being beaten to death for the color of his skin. Others walked on to the farmers’ market, bought their organic peaches while the liberal memes in their heads told them to see no evil.
Our lives are sharpest and clearest when we see the pattern. In moments of revelation, the comforting illusions are torn away and the true pattern of our world stands revealed.
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