What To Make Of Omar Thornton's Rampage?

In 1967, Detroit burst into flames. People got shot to death in what amounted to race riots. Paratroopers occupied the city to restore order. I was 11 years old and living on the city's lower East side. I took it all in stride. The violence seemed about right to me. Detroit was a racist shit-hole. I wondered what took so long for people of color to strike back. Years later, while a student at Columbia, I'd look uneasily over to Harlem and wonder when it would erupt. Racism was and is alive and well in the United States. I even avoided law school preferring political philosophy as a field of study: Why devote years to studying institutions that could not survive, I thought.

So you might think I am nodding a sort of "I-told-you-so" smile over Omar S. Thornton's bloody rampage in Manchester, Connecticut. Accused of stealing beer from his employer, a beer warehouse, the young man was ushered into a meeting with union and management. Resign or be fired, they told him. He took a gun out of a paper bag and shot the place up, killing eight people before killing himself.

I was in a court about 30 miles from Manchester when news of the shooting broke. No one thought race then. Someone had gone postal at a workplace. Thoughts turned to jilted lovers and disgruntled employees. These sorts of events happen, and the roots of the violence are usually mundane.

Before he killed himself, Thornton spoke for about four minutes with the Connecticut state police. The 24-year-old man told the officer: "This place here is a racist place." Family members told the press in the wake of the shooting that Thornton had long felt victimized by both his employers at the Hartford Distributors, and by his union, the Teamsters, on account of his race. Both union and management deny racial harassment.

When I first learned that the shooter was black and all the victims were white I worried in a plantation-owner sort of way about copy cat crimes. I have represented many people of color in employment-related disputes. Anyone who believes, even for a moment, that the color line is not alive and well in the United States lives in a dream world. There are simmering tensions. There is black rage and white resentment. The "N" word is often spoken in hush terms.

Attorney General Eric Holder is dead right: We are too cowardly to meaningfully discuss race in the United States.

Even so, I am not prepared to excuse of justice Omar Thornton's rampage. He is not the warrior Malcolm X pretended to be. If every dispossessed Omar Thornton in the country were armed and took aim today at noon, the country would be no better off by 1 p.m. As deeply satisfying as it must have been in some rage-soaked way for Thornton to shoot and kill, this rage merely destroyed: It built nothing other than a castle of sorrow and caskets of shame. One of those caskets contains Omar Thornton today.

This is not the first time I have heard someone complaint that the Teamsters in Connecticut have issues with race. Nor is it the first company to be accused of racism. But neither is Omar Thornton to the first employee, black or white, to be accused of theft from his employer.

I don't know whether Omar Thornton was a thief. I do know he was a murderer. And I do not know whether his employers and union were trying to sell a little Jim Crow with their Budweiser; it wouldn't surprise me if they were.

I do know that race matters in the United States. A person's life chances are determined largely on the basis of socio-economic class. Many people of color live the legacy of slavery. The result is an economy and society composed of many different Americas. The privileged and talented get great rewards. Those less fortunate are forced to settle for far, far less: Too often the line between haves and have-nots corresponds to the color line. A person forced to the margin, whether white or black, will come to believe that the current regime of laws, institutions and social conventions are illegitimate. Omar Thornton apparently lived on the other side of the line dividing haves and have-nots.

I suspect there are millions of Omar Thorntons out there, fuming at the vast gap between the rhetoric and reality of American life. For many folks, that gulf is cast in racial hues; for others the chasm is purely economic. But for all there is a lingering sense that there is something askew in a nation that promises equality for all and then denies so much to so many.

I suppose some part of me still awaits the conflagration that never came in 1967. We will contemplate Omar Thornton's rampage and write it off as solitary rage. Perhaps that's all it is. Or perhaps its a sign of the fire next time, a sign we might want to heed before dismissing it as the act of just another discontented and angry man. Or maybe we will continue to shuffle along, promising more than we can deliver, and incarcerating millions who just can't get it right because we won't let them.

Comments: (7)

  • Thornton is a dysfunctional racist murderer who ha...
    Thornton is a dysfunctional racist murderer who has a long history of problems. He is a mass murderer who could not adjust to society. Thornton was a thief who crashed when he was caught stealing and was let go because of his dishonesty. Even his union protection could not save his job but did get him to resign. Thornton's story is an example of the racist scam that is sweeping our country because of a foul racist epidemic brought to us by our leaders.
    Posted on August 6, 2010 at 12:53 am by Anonymous
  • The flaw in your reasoning is that racism is prima...
    The flaw in your reasoning is that racism is primarily perpetuated by Caucasians against people of color. The dictionary carries no such definition. Racism is bias and hatred directed by a person or race toward people of a different race or ethnicity. I agree that racism is still very much ingrained in our society, but it is ever evolving. As a white person I have often felt threatened by, or condescended to by people of color who seem to feel superior to me or resentful of me for some transgression or crime that I never committed.
    Perhaps if the shooter had been a white man who shot black co-workers because he was sick and tired of being passed over for promotions in a company that was busy promoting minorities in order to satisfy an affirmative action goal your article might have read differently or perhaps it would not have been written at all.
    If the hale and hearty Norm Pattis wishes to conduct a true test on racism in America he should walk the streets of Harlem at 3:00 AM while a black man wanders the streets of Greenwich. Which one do you think will get stopped and questioned and which one do you think will get the snot beat out of him?
    Racism is alive and well and fed daily by the media and the left in this country. But take to the streets and see just where it emanates from in post-racial America.
    Posted on August 6, 2010 at 9:48 am by Equal Justice
  • To Equal Justice:
    It's too bad you had to pick on...
    To Equal Justice:
    It's too bad you had to pick on poor little Greenwich,... Greenwich, CT, I presume, since I happen to be a native of Greenwich and spent 1/2 my life there. Three generations, FYI. Unfortunately, your stereotype and characterization of my home town is sadly mistaken. In fact, the prez of my class at GHS was a black student,... long before the marches and rampages in Watts, Newark, Detroit, Wash D.C. and perhaps a few other places I forgot about.
    There are actual/real reasons why people want to move to Greenwich, just as there are reasons people want to escape places like Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Hartford and New Haven. Of course the libtards and their apologists are not interested in those reasons, and deny them when confronted with the indisputable evidence. Let's call it wishful thinking on their part, and the educated academy supposedly knows better than the honest, god-fearing, industrious, thrifty hard-working--and yes, charitable--classes who build wealth, not to mention fine homes and lovely estates.
    If you are black, brown, yellow or in between and you show up on Greenwich Ave. wearing baggy pants down to your knees at midnite, well yea, they're going to look at you funny. But if you're clean and look 1/2 way decent--you do not have to dress for success--I guarantee you they [the cops] are not going to beat you to a pulp, plant evidence on you, and then tase you before they put the handcuffs on and slam you into a parking meter. Oh, and by the way, they probably won't kick you in the head or the ribs either like they do in Florida, Texas, California or Arizona,...or my name is not Doriss. (Yes, I've seen this with my own two eyes in Fort Lauderdale on a Friday nite, without even looking for any 'action'.)
    On the other hand, when I moved myself and my business to New Haven, just up the line and not too far away from Greenwich, I discovered to my dismay that you have nothing to fear but Law Enforcement itself, and that the color of your skin does not matter a whole lot to the corrupt, incompetent, low-IQ cops. They are 'equal-opportunity' when it comes to arresting anybody for any reason in New Haven. But in all fairness, it could be almost any Northeastern or Mid-Atlantic city. They arrest anybody and everybody for whatever reason, and then the State picks it up and attempts to put you in prison over any perceived trifle. They have (unwritten) quotas to meet, both state and municipal, if you catch my drift; it's a business. Nothing more, nothing less.
    Greenwich does not do that as far as I know. So I suggest you do a little research and re-think your outrageous and unfounded pre-suppositions.
    Before I go, I don't mind saying, as a white male, I have wandered both Harlem and NW Philly, both day and night and have never been seriously confronted or intimidated. Perhaps I was lucky. On the other hand, maybe I was just minding my own business and didn't bother anybody and treated everyone I came into contact with, with circumstantial respect. You have nothing to fear but fear itself, a truism worth contemplating.
    As far as the Manchester rampage, I agree with Norm. I'm surprised these things don't happen more often. And I believe there remain some unanswered questions. However, my mind is 'open'.
    Equal Justice, you're a newbie and your moniker is a misnomer.
    Posted on August 6, 2010 at 1:43 pm by William Doriss
  • Where do you get these readers, Norm? WHERE?
    Where do you get these readers, Norm? WHERE?
    Posted on August 6, 2010 at 6:00 pm by Lee Stonum
  • And just to be clear, William, I was referring to ...
    And just to be clear, William, I was referring to the first two guys. You I've come to begrudgingly like.
    Posted on August 6, 2010 at 6:02 pm by Lee Stonum
  • Lee
    I am grateful to have readers at all.
    I am grateful to have readers at all.
    Posted on August 6, 2010 at 7:54 pm by Norm Pattis
  • Teamsters Local 337 in Detroit recently advised an...
    Teamsters Local 337 in Detroit recently advised an African-American member experiencing overt racial discrimination and mobbing in the workplace that it doesn't deal with matters involving racial discrimination, although it is contractually prohibited.
    Local 337's president, vice president, and Jimmy Hoffa himself are all aware of the situation.
    What does that tell you?
    Posted on August 27, 2010 at 12:59 pm by Anonymous

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