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.