I was encouraged the other day to see a phalanx of protesters outside the New Haven courthouse on Elm Street. There looked to be 30 or so people, many with signs, standing on the courthouse steps just after 9 a.m. As I got nearer to the steps, I strained to read a row of signs held by five protestors.
"I was tortured," said one. "I was beaten," said another. "I was starved," a third reported. The next read, "I was killed."
Okay, I thought. A complaint about police brutality. I sighed. There is little public understanding about the extent to which the law permits police officers to use force, even deadly force. Almost daily my office gets calls from folks complaining about police brutality. In all but a few cases, I don’t see much in the callers’ complaints that give legal ground for a complaint. It is sad but true: we get the law enforcement we deserve. Our broad tolerance of police violence all but guarantees gratuitous ass-kickings. The fact that most of the recipients of this violence are members of the underclass or people of color keeps this ugly reality hidden from plain view.
As I got closer to the courthouse I noticed something unusual for a protest of this sort. All, or almost all, of the faces in the crowd were white. This is a good, I thought. Folks are waking up to the reality of the streets. Then I read the last in the series of signs: "My name is Desmond."
Who is Desmond? I don’t read the papers as often as I would like. I couldn’t place the name. Was he some kid beaten senseless for videotaping an arrest?
As I walked through the crowd other signs made clear who Desmond was: Desmond was a pit bull/boxer dog killed by his owner, and his body dumped in a Madison pond. All these protestors had turned out on a Tuesday morning to demand harsh punishment for the dog’s killer.
The dog’s owner, Alex Wulleart, 22, was in court that morning facing animal cruelty charges. He was in court seeking accelerated rehabilitation, a diversionary plea that would permit him to get treatment while on probation and then have the charges dismissed. The "Justice for Desmond" protestors don’t think that’s right. They want Mr. Wulleart to face the maximum penalty. Later that morning, protestors sat in court to make sure the judge knew that justice for Desmond meant coming down hard on Wulleart.
Forgive me if I view the protest as an obscene farce.
Don’t get me wrong. I am passionate about dogs. I love my border collies with an intensity I cannot easily describe. Animals bring out the best in me. They stir some inchoate sense of loyalty and devotion that I find hard to express with all but a very few people. I am fiercely protective of my dogs, as they are of me.
But I couldn’t help but wonder about the gathering of the white faces on the courthouse steps to protest the killing of an animal. I didn’t recognize any of these faces from the almost entirely black and Hispanic crowd that turned up on the town green to protest the lack of police activity when Trayvon Martin, a young black man, was killed in Florida. I did not recognize any of the faces from other protests on the courthouse steps when New Haven residents turned out to protest police misconduct or the impact of the so-called war on drugs.
It takes a dog-killing in paradise to drawn white faces to the courthouse steps in protest? And then the cry is to throw the book at a young man who most likely needs psychiatric help, and not a prison cell. If you don’t think race matters in the United States, that the color line still separates and divides in life-defining ways, then you just aren’t paying attention.
Suburban white folks march on New Haven to demand justice for a dead dog. They stay home when cries for justice arise about a dead black child. There’s something simply perverse and twisted about this. Why is it so much easier to care for dogs than our fellow man? I wanted to stop and ask the protestors, but I didn’t. I kept walking, wondering whether we’ll ever get race right in this country. I am afraid I know the answer, but I am even more afraid to stop wondering about how and why race defines who we are.
UPDATE: Thanks for all the comments, I suppose. I think they are all posted. Not sure if I saw them all. Those I read lead me to the conclusion that Desmond had more intelligence than some of his supporters. Res ipsa, my friends.