Thursday, January 26, 2012

Connecticut Keeps it Classy: Eat a Taco for Civil Rights; Marine Goes Free After Murdering Iraqis

It is always a pleasure to see my home state featured in the national media.

There are many tragedies in America's long war. While some are upset about Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters in Afghanistan (and of course are not asking the more important questions about the efficacy of the policy that put U.S. soldiers in harm's way, or if peeing on dead bodies is worse than incinerating innocent people with bombs), there are many other shameful moments that will eventually come to light from the long wars abroad.

To date, we have seen "dead pools," assassination squads, rapes of children, racially motivated fratricide, and all sorts of descents into madness by U.S. and allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American people choose to either turn away, remain blissfully ignorant, or wrap themselves in childish nationalism as a defense mechanism. When blowback inevitably comes they can shake their heads and ask "why do they hate us so? Is it our values? The American way of life?" Some pandering politician will avoid all real talk and instead answer a resounding "yes" to all three questions.

Frank Wuterich, a United States Marine from Meriden, Connecticut has been found not guilt of murdering more than a dozen innocent non-combatants during a punitive raid in Iraq. His punishment? Nothing significant, he was slapped on the wrist for "dereliction of duty" and sent on his way. If Vietnam brought the barbarism of the Tiger Force, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are going to spit forth much fodder for books and movies that will make the Abu Ghraib scandal look like a resort town.

The mayor of East Haven, Connecticut also kept it classy this week. Following a series of civil rights abuses by his police, Joseph Maturo publicly announced that he would eat tacos as a way of supporting the Latino community--a group which has been subject to racial profiling and harassment in his city. Post-Civil Rights era race discourse has really reached a new level of sophistication has it not? Reparations through the gesture of taco eating. Priceless.

There is a deeper element here that is worth exploring. How do certain spaces, towns, and communities come to be hostile to "outsiders" who are not the "right" ethnic or racial group.

I grew up in New Haven and Hamden, Connecticut. As such, I am very familiar with East Haven. It had the greatest Toys R Us in the area, and every Sunday I would nag my mother to drive me up I-95 (or on the surface streets) to East Haven where upon arrival at the store I would grab the newest G.I. Joe or Transformer. Years later, I would also spend a good amount of time at East Haven's bowling alley--they had a great pro shop, really easy lane conditions, and lots of "action," i.e. money games between some of the best scratch players in the area.

Those spaces were very integrated. However, there was always this lingering white ethnic anxiety in the air as we black and brown folks knew not to hang around too late in the area as anything (harassment by the police, a fight with some locals who would drive by in their Monte Carlo SS's, Ford Thunderbirds, or Corvettes--watch Jersey Shore and you will get the joke--and yell "nigger" or "spic" at you for a cheap thrill) could jump off. If you were a brother dating a white woman, you most certainly knew not to take her to one of the late night diners in East Haven. "No shoes, no service" would be the least of your worries if some of the local "Itals" didn't like that one of "their" women was with one of "those people."

Like many other rustbelt suburbs and cities of the Northeast, in East Haven there was/is racial anxiety about lost economies, ethnic transition as a proxy for the wages of whiteness gained (for those who could move out to places like Branford, Cheshire, or northern Hamden) or lost (those Italians, Poles, Greeks, and others who couldn't because of financial or familial reasons leave the neighborhood), and nostalgia for the "good old days." These dynamics are difficult for many white ethnics of a certain generation to reconcile as formerly white spaces became black, and then Hispanic and Latino.

My adopted Scots-Irish grandfather would tell me stories about the neighborhood of his youth in New Haven. During the 1920s and 1930s Irish cops would ride on bicycles and hit kids in the head with a stick for sport, to put some fright in them, or to break up groups of "undesirables." Apparently, the latter was more common when the group was "mixed" than if one "kept to your own type."

My father grew up in the same area and would jokingly talk about the local neighborhood cliques that would in turn form the basis for the semi-pro football teams in New Haven county. He could "pass" if he so chose. Thus, my father had many white ethnic friends and could navigate the various Irish, Jewish, and Italian neighborhoods in relative safety if "he walked really fast and kept a hat on." Like my adopted grandfather, he too had stories about how space was bounded by either the police, or the gangs of young toughs who lingered on the borders of each ethnic and racial neighborhood. No one got killed. There would be tussles to keep everyone honest--fights more akin to The Wanderers than Boyz in the Hood. Over time you earned some respect, and eventually could earn a pass to either walk on certain streets, or go into certain stores.

The mayor of East Haven's epic fail is an entry point for thinking about local history and geography. Teach me a thing or two. How did East Haven become so hostile to Hispanics and Latinos, and non-whites more generally? Does anyone have an insight into the local history? What are the towns, cities, and areas where you know that as a black/brown/white person that you had best avoid? Sundown towns are no longer enforced by "law," yet they still exist.

Ultimately, are places like East Haven, and larger cities like Providence and Cranston, just experiencing metaphorical hangovers from white flight, deindustrialization, and realistic group conflict, dynamics that play themselves out through racial profiling and harassment?


G Newman said...

Thank you for the reflections from the personal life experience in East Haven. It gave me a racial / ethnic / demographic context to this story... which is one of the purposes of education, right?

A book that helps provide some historical perspective to the story is Matthew Frye Jacobson's Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. Obviously, the taco makers are not yet white in the eyes of the "authorities." Certainly the accumulation of property and voting blocs in the coming years will help. (See: Irish experience, a la Tammany Hall and Bridgeport).

As a Connecticut lad, you not only bring personal experience to the topic, I have no doubt have been shown to a machine shop, in Chicago, when you asked "Do you have any grinders?" They have a weird concept of pizza too.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I'm white ... I don't see the problem. Why should the police have to speak Spanish?

The hispanics are in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA ... they need to speak English and integrate.

Let me guess ... if hispanics are only 10% of the population in that town, then only about 10% of the people arrested in that town must be hispanic ... right? Show me the numbers.

It's lunchtime ... I'm hungry. I think I'll go eat some tacos.

nomad said...

Well, you know how I like irony, right? In my town all of the suburbs used to be white. In the period of white flight. Before blacks began to move in. A former white suburb with the curious name "Whitehaven" (I'm sure there was nothing racial implied in it's naming, though I live in the most racist city in America) is now virtually all black. LOLOLOL.

G Newman said...

Quote: "The hispanics are in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA..."

"The irony is thick with this one," he said, paraphrasing Obi Wan Kenobi.

Yes, and we conquered their lands, fair and square, in the Mexican War.

Many Hispanics have family lines that predate the American conquest in 1848, especially some families in Southern California and New Mexico.
But if they were fair-skinned and had enough property, we considered them white, and suitable for intermarriage. (Google "Californios.) "If not, they were designated as Not Whites --"greasers" -- and employed as laborers. We even created special exemptions to our very restrictive 1925 immigration act to permit hundreds of thousands of their cousins to come to the US to work for the special wage scales that were reserved for non-whites... at least until the Depression and subsequent downturns. (Go Google "Bracero Program.")

But you're right, Mr. Anonymus, they are in the United States of America, a place where they need to SPEAK ENGLISH, because we have places names like Florida, Colorado, California, Nevada, Texas, San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Fe, Las Vegas. (Gee, what language could all of these have come from? Not English.) But you can hang your hat on our #2 city, Los Angeles, which is short for "La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora Reina de los Angeles" (The Church of Our Lady, Queen of the Angels).

As The Terminator said, "Hasta La Vista, baby."

Anonymous said...

East Haven is a nothing special not now nor in the past ..Of course it is easy to trash it now cause lots of browns live there