January/February 1995




Hellbent on Redemption

What they want is so big, it's hard to get your eye around at first. Their struggle is with the world--will it let them lose their loneliness? they want something bigger than themselves to live for, something steadier and stronger than one-on-one love.

a personal essay by Kathy Dobie

My first thought on being asked to write about teenage sexuality was "oh, leave the kids alone!" Not very enlightened, maybe. But that phrase --"teenage sexuality"--makes me think of committee meetings, recommendations, editorials on condom distribution or parental notification.

I don't have any theories about this "problem" of teenage sexuality. I only have my stories, stories collected from teens on street corners, in abandoned buildings and speeding cars, and these stories . . . well, I suppose they're a little grim, over the top. I've always had trouble believing in proms and double dates and sweet first love, responsible kids making thoughtful choices, growing slowly together. My mind bends in another direction.

I manage not to feel too guilty about that, but I do feel bad that every time I start thinking about teenagers and sex I end up with love and loneliness, violence and religion. Maybe it's just another kind of prudishness? I go skating away from nakedness into the memory of a fierce-looking kid (dirt-packed clothes, pierced face) telling me he didn't think he had much of a shot for happiness in this life, but in the next one. . .

Heaven? This grimy, studded kid was talking about heaven? In my mind, the picture of two kids, half-undressed and dry humping on the couch dissolves; how eagerly I follow that boy's gaze upward. "What does it look like?" I asked him. He told me: All of his friends would be sitting around a big dinner table, laughing, partying. Forever, I guess.

Now, is it the kids who keep jumping from the subject of sexuality? Or is it me? It's not a trick question. I just don't know. I used to think of all the kids I interviewed--skinheads, black Muslim girls, bullies, sluts, squatters--as flying away from something. Mom and dad, perhaps, or violence, lonely suburbs, rednecks. Shadows flitting on the lawn; gone. But then, I used to think of sex-at-14 as the step into the bad beautiful world, away from childhood, parents, home. The future was an "I," stamped big and bold, lit glamorously by the lover's gaze or fame. Friends didn't count, family didn't count. It was the world, or a man.

I have put my faith in sexual love, even though I have no faith that it lasts or sustains. I've put a great deal more faith in self-reliance, or what I would call the jungle in my head. I can keep myself company, see? Certainly, I've known the feeling of belonging to someone--the loyalty, the peace. But the fact is: I'm afraid of love's oblivion and afraid of the years ahead. Afraid of waking up one morning and finding myself as repulsive as Kafka's Gregor, scuttling in the dust under the bed, dodging apples--that is to say, all alone. I comfort myself: I'll have my memories of being loved, skin to skin. I'll have the carnival inside . . . but that's just where it will be someday, all locked up inside, whirling, weeping.

But look--there's that grimy, tattooed kid (he calls himself "Slug"), lonely already and thinking about heaven. When Slug looks ahead, he sees a table of friends, an afterlifetime of companionship. At one time, I thought I could examine the particulars of his past, of all their pasts--this bad-tempered daddy, that exploded family--and explain them. Their childhood, their elders--I--was the explanation for them. Well, what if they explained me? What if they were way up ahead, bearing our future back to us?

Two young lovers. This is how I first saw them, that night at the bowling alley: battered and bruised and grinning. His neck, mottled black and blue, went real well with his slouch and the cigarette clamped between his lips, the Kentucky drawl. They kissed, they wrestled with each other; they wore their hickeys like school colors. They belonged to each other. She/he is mine, mine, all mine.

But despite the brand, the vampire's kiss, R.J. and his girl broke up a few weeks later. R.J. says that she just wanted sex and he wanted love, permanence, a chance for redemption. When R.J. was just a toddler, his daddy left home. When he was a boy, his mom's boyfriend raped him more than once. He believes in love. He believes sex will lead him to it.

R.J. calls me from Kentucky. It's always the same--the lazy laugh, the "hey, girl! What's up," the hip, casual slur in his voice. Always like he's just called to shoot the shit when there's always something on his mind. He mentions that he's bringing his mom's ex-boyfriend to court for raping him. "Now it's my turn to fuck him up the ass." R.J. is joking, high as a kite at 4:30 in the afternoon--whiskey, reefer--partying with his mom. R.J. doesn't know why he's as high as a kite at 4:30 in the afternoon. R.J. has no one to talk to.

The saddest thing I've ever heard from a boy or girl was from a 17-year-old in a Planned Parenthood clinic. She'd had one kid, two abortions, and now she was pregnant again for the fourth time and she couldn't get any kind of advice from her boyfriend. Damn, she couldn't even get a reaction. In a voice thick with despair, she muttered, "At least say something."

Another girl I know called up a clinic to schedule an abortion, and when she was put on hold, "Greatest Love of All" played into the phone. Her boyfriend was long gone. Tears rolled down the girl's cheek. She hung up. Had baby.

At one time I might've told her: Don't throw everything away for a man who's not even there for you, for a stupid mistake. Don't throw away your youth, girl! But she threw it away--and not for a man but for a tie to someone, something.

"No blood, no love," the homicide cop's brusque shorthand for a certain mentality he stumbles across every workday. A friend who teaches teen-agers says: "These girls are all in such violent relationships!" She thinks she understands their desire to be loved, connected--so strong, they'll put up with anything. What is violence compared to love? Or as the kids might put it--less hopefully--what is violence compared to the fear of loneliness? We already know their answer. We see it on the news, hooded and handcuffed, every night. But we only know it in part. The unsentimental cop is closer to their truth--violence itself is intimate, entangling; the very opposite of the quick fuck, I'll see you later, baby. Blood is love.

"It's not about love." That's what the black Muslim girls say, the ones I met in Newark, N.J. They tell me that they did the teenage bit, boyfriends and movies and shopping and the quick slide into sex and wham! love. "I wanted to see what the world had to offer me. Not much. A lot of heartache, a lot of mischief," says one girl. She'd had an abortion. But she meant more than pregnancy and fear of disease; she meant abandonment and grief. A boy's there "loving you," and then he's gone. She told one cheating boyfriend, "You know, you cannot save my soul."

These girls just up and left the dangerous rush of the world, the battle of the sexes. They pulled in all the scattered pieces of themselves, sat like stones at prayer. Desolation all around them, cries of rage and hurt turn tinny, unreal as they crouch there, hunched beneath their veils, eyes glittering. They can see what no one else can--"Life without a soul is sad," they say.

"We born, we live, we die--that's it? I wanted to know why . . . I had a desire to submit and to better myself internally." So says Cheri, one of the Muslim girls. Before she found Islam, Cheri decided to join the army. She told her mom, "I think this is my calling." Cheri filled out her contract but felt no peace. "It was a total battlefield inside. I was scared. I was messed up." She decided, "This ain't it." And left the recruiting office.

She began to think about breaking up with her boyfriend, a boy she loved. Her girlfriends thought she was crazy. Then, Cheri stopped sleeping.

That girl walked the streets of Newark, fevered, sick as a homeless dog, wondering if she was indeed mad. The bookstore sign appeared like a mirage and Cheri stepped inside. Searched the aisles, but saw nothing, nothing. All seemed lost. But then, a voice, yes, a Voice said, "Turn around." And she did and saw the Koran on top of a bookshelf. She climbed the shelves, hand outstretched. "Hold it, sister, you'll kill yourself trying to get that book." She took that book and devoured it on the bus ride home and that night and the next day at work. . . .

She broke up with her boyfriend; she veiled. "This man can't save me from what I need to be saved from which is myself."

R.J. hooks up with a girl named Sarah and they call to tell me they've decided to make a baby. Sarah has three little brothers, and R.J. tucks them in at night like they were his own. He and Sarah play sex games at her parents' house. They tell me about last night's experiment--Vicks VapoRub rubbed on his dick. They read about it somewhere and decided to try it. It stung like hell. Which made them break out laughing and run for the bathroom and pour cold water on it which made it burn more. Two 17-year-olds cracking up in bed, playing sex games, trying like hell to get pregnant. . . .

R.J. and Sarah hope for the familiarity found only in 20-year marriages. "All I ever wanted all my life is to please my man," Sarah says. Who is this girl who believes love can be the answer, the meaning, more than enough to go on in this life? I know I should be worried that she'll lose her independence, her mobility, her SELF, become a patsy for a man. But her self, all alone, is what worries her. She wants to submit, to lose that strutting, fretful self in service to something. What's astonishing is that she thinks she can lose it in something as specific and nonabstract as one (lucky) guy.

The teenagers I know are both cynical and harshly passionate. What they want is so big, it's hard to get your eye around it at first. Who would've thought that teenagers talking about sex would end up talking about their souls? For that's what they're talking about, isn't it? Not body heat but life everlasting. Not the adventure of skin on skin, but a dinner table in the sky. It's not about love, Cheri proclaims, as she covers her gorgeous face with a veil and stops the day to kneel and pray to a will bigger than her own (and bigger than any damn boy's). She's a Muslim woman, and has disappeared into God's time. R.J. and Sarah still believe in the power of love, but even they want something bigger than just the two of them. They tell me they plan to get married on Sarah's daddy's birthday. R.J. will take on the names of Husband and Father--the faces change, the roles remain the same--and enter anonymity and eternity at the same time.

They have none of our ambivalence--independence vs. love, distinction vs. belonging. Their struggle is with the world--will it let them lose their loneliness? And how? They want something bigger than themselves to live for, something steadier and stronger than one-on-one love, something I long for and loathe, something eradicating--a "we" in their lives; a family feast that never ends, a tribe of friends, God's will. The only difference between that black girl in Newark and that white boy in Kentucky is that for one, sexual love is a dangerous temptation and for the other it is salvation itself. Both, by different routes, are hellbent on redemption.

And we can't help but look a little silly, standing here with all our concern, our talk of condoms and commitment, virginity and responsibility. We believe "self-esteem" will save them from disaster. We want them to have a good time, but we want them to be careful--OK, honey? We think we're giving instruction, but we're really more like the people left standing at the dock, waving, crying out, "Take care!" "Safe journey!" "Love you!" as the wind rises and they set off God knows where.

Kathy Dobie is an associate editor at Pacific News Service and a staff writer for Vibe magazine. She has also written regularly for The Village Voice. She specializes in writing about teens on the edge.



 News July 19, 1999

The unbearable whiteness of being

This year's hate killers are weak, lonely Caucasian men who murder those who have what they don't: A sense of belonging.

By Kathy Dobie

I haven't heard of anyone who spoke to Benjamin Smith during his three-day killing spree that ended in his suicide. As far as I know, he didn't pick up the phone late at night between killings and say goodbye to Mom or Dad. He didn't call his ex-girlfriend and say, "It's all your fault" or "I'm sorry" or something cryptic, a line from a song, perhaps, that we could've milked for meaning later.

For three days, Smith cruised in his car alone, a young white man in a light blue Taurus, two handguns at his side. After that first time, he didn't even get out of the car to shoot. He aimed out the window. He shot without saying a word. He sped away. He appeared an hour later, a day later, in another neighborhood, another city, finding new targets. No notes were left on the bodies, no racist pamphlets mailed to the police, no slogans shouted before pulling the trigger. He was a man with nothing left to say. A young white man. He killed all weekend, out there alone in his blue Taurus, and shot himself that Sunday night.

How many news reports have I read where "Man kills girlfriend and children, then self"? Hundreds, I suppose. I've always wondered if they turn the gun on themselves at the end to escape judgment. Or were they suicidal all along and just couldn't bear to leave her and the kids behind? Couldn't bear it because they knew that their families would survive fine without them; indeed, they would be happy to see them go.

Who did Benjamin Smith decide to take with him? Not his family, not his girlfriend -- she left him over a year ago. A black man walking with his children. A Korean man coming out of church with a group of fellow worshippers. He shot at Orthodox Jews returning from temple and a group of Asian students talking outside their college dormitory. Like the high school killers in Littleton, Colo., Smith went after anyone who believed -- in God, in family, in the rightness of their own existence. And anyone who belonged.

When I interviewed white-power skinheads a few years back, they were almost all the children of middle class, suburban families, like Benjamin Smith, like the Littleton boys, like the white supremacists in Sacramento, Calif. accused of murdering a gay couple. To the skinheads I met, being white meant being rootless, causeless, no flag to wave, no people to feel loyal to, no one feeling loyalty to them. "If the race war happened now, whites would lose," they complained. "Blacks are so close together. They'd be real easy to set off and they'd all stick together but whites wouldn't."

They were educated kids, articulate. For all their talk of racial pride, they didn't seem to like white people much. White meant weak. Greedy. Complacent. Most of all, lonely. They complained bitterly about how materialistic and bloodless white families had become.

Here's how one skinhead described his parents' middle-class life and their expectations for him: "It was go to high school, be on the football team, do all the things kids are supposed to do, then go to college, be a doctor, have a couple of kids when you're 30." His voice was filled with disgust.

He wanted to be working class. He wanted to be living in another era -- the 1930s or '40s, he thought, "when America was proud." At 16, he defied his parents and his class and dropped out of school to get married. He had three kids, worked a couple of jobs and he was happy. "I slept in the bed I made. I took care of business," is how he described it, proudly. Then his wife left him, and took the kids.

Every time I hear about another murderous young white man -- Benjamin Smith or the Bible study killer or the Sacramento white supremacists or the Colorado boys who spent their Saturday nights closed inside the garage making bombs -- I think of Kundera's phrase, "the unbearable lightness of being."

Who do they matter to? What value do they have, these awkward, bookish, lonely, none-too-pretty white boys? Where do they fit in? I doubt anyone feels more white today than these nerdy boys. It's obviously not a good feeling; they seem afraid of being afraid, of being perceived as weak or nerdy or alone. And that is how they are seen now; they can no more help it than an Asian kid can help being seen as smart.

Beware the lonely white boy. Beware the nerdy ones, the ones without girls and stuck with each other on weekend nights, in the garage, breaking glass, trying to make a party, a tribe out of two. They live in their heads because it's so unpleasant out here, and in there, they imagine themselves as warriors, wreckers of vengeance. Stephen King's "Carrie" is now a boy, a white boy. He is in a rage because he's a bookish, awkward boy and he has been made vulnerable.

When he was 20, Smith joined The World Church of the Creator. He couldn't have made a worse move -- a church without a God, a church that worshipped nothing but its own self, white men believing in ... white men. And so, Smith went out and he killed people who went to real churches, real temples, people who believed in something bigger than themselves, people living as if they mattered.

This weekend I went looking through some of the white racist sites on the Internet. One of them was nightmarish. "Is anyone out there?" read the most recent message. "I keep coming here and it looks the same. I posted a message awhile ago but no one's answered." All alone in cyberspace, like Bowie's astronaut, cut off from Ground Control, whirling endlessly. No one to hear you call, no voices coming through. This is the white man's nightmare, a nightmare he can't stop tweaking and calling up, shivering in dread all the while.

Last I heard, the skinhead I interviewed, the one who wanted only to raise his own family, had been arrested for murder. And Benjamin Nathaniel Smith died a white man's death: alone in a car, driving fast, he put a bullet in his head. It was the night of July 4th and his ex-girlfriend told the New York Daily News, "This is his Independence Day from the government, from everything."

salon.com | July 19, 1999


People July 9, 1999

All pets go to heaven

"They laughed," she says. "But later, the same people were sitting in here crying. You don't know how you're going to feel until it happens to you."

By Kathy Dobie

When Kathleen Leone and her husband Raymond first opened their funeral home in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn, Kathleen could hear the neighbors outside on the street laughing at the sign: "All Pets Go to Heaven Pet Funeral Home."

Kathleen and Raymond grew up in this neighborhood and for 21 years they've operated a funeral home for humans, but still their neighbors laughed or came inside just to gawk when they opened the new establishment. People with pets, even. One can imagine Kathleen sitting patiently through it all, like a mother waiting for her hyperactive kids to wind themselves down. She's been working in the death industry for two decades now. Her feelings aren't so easily bruised. "They laughed," she says mildly. "But then, later, I had these same people sitting in here crying. You don't know how you're going to feel until it happens to you."

All Pets Go to Heaven has been in operation for two years now and it seems very much part of the neighborhood. The Leones describe it as an "all service" pet funeral home, providing burials and cremations, both private and communal, wakes in the Victorian viewing room, online counseling for the grief-stricken, memorial cards and plaques, embalming and even freeze-dried taxidermy.

It's housed in a large, handsome brownstone on a street of brownstones. Raymond's parents own the building and his brother lives upstairs. Brown awnings shade the windows and are stamped with the silhouettes of rabbits and frogs.

Even though every year more and more hip young Manhattanites are moving into Carroll Gardens, it still feels like a working-class Italian neighborhood. There are religious shrines in some of the front yards and small markets run by fathers and their sons. And there's the pet funeral home. As soon as I stepped into the viewing parlor and saw the small, powder-blue coffin for the small male dog or cat, I knew I was among people who weren't afraid of family feeling.

"I just had a wake for a Rottweiler, day before yesterday," Kathleen tells me. "He's being buried this morning. His owner's a single woman. She's burying him with a blanket she crocheted when she was a girl that was supposed to be for her first child. But she never married, never had any children. The dog was her son." Kathleen's the mother of three girls and very pregnant with the fourth. She has short blond hair, a strong face and brown eyes that look tired this particular morning, only a couple of weeks away from her due date. She's a registered nurse, and before she and Raymond opened up All Pets, Kathleen was a nursing supervisor in a long-term care facility for the elderly. Her daughters are named after her and Raymond's mothers and grandmothers. She describes herself as "old-fashioned" and says that their clients are just "regular Joes that come in off the street."

We talk at Kathleen's desk, in the middle room of the funeral home. In the front is the viewing parlor, where rows of chairs face the little blue coffin and a statue of St. Francis of Assisi. In the room behind us, there's a wide selection of urns displayed on shelves. Some are shaped like dogs; some look like pretty cookie tins and are stamped with kittens' faces or flowers.

The engravable urns are the most popular, according to Kathleen. They come in dark and light woods, white or gray granite and white marble, and are engraved with the deceased pet's name. The dates of birth and death and a photograph are applied to the front -- the smaller ones cost $125.

"In the past there were no options for people [whose pets have died]," Kathleen says. "Just our being here raises a question in people's minds -- oh, what am I going to do when my pet dies?" The options she and her husband provide raise more questions: Burial or cremation? Would I visit a grave? Do I need them nearer to me? On the mantelpiece? If I give a wake, who would come? And should I have a religious service or just read a poem?

Kathleen's right: The very presence of a pet funeral home causes you to think -- if not about what you want to do for your pet when it dies then about animals and where they fit into our lives, and about the rituals we have around death and the ways we circumscribe love.

The Rottweiler was the biggest animal that has been brought to the funeral home so far -- 52 inches long, running the entire length of Kathleen's freezer. He was only 6 years old when he passed away. "His owner was in shock," Kathleen says. "She thought maybe he got depressed when her mother got sick and that killed him."

The smallest animal was a goldfish named Poppy. His owner wanted him cremated. "I tried to convince her just to bury it," Kathleen says. "I said, you're not going to get hardly anything back, if you get the flick of an ash -- and that's about what she got back -- but she wanted that. I gave her the urn because it was ridiculous not to. Firing up the cremator costs the same amount of money whether it's a cat or a goldfish."

Kathleen had a goldfish herself at one time, and though she was sorry to see it pass on, she couldn't grieve for the fish like she would a dog or a cat. "But you know what? Someone could say, 'How can you feel that for a cat?' I think it's about security and love. That goldfish? That was what she had to come home to at night."

When I ask Kathleen what's the most unusual request she's ever gotten in the pet funeral business, she says, "I don't find anything to be unusual. Everything is individual, so it's not unusual." For a moment she seems to regard me almost warily, but it's not the look of a wounded person; it's sharper, more measuring than that.

"Your customers seem to be mostly women," I say to her, and she says quickly, almost sternly, no, not really, it's women and men, gay and straight, young and old, we get them all.

She's cremated two pythons for two different customers. Cato and Bruno. Bruno's the one she remembers because he was beautiful and big,about 150 pounds. The owner was a bouncer in a Manhattan club. He told Kathleen that he had his apartment climatized for the snake. He opted for cremation and a Roman urn.

"Actually I was surprised I didn't hear from him afterward," Kathleen says, since the more grief-stricken clients often feel the need to stay in touch for a while and the bouncer was pretty shaken up.

"But he had his friends," she remembers. "They came with him. I mean, he didn't have a viewing or anything, but his friends all came with him when he brought the python in and when he picked up the cremains, they all came with him again. So he had a good support system there."

It's always easiest for Kathleen when the clients want to tell her everything about the pet, especially if they choose to have a wake. Then she can spend those two hours talking to them about their animal and not just coming in and out of the room, asking if they're all right and if they want some water.

"Most of my people will bring photo albums and share the pictures of their pets with me, tell me about the one funny incident, the one bad incident -- you know, talk about the guilt of how they feel when they yelled at him," she says. "And I'll take them through what I need to do at that point to help them get over those guilty feelings."

She sees no difference between the human and the pet funeral business -- mourning is mourning, she says.

"Right now, I have a man whose pet is still living. His wife passed away within the last few months. She's out in St. Charles cemetery and he said he wasn't prepared for her death, and now the dog he's had for 14 years is pretty much ... on her last leg and he wants to be prepared.

"He doesn't want the same thing to happen to him, you know -- the emotions -- as when his wife passed away," she continues. "He wants to be prepared, so I've been talking to him on the phone throughout this week, two, three days a week. He wants to bury [the dog] out at the cemetery, which is very close to St. Charles, so this way he could do two visits in one day."

Kathleen didn't grow up with animals. Just one family dog, she says, and her sister got to have a turtle, a very small turtle, because "we didn't have the space, my mother worked full time, my father worked full time and there was a big stress on education, that was your first priority."

Her husband, Raymond, was the one with the zoo in the backyard. "Pigs, cows, snakes, everything," she laughs. "Believe it or not, when I first met him, they had pheasants flying in their house, they had goats in the backyard. They used to run pony rides in the neighborhood."

"So do you love animals more now, I mean, working in this business?" I ask her.

"I notice them more," she says, sounding careful again.

"Well, has running this business changed you?"

"Not really," she replies. For a minute I think she's just determined to make sure I find nothing strange or unusual about the pet funeral business, but maybe she's just telling me the truth.

"I used to be a regular Joe, working 8 to 4, Monday through Friday, and now I work by appointment when it's convenient for my clients," she explains. "Otherwise I'm really doing basically the same thing I was doing before -- I'm serving the public and I'm providing a service that's necessary. I come from a family of doctors and nurses, so we're all community service."

Finally, I get her to admit to one difference when I ask her if she ever gets her heart broken on this job.

"Yes, that's part of the business," she says. "I mean some people can detach themselves. I found that I was able to do it better -- function in the role of a nurse than I can function in the role of a funeral manager.

"As a nurse, my specialty was geriatrics and I felt that, all right, they had lived a very fulfilling life and they're here now, they're in a long-term care facility and I'm doing whatever I can to make the best of the rest of their life. I made every day fun. I made sure recreation was scheduled; I ran parties, dancing, singing, art. I really investigated their lifestyles," Kathleen continues, "so if they were just some antisocial people, they like to have their cup of tea and their crossword puzzle, like my mother, then I made sure that was maintained. I never forced them to do anything.

"So I felt satisfied, but here you don't have the time. I try to get as much information as possible but I don't have a lot of time. There I had years, you know? Here I don't. I have a very small window to work with."

On my last visit to the funeral home, I have the odd desire to ask Kathleen for a job. She has to take maternity leave, doesn't she? But I never get up the nerve. I feel incredibly peaceful sitting at her desk in the funeral parlor while she tells me the story of a young man named Elvis who had a wake for his cat, though no one in his family could understand.

"I felt so bad for him, he broke down in pieces," she says. "He was a real bruiser, someone you would think wouldn't shed one tear and I had to scrape him off the floor." His mother looked appalled; his girlfriend rolled her eyes. Kathleen sat with him, speaking to him about his cat. She paid no attention to the nonbelievers in the room. "I'm not going to leave the person who's come to me out in the cold," she says.

Elvis still calls her from time to time, though now it's every few months, instead of every week, so Kathleen knows he's worked through his grief; he's feeling better.

And my feelings about Kathleen have changed also. At first, I saw her as a brave defender of a misunderstood, even ridiculed love -- "How can you be so upset for a dog?" But finally, I could see that in defending and protecting these loves, she was protecting love itself, in whatever form it takes -- "Crying for a hamster, for God's sakes!"

Oh, the extravagant heart!

salon.com | July 9, 1999


Only The Survivors Can Grasp The Meaning Of Columbine

By Kathy Dobie

Date: 04-18-00

Distance in time and space may help us reach some understanding of events that cannot be explained in any usual way. Looking at Columbine from New York City after a year of trying to know what it was all about, PNS commentator Kathy Dobie has come to realize that the meaning of the incident will be decided only by how the survivors -- mothers and fathers, sisters, brothers, teachers, cops -- lead their own lives in the wake of the tragedy.

A year has gone by since the killings at Columbine. Two teenagers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, fired over 200 rounds that day, killing twelve students and one teacher, wounding 23.

Six months later, the mother of a 17 year old girl paralyzed by the shooting walked into a local pawn shop with bullets in her handbag or coat pocket, asked the owner to see a gun and, when he turned away, loaded it and then shot herself in the head. I can't help but think she was shooting at them, the killers who had taken over her life, changed every thought and hour so completely.

Like most of us, I don't know anyone personally affected by the school shootings but I read the papers, watch the TV -- even look up the Rocky Mountain News on the Internet.

And now I realize that I know an astounding number of details about Columbine, as you probably do -- Dylan Klebold's nickname was "Vodka," one of the murdered teacher's daughters dances in a nightclub in Denver, both killers have 21-year-old brothers, 450 backpacks were left behind in the school cafeteria as students fled that day, every bullet hole in the school was plastered over by construction workers who volunteered their labor, the double doors that led into the old library are currently covered up with rows of lockers and the library itself will eventually be replaced with a glass atrium and a mural showing a grove of trees (sycamores to be precise) and a clearing filled with sunlight.

Why did the boys do it? Were they abused by the jocks, pushed and prodded into this act of overblown vengeance? Were they simply hate-filled boys? Boys with access to guns but not enough feeling? Did God work in mysterious ways or was it evil on the loose that day?

Some people in the media blamed the violent video games the two boys liked; others defended the games. Some said we need stricter gun laws; some said we need God in school. For awhile there was interest in the anti-depressants Eric was on. We were told Eric was a born leader and Dylan a follower and that, according to the New York Times, young rampage killers rarely act alone.

The meaning of Columbine eludes us because it is no longer in the past, in the why of Dylan and Eric -- their motives, their methods, their choice of ammunition -- in the clues the detectives pored over last spring.

The meaning of Columbine now lies with the survivors, the mothers and fathers, the sisters and brothers and cousins of the victims, with the injured students, the terrified ones, the teachers, the cops.

They will decide the meaning of Columbine, each of them, in their own way and over and over again throughout their lives. It's unfair but it's also just -- unfair that they should be tied so completely to the killers and the killings but just that they should be the ones who finally find the meaning, tell the story, of that day.

So many of the survivors say, I'm not leaving Columbine. This is my home. I'm not leaving town and moving somewhere else --where would I go? Who would understand what it's like, who but the people who have gone through this horror with me?

Violence is a language and Eric and Dylan spoke with 200 rounds of ammunition which is one way to make sure that you and only you are heard. Such a blunt crude language and yet we still don't know what they were trying to say.

At the end of March, four Columbine students gave a poetry reading about the shooting. One girl wrote directly to one of the killers, "I cannot justify/I cannot explain/I do not want it to be you/all I can do is remember/and cry--why?/I want to tell you/that I love you/and wish that it wasn't you..."

A wire service story says that the 13-year-old brother of one of the victims insists on attending Columbine next year. He wants to go to the school where his brother died. Out of loyalty? A desire to be close to him?

As he follows in his brother's footsteps, I can't help but imagine him walking in complete silence, ears cocked, eyes peeled. He reminds me of someone driven (by dread, by love) to walk a difficult path, someone who must look, who must know, someone driven toward revelation.





 Jan/Feb 2001 || http://www.tikkun.org


Talking with the Neighbors

Palestinians in Brooklyn

Kathy Dobie

I live in a very Arabic section of Brooklyn and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict taints the air. It is both everywhere and nowhere. Our interaction is over groceries and making change. But behind the grocery store counter, the television is turned to the news, images flashing of barricaded soldiers and stone-throwing boys. I'm sure if I asked, the grocery store clerk could tell me that day's death totals. It seems obscene to merely ask for a pack of cigarettes. Some of these people I had always felt close to, but no longer. How could I say we were friends when we found no way to talk about something that was so close to their hearts?

Once a Palestinian woman had jokingly suggested to me that she would go out on Halloween as she was—her long dress, her headscarf—costumed as a Muslim. What a disguise! How is it that someone being exactly who they are becomes a cipher, a complete mystery, or worse, a cliché? Invisible, unknowable. Like the Hasidim with their paies, the Indian woman with her caste mark. But these are my neighbors; fellow citizens, they define me as an American. I'm only half a person, out of the loop, comfortable, perhaps, but very shallow, and very pale I might add, ignorant and dull, if their lives are removed from mine.

Again and again, the Palestinians I know make a distinction between the Israeli people and the Israeli government, and so why not talk to them: not to the spokesmen for the Palestinian people, not to Arafat, who no one seems to like or trust, or to his aides, but to the ordinary person, to people who were neither caught in the heat of the battle nor removed from its suffering, to my neighbors who had (unbearably for me) suddenly become strangers.

I. A Palestinian family in Brooklyn

When he saw the footage on tv of the Palestinian man and his son being shot at by Israeli soldiers, he cried. He was alone in his small clothing store in downtown Brooklyn, having just opened up for the day, and he just sat down at the register and wept. And then he opened the store for business. "Over here, you can do nothing to help. You really can do nothing," he says.

I've known the storeowner for seven or eight years now. I consider him a friend, but he's afraid to be interviewed by me. He's afraid to offend his many Jewish customers and also that the FBI will show up at his store asking questions, though nothing he has to say is even remotely threatening. He doesn't want me to use his name. When I ask him to pick a name to use in the article, he comes up with "Billy Bob Joe," making me, the other employees, and his nine-year-old son laugh. It's just like old times, all of us playing around. His son, still laughing but mischievously now, suggests another name, "Hammas."

No, that won't do at all.

They try on a few more, everyday names like Imad, but Billy Bob Joe wins out. Perhaps he's worried about more than just losing his Jewish customers. Maybe he's worried about losing a certain lightness in his life, an easy intimacy and banter with his customers, black and Puerto Rican, Jewish and white; an American self.

He was born and raised in a village outside Ramallah, but he's been living and working in Brooklyn for close to twenty years. Two years ago, he sent his wife and seven kids to the West Bank to live in the house he built on his family's land, hoping for the day he could get work there and move back himself—then the violence started.

During those first few weeks of the conflict, I watched him become almost ghostlike, quite literally paler, but also hardly present except as a set of dark, worried eyes. His joking stopped. He no longer called any of his female customers "smiley," and the older black men who used to visit him in the morning, just to drink coffee and gossip, began to drift away.

"I was going crazy," he tells me now. "I was calling my wife and kids two, three times a day. Sometimes my wife would be crying. I heard the bullets behind my house." He began to make arrangements to get his family out of there. On the wall of his house, the one it took him eight years to build, the one he has always dreamed about returning to, one of his sons wrote: "To America. For good."

His wife and kids arrived ten days ago. Now the nine of them live in two rooms in downtown Brooklyn. His middle son brought his SonyPlaystation. The oldest girl didn't bring any shoes but the sneakers she wore and now she really wishes she had something else to wear to high school.

When I wonder if he's worried about his children growing up filled with hatred, he's strangely passive, saying only, "I don't know how they'll be when they grow up because they've seen a lot over there. But there's nothing I can do about it." At seven years old, his youngest child has witnessed more violence than he has. "The problem is over here, we see nothing," he says obliquely. "Over there, you see a lot of things."

There must be thousands of men like him, men who left Palestine in order to get work and support their families and found that they left their wives and children to survive a war. One thing he does know: he doesn't want to fight the war over here. When one of the young Palestinians who lives in the neighborhood puts a Palestinian flag up on the cash register, he takes it down. "I don't want everybody to hate me. I have a lot of Jewish customers," he explains.

His wife, fresh from the horror, is completely energized and, unlike him, more than willing to talk. "Come in, sit down," she says warmly and one of her daughters gives me her chair. Hope is small, plump-cheeked and brown-eyed. She's wearing a white veil and a long, chocolate-colored dress. There are two dark marks, like stains, on her face that she says came out the night of the bombing, "the worst night of my life," the night the Israelis retaliated for the mob killing of two of their soldiers.

Hope and her youngest daughter were only yards from the police station when it happened. They were shopping for a suitcase to come here and they saw crowds of people running, then a body coming down from the station's second floor window. She grabbed her daughter's hand and started running. Everyone knew there would be immediate retaliation. That night they slept on the floor in the bedroom of her mother's house—Hope, her sister, and her mother flanking the children with their bodies. The missiles shook the house all night. The next morning, her daughters also woke up with dark spots on their chests and legs.

Hope shows me a needlepoint map of Palestine that she's making. All of the major cities are shown, the temples, the bodies of water in blue, the flag of Palestine, as well as two fists breaking through barbed wire, spilling red drops of blood. All of it rendered in the tiniest stitches.

Hope seems transformed by the violence she saw, by the fact that she and her children survived, and by the passion, "the courage," of the Palestinians, especially the children and their grieving mothers. "Let me tell you something, our kids over there are more smart," she says. "Their mind is open. You think all those mothers will let their kids go and throw rocks at soldiers with guns? They just go." She tells me about Palestinian children who get shot and when they're taken to the hospital, ask to get stitched up as quickly as possible so they can get back to the battle. I don't know if these are true stories or something the adults need to believe about their warrior-children, but I know she's inspired by them.

II. Two young Palestinian-American men

Samir comes to my front door wearing the Palestinian flag like a Superman cape over his shoulders. His friend Amjad had just called him on the cell phone to tell him I wanted to interview them on how it felt to be Palestinian Americans right now. "Bro, I didn't think you were going to do that," Amjad says, laughing and shaking his head when Samir walks through the door, straight-faced, the flag billowing out behind him.

Samir's twenty-five, born and raised in Brooklyn; most people call him Sammy. Amjad, who's twenty-eight, grew up in a housing project in Detroit, then moved with his mother and siblings to Brooklyn seven years ago; he's been supporting them ever since. He works fourteen hours a day, six days a week at a grocery store where most of the customers, including me, call him Steve. But when I ask them what names they want to use, they choose their Arab names.

"What is it like for you watching the war on tv?" I ask them. Samir has always spoken in a kind of shorthand and he does now, though his voice is heavy. "Little kids getting killed. Rocks compared to bullets. Tanks; no vehicles. Helicopters shooting at houses. You can't do nothing about it and nobody's helping them."

"You just take it in your heart," Amjad says.

"And hold it in," Samir adds.

What else can they do?

"You're gonna fight over there?" Amjad asks.

"They're not gonna let us in the country," Samir says.

"If they did, would you go and fight?" I ask them and they're both quiet.

"To tell you the truth, that's a point I wouldn't know," Amjad finally says.

"That I can't answer," Samir adds. "I know a lot of people that are dying to go but I can't answer that one."

If they were over there now, they imagine desperate acts. Not rocks, but guns. "I would try to grab a tank, to tell you the truth," Amjad says. "I would be going out at nights trying to kill me a couple of soldiers. I'm not going to lie." But even if he could go, he wouldn't. "Because if I leave here who's gonna take care of my mother, my sisters? I wouldn't want to go over there and die and nobody's here to take care of them."

So, to be a young Palestinian American male is to have to put yourself to that kind of test: you want to help and the only way you can imagine doing so involves imagining yourself killing and then imagining your own death.

Amjad can't imagine the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis ever ending, he says, except "in a war, until the whole group dies, whichever group it is, Palestinians or Israelis." Samir thinks it will end if the Palestinians get the Al-Aqsa mosque back, and in that he's more like most of the Palestinians I talk to in Brooklyn. None of them question Israel's right to exist but all of them want control over their mosque and even Jerusalem.

As an older Palestinian says to me, "It never end, it never, never end until they turn back Jerusalem to the Palestinians. It's our Holy Land. It's important, important over there. Then everything will be alright. They don't have a right to stay in Jerusalem. It's not their land. It's our land. It's our holy mosque." With a smile, he adds, "Revolution until victory."

Neither Samir nor Amjad want the conflict to spread over here between Brooklyn Arabs and Jews. If he had kids, he wouldn't even let them watch the news on TV, Amjad adds. "Why would you want to let them see what their own people are going through, getting killed and they're just throwing rocks? It would just probably make them hate more. Probably they'd go to school and they want to beat up on a Jewish person for nothing and the Jewish person probably doesn't even know nothing about it."

Samir and Amjad understand perfectly the ways in which they are American. First off, the older people tell them to save, save, save "and we spend, spend, spend," the two of them tell me. Then, there is Samir's love for his Mustang, the money he's poured into it over the years, the way he calls the car, "my baby," all of these things make him seem crazy to the older Palestinians, almost morally suspect. Then there are their huge credit card debts. "That's the American dream," Amjad jokes. "Everybody in America is in debt. That's the only way you know you're having fun."

Still they are the ones who pick their Arabic names for the article. And Samir is the one who recently draped the Palestinian flag over the hood of his Mustang and drove around Brooklyn for four days, only taking the flag off after getting stopped by cops five times, and being told by his friends over and over again to take it off before he got shot.

"Why did you want to drive around like that?" I ask him.

"To bother," he says.

"Just to annoy them," Amjad adds helpfully.

"To annoy them," Samir agrees. "And everybody else? All the Palestinians and the Libyans and the Egyptians? Get happy. Put a smile on their faces." A lot of people flashed him peace signs and gave him the thumbs up, especially in the Arabic neighborhoods. And when Samir drove through the Hasidic section of Williamsburg, people stared at him in alarm, "and the little kids start running."

"Your own little war over here," I say.

"No, not a war. Not a war at all," he says and says it so seriously and with a kind of resigned sadness to his voice that I'm ashamed for putting it so lightly.

Kathy Dobie is an associate editor at Pacific News Service and writer-at-large for Vibe magazine. Her freelance articles have appeared in Harpers, the Village Voice, Salon, and Vogue.



Black, Female and Muslim
by Kathy Dobie
May 28, 1991, pp. 25-29

The Premiere Statewide Islamic Sisters' Friendship Conference. The Malcolm Shabazz mosque, 116th Street, Harlem.

"As-salaam alaikum," the sisters say each to each, signing in, paying the $3 registration fee, passing each other on the wide stairs up to the musallah where Muslims pray. It's a big, plain room, painted white, carpeted thinly in red. Arched windows let in the light. Five times a day the imam leads the prayers in Arabic. The Muslims stand, bend, kneel, bow--face flat and humble to the floor. The women - veiled, turbaned, saris trimmed in gold, cotton tunics from African cloth - fill the musallah. They pray behind the men - the Islamic way. Islam acknowledges that men are punks. They can't concentrate on the spiritual when they're looking at your behind. Take off your shoes, sister, cover your hair.

First on the program: "Quran'ic Answers to Issues Affecting Islamic Women." The women are seated in folding chairs, facing five white-robed brothers--imams from mosques in the city.

"In the summer I wear sandals," says an eager young woman. "But I wear stockings underneath--is that okay?"

"If they're opaque," a turbaned imam says. "Only your hands and face should be showing," he reminds them.

"This is a means of protection for you. We may not understand but we must respond if Allah has said it."

He goes on to tell the women that many of them are clothed improperly: kufis, turbans are for men. The metal chairs creak. "The Qur'an says that a man shouldn't dress like a woman, and a woman shouldn't dress like a man."

One sister whispers: "He's got a lot of nerve telling us what to wear when he's standing up there in a dress."

When the imams leave, a woman in a red turban stands: "I don't care what the brother says about scarf, no scarf, opaque stockings--we are beautiful, sisters!"

Then the women take over their conference.

In a small classroom downstairs, Katrina Haslip, round face framed by a short veil, formal, nervous, gives her talk on AIDS: "Many of us in this room are converts. We have a past of drug addiction, even prostitution. I'm a Muslim and I'm HIV-positive." Donna Habib's talk on teenage pregnancy pivots on her own 16-year-old daughter. A mother tells the story of her son selling crack. Aisha Muhammed, terrifying in her sweeping black robes, high-hatted veil, and her scorched passion, calls on the women to be "visible Muslims." But she's coming from a different place than the turbaned imam. Dress so we can find each other when we're "out running in this desert of America," she cries. The conference ends with an Islamic fashion show.

I call myself a triple minority--I'm black, I'm female, and I'm Muslim.

I'm an African American but I'm Muslim above all. When I see an injustice, I say 'That's un-Islamic.' I don't jump to the race thing.

I don't feel oppressed because I'm coming from a Negro woman's perspective. I would open my arms to a man who would provide for and protect me.

Like the sisters say: there's Islam, and then there's Hislam.

Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States; some 400,000 African Americans are Muslim. At the Malcolm Shabazz that day, there were first- and second-generation Muslims--converts and young women raised in the religion from birth. Many of the children hopping like birds in the hallways will be third-generation Muslim.

Many came to the religion in the '70s through Elijah Muhammad's Lost-Found Nation of Islam. When Elijah died in 1975, some followers drifted away or joined the race-based movement of Louis Farrakhan. Many more followed the lead of Elijah's son Wallace D. Muhammad (exiled by his father from the Nation) as he began to teach religious Islam--based on the Qur'an and the words of the prophet Muhammad. (Muhammad was the last prophet, Wallace reminded them, stripping his father of that status). Wallace dismantled the financial holdings of the Nation, and disband ed the Fruit of Islam, the all-male cadre that guarded mosques and the leadership--for becoming nothing more than "a hoodlum outfit...playing politics and playing revolution." Mosque #7 in Harlem was renamed for Malcolm X, who broke with Elijah and may have been killed by members of the Nation.

Whites were now welcome to join the American Islamic community.

The popular image of Islam remains Middle Eastern; the women are ghostly figures--in purdah, in men's custody, publicly silent. The African-American women I spoke to envisioned Islam differently--finding in that same picture an image of women and children protected from violence and poverty.

According to the Qur'an, the woman has no financial obligations to her family. She should be home with her children, the women said - though all but one of them worked. Men are the protectors and breadwinners. And this message, in the Muslim community, comes from men--for mosques are filled with men the way Christian churches are filled with women. Men run most of the day-to-day operations, and are required to offer some prayers there; women can pray at home. Men's responsibilities to women are spelled out in elaborate detail in the Qur'an. "You go to a church to find Christ," one woman joked, "you go to a mosque to find a man."

Though it's obligatory, many women "cover" only for Islamic events. You can't succeed in corporate America dressed Muslim, they said. But some of the women, particularly the fierce younger ones, insist on orthodox dress. One woman's aunt tells her: "You're never gonna be successful," but the woman sees her aunt as a "corporate clone"--stressed-out and empty. Orthodox or not, all dress "modestly" and say they're treated with more respect on the street. A young newlywed said with pride: "Men don't even look."

The women have recreated themselves through religious conversion. As Muslims, they live in a bigger world where America's power to define and value them as black females is diminished. Many whites still find black Muslims threatening.

"There's a lot of ignorance because of white people being afraid of blacks in general--especially black men," says Sharanda Shabazz. "Then, black women are projected as the strong martyr type--they raise the children, they don't take no stuff. Then they see the African dress and they think--'Oh my God, here comes the terrorist!'"

I met the women during Ramadan, the month of fasting from dawn to dusk; the Burning, in Arabic. They come from Newark and Niagara Falls, Harlem and the East Village. I interviewed them in the 11th year of the AIDS epidemic--a plague of Biblical proportion in the black community.


It's a huge fight for me. I just about don't want to raise my children because of everything I'll have to shield them from, or pull out of their head.--Sarah Shah

When one of Donna Habib's 16-year-old twins came home pregnant, Donna blamed it on the public schools, peer pressure, America, herself, and her daughter. "When I was growing up, if I had sex with somebody--and I want this on the record: it wasn't at 16--it was because there was an emotional attachment. Today these kids get caught up in a moment." Donna and her husband are thinking of moving from Buffalo to an Islamic community, where their children can go to sex-segregated religious schools.

Donna's a 39-year-old public school teacher, raised Baptist--which made it easier for her to survive the switch from the Nation to El Islam. "My parents were always saying, 'God is not just for black people.'"

She has six kids--from 11 to 17 years old. "Ma, everybody's dating!" they say. "Everybody's doing everything," Donna retorts. "In America, everybody has their own mind and it's working overtime."

Premarital sex is forbidden in Islam; so is dating. Girls and boys, women and men are introduced to each through mutual acquaintances. They meet only with the intention of looking for a marriage partner, and they are always in the presence of a chaperone. So courtships are formal and short; girls are often married off young.

"I'm looking at my girls' confusion," Donna says. "They're Muslim. But they leave this door...some men take it as a notch on the belt buckle to be able to seduce a Muslim girl because she's not from the streets. She's 'pure meat'."

When her girl came home pregnant, Donna dove deep inside, sickened and angry, and examined herself. She had no doubts about refusing to put her daughters on birth control, in spite of her "own blood sister" advising it. Her daughters were peer counselors in an AIDS program, so they weren't ignorant, she says. But working full-time and not being home--that Donna wondered about.

Reading the Qur'an one day, tears fell and Donna looked up at her daughter and said, "This is not the way Allah wants things to be. There's a beautiful side to this when you have a husband, somebody there for you that cares for you." Her daughter cried.

"You've got to get a God connection," Donna told her. "Allah's the only one who can help you. Anyone can make a mistake but now go ahead and get your education and get the money so you can raise your child, raise a Muslim."

Donna thinks her daughter can do it--"She's very task-oriented. I've raised six kids, and I'm done--I'm not the one."

Thank God for her husband--"I tend to run my mouth, he's very calm. He came from a rough neighborhood--he knows a lot. The children all talk to him. Growing up, I didn't have that strong father connection."

When the boy offered to marry their pregnant daughter, Donna said to her husband--"Let him marry her--quick." But the husband met with him and told Donna, "This guy is nothing." Her husband gives money to their daughter each week to put away for the baby's birth.

"The Qur'an says the man is the provider, the protector of women and children. It says he is one notch above the woman--in physical strength only. If somebody tries to threaten my family, it's my husband who would emerge to take the bullet.

"In America, women make up a large part of the work force. In many homes, the men are not there." Her husband was unemployed when they met but Donna could see that he had a "God- consciousness, he was a praying man." He went to nursing school while she worked. "You had a man who was trying to make some strides. You have the African-American man--truly he's been broken down--trying to rise to what God says are his responsibilities. That's what's beautiful about Islam--it's a growing process. At least we have a frame of reference."

"And let me tell you something--when I stand before Allah on Judgment Day, my husband's prayers do not count for me. Now, I'm talking equal opportunity!"

I say "public schools," and Sarah Shah screams! Twenty-six years old, raised Muslim, married to a Muslim musician, and with any luck the baby pulling at her breast will be Muslim, too. They live on 140th Street and her two older children are bused to the Clara Muhammed school in Queens.

She herself attended public schools--uncovered for a few years, and learned how easy it was to get a boy's attention. "I threw on tighter jeans, opened the blouse wider." But when she got the attention, she panicked--now what? Sarah dressed Muslim again, and the boys who came to her parents' house came as friends. "I had one guy tell me, 'I know you're not gonna have sex with me, so I'll get it somewhere else.'"

At 17, Sarah was married to her first husband and was a little obsessive then, she admits. At the movies, she'd cover his eyes during the sex scenes. He'd struggle out from under: "What are you--crazy?"

Sarah laughs but when she walks down the streets with her second husband, she wants to grab every scantily dressed woman with her "meat hanging out," shove her home, make her cover. "Why should my husband look at your body? Go somewhere else!"

She wished the world would convert. She keeps her non-Muslim relatives away from her kids; wants to be a shield against "all the drugs, the homosexuality, the promiscuity." She picks movies carefully, forbids TV but still her six-year-old daughter comes running into the kitchen with handmade Freddy Krueger nails and slashes at her mother.

The princess of Malcolm Shabazz is how she hit me that first day--tiny, composed, beautiful; surrounded by women oohhing over her tiny son; standing to introduce herself as the daughter of Muslims, the mother of Muslims. Hamdu-lillah! the women called. All praises due to Allah!

Hafeezah Hasan raises her four grandchildren in the East Village. "Grandma!" The chip-toothed grandson has won the spelling contest--Hafeezah and he practiced for a week. The girl, 12 and long-legged (Hafeezah signals to me that soon the girl will grow breasts, and rolls her eyes back for all the trouble to come) is an artist. Writes and illustrates stories of shy children, though she herself is not shy. "My mother is," she tells me.

They're the children of two of Hafeezah's daughters--one killed herself when she was on angel dust; another is fighting crack addiction.

Hafeezah joined the Nation in 1975--"At that point I had lost my mother, I lost my husband--I didn't see myself going anywhere," Hafeezah says. She had eight kids, and she was struck by the Islamic emphasis on marriage and men's duty to family. She's 58 years old--some blue under the eyes, diabetic. She wears a nose ring, rose bandana, a T-shirt long enough to cover the hips. She doesn't go crazy with the covering up, she says, because she's an American Muslim and because, at 58, men aren't looking anymore.

Most of the people she grew up with are dead, Hafeezah says. Or looking old. Her first husband, whom she loved deeply, died from a long addiction to alcohol--they found him kneeling in bed, face pressed to the covers. That hurt and impressed Hafeezah-- like he was praying. There were only five people at the funeral-- that, too, impressed her. Can you imagine? Living a whole life and only five? she asks. Mother, sister, wife, ex-wife, daughter.

Islam gave her a voice, Hafeezah says--a public voice. "There was a time, I never would've let you come in the door," she says to me. "I wouldn't have spoken to you. I didn't think anybody should know my private feelings. You being Caucasian, and me being black--that inhibited me. I asked God to take this stigma about speech away from me. Since I've become Muslim, I've learned to be open. I feel I'm just as good as anybody else. We're all related whether we want to admit it or not."


The whole world is so stupid, they're behind in knowledge, religion, and In Life--PERIOD. In my world, which is far away from me, my number one knowledge is God, but I just can't find my world and I'm trapped in a world that is TOTALLY LOST when it comes to living. I'm trying to get myself together because I'm crying and writing at the same time but my biggest problem is Trying To Separate myself from the people in this LOST world....--Sameerah's journal

A street in Newark. Living houses next to dead ones--boards nailed across their eyes. Cement stairs lead up to Door Bell Not Working. No glass in the screen door. Lock broken. Inside, darkness. "Sameerah! Somebody's here for you!"

The eyes adjust and there's a metal bookshelf and photos of children (disappeared now into adulthood), and a powerfully handsome man (Sameerah's father before he left when she was 13), and a framed photograph of tiny Elijah Muhammad and his taller son Wallace (before his father exiled him from the Nation), and Sameerah's mother--white helmeted, white gowned, a serene and glowing Sister of the Nation in uniform (before Elijah's death). All preserved in dust.

Sameerah, Khalil, Rasheeda, and Muhammad (their names have been changed) live here with their mother--a health-care worker on the night shift at a home for the disabled. Curtains hang from the dining-room entrance; a small boy struggles out of them. Rasheeda's son--she and he live in the curtained-off dining room. "It's so dreary," Sameerah apologizes, and brings me upstairs to her "palace," as her friends call it. "I live like a bachelor in my mother's house," Sameerah says. Eats, sleeps, prays, studies in her room. Her hair's covered with a black, tassled veil; checked pants, long-sleeved blouse, loafers. Perfectly orthodox in dress--even her ears and neck covered.

Her parents were converts to the Nation and Sameerah attended Muhammed University until she was eight. Then her mother put her into public schools and Sameerah began to "uncover" bit by bit, feeling naked at first. When I ask her about those uncovered years she gives them to me in chronological order, chapter by chapter, each bearing the title of a boy's name. Fourteen--Darryl--kissing. Seventeen--Michael--an abortion: "I didn't know it was a sin then!" All Sameerah thought was: "I'm not going on welfare!" (Michael had a baby with another girl--that hurt.) Thomas paid too much attention to Sameerah's girlfriend, so she dated David. Louis was Christian--and told her: "Why don't you cover again? Why don't you go back to your religion?" Louis was messing around, so Sameerah did the same. "All this dating and breaking up and the lifestyle was leading up to a climax and I didn't even know it," Sameerah says. She recorded all the confusion in her journal, sometimes waking with a start in the middle of the night, with the feeling that she was dying.

One day a girlfriend told her that AIDS was invented to kill black people. Sameerah went home scared and grabbed her Qur'an and read that Allah would destroy a nation of people because they did not believe--expelling babies from the womb, extinguishing the sun. "You shall see mankind reeling like drunkards." She shook and cried. "That was the end of it." She told her boyfriend: "You cannot save my soul." (He's in jail now--maybe he can straighten himself out there, she says.)

Prayers, five times a day, were hard at first and then-- whoosh--came the peace. "Man, I felt so good," she says. "That's what I was searching for. These men...I say, 'Honey, you better get out of my face' because life is not about men. I know some women who worship men but you cannot hold on to an orgasm. The good you do, the bad--that's what matters. It's about knowing your purpose and following through. Don't let the world devour you because it sure will. I know--I've been out there in this world. I don't love it that much. In fact, I don't love it at all."

When night falls and Sameerah breaks fast, we head out for pizza. The streets are full--all the young travel in groups-- girls screaming laughter, boys shouting shit back. We hit a hilltop and suddenly there's a giant sky--ink-black clouds flying west. Beautiful, I say and Sameerah laughs at me--"It's spooky." Spooky because it's another sign that the world is nearing an end --weather changes and men wearing women's clothes. And spooky because (I realize with a shock) Sameerah hasn't been out in the night in a long time. Muslim women are supposed to be in by sunset, she says. "It's for our own protection," Sameerah tells me--because the world is violent toward women, because the Jinn, demonic and angelic spirits, are abroad at night. (Her aunt walked out of the house into the night and disappeared forever. She had been driven half-crazy by trying to raise kids in a bad marriage and deepening poverty. Doctors gave her drugs, and a bill. Her depression deepened and she stepped out. They found her body in the Passaic River.)

Sameerah will stay in her mother's house until she gets married. She puts herself through college with her office job, but cannot afford an apartment. Money aside, she says, it's the right way, the Muslim way. "It's best to stay in the house where there's a man for protection."

One Muslim man has asked to meet her. Sameerah's uncle is supposed to introduce them and play chaperone, but her uncle's fallen off the job. Sameerah prayed and decided herself to wait until after Ramadan, because she wants to concentrate right now very deeply on her prayers, the Qur'an, and something coalescing inside that she can't even name.

An aunt scolds her: You'll go crazy spending all that time in your room! "She doesn't understand that some people get peace inside by being alone," Sameerah says. She's been celibate for a year. Still scared her past might "catch up" on her. She's tested negative for AIDS, "but I don't trust no doctor neither."

Her father called one night to apologize. Sameerah told him: "Don't worry about us, Dad. What happened is between you and your creator." She's not angry, she says. Her father has given her a lot. He's a musician, and at one time Sameerah wanted to be a dancer. She laughs at that now--"I used to be a planner and plan 10 years down the line, but it never went the way I wanted. That right there showed me I wasn't in control. Now, when I think of the future, my mind just stops." Pressed, she admits that she'd like to learn Arabic and Spanish and maybe become a translator (she's studying "office systems technology" at the community college); or start a Muslim-run business in Newark.

She reads, she writes notes to herself--"I refuse to serve other than Allah!"--hangs them up in her eight-by-10-foot "palace" with blue walls, frilly girls' curtains, her prayer rug, and her father's instruments.

They let an eight-year-old girl lead the call to prayer that year. "They didn't know females weren't supposed to lead," Cheri Yasin says. "We're not supposed to because if you have a pretty voice, a sexy voice, a man may lust after it." But it was when she led the call to prayer that Cheri became Muslim in her heart.

The next year, her mother pulled her from the mosque school and put her in public school. Father left the family and mother left the religion. Cheri describes her transition to public school: "It tore me up inside. I'm a recovered anorexic. I was messed up until I met this person at 18." He was her "first male": first one she loved, first and only sex, first and only man she wanted to marry and make children with--and she gave him up when she became Muslim.

She was teaching aerobics straight out of high school, a self-described bag of bones putting other admiring women through their paces. Her thinking took a desperate turn: "This is it? We're born, we live, we die--that's all?" Most of us are too literal, Cheri says--"a calling" and people think Allah hissed in her ear: Cheri! Cherrr-iiii!! "The beauty of us is when we're looking for a solution, and we run across something, we know if this is it or not," Cheri says.

She decided to enlist. "I took the vow to the Army" is how she puts it. "I wanted to submit to something." Cheri found herself looking down at an eight-page contract and up at a female sergeant. "I didn't feel any peace; it was a total battlefield inside."

"This ain't it." (She hadn't meant to say it aloud.)

"Excuse me?"

"I can't do this."

"You can't? Why?"

"That's when it hit me," Cheri says. "You know how when you're hungry you have an urge for something but you don't know what it is?" She was sitting there in her miniskirt and tube top and heels and--"Because I'm a Muslim," Cheri said, and the sergeant said, "You're a what?"

At first, Cheri thought she could have Islam and her boyfriend, too. "I knew fornicating was wrong. I didn't convert right away. I was trying to change inside. I got to the point where I wouldn't want him to touch me--'God is watching,' I'd tell him."

Girlfriends thought she was crazy--"You got a man you want to marry, a man you love!" Mother said follow your heart, but Cheri said: "I've seen so many people cheating on each other, and so many girls pregnant--why? Because in their hearts they felt they loved that person." No, Cheri thought, there are more important things in life than love. So she said good-bye, sorry; she cried. "You can't save me from what I need to be saved from."

In the dark, in the middle of the night, she'd wake up, heart pounding, and write and write. Fall back into sleep. Read her writings to her mother. Her mother would look at her funny: "Where'd you get that from? I didn't teach you that." Cheri got scared--"Everytime I touched the pen, I snatched my hand back. I even tried changing pens."

One afternoon she was walking around Newark in a daze--maybe Mom's right, I'm bugging out--when her pounding heart jerked her awake. She was standing in front of the Islamic bookstore. Terrified, she walked in and the brother who ran the place paid her no mind--dressed bold as she was in jeans and uncovered ponytail. Her eyes tore into the shelves...nothing. She started to leave and a feeling, not a voice: turn back around. She did and saw the Qur'an open on a shelf. She climbed the shelves to grab it down. "Yo! You're gonna fall!" said the brother. "I gotta get that book! I gotta read that book!" Okay, o-kay, but if you kill yourself, you can't read it.

She read on the bus home, at night, on lunch break. One afternoon Cheri read a passage in the Qur'an that she herself had written at night. "I almost dropped it. Twilight zone. I panicked." She called her grandmother right then and there, weeping onto her business suit, office workers gaping. Her grandmother's Christian and when Cheri told her about the passage, her grandmother said: "Don't you believe God answers the questions you have in due time, when you're ready for the answers?" Uh-huh. "So what's the problem?" A week later, Cheri took her public vow to Allah. That was a year ago. Cheri's 22 and in college, studying psychology, planning to open her own practice, and studying African-American history. For all of the women I spoke to, the act of conversion became an act of remembering and then fashioning their own life stories. Conversion gave them an epiphany; and their past took on a driven, prophetic quality.


In Morocco, I saw this expanse of ocean. It all came back to me. I felt all this anguish and foreboding. This coastline must've been the last version of my ancestors before they snatched them up. I started having visions again in Africa.--Sunni Rumsey Ahmed

She's best known as Sunny Rumsey--AIDS activist, community organizer, public speaker. At Malcolm Shabazz, they call her Sunni Rumsey Ahmed--one of the organizers of the Islamic Womens' Friendship Conference. The imam told her she couldn't have a name like Sunny and promptly renamed her "Sunni," as in the Islamic sect. Ahmed is her Egyptian husband's name. She began life in Jamaica, Queens, as Cheryl, but Cheryl is dead. "Cheryl died in school because Cheryl could not survive in the U.S.A. Sunny's strong, Sunny would go the 10 yards, Sunny has no illusions."

Ask Sunni how she became Muslim and she begins the story with her childhood visions--the jet-black face in the window staring at her with red-tinted eyes. With the dreams of her childhood--riding over the world in a company of souls on winged horses. With her Caribbean household, her parents' international set of friends, her Polish nanny, her intellectual stimulation in Jewish high schools. Her parents were Episcopalian but the child was spiritual.

That is where she came from--she went to college to become a veterinarian. Her mother didn't want Cheryl to go down South (she had visions, too--of her daughter swinging from a tree) so she sent her to upstate New York. There, in 1969, Cheryl, soft, alive, visionary Cheryl, "smacked up against stone-cold racism for the first time." Professors preached the intellectual superiority of whites, townsmen howled "whore" at her and her black friends. And being light-skinned, Cheryl was pressured to pass. She switched her major to education and during her student teaching, the locals complained about "a coon" instructing their children. In 1971, Sunny arrived back in New York City "radically changed; every essence of me shattered--I was like dynamite, three seconds from blowing."

Her education began in earnest then. "I knew if I was going to survive I had to understand the world of Western culture, white culture. I keep going further and further back in history and I start hearing 'Egypt.' I'm not Christian at this point--I'm not quite anything. My religion was understanding what the f--- I'm in."

When Sunny was 22, she and her aunt traveled through southern Spain with a busload of white folks. On the Costa del Sol, the two women were given rooms facing the Mediterranean, while the whites got dingy rooms in the back. At dinner, they were ushered in ahead of the whites and their plates heaped with food. Sunny was terrified--surely punishment would follow. Her aunt was thinking--how can we pay for this? "Differential treatment for a Negro child is revolutionary," Sunny says.

A Spanish man brought her to the Festival of the Madonnas. They were carried aloft in gold cages, studded with jewels. And they were all black. "I'm waiting for the white Madonnas to show up. Fifty Madonnas f---ing later, I've got a headache that just won't wait!" Sunny asked her friend what was going on and he replied, almost gently: "Why wouldn't She be black? Jesus was born in Africa." Sunny was reeling. From there they flew to Morocco, Sunny thinking Casablanca, the movie; and the immigration officer welcomed her home. Her visions, which had faded in her adolescence, returned.

She came back to America with a picture of herself in a global context--"not as a Negro woman in this oppressive society but as a part of the majority, one of the people of color on this planet." The Islamic conversion came much later, in her late thirties. "I asked myself what religion is best going to prepare my child to survive this place? No question--Islam. I saw it as a proud religion for people of color. I saw it around the world and I thought: 'Good! My son won't have to live here. Where's he gonna go? Africa.' When I saw him being Christian, I saw him going to Europe--why go to the belly of the beast?"

Sunny always thought of her child-to-be as a son (she never had any children) and always thought of "Muslim men as men," she says. A painting of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X hangs in Sunny's dining room/office, but when she thinks of Martin she sees women drenched and pummeled with water from firehoses, and when she thinks of Malcolm, she thinks of the men fighting and the women safe at home. She knew what kind of man she wanted her son to be.

"I didn't ask to be a Christian in the first damn place. Islam is my way of saying the hell with America. Those African Americans who converted were saying 'No matter how much you tried to suppress us, caricature us--we picked a religion that tells Judeo-Christian WASP America: Kiss my ass! I don't give a damn if you don't like my religion, because...Who Are You?'"

Sunny reads the Qur'an and finds it liberating to women. "The Prophet says: 'You want to run around with these women, you marry them. You should not put a woman in the position of prostitution, or of working all day to raise her children alone.'" The covering feels like a cocoon, Sunny says--and is Madonna better? Walking around in her bra? Sunny herself covers when it's appropriate; uncovers when it's not. Flying around the country on speaking engagements, she dresses "modestly," but Sunny's not gonna have people examining her headdress or alarmed by her African robes--not when she's talking about women and children dying of AIDS. Nor is Sunni going to let herself be broadcast veiled and holding up a condom. As a Muslim woman, she sees herself as "coming out of the Benazir Bhutto school." And Sunny laughs.

Fifteen: Her dress was short, her hair uncovered. A sister wrapped a galai around her head and Katrina Haslip felt like an African princess. Sixteen: Arrested for grand larceny (snatching purses) and jailed in Bedford Hills--one of a handful of teenage girls; mothered by the other inmates, helped with her homework, told that she was at a crossroads and had to choose. She converted to Islam in jail. Eighteen: Released from captivity. Went into purdah, a Muslim marriage, and an apartment in an orthodox Sunni community in East New York. Five years later: "One day I woke up and I left."

"I was in my early twenties and I looked back and felt I missed something--the youth I had suppressed. That's what we're seeing in our community--a lot of young people leaving for good or going on rampages of drugs and sex because they're so suppressed."

Twenty-two: Lonely. Uncovered. But she didn't belong. She started sniffing and then shooting up coke. Began to rob and work the streets. But the Islamic roots remained. She'd atone by giving some of the stolen money to charity. She couldn't sleep if she didn't mail the wallets back to the owners. "There's no such thing as a nice thief, Katrina!" her friends would wail. "And Ramadan would come and I would fast and I wouldn't go on the avenue to pick people's pockets until after sunset!"

Then she stopped. She wanted to go back to Islam but first she wanted to prepare herself. Didn't want to go back "garbed-up and wicked" like the Muslims she'd always criticized--pounds of veil and the heart of a rattlesnake. Before she had a chance, Katrina was arrested on outstanding grand larceny charges and given five-and-a-half to 11 years. She was 25.

Women were dying in Bedford Hills of AIDS. "They were isolated and abused. I knew very little about AIDS but I knew it was inhumane to treat human beings this way. The call of Islam is helping humanity--so I responded, even with my own fear and ignorance."

Now she feels like Allah was preparing her for her own diagnosis. She got attached to a woman with AIDS--"I was so moved by the things that came out of her mouth. She was so perceptive, so wise, and she was illiterate." The disease took on a human face, a face she loved. Katrina had only decided to be tested as an example to the women who were afraid. She tested positive. "I don't know how I would've responded if I was outside, and not in captivity."

The prison imam wanted Katrina to keep her diagnosis to herself. She was garbed--visibly Muslim--and she was the Islamic Coordinator. "I resolved to myself that when I got out, I was going to speak to the Islamic community. It was my priority. Leave Bedford, and speak to the Muslims." She did; anxious and with the faintest glow of tears in her eyes, on Saturday at the Islamic Sisters' Conference at the Malcolm Shabazz.




What's race got to do with it?

Some men behaved badly in Central Park, but others tried to help the women under attack -- and they were black and Latino, too.

By Kathy Dobie

June 27, 2000 | NEW YORK -- "W ho knows what I would've done?" young men say, their faces clouding over.

By now, everyone knows the story: Right after the Puerto Rican Day parade in New York, dozens of men attacked dozens of women, corralling them one at a time and throwing water on them, pulling their shirts and sometimes their bras and pants off and pushing some onto the ground. Some of the men filmed the attacks, providing all the evidence needed for their own arrests.

The men had come from Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and New Jersey. They were Latino and African-American. They had come with their video cameras to film some girl flesh. They had come to have a good time.

"I'm glad I wasn't there," says a Palestinian-American in my neighborhood, a twentysomething guy who works hard but likes to party, who could've been there if he hadn't had to work.

He seemed anxious about how he would have behaved and even more afraid that he would've done nothing wrong but gotten swept up in the arrests anyway, melding fear of the police and fear of his own nature.

Some observers saw the Central Park attack as abuse directed against women. But for others it was also about being a young, nonwhite male in this city, always judged guilty in some profound way. Thus the question "Who knows what I would've done if I was there?" contains a deep anxiety: Am I a good man? Can I be?

In an editorial in the New York Daily News, Anne Roiphe wrote that the young men who attacked the women were not on "their own familiar turf but in the heart of a cold stranger, America the successful."

She went on: "They roved across midtown Manhattan past exclusive clubs and fancy restaurants and co-op apartments that are not within their budget, and somewhere anger joined the mix of emotions that fueled the terrible hour."

Roiphe is not alone in arguing that the men were moved by deprivation, men on the bottom trying to feel like they were on top of somebody. But that argument assumes we are one, very white world and these young, mostly Puerto Rican and black men from the boroughs are enraged by their inability to enter that world.

Well, it's not one world, and the white monied class might bore many of these young men to death.

You can only be envious of what you desire. And 20-year-olds look up to glamour -- hip-hop artists and basketball stars, record execs, actors, comedians and all those who have made big money and won adulation by seemingly having fun or doing something it seems we could all do if we only tried hard enough, like making music or throwing a ball. Above all else, the young want recognition and a chance for self-expression: Money without those things, quiet money, has no shine.

On the videos, it's obvious these men felt perfectly at home. Being on "familiar turf" in this case wasn't any more about your neighborhood than it is for middle-class white folks -- it was about looking around and seeing people who look like you. These guys with their video cameras, football jerseys, young strong bodies, tats and piercings, brown faces, high spirits and roused appetites recognized each other, an insta-tribe, made up not from turf but from taste and consumption: Who do you love? What do you buy?

Sometimes when a man rips a shirt off a woman, he's angry at women, not at class injustice. Sometimes when a man rips a shirt off a woman, grinning as she sobs, he's having a good time.

Why should we decide that young men who aren't white might think or feel differently than the rest of us or be any less involved in the daily battle between good and evil -- sometimes evil wins out, sometimes good.

Sometimes the explanation for cruelty is hard to live with but is as simple and clear as rain:

Why do you kick the fat boy?

Because you can.

But if the Central Park assailants were mainly black and Latino, so were the men who attempted to help the terrified women. There was a moment of compassion caught on camera that's as powerful as all the awful moments. When one woman stumbles from the crowd, weeping and trying to hide her bare breasts, three men come up to her, surrounding her but protectively. They make a wall of their backs. They bend low, concern on their faces, trying to talk to her. She's crying so hard, I don't think she hears them. One man tries to put something over her shoulders -- a towel, a shirt? Another of the men pulls his mesh jersey over his head and hands it to her to wear.

In that way, with their bodies and their clothes, they cover her nakedness. And with their concern, they pull her back into the human family.

Those three men looked like every other young man there, like the attackers: young, male and nonwhite. They had also come for some excitement. They were also in a crowd on a hot summer day.

It's just not true that, given the right conditions, every person will behave the same way. You can't say the men in the park behaved the way they did because they're left out of the American dream or overly influenced by MTV or the way girls behave on spring break or how President Clinton behaves year round or any number of reasons that have been bandied about.

Instead, imagine yourself there in the park that day and then ask what you would've done.

The girls were obviously afraid. They all were yelling or crying. There are men who look at a girl stripped and afraid and are exhilarated. And there are men who look at that same girl and more than anything else want to be able to rescue her.

There are people who have a strong sense of injustice and are inflamed by anything so obviously unfair, so simply cruel. And some of those people are men, young men, young black and Puerto Rican men who came to the parade that hot sunny Sunday to party.

About the writer
Pacific News Service contributor Kathy Dobie writes for Vogue, Vibe and Salon.


Letters to the editor


Salon's coverage of the Central Park attacks

June 29, 2000

Kudos to Salon for being the only media outlet I've seen that has addressed some of the more important questions that arose from the Puerto Rican Day Parade in Central Park. Do people other than whites sometimes get away with treating women badly in the name of cultural tolerance? I'm sure of it. Would there have been race riots if the police had taken strong action to stop the attacks? I think the answer is yes. Did the cops back off in part to show people that there is something to fear? It wouldn't surprise me. Are there any easy solutions to these problems? No. But we can't even get started unless media outlets address them openly and courageously.

-- Mick Shultz                

I watched the videotapes of the Central Park attacks, and I saw the same things Kathy Dobie did. Some young men were attacking women, and others, in the same crowd, were protecting them. Both instincts seem ineradicably part of male nature.

As a former U.S. Army sergeant, I learned long ago that young men in packs can be dangerous when their blood is up. These are their most tribal years, when their greatest physical strength coincides with a societally-approved irresponsibility. But this is also the period when they can be most easily led, as can be verified by any NCO who ever ordered them to take a hill in the face of withering fire. They want duty; they want responsibility; they want to be appealed to through "the better angels of their natures."

Dobie's final question was right on. The impulses are at war in all of us, and particularly in our young man years. At any given moment, young men make choices, and at any given moment, a young man might choose either way.

-- David Kraut                   

Salon wants me to know that not all dark-skinned men are rapists -- despite the apparent evidence from the recent Central Park anarchy. Well, imagine my relief!

Wrong. The problem is not race, it is culture. Misogynist cultures, that is. Most of the males arrested come from misogynist cultures and hate women for the freedom they have achieved in the United States.

Congressional measures for the protection for women should end the ridiculous diversity lottery which brings 50,000 annually from cultures which approve of slavery, female genital mutilation, bride burning and many other atrocities. Immigration should be re-examined in this regard and the importation of misogynist cultures must end.

-- Brenda Walker                  

I am so glad that the term "wilding" has entered our glossary of multicultural behavior. I was glad to hear of it few years back, when that lady stockbroker was attacked in Central Park. It seemed that she had been gang-raped and beaten nearly to death, until I learned that it was only a "wilding," like in that children's book by Sendak. Unlike "gang rape" -- which is cowardly, vile and a crime -- wilding is merely an ethnic custom of black (and sometimes Puerto Rican) teenagers. You can tell that it's not a crime, because the New York police stand around and watch.

Ladies, if you don't want to be part of a wilding, you should buy a gun and adopt our ethnic Southern custom, "plinking."

-- Mark Virag                  

What this article points to is key to understanding human motivation -- a thing as varied and convoluted as an individual. The racial/socio-economic generalizations suggested by group behavior often mean very little. I've been in a situation like the one in Central Park with white males. I was one of the men handing over my shirt over and defending women. Why? Not because I am a moral person or a hero, but because my life's experiences led me to feel the way I did at a deep and unquestionable level.

-- Mark Tatara                    

I am a black woman who has lived in a racially mixed black and Hispanic neighborhood in Harlem for 15 years.

The real story is that white New Yorkers were subjected to the same hostility and indifference that too many members of the NYPD demonstrate to New York's communities of color.

Police behavior sanctioned and condoned in one community will sooner or later be meted out to others.

-- Margaret Walton                       

Jonathan Foreman left out one critical possibility in his theories about why the NYPD failed to respond to the recent attacks on women in Central Park -- fear that if they had responded, the incident would have been twisted into "Cops Turn Violent on Puerto Rican Revelers" and once again, the cops would be the bad guys.

In a time when the NYPD can't get a break and cops are second-guessed every time they do their jobs, why should we be surprised when they fail to respond to an incident that is ripe for charges of police brutality and racial discrimination? This, I think, is far more likely motivation for the lack of response than Foreman's charges of class resentment and "Let's show people why they need us." The police have been reduced to trying to protect their own butts from the media and special interest groups, and so public safety suffers. 

-- Geri Clark                  

As I recall, there were similar incidents that occurred at the recent Woodstock festival -- incidents that resulted in convictions of white people of the same age as the Central Park attackers though, admittedly, of a different socioeconomic status. I wonder if the tactic of speaking out for a class of people other than oneself -- in this case black and Latina women -- entitles one to voice bigoted opinions. Is this something they teach people in journalism school? Or perhaps it just makes for "good copy."

-- Lewis Lock                    

I'm glad Foreman had the courage to broach the race/ethnicity element of the horrifying event that took place in Central Park several weeks ago. Though one may not agree with Foreman, the fact that he has raised such salient questions and concerns is one critical step towards having an honest dialogue about what happened that day and why it should not be allowed to happen again -- ever.

-- Leah Rosenberg                   

salon.com | June 29, 2000