Sunday, November 2, 2014

Violent death, violent life and the ties that bind

This commentary was published by the Star Tribune newspaper, November 3, 1992. It was originally broadcast on KFAI FM in Minneapolis, Minnesota, October 1, 1992.

By Gary Peterson

Whatever Earl Craig and Jayme Starkey were looking for when their paths crossed on Hennepin Av. last January, it has turned into a terrible waste of two lives. One is dead and the other has been sentenced at age 19 to 25-1/2 years in prison. I can't help but wonder how and why these things keep happening.

I wonder, too, about the Minneapolis cop who was killed. Someone shot him in the back for no reason at all. He was shot in a pizza joint on Lake St. in Minneapolis, where cops have gathered for over 25 years and where they felt safe, because it was their place. They've been out looking for the guys that did it. 

While thinking about that, I remembered the summer when Joel Larson, John Chenoweth and Cord Draszt were shot. Larson and Chenoweth died. Jay Johnson pleaded guilty to all of it. The three were shot for no reason at all, and in places where gays have gathered for years. Gays felt fairly safe in those places because they were our places.

Other people get shot all the time, usually for no reason at all. I try to look for answers by listening to the stories of people I know and meet. I meet a lot of people: gay, straight, white and black. Most could never dream of pulling a trigger. At least, I hope that's true. 

I wonder how it is that we manage to be so violent to each other. And there are so many other ways we violate the bonds of our humanity.

In relationships, many of us beat each other up – for no real reason either. Often, in relying on the assumed kindness of family, friends, and strangers, we find ourselves verbally assaulted in the privacy of our homes, where we work, and out on the streets. 

We even assault ourselves and each other in the debate and discourse of our public life. We are told we must put up with negative political campaigns because candidates fear that they might lose something important if they don't get personal and dirty.

The dignity and civility that should inform our words and actions seems to be missing more often than not.

I regularly spend time at night walking around Fair Oaks Park near my house in Minneapolis. I use the walks as my thinking time and as my alone time. Usually, I am the only person in the park. Once in a while, I encounter another person.

I encountered a young man there one night last spring. He was black and he went out of his way to approach me.

He just wanted to talk. And so we did. Actually, he did most of the talking. Turns out he was homeless and lives on the streets.

While he was telling me his story, another young man approached. This second man, too, was black. This new person clearly did not want to talk to us, and gripped the pocket of his jacket as he sailed on by.

"Did you see that?" asked my conversation partner. "He's packing a gun."

I had seen it, and I was trying to pretend to myself that I hadn't.

"I could never carry a gun around with me," my new friend said. "'Cause man, I don't need to. I've got my own weapon right here," he said, tapping his pocket. "Here, let me show you."

About that time, I was asking myself why I was still standing there, but I didn't move. "That's all right," I told him. "I don't need to see your weapon."

"But I want to show you – here."

Out of his pocket he fished a small book. It was one of those New Testament Bibles. "This is all the weapon I need," he told me. "It gets me through a lot of stuff."

He talked about that. And he talked about what it's like living on the streets.

"You have no idea what it's like out here," he said. "It gets so tough. Sometimes, it all builds up inside, and I just don't know what to do. Man, I just don't know what to do. This might sound kinda weird, man, but can I cry on your shoulder – just for a minute? Can I cry on your shoulder?"

I thought, "You've got to be kidding." But he wasn't. And he did. 

I cannot tell you how humbling that was.

When we went our separate ways, I was wondering how these things happen. 

Since that time, I have had two other conversations in the park with black men. One of them guessed that I was gay without my telling him, and he observed that if he had a house and family, it would be nice if we could come over to each other's place for supper. I allowed as how that would be nice.

The third guy made me promise to do a favor before I went on my way. "Dude," he told me, "I may never get myself together enough to change anything in my life. And I don't know who you are and what you can do either. But I can tell by looking at you that you've got it all over me. If, sometime, you ever get a chance to just say a word – please – we're out here. Tell them."

I've been thinking about those young black men. Black men in Minneapolis are feeling a lot of fear and anger as police search for the murderers of Officer Jerry Haaf. The cops are feeling angry and unsafe too. Some who have had less-than-ideal interactions with cops might be tempted to say, "It's about time, they deserve to feel fearful." But I don't think so. Cops are people, too. And they have their own stories.

My brother-in-law is a cop.

Five years ago, when he married my baby sister, my partner, James, and I attended the ceremony up in Fridley. It was kind of a hurried affair for James and me. After church we were driving to the airport to fly down to Washington for a gay rights march.

While we were at the church, it came time to do the thing with family pictures. James and I had already settled the picture and other issues with his family, and I had been in three family photos taken at weddings in his hometown church. But for my people, it was a new deal, and everyone felt awkward and silent as we lined up for the photographer, with James standing across the room from us.

I felt like I should say something, but I didn't know what to say or whom to say it to. And I didn't want to mar the occasion.

It was Steve, the cop, who broke the ice and called to James to come over to our side of the room where he belonged for the photo. It was the cop who found his voice when the rest of us did not.

We might remember the big things in life better, but it's the little things that really matter.

Like the day we sat in a high school assembly back in 1968, and it was announced that a former classmate had been killed in Vietnam. I thought about him when they were dedicating the Vietnam memorial in St. Paul.

James and I looked his name up on the Wall when we were in Washington five years ago. We had had a great time at the march and the speeches were all wonderful. And the AIDS Quilt, which was unrolled for the first time, left us wondering how this could happen and when it would end.

As the day wore on, it got cloudy and very cold, when we found his name. And as I stood crying in front of the Wall and thinking about that damn war and how much trouble it had caused, I wondered how all this could happen.

I didn't know then, and I still don't know now.

I'm carrying on about all this because, somehow, it all feels connected.

We're all in this mess of a life together. Sometimes, you wouldn't know it when we see or read about what awful things we say and do to each other. And I wonder how it happens, and what it all means.

And, sometimes, I just have to tell it all to a friend, and hope the friend will hear it, and hope that they'll somehow understand it and make sense of it. And hope that the telling might somehow make it better.

Gary Peterson is producer and host of "Fresh Fruit," a radio program serving the Twin Cities gay community, and broadcast Thursdays, 7pm, on KFAI-FM.