Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Tragedy of Javier Gonzalez

I took issue with an article in the San Francisco Chronicle the other day because they told a story from one perspective and left out another. Not a serious complaint. Not yellow journalism. Not even badly slanted journalism. Just a reminder that there are often several ways to tell a story and that we no longer understand objectivity to be quite as simple as we once did.

The report celebrated a dramatic drop of 34% in homicides in San Francisco’s “troubled” zones of violence. Lost in the celebration was the fact that citywide the figure was down only 6%, and perhaps, if crime has spread outside of the “zones” to the city at large, there was not quite the cause for self-congratulation the article suggested. One might make the argument the journalist was not so much reporting the news as writing PR for the police department.

Then comes this news the other day of two deaths near San Francisco BART Stations. One in Daly City, where some kids apparently shot some other kids because they thought they were rival gang members. They were mistaken, and some innocent kid is dead – and that is not to say he would necessarily be less innocent if he were a member of a rival gang.

If you are not involved – and most middle class people of San Francisco and the world are not involved in this kind of thing – you register no more than a passing moment of sadness over the loss of young life and our inability to build better social structures. You sigh, and move on.

But this time there’s two in one night, and so you can’t turn away quite as readily. And it’s the other killing that is banging around inside my head. An even bigger illustration of how tragedy can be stupid, or at least right up there. And, like the story about the 34% drop in homicides in the Tenderloin and Western Addition neighborhoods of San Francisco, complicated by the possibility we may be looking at the event through a glass darkly.

As the story comes off the news services, it goes like this. Christopher Gonzalez, 18, and his friend Victor Veliz, also 18, decide to mug a third kid, a 23-year-old tourist visiting from the East Coast, who has just withdrawn some money from an ATM machine at the Fruitvale BART Station in Oakland. Gonzalez, the story goes, tells the kid he’s got a gun, and Veliz puts a knife to his throat. The kid panics and Gonzalez gets stabbed. Gonzalez lives nearby, so he runs home, and Veliz goes with him. The third kid goes out into the street, still holding the knife, hails the cops, gives them the knife and tells them the story. The police describe him as highly agitated, but they release him, suggesting his story rings true. The D.A.’s office decides to prosecute Veliz for both the robbery and the murder, but not "the tourist." That the robbery took place is not in question, since the police find a cell phone in Veliz’ possession when they find him at the Gonzalez home. The phone, it turns out, was on all the time, since the kid was talking to a friend before the robbery took place. Apparently the person on the other end of the phone heard the robbery victim, whose name has never been released, say he was being approached and something was not right.

When you put this all together, you will probably conclude this is a pretty much an open-and-shut case of a robbery-gone-wrong; some punk kid who threatened violence got that violence thrown back at him with deadly, but perhaps just, consequences.

But this is a new information age, an age where privacy has taken a back seat, and we are used to the poor slobs of the world washing their dirty linen with Judge Judy and other daytime television crap mongers. And most of us, whether we do it a lot or not, are conditioned to the great American sport of watching victims of circumstance, folly or a moment’s tragic inattention wail and cry, sometimes out of Schadenfreude, sometimes, I guess, out of love of circus in the great tradition of throwing Christians to the lions.

In following up this story, I hit upon a video clip of Javier Gonzalez being interviewed just after his son died, pretty much in his arms. The same sense of shame at watching someone’s nakedness of soul splayed for commercial gain on daytime TV also makes me want to click off and move on to almost any other activity. But the fact that Javier was telling the story from a different perspective kept me listening.

The clip, if you watch it, will make you sad. Here’s a father who has not only lost his teenage son, he has watched him bleed to death in his arms. Javier stumbles over facts, but you trust he is running on empty and needing to tell his story as a way of processing what just happened to him. You watch, and you wonder, are you the “bad parent” we hear so much about? The kind of parent that produces these kids we live in constant fear of, the ones who come up from East and West Oakland and mug us in the streets outside of our middle class homes in Berkeley? Are you the bad guy here? Why am I feeling so sad about your plight?

Could it be that what you are suggesting is true? That your son is an innocent victim? That it was Victor doing the mugging and Chris merely coming to his rescue when he saw he was in trouble? Not very likely. There is too much information to suggest this is grasping at straws to save yourself from having to recognize your “really great kid” is a mugger. One who threatens strangers with guns. But the little invisible fellow that sits on my shoulder and whispers in my left ear a reminder of how often the powerless fail to get their story heard, wants me at least to listen.

Javier is not a pretty sight. He lashes out at the BART police, an easy target these days since one of their number killed another kid on New Year’s Eve, causing major unrest in racially charged Oakland because the kid was black and the officer was white and the kid was shot in the back.

But I hear your pain, Javier. You're not that different from my other friends with 18-year-olds they can barely persuade, much less control. I know you never intended for your kid to rob strangers (if indeed your kid did). And I am reminded that I have just spent a couple years going to neighborhood meetings where we all yearned publicly for solutions to the problem of muggings, wishing somehow the police could magically solve the problem. Like folk searching for keys under the lamp where the light is better instead of where we dropped them, we focus on the police and their sometimes obvious shortcomings. Occasionally, though, we remind ourselves the problem is really lack of parental control and moral guidance somehow.

Should I have turned off this exploitation of Javier Gonzalez like I turn off Jerry Springer? Should I have allowed him to grieve privately instead of in front of news reporters conspicuously feeding him justifications for putting up with their questions?

Were things not a whole lot easier back in the days when we almost never got to hear the Javier Gonzalezes of the world tell their probably (but not certainly) erroneous side of the story?

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