Brutal Violence in Border Towns Linked to Colonization
In the early morning hours of July 19, 2014 three teenagers entered an empty dirt parking lot in Albuquerque’s Westside. The lot is well known as a sleeping site for the homeless. The teens proceeded to viciously bludgeon Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson beyond recognition while the two men slept. Gorman, from Shiprock, and Thompson, from Church Rock, were Diné. Jerome Eskeets, who is also Diné, narrowly escaped with his life.
In a July 23, 2014 interview with the New York Times (NYT), Eskeets claimed that the same teens had threatened him with an attack earlier in the month but he did not report the threats “because no one cares.”
Most reports on the killings focus on the perpetrators. They repeat the crime’s gruesome details or speculate about the teens’ chilling lack of remorse. Some reports have offered brief biographical sketches on Gorman and Thompson, presumably to recognize their humanity in death. Others border on sensationalization of the ‘drunk Indian’ stereotype that pervades stories about violence in Indian country. Notably, the NYT article makes a point to emphasize that Eskeets was “drunk, already, at 9:30 a.m.”
In response to the killings, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry and Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly met to develop a task force on Native American homelessness in Albuquerque and other border towns. President Shelly has called for a Federal Bureau of Investigation enquiry into the killings as possible hate crimes.
The Albuquerque District Attorney’s Office states there is no evidence that Gorman’s and Thompson’s murders were racially motivated. In fact, the perpetrators reportedly boasted about the indiscriminate nature of their attacks, which possibly exceed 50 separate incidents.
In informal conversations about the killings of Gorman and Thompson, I have heard others use the language of hate crimes to describe the incident. This makes sense: the crime occurred along ostensibly clear racial and class lines. The victims are all poor Native Americans, the perpetrators all poor Hispanics.
The label ‘hate crime’ is typically used to bracket a specific kind of violence motivated by extreme prejudice or bigotry. Congress defines a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”
By emphasizing abject poverty, devastating alcoholism, acute racial tensions, or the exceptional violence that distinguishes these perpetrators from others, existing attention to Gorman’s and Thompson’s deaths filter the incident through the logic of extremes that we associate with hate crimes.
Why, then, do these comments seem less accusatory than uncertain, as if their hosts are grasping for available formulas to make sense of what appears to many online commentators as “senseless” brutality?
I think the answer lurks in the utter lack of remorse demonstrated by the teens, which itself extends from the randomness of their motive and use of violence. The label ‘hate crime’ assumes intention based on bias. It presumably measures the extremity of violence used to carry out an intention according to the intensity of bias, or hate, that motivates a person to engage in violent action in the first place. The label also requires proof of individual bias in the intentions of hate criminals.
The attacks on Gorman, Thompson, and Eskeets are glaringly absent of individualized intention or motive. The perpetrators reportedly claim no particular bias against the homeless, against Native Americans, or against anyone or anything.
If ‘hate crime’ is inadequate, we are still left with the problem of explaining such devastating violence. What if I were to suggest that the perpetrator is directly represented by the unspeakable condition of its victims after their bludgeoning? That it is the faceless, formless thing beyond our recognition?
This is precisely what I am suggesting. The faceless, formless thing beyond our recognition is, I argue, our collective common sense. Common sense is a term that describes how consensus is formed about rules, norms, and social expectations. Consensus emerges when we agree and act upon common rules, norms and expectations by routinely using them to live our lives and ensure that others in our society do the same. In this sense, common sense is neither fully conscious nor unconscious; it operates at the level of assumption, habit and value. It inhabits each one of us. This is why it is beyond our recognition—we don’t even notice its influence.
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