by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
A LEFT-WING VS. A RIGHT-WING DEATH
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It seems as if no one comes fresh to new experiences these days; we're all carrying too much baggage in our minds.
Labels have taken the place of common sense, intuition, analysis or discussion. No matter what the topic, there always seems to be a "left wing" and a "right wing." As Yeats said, "the center cannot hold."
A perfect illustration of this is something that happened in my community two years ago.
On Dec. 2, 2001, an agitated 37-year-old man named Robert Woodward, considered by all who knew him to be a kind and gentle soul, ran into the All Souls Unitarian-Universalist Church in Brattleboro (Vt.), pleading for sanctuary, shouting that the police were out to kill him, and threatening to kill himself with a small knife.
Some members of the congregation fled, and some remained; 911 was called, three police officers arrived, and within minutes, in front of 18 witnesses, two of them shot "Woody" seven times. He died later in the hospital. The third officer did not draw his gun.
Since then, the community has been split in predictable ways. The police say they acted in self-defense. The state's attorney general issued a report saying that the death, "although tragic, was legally justified."
Woodward's friends claim police brutality. His family has filed a lawsuit. A group, Justice for Woody (www.justiceforwoody.org), has been formed. On the anniversary of his death, they rally on Main Street, asking for an impartial investigation.
Because the autopsy report indicated that Woodward had in his system an inordinate amount - more than 20 times the recommended level - of ephedrine, a supplement found in over-the-counter remedies, many accuse him of being a drug addict.
On the editorial page of the local paper, the town's favorite homophobe, without having met Woodward, diagnosed that he had "come face-to-face with the futility and emptiness of his own lifestyle and relationships." During the last rally, a woman riding in a police car reportedly gave demonstrators the finger.
On the other side, one person wrote, "It's sad, but many good, law-abiding people now feel a twinge of uneasiness whenever they see a Brattleboro police officer."
What isn't being discussed is that two years ago there was very little, if any, scrutiny of "botanicals," vitamins and other food supplements. No one cared about ephedrine until people started dropping dead from heart failure, including a couple of pro athletes. In June of 2002, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services finally issued a warning advisory.
"Ephedrine alkaloids are amphetamine-like chemicals that potentially have powerful stimulant effects on the nervous system," the advisory said. "Although these products are widely used, many adverse (serious reactions and problems) reports have been received."
Even today, how many people know about that warning? It is certainly possible that Woodward innocently overdosed himself and then, in paranoia and delusion, sought sanctuary in a well-known liberal church.
Also, think about the date of the shooting - slightly less than three months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. If I remember correctly, at least one of the policemen was working second shifts guarding a nuclear plant.
How hard is it to imagine the police charging in, still amped-up from Sept. 11? In their minds they are heroes. Maybe they want some of the love and respect that Americans are finally showering on their firemen and policemen. Maybe they want some of the action. This may be their chance! This man may be a terrorist! Anyway, no one is going threaten people in their town and get away with it, especially not in a church!
It's hard for governments and police departments to admit they're wrong. Some months later, the Brattleboro police were called to a building where a deranged man was holding a live grenade and a knife. Using negotiation, they ended a three-hour standoff without firing a shot. Clearly, lessons had been learned.
America is still recovering from its Sept. 11 hangover. Studies show that the deluge of hate crimes that followed the attacks have now slowed down. Most of the time, we're grateful for police protection. But we're still seeing police abuse in the name of "fighting terrorism."
What happened recently in Miami at the FTAA summit is a good example of the militarization of policing. In Afghanistan, amped-up U.S. soldiers are killing children by mistake. And in Iraq, where soldiers' nerves are on hair-triggers, a civilian massacre is everyone's worst nightmare.
We all do the best we can. But this "left wing, right wing, never the twain shall meet" mentality is ridiculous. Police brutality. Dirty drugged-out hippies. "I don't feel safe walking down the street." "Give them the finger!" It's become an ever-festering sore.
Meaningless labels that preclude discussion are driving me to despair. The Woodward case sounds like a toxic clash between ephedrine and Sept. 11. In all probability, Woodward didn't know what was happening to him; the police were saving America from terrorists; the government - big surprise - was defending the status quo; great injustice was done.
Even in South Africa, with a history of far greater injustice, people have found ways to confess and forgive. But in Brattleboro lines have been drawn, sides have been taken, preconceived stereotypes have hardened, and there seems to be no possibility of moving on. That's the biggest tragedy of all.