Look Twice

Discussion in 'Chit Chat' started by bigarrow, Jul 14, 2011.

  1. http://www.racialicious.com/2009/03/19/look-twice/

    by Guest Contributor Joseph Shahadi, also published at VSthePomegranate

    A few months ago, I got into a fistfight on the subway.

    I was coming home from work and it was packed. There was this gawky twelve year old kid standing nearby. I’d noticed him earlier in the ride clowning around with a friend: Skinny kid, all fingers and toes, awash in the dorkiness of an actual pre-teen who does not have his own show on the Disney channel. I was tired and spacing out when the door slid open and people shifted to get off. The kid made a move for the door but I had a few stops left so I twisted out of the way to let him exit but instead of moving forward he just stood there, blinking and stammering. Just as I was asking him, “are you getting off?” someone behind me gave me a hard shove out of the way. I fell forward, the guy walked around me, and out the door…but not before I gave him a hard shove back.

    Then he whirled around and sucker punched me in the face.

    In retrospect, the dorky kid was probably paralyzed because he could see past me to the impatient guy who, it turns out was big. Very big. But I didn’t really have time to process any of that in the moment because when he punched me I saw red and…do you remember how Garfield the cartoon cat used to sail through the air to throw himself on to a cartoon lasagna? I did that. “Hello,” said my lizard brain, “I will be taking it from here.” Impatient guy was surprised. The people around us, who were streaming off of the subway, were surprised. Hell, I surprised myself. We stumbled out on to the subway platform as New York commuters, disinterested but ready to move away in case one of us pulled out a weapon, watched blankly.

    For some reason, this is the part of the story where everyone wants to know if the guy was black.

    Yeah, he was. No, I did not yell something racial at him. Or struggle with myself because I really wanted to yell something racial at him. Or think something racial and then feel guilty about it later. This is not that kind of story.

    Once I got a look at him, the first thing I registered was “Fuck. He is very big.” (I am not small by any stretch, but he was bigger than me. And he was an unhappy giant compared to the poor, nervous dork back on the train.) I hadn’t been in a fistfight since I was a kid but I used to box at my old gym so I wasn’t totally at a loss. Now that I saw them coming he couldn’t land a punch but since his reach was longer than mine, I couldn’t really get close enough to do much damage either. Basically, we were two guys in winter coats and messenger bags cursing and struggling, it wasn’t exactly Ali/ Frazier. But then his right hand shot out, closed around my throat and he began to squeeze.

    I stared down the length of his arm and looked him dead in the eye.

    About eight years earlier, in the weeks after 9/11, I was on the subway when a trashy white guy was yukking it up with one of his buddies on his cell phone as the train went above ground. He was doing that thing where he thinks his conversation is so amusing that he was speaking very loudly so that everyone else can enjoy it too. And the thing he was talking about so loudly was killing Arabs. I was standing a foot away from him and he had no idea that he was talking about killing me. Unlike the guy from my then-office who had to quickly explain he was Cuban to group of punks looking to beat an Arab on his way home from work a few days before, I am fair skinned, green eyed: invisible. Listening to him laugh about murdering me, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I had no confidence that anyone would lift a finger if half the people on this train decided to beat me to death. I was sick with anger and fear, shaking from adrenaline pumping into my body. I stared at him until he noticed me. His eyebrows shot up. He looked away and looked back. His face was beery and pink. My face was blank. “You want something?” he said. I said nothing. I just waited. “You got a problem?” I shook my head. I wanted him to see me and know who I am.

    I thought to myself, Look at me, you son of a bitch. Look at me and see me. I thought, My people invented higher mathematics. The concept of time. We invented the concept of Zero. The color purple. The letters in the alphabet that make up the words you are using to talk about exterminating us. My father ran away to fight the Nazis in World War ll and was sent home because he was just a skinny kid. He fought in Korea as a young man and when he died decades later, he was buried with an American flag in his casket.

    And I. Am. Standing. Right. Here.

    I could feel all of the things about me that made his eyes just slide over me in the first place—my skin, my eyes, my perfectly assimilated western bearing—fall away and for the first time he could see that I am an Arab.

    He reddened and said under his breath, “Do you want to hurt me?” I shook my head. Watery eyed, he began to bluster at me about how his cousin is a fireman. “Are you a fireman?” I asked evenly. He looked down. “No, uh, I tried to take the test and uh…”

    I started to laugh. It was cruel but I couldn’t help it.

    “You don’t know what it means to be a hero!” he hissed. “Neither do you” I said, my eyes on his.

    That is the look I feel myself giving the guy who has his hand on my throat. All the anger and frustration of the intervening years—Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Lebanon, Palestine, legalized torture, “random” searches, profiling, casual hatred—comes pouring out of my eyes and into his. I want him to see me too. I am standing right here! I think at him. His eyes get big and I can tell he is thinking, Oh shit, this guy is crazy. And its true, I am crazy.

    The world is making me crazy.

    Then something happens I wasn’t counting on. His hand goes soft around my throat but just before he lets go, his eyes cut to the side. And I know in that second he is wondering if there are any cops on the platform. Suddenly he sees himself, a very big black man strangling a—for all intents and purposes—white man in broad daylight on a busy subway platform. There isn’t really any way this can go well for him. He knows this but his anger made him forget. He jerks his hand away and begins to step back. But I am not making it easy for him. I am ready to go and I tell him so. He is more and more wary and tries to get away from me. “Yeah, when you tell this story don’t forget to add the part where you walked away, bitch!” I shouted after him as he high tailed it up the subway steps.

    Yeah, I know. Stupid.

    I’m not telling it because I am proud of myself.

    I am telling it because between those two looks—when I looked at him as he was strangling me, and when he looked away to check if there were cops on the platform—there is a story about race in America. Racial invisibility is always relative and conditional, when you are discovered or reveal yourself, anything might happen. Looking the way that I do is sometimes like stumbling into a cave of sleeping bears, every interaction is a potential confrontation. The lack of instantly recognizable markers for racial or ethnic identity creates an atmosphere of potential threat. On the other hand, for people like my would-be strangler, whose skin color immediately marks him “other”, racial visibility makes him perpetually vulnerable to authority. I have no illusions that I chased him off by myself—it was the ghosts of white men with guns that sent him up the steps and away from me. It seems that we are all always moving in and out of visibility, depending on who is looking.

    Like a Rorschach, the picture emerges between the black and white.
  2. Not sure I get the moral of the story on this one.

    Theory number one:

    This could be as simple as subway etiquette, don't block the exit (stand on front of the door) and he got shoved, oh well.

    Theory number two:

    "Palestine" complex. Whenever I read the word Palestine in an article, time to call in the UN.
  3. I thought it was an interesting, well told story, not sure there is a moral.
  4. In Cold Blood II

    When I first met Brooks Douglass 15 years ago, he was a restless 32-year-old state senator—the youngest ever elected in Oklahoma. Outside of politics, his life seemed to be a treadmill of small-time deals, but he was barely hanging on financially. His first wife, a childhood sweetheart, had finally thrown in the towel when he sold their home, promising grand plans for a better one—plans that never panned out. He was trying to unload a garage full of latex gloves, another one of his get-rich-quick schemes, when she finally decided she’d had enough.

    He had remarried, but the same unfocused energy would ultimately contribute to the collapse of that union, too. “I was just so angry, and I kept adding stuff to bury the demons,” he would later reflect. “The result was that I destroyed everything, including my relationships.”

    On the surface, it could be anyone’s pained search for stability and purpose. But his demons were far more formidable, far harder to conquer—and had consumed his entire adult life.

    Brooks was just a teenager when he watched his parents die, choking on their own blood. When we spoke, he could recite every detail from the night of the crime, but with unsettling detachment, as if he were a bystander talking of another man’s tragedy. Imagine if the gruesome events memorialized in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood unfolded in your living room when you were just 16 years old.

    Brooks and his family were getting ready to sit down for dinner in October 1979, at their modest farmhouse in Okarche, Okla. His mother, Marilyn, a gifted singer, was tending to the beef patties and gravy; his father, Richard, one of the state’s prominent Baptist ministers, was watching Monday Night Football. Daughter Leslie, 12, the reigning Miss Teen Oklahoma, was outside when a scruffy stranger approached, pretending to be lost. Brooks, just home from his car-detailing business, welcomed the man in to use the phone.

    Leslie and Brooks Douglass photographed at Leslie’s home in Edmond, Okla. on July 24, 2011, Brent Humphreys for Newsweek

    Within minutes, the stranger, an oilfield roughneck named Glen Burton Ake on a daylong booze-and-coke-fueled bender, had pulled a handgun from his belt; his buddy Steven Hatch followed close behind, waving the shotgun they had just stolen. They hogtied the parents and Brooks immediately, and proceeded to terrorize the family for nearly three hours. Marilyn begged for mercy, but none was to come. Ake dragged Leslie through the house demanding to know where the valuables were hidden. Along the way, they yanked out every phone—and ate the family’s dinner.

    Ake took Leslie into a bedroom, where the men took turns raping her. “We could hear her crying and him jiggling his belt buckle … as he raped her,” Brooks remembers. “He wanted us to hear it.”

    The assailants eventually brought her back to the living room, hogtying her too. Ake instructed Hatch to go outside and start the car and “wait for the sound.” Ake then emptied the six rounds of his .357 revolver into their backs, shooting Leslie and Richard twice, and Brooks and Marilyn once.

    They took off with all of $43 and the couple’s weddings rings.

    Brooks helped free Leslie, who crawled to the kitchen to find a knife to cut her brother loose. Brooks untied his mom in time to watch her die. “Dad, Mom’s dead,” he told his father. “I love you, Dad.” Richard never said another word.

    Brooks and his sister miraculously survived, but they have struggled for 30 years to put to rest the memories of that gruesome night. It has tarnished their marriages, crushed their dreams. They would feel relief when the men were sentenced to death in 1980, only to be consumed by rage when Ake’s life was spared at a retrial. They each had to testify nine different times over nearly 20 years, their lives painfully intertwined with those of the killers.

    A few years ago, Brooks decided to leave Oklahoma, hoping to finally unburden himself of the event that drove his life. En route, he did something startling. He decided to re-create it.

    I met Brooks again not long ago in Washington. At 47, the years had lined his face and thinned out his hair. He was a husband again, and the father of two towheaded blonds, a boy and a girl. But something more important had changed since we’d sat down to dinner in 1996. He was remarkably calmer and introspective.

    After law school and his stint in politics, he tried yet another career, this time in Hollywood, where a teacher in a screenwriting class coaxed out of him the story he desperately needed to tell. He decided to make a movie about what his family had gone through, even casting himself in the role of his father. These days, he is traveling the country to screen Heaven’s Rain for churches, law-enforcement agencies, and national victims’-rights groups.

    “I want people to see this as a story of forgiveness and strength—not just a true crime,” Brooks says. “It’s also about the choices we make every day … I made a choice to get up off the floor that night with a bullet in my back, no shirt, and one shoe. I made a conscious decision that I wanted to live.” But to live, and to heal, he eventually needed to lift the burdens he’d carried privately for so long by inviting the world to share them with him.

    Brooks and Leslie staggered to the family car that night, blood pouring from their wounds, and made it to the home of a local doctor with Brooks clocking 100mph. They missed their parents’ funeral as they fought for life in intensive care, where Leslie spent her 13th birthday. When they were finally released from the hospital three weeks later, they were given all of one hour to gather some belongings from their home before it was sold and its contents auctioned off.

    The siblings—emotionally shocked, grieving, and homeless—were then separated. “No one was interested in taking us on together,” Brooks recalls. Brooks moved in with a family from his church so he could finish his last semester of high school. Leslie was taken to live with distant relatives about an hour away.

    They were never given counseling—and they hardly saw each other. They remember those years as painful and empty. But law-enforcement officials and prosecutors would marvel at their poise at trial. “They never wavered, never changed their story,” says former district attorney Cathy Stocker. “It was remarkable.”

    thedailybeast.comby Lois Romano • Aug. 14, 2011
  5. Leslie eventually became a teacher and school administrator in Oklahoma. Twice married, she hid behind the anonymity of her married names until recently. She wanted no one to know what she had been through. She was not able to talk about the murders without sobbing.

    Brooks, by contrast, struggled with the narrative more publicly. He stumbled through a series of colleges, enrolled in law school, then ran for a state Senate seat in the tiny town that had never forgotten his family and the horrific crime. In the legislature, he found a cause in victims’ rights. Touting his own circumstances, he pushed through groundbreaking legislation that would ultimately make Brooks and his sister one of the first victims’ families in the country to watch a convicted murderer put to death by the state.

    But only one of his parents’ killers would be executed. After Ake and Hatch left the Douglasses for dead, they went on a monthlong drug-addled rampage across eight states, killing two more people. They were apprehended 37 days later in Colorado. In Ake’s 44-page statement, he takes full blame for the murders, dismissing his running buddy as a coward. “Steve [Hatch] can’t kill nobody because he don’t have no guts to do nothing,” Ake told authorities. “Out of this here, I want the death sentence and I want the injection as soon as possible,” he declared.

    Nonetheless, Ake appealed his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court—on the grounds that he was denied a court-appointed psychiatric evaluation to mount an insanity defense. In a landmark case, the high court agreed and overthrew his conviction. He was retried and sentenced to life in prison.

    As Hatch’s execution date approached, Brooks found he could not get his mind off the man who had actually pulled the trigger. One day in 1995, while touring the state penitentiary as part of his legislative duties, he impulsively asked the warden to see Ake. Prison officials spent hours trying to talk him out of it, but he wouldn’t budge. Finally, they asked Ake—and he agreed.

    What happened next stunned Brooks.

    Ake, shackled and sitting alone at a spare wooden table, blurted, “I am so sorry for what I did to your family. I wish I could do anything to take it back. The truth is I don’t why I did it. It was senseless.”

    “I was totally shocked,” Brooks says today. “I told him that for the last 15 years all I wanted is for him to be dead. I told him that he ruined my life and he took away my family. But it was like we had a weird bond … What happened that night controlled the rest of both of our lives.

    “I told him I forgave him,” Brooks says.

    The meeting gave him a sense of enormous relief. He hoped for a similar experience a year later, when he would watch Hatch put to death at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. I watched Brooks and Leslie hang onto each other as the lethal cocktail was released into Hatch’s veins. He was gone in seven minutes, with no final words of remorse. “I was glad he was dead, but it wasn’t really over,” Brooks says. “I was still dancing as fast as I could to escape it.”

    Brooks knew it was time to shake up his life. He declined to seek reelection and looked for a path out of Oklahoma, where the memories weighed on him. He joined the Army Reserves, trained for the Special Forces, and was deployed to the Middle East.

    In 2000, he was accepted to the Kennedy School of Government’s midcareer master’s program. He met and married graduate student Julea Posey, and they settled in Malibu. In 2007, he enrolled in a screenwriting class and found his future in his past. “He brought me two ideas,” says his then-professor Paul Brown. “And I said, ‘What else you got? What’s your story?’ And he starts telling me and I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I said, that’s the story you have to write.”

    Brooks resisted at first. “I was just so tired and drained from talking about the worst day of my life every day,” he says. But he found that as he wrote the script with Brown, for the first time in three decades he was able to unpack the faded memories of an earlier life—adventures on the Amazon River in Brazil, where his father had served as a missionary, and later in Okarche, where the family was treated as a pillar of the community. “It was time to make a record of the good memories,” he says. “We already had spent enough time remembering the bad.”

    The meeting with Ake is an intense and powerful scene in the movie—and in his view, the crux of the film’s message as well as a turning point in his life.

    “What I did not expect was that it would release me from the anger and rage. I had my guard up my whole life, and it poisoned everything. By forgiving him, I could begin the process of turning my life around. It was what my father would have wanted me to do,” Brooks says.

    He insisted on playing the part of his father as a tribute, but underestimated the pain involved in reliving his death. “I just cried and cried—tears I never really shed realizing it was the last day of his life. I just felt so bad for my parents.”

    In one riveting clip, he intones the gentle exhortations of his father’s prescient last sermon, urging his flock to let go of past grudges.

    Brooks says he has thus far rejected offers from mainstream studios interested in distributing the film in favor of targeting smaller venues of megachurches and Christian broadcasting, which have been drawn to the film’s uplifting themes of survival and redemption. He is currently in talks with a production company with strong Christian ties for a one-night national showing that would produce enough revenue to allow Brooks to pay back investors. He is also negotiating a book deal. (Acclaimed film editor Richard Halsey, who won an Oscar for his work on Rocky, is currently reediting the film to give it a sharper focus.)

    “He has a purpose,” says Brad Henry, the former governor of Oklahoma and a close friend from Brooks’s days in the legislature, who has a cameo role in the film as himself. “He figured out how to turn something horrible into something good. He’s the happiest he’s been since I’ve known him.”

    Indeed, after resisting offers for his story for 30 years, Brooks now sees the film as his destiny. “I know this is what I was meant to be doing,” he says.

    As if on cue, Glen Ake died in prison a few months ago.

    thedailybeast.comby Lois Romano • Aug. 14, 2011