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66 Days: Grit

Continuing through Charles Portis’ 1968 classic True Grit with A Public Space’s #APStogether quarantine reading series…

Under cross-examination, Rooster Cogburn is asked about his use of excessive force under oath in a Little Rock, Arkansas courthouse. We are learning about the Federal Marshal’s toughness as our heroine Mattie Ross seeks out his services at the outset of her quest to bring her father’s killer to justice. But, the fact that he’s killed twenty-three men in less than four years on the job is hard to read as a plus for the good guys from the vantage point of late August 2020 with indiscriminate police shootings and unaccountable deployments of Federal forces against peaceful protesters.

How much truth is in Portis’ fictional portrayal of the 1878 U.S. Marshal Service? And how much of that truth has been carried forward in traditions through generations of Marshals? How much of the myth-making in fictional cops and robbers and western outlaw tales have present day police internalized since childhood?

Alex Vitale’s The End of Policing, traces the origins of American policing in part to the early days of Southern and Western frontier justice. Southern slave patrols and the Texas Rangers protected the interests of wealthy white landowners and terrorized Black, Mexican and Indigenous resistance. This story, taking place in Arkansas and “Indian Territory” — between the geographic jurisdictions of those two traditions — already borrows from both.

Rooster Cogburn is cross-examined by defense counsel for Odus Wharton, who Mattie Ross sees this way:

”If ever there was a man with black murder in his countenance it was Odus Wharton. He was a half-breed…. Creeks are good Indians, they say, but a Creek-white like him or a Creek-Negro is something else again.”

So, we have a Federal Marshal who shoots first in a culture biased against people of color.

True Grit debuted in 1968, a year that has come up again and again in this 100-day series of mine. It was first published in serial form in the Saturday Evening Post. Hard to imagine Portis’ writing is not informed in part by the Civil Rights movement. Little Rock became synonymous with segregation ten years earlier as the site of the Little Rock Nine — Black students who were prevented from attending Little Rock Central High School by the Arkansas National Guard under the orders of segregationist Governor Orval Faubus.

Portis writing is sharp and often funny despite the heavy themes I’m pulling out here. Hard to put down between chapters. I will learn more about Portis — who died in February in Little Rock — and what he does with these loaded building blocks of character and story as I (and those reading along at #APStogether led by author Ed Park) work through the novel in the next couple of weeks. I expect we’re being set up for a few surprises in this exploration of revenge and justice.

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68 Days: Exodus

Today I began reading True Grit as the next book in the #APStogether quarantine reading series hosted by A Public Space. At the opening of Charles Portis’ 1968 classic (the basis for Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2010 film), the narrator’s father has been murdered by a scoundrel and she must tend to the mundane tasks of the next of kin: sign papers and bring them to town, talk to the sheriff and the undertaker, arrange for the body’s return, convince the toughest U.S. Marshal she can find to bring the scoundrel to justice. Her ability to carry out these tasks is slowed because her father had the misfortune to be murdered the day before a triple-hanging at the courthouse. Tourists from three states have flooded the city, and everyone she needs to talk to is at the hanging.

A pattern has appeared this summer reminiscent of that nineteenth century tradition of making a day trip to see and take part in state-sanctioned violence. White men with time on their hands, enough disposable income to fill their basements with high end gas masks, emergency rations, and assault rifles have been grabbing that equipment and driving to neighborhoods like mine hoping they can witness, take part in, accelerate destruction.
A man who fits that description ambushed a Federal security officer in Oakland during the wave of protests following George Floyd’s murder in late May.  
A man who fits that description calmly broke a plate glass window with a hammer while holding an umbrella in the other hand to avoid security cameras (though he was surrounded by phone cameras) during early moments of the uprising in Minneapolis. The building was the first to burn.   
A seventeen-year-old child who fits that description walked around the edges of the Kenosha, Wisconsin uprising two days ago with an assault rifle. Police accepted this as normal and helpful. Soon the child killed two people. The police did not pursue him with deadly force as they did Jacob Blake, the Black man who was shot seven times in the back as he left the scene of a domestic dispute on Saturday in Kenosha, as they have with countless Black teenagers and men. The child who killed two adults was apprehended at his comfortable Illinois home the next day. He will be tried for homicide (as an adult) in Wisconsin. No charges have been filed against the police who shot Blake.
These are three examples. There are plenty of others, and an exponentially higher number of followers of these ideas lurk in the dark corners of the internet.

I am wondering if I have let these sad, dangerous men become bigger than life gangs of villains in my mind, or if there are more than I think traveling to big cities in moments of pain to inflame tensions. Umbrella man haunted me for weeks thanks to all my Minnesota friends and a good many others around the country sharing the footage of him. But he is one person. It’s come out that he is part of a white supremacist Hell’s Angels group (another tie to my reading about Hunter S. Thompson’s late 1960s reporting). Each of these men has ties to different militias and white supremacist groups.
I cannot identify with such hatred, with a desire to burn everything down. Surely the number of people who have given up on the project of working together for a common purpose is tiny. A light should be shined on them. We should keep an eye on these extremists, but we should also keep in mind that they are outnumbered.

In the past few days, I have seen posts from a surprising number of my favorite New Yorkers describing the new lives they are embarking on in rural elsewhere. “New York is over,” is a topic being discussed with seriousness. I can’t help but think of the late 1970s era of “Ford to City: Drop Dead”  when NYC was bankrupt. This was also the era of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, of the birth of Hip-Hop, of low rent and punk rock and the freedom to experiment. The New York that also included “a paradoxical combination of elitism in aesthetics and an egalitarianism bordering on socialism and utopianism in politics,” according to Edmund White
And here in D.C. too, a dear friend — an impulsive traveler before the pandemic — is leaving town. Three months is her initial plan. But there was an air of permanence to the announcement. I know these are small samples from a few already transient and privileged voices. Heavy social media sharers each, their declarations of self-exile seem much larger for the volume of New York posts that promise to be replaced with rural dispatches. They do not represent the majority any more than umbrella man and his kind do. The metropolis is always changing. The tourists who come to witness its demise will be disappointed by our loyalty to common purpose.