Thursday, March 18, 2010

For Every Man's Death Diminishes Me...

His face is probably more recognizable now than it was when the weekend began.  Smiling out against a white background, the photograph that shot its way across the media now tells far more than a mere thousand words.  Neither a student ID photo nor likely a senior year picture (the pose does not suggest that), this picture was clearly taken for some other happy purpose.  It has been flashed across television screens throughout greater Springfield and in the Republican.  It even made its way into the Metro section of the Boston Globe.  A single wanton act of violence has made the late Conor Reynolds a celebrity.

Saturday night, Reynolds, 17, was stabbed to death at a birthday party near Springfield's McKnight District at the ostensibly unlicensed Blue Fusion Bar & Grill on St. James Avenue.  Reynolds, a Cathedral High School senior, attended the event where police estimated some 250 people were present-far exceeding the club's occupancy limit.  The assailant, was not believed to have known Reynolds.  The Boston Globe reported that police believe the suspect to be from the neighborhood. A suspect matching the originally reported description, Eric Denson of Springfield, has been charged with the murder.

The case has garnered widespread media attention, something not uncommon when one of the city's homicide victims is young and/or apparently an innocent; both applying to Reynolds.  This happened several times over the past decade such as when a father burned his children alive or when a gunman shot into an apartment he mistakenly thought contained his property was inside, killing the occupant.  Reynolds's death is decidedly different, however.  Young, white, and a student at the city's Catholic high school, his death has broken many paradigms of Springfield homicides that often leaves the media, including this blog, doing little more than shrugging.  In many ways it is not fair that it is different, but that unfairness may be a component of how we move on from here.

The reaction from the media mirrors that of the community. Maureen Turner in her blog "On Springfield" hosted by the Valley Advocate meditated on some of the more political and difficult issues presented by Reynolds's death.  Noting the city's diversity and racial divisions, she said many might " wonder whether there would be such public sympathy if he were a black or Hispanic teenager from a rough neighborhood."  However, she also suggested that public sympathy might be brought on by how much Reynolds, a soccer star bound for college, reminds people of kids they actually know.  Both statements echo part of the wider problems facing the Valley.

The second one, if true, may reveal more than it might seem.  Despite the shifting demographics in Springfield, the greater Springfield area as a whole and especially Western Massachusetts is not changing anywhere near as quickly.  As such, Reynolds could be the kid next door to anybody in the area, regardless of color.  In effect, although not all racial issues are wiped away, many economically and/or upwardly mobile minorities live very much like their white counterparts.  It is arguable therefore, that if the victim were a minority from Agawam or Wilbraham from a well-off family, the reaction could be the same.

However, the scope of the response from both community and City Hall may not be as intense were the victim more easily dismissed as a thug, or knowingly in the wrong place at the wrong time. Possibly a symptom of cynicism, the area is not universally roused by murders in Springfield, even when the victim is young.  Indeed, the forums and new website comments sections, the great public squares of uncensored opinion, offer choice words and politically incorrect statements about minorities in addition to despairing and/or disparaging statements about the city itself.

Regarding the investigation itself, it probably has and has had the fullest attention of the Springfield PD's detective bureau.  With no other homicides for several weeks now and the domestic homicide on Sunday morning fairly cut and dry, such efforts are not favoritism.  WFCR reported that police have leads and Mayor Sarno urged those at the event whom police still had information to contact the department anonymously using its new text-a-tip service.

The media frenzy and even the immediate tragedy at hand aside, there is a great deal of fallout from this. After all, even tragedies have their politics.  Except the killer himself, many are scrutinizing the club owners, Edward T. Newton and Tony M. Taylor. Comment posters on the Valley's news and television websites and news reports noted that in addition to the establishment's numerous lapsed licenses, the owner was a tax scofflaw and media reports say the city was in the process of foreclosing on some of the owners properties for non-payment of taxes.  The owners will be lucky if they can get a dog license anywhere in Western Mass after all of this is done. State Rep. Cheryl Coakley-Rivera called for criminal charges to the filed against the owners.

Not yet fully discussed are the implications for those organizing the party, itself.  One cannot help but question the wisdom of holding any event for teenagers at a bar period and one that let its licenses, notably entertainment license lapse.  With other, more reputable places not too far away, the decision to hold it at Blue Fusion raises eyebrows.  Perhaps more problematic is that concerns had been raised before the party.  The Republican reported that the guest of honor/host of the birthday party, also a Cathedral student, had listed the event on Facebook as open to whomever.  It had been earlier reported that parents were told the party would be open only to Cathedral students.  Additionally, police say guests were entering through the back door where controls on occupancy and invites were non-existent.  Partial blame may fall to the bar's owner, but the organizers of this party blatantly failed to hold up their promises that safety would be assured.  At worst, they outright lied.

The racial aspect, particularly the media and public shock, will inevitably come under review, if outside the glare of the media. Given the family's grief and its fairly modest public reaction, nobody is making any obvious criticism of the attention. However, Coakley-Rivera's call for the club owners to criminally prosecuted, a legally difficult prospect,  may indicate an indirect critique from one of the city's two minority representatives.

Police investigations are just as prone to politics and pressure as any other government activity, and although not implying such pressure existed, Police Commission William Fitchet made no secret that significant resources were dedicated to solving Reynolds's murder. The question that arises, however, is would the same be done if Reynolds was black or Hispanic. Were he not white, but the circumstances the same, police resources would probably be likewise devoted. However, the public and media reaction would likely not be. For example a new Reynolds story has appeared on Mass Live almost every day since his murder.

Actually, it is probably the Cathedral factor that affects the situation more. Cathedral alumni are quite prevalent among the city's movers and shakers, both within the city and without. When news broke that police believe Denson stabbed Reynolds when the latter tried to break up a fight, Fitchet reportedly aid “Blessed are the Peacemakers.” Fitchet's Scriptural comment tritely, if accurately, highlighted Reynolds being both a model product of and a student at the city's Catholic high school.

Critics may charge that similar police and media attention might not materialize if, regardless of color, Reynolds was not as upstanding a citizen. Truly, media attention would be minimal other than the traditional “if it bleeds it leads” attitude. However, the media tires of "nitwit on nitwit" violence quickly. For the police, however, the record seems to speak for itself. The department is constantly under pressure to keep crime down and solve those that it reasonably can, especially murder. Most murders are given full attention and many are cleared. More complicated cases are not abandoned, however. Consider how long it took for police to arrest Frankie Roche, the man who gunned down mob boss Al Bruno. Bruno was hardly a saint and yet police still sought out his killer. The murder did not get the attention because Bruno was white, but because the police did their job.

Still, the racial embers could be stirred. Many comments posted to Mass Live and the television station websites expressed themselves with racial stereotypes and epithets. Quite possibly some may have been excised from WWLP's website as at least one comment was deleted by an administrator. It adds fuel to fiery accusations that special attention is being paid to this case. When Denson goes to trial, if as one resident appearing for jury duty noted, that whites overwhelming make up the jury, it is possible that some may again cry foul. On the other hand, because Reynolds's death seems so unprovoked and because a number of parents of the city's homicides victims attended Reynolds's vigil at Cathedral, some of those criticisms may be blunted.

On a more personal not, I did not known Conor Reynolds.  I never met the kid and I do not know anything about him except what has been reported.  Apparently, his older brother did attended Cathedral at the same time as I, but I did not know many underclassman, including the elder Reynolds.  Nevertheless, his death hit me unexpectedly hard.  I am not even able to adequately put into words why.  Perhaps it came from being an alumnus of his school.  Maybe it was the realization that this could have been so easily avoided.  Or it could have just been the shock of someone so recklessly and cruelly depriving another of life...for nothing.

In general, I and this blog have been relatively distant from the murders that occur from time to time in Springfield.  Most are the result of gang rivalries, quarrels among homeless or indigent persons, or domestic disputes.  Unless you know the people in question, it is easy to be dismissive of their deaths.  Theirs, however, affect the fabric of the city and damage its already precarious sense of community as much as Reynolds's has.  For many, it becomes a way to attack and blame the city's decline for the tragedy.  Others, myself included, simply acknowledge it and move on.  Nonetheless, I have known at least one person killed Springfield.  For the sake of those involved, I shall not use his name, but we briefly attended elementary school together.  He was not really a friend, but I knew him all three years we were at the same school.  I left the public schools following an attack on my own safety and to the best of my knowledge he continued in the public schools.  He was murdered shortly before I graduated from high school.

Cathedral, too, is no stranger to tragedy.  While I was a student there, another member of the community died.  Although that death was not homicide, it was equally needless and avoidable.  The strength of the Cathedral community, which extends well beyond the city's borders as many students are not residents of the city, and a firm foundation of faith, often hidden by the background of noise of a typically non-theist society, provided the support and comfort for those involved as it hopefully has for Reynolds's classmates.

Messages from Cathedral, the diocese, and the family have called for prayers of peace.  I join them in that.  However, Reynolds's death need not be wholly in vain.  Many of the lives taken in Springfield do not resonate with most people in the region, for whatever reason. However, because Reynolds's death does not pass and is not passing with little notice, we, as the Greater Springfield community are given a unique opportunity to contemplate some of the wider issues facing us. It has had a great unifying affect. Therefore, we must measure and consider our reaction as much as is humanly possible.

Crime and crime prevention is only part of the battle.  It could be as simple as frank discussions with our kids about alcoholo.  Reports state that some of the attendees at the party were drunk when they arrived.  Underage drinking is not described as a major factor in Reynolds death, but it has been noted in news reports and its just one factor from which we can learn.

Perhaps most importantly, we must abandon our throw away mentality. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," shows its age in a time when we do not fix it.  We throw it away.  We do it with appliances, cars, and human lives.  We have been doing it to Springfield, and yes the whole region for some time.  Rather than join the cacophony of the website posters who lament what Springfield was and what it is with a sense of resign, we must challenge the situation head on.  Should we continue this mentality and throw away Springfield and, however unintentionally, the rest of Western Massachusetts, it will only be a matter of time before any loss fails to touch us at all.

Maybe I am being a little dramatic.  Still, we must move on from this tragedy both with caution and determination.  If we too quickly act to memorialize this terrible event, we risk forgetting about it.  In the play The History Boys, the teacher brought in to help tutor the student for university exams ask why we memorialize events and people.  The teacher goes on to suggest we do so to forget them.  God knows that is what happened to the Great War a.k.a. WWI.  Similar concerns have been raised about the Martin Luther King memorial in Washington, DC.  The Reverend Dr. King is more than worthy of taking one of the last available spots on the National Mall, not far from where he made his "I Have a Dream Speech." As we all know, however, Dr. King's work is hardly done and his goals unfulfilled. Is, then, a national memorial premature? Does it not evoke its own “Mission Accomplished”?

Conor Reynolds did not wake up Saturday thinking he would become a martyr. His family want and deserve their privacy and their son's murder should not be hijacked for any political purpose. However, as a society we can reflect upon all the factors that contributed to his death. We can consider what our guts' tell us, but not to the exclusion of careful thought and meditation. If we succeed on that front, Conor may rest a little more peacefully.

Reynolds's wake today and attended by hundreds according to the Republican. His funeral will be held tomorrow at Holy Name Church in Forest Park. Western Mass Politics & Insight as an institution, and in particular myself, its editor, extends to the Reynolds's family my most heartfelt sympathy, sorrow, and prayers.

Rest in Peace and God Bless Conor 1992-2010.

*Fitchet photo from urban compass, Reynolds photo retrieved from Cathedral HS website.

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