Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Thoughts on the Killing of Darrien Hunt

by Mark Rich

Darrien Hunt, a young man in his early twenties, fell to police bullets in mid-September, in Saratoga Springs, Utah. Thanks to the unusual costume he sported, which included a mock Japanese sword, he stood out, that day. Being non-white in a community that considers itself ninety-percent white, he likely stood out from the crowd on most days. Hunt, wearing earbuds and perhaps oblivious to his immediate surroundings, seems to have been engaging in imaginary role-playing, enjoying fantastic adventures elsewhere than on the quotidian plane his feet touched. Called to the scene by someone suspicious of this behavior, two police officers arrived. They had an interaction with Hunt. A photograph has surfaced showing him standing near, and between, the officers, smiling.

At some point Hunt found reason to flee the officers, offering them his back, which they hit in six places with bullets. Assuming the officers were not superb marksmen, one can only imagine how many shots they fired, and how many reached the restaurant toward which Hunt had been headed.

Tim Taylor, deputy chief attorney for Utah County, has made a few interesting statements about the above. The Guardian quotes him as saying he knew of "no indication that race played any role." Since Taylor said this before any formal interviews with the two police officers commenced, we would expect him, naturally, to know of "no indication." How could he, officially?

The sword, which had been purchased at an oriental gift shop and given to Hunt as a present, "was not a toy," according to Taylor—again as quoted by the Guardian. "It is a steel-type sword with a sharpened point and what looks like a sharpened edge," Taylor said.

Yet if a sword is not a "real" sword, and is being used in play, what is it but a play sword? And what line can we draw between a play sword and a toy one? Is not a toy an object that enables play? Even a plastic katana could be described as a "steel-type sword with a sharpened point and what looks like a sharpened edge."

Utah has laws permitting the open carrying of weapons. It has never seen fit to enact laws permitting the open carrying of toys.


I have my reasons for continuing to think about this story. While I no longer write for the toy-collector market, I continue to wear some "toy authority" dust on my shoulders, and continue to receive occasional questions concerning playthings. I continue to buy, collect, and sometimes sell old toys, moreover. This being a busy time of year for auctions and flea markets, it happened by pure coincidence that I had been putting restorative oil on the wooden stock of a venerable Daisy toy gun the day before reading about Darrien Hunt.

The Daisy line featured most prominently its BB guns, for which Daisy eschewed "steel-type" material, preferring steel. Tim Taylor might say, "They are not toys." Yet I happen to know that Daisy, Markham, and other BB-gun makers considered themselves part of the American toy manufacturing industry. They exhibited at the American Toy Fair, and sold their products in dime stores and toy departments.

While I grew up not thinking of myself as "non-white," various incidents brought it home to me that others regard me as such. Although some judge my non-whiteness to have resulted from American Indian blood, I am instead half-Japanese. I have not a single toy katana in the house. All the same, around the time Hunt received bullets in his back, I was a non-white male holding a toy weapon, albeit in private. I had bought the toy at an auction, however, and so have had the experience of being a non-white with a toy weapon in my hands in public.

This matters not a whit. Or it matters intensely. When reading about Hunt I learned about John Crawford III, who in August went shopping in an Ohio Walmart—a dreadful store to patronize, for many reasons. Another shopper had removed a BB gun from its packaging, which Crawford picked off a shelf and carried around—which might seem an odd thing to do, were it not for the fact that people tend to carry around items they are thinking of buying. While not wearing earbuds, Crawford was absorbed in a telephone conversation, and so perhaps not entirely in tune with his surroundings. As in the Hunt killing, Crawford, non-white, was turned away from his assailant when he received a bullet from a police weapon. He had already stated to a different officer that the gun that he dropped was "not real."

Two states. Two non-white men who had committed no crimes. Two toy weapons. Four police officers involved in incidents in which state-of-art, state-approved sidearms were used in killing innocents from behind. In Crawford's case, at least one officer must have had the knowledge sink in that he had been called to the scene because someone had a toy.


Preserving the peace presumably reigns high among the goals for law-enforcement officers. One would think that "peace officers," as they sometimes have been called, should encourage play and creativity in all its forms: for play and creativity help build society, and give it an abiding strength. Unfortunately these days we accept the phrase "militarized police" with barely a lifted eyebrow, a fact that suggests that those who do act as "peace officers" are being edged out of the law-enforcement field.

For can one be a "militarized peace officer"? Yet do we need to ask this question, when even the words "militarized police" ring with contradiction? Police: "an organized civil force for maintaining order, preventing and detecting crime, and enforcing the laws." This definition comes from the source nearest to hand, the Harper & Brothers American College Dictionary of 1948. Note that the definition indicates the police are a civil force. In common understanding, civil authority stands apart from military authority.


One may well ask who besides the police officers are at fault in the killing of these young men.

In the case of Crawford, the giant retailers who have encouraged "open carry" within their retail spaces cannot stand aloof from culpability. These retailers created the social environment in which a person might carry a toy weapon openly, within the toy department or outside it, and be mistaken for one who carries a weapon. Yet if the giant retailers share culpability, within their spheres of influence, then surely the states who embrace "open carry" must, likewise. They have made "open carry" an element within the social fabric by law, and so have created the environment in which anyone who carries a toy weapon openly may be mistaken for one who carries a weapon.

Yet another element plays into these killings, however. Tim Taylor's seeing "no indication" that race played any role in the Hunt killing seems, in itself, an indicator: for he issued, from his position of authority, a denial about the matter. It would have been more accurate for him to have stated his ignorance about the matter, since the investigation into the killing had yet to begin.


Above and beyond questions of culpability may be questions about the absence of a needed civil force in the places where these events occurred. The Guardian reported that the officers who shot Darrien Hunt in the back were "placed on paid administrative leave." This seems the action of an organized force that is akin to a fraternal society or brotherhood, not of a civil force. The "chief," Tim Taylor, said moreover that although protocol called for interviewing officers, internally within the department, within two to three days after a shooting, in this case the officers were being scheduled for interviews more than a week after the killing. This gives the further appearance of a fraternal society which protects its own before it protects greater society.

If these appearances have any relation to the facts, then this organized force in Saratoga Springs is not a civil one. If it lacks that civil aspect, it cannot be called "police." If all municipal law-enforcement organizations were like the Saratoga Springs force, and if all other chiefs were like Tim Taylor, we would need to state that we live in a state that goes unpoliced, literally. For we would have no law-enforcement organizations that would fit the definition of police.

We must remember that Socrates created not the single most ideal society possible, in Plato's Republic, but rather the particular ideal society that arises out of certain arguments and a certain logical process. Yet at its core it contains within it the concept of the guardian; and this guardian, one might hope, would hold a place in other ideal societies, developed out of other arguments and other logical processes. The Socratic guardian embodies the notion of Courage, a term that embraces a complex portion of the human soul—perhaps the most complex of all. Within the nature of this Courage exists the concept that death is to be preferred to the uncourageous act. To be the embodiment of Courage, as the Socratic guardian is, means that one accepts this notion, nourishes it among one's core understandings, and allows it to guide, alongside Wisdom, one's actions.

Socrates seems to have held himself to a guardian's standards, to judge from his own death. Does this matter? I believe it does: for it would surprise me should it turn out that any of the police officers involved in these killings had any training to help them understand the responsibilities they take on in becoming guardians of society. Using firearms of any kind around a gas station—which we know from news reports was nearby, in the Hunt killing—seems unwise, in the extreme. Using firearms around a family restaurant, equally, for different reasons. What wisdom then exists, we might ask, in shooting a fleeing man in the back? That very act served as a stereotypical symbol for cowardice, in old cinema. Yet what wisdom, we must insist on asking even more strongly, exists in a "police" department's statement that its officers fired their guns because the young man brandished his sword at them? Are we to understand that two of its officers—highly valued ones, who are worth paying even when not working—faced a toy sword and felt threatened?

That statement, about Hunt's brandishing his toy at them, would seem to have been a fabrication, since Hunt fell to six bullets administered from behind. Apparently these valued officers saw this extravagantly dressed young man running away, with his toy sword, and only then used their non-toys. The costumed one who was fleeing them had committed no crime. So he must have been offering a threat. Yet he successfully threatened the officers only by turning his back. Such fearfully tiny souls, these officers must have had, to have lost their courage at the sight of a fleeing man!

We can understand, now, the department's need to build up these insignificant souls, to make them seem larger and more heroic, by saying that it took the sight of a brandished sword to transform them from officers of the peace into its destroyers. Were they defending society? No: for according to Tim Taylor they were defending themselves against that toy. Then, by firing their expensive, overpowered, and, sadly, state-sanctioned weapons, they showed us exactly what they thought of our society.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

"Real Mothers"

Last summer, Cruising the Disciplines: A Symposium on Samuel R. Delany, edited by Kenneth R. James, appeared as an issue of Annals of Scholarship. This volume was meant to be a proceedings of a symposium on Delany's work held in Buffalo about a decade ago now. I gave a paper at the symposium, which I expanded for the volume, titled "Real Mothers, a Faggot Uncle, and the Name of the Father: Samuel R. Delany's Feminist Revisions of the Story of SF." Since this paper hasn't appeared elsewhere, I've posted it on my website for those interested in reading it. At the heart of the paper is Delany's famous allusion to Jeanne Gomoll's "Open Letter to Joanna Russ" during an interview published in SF Eye in the 1990s.

You can find "Real Mothers..." at  http://ltimmelduchamp.com/Narratives%20of%20sf.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Ursula Le Guin to receive the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

I've just received this press release:
In recognition of her transformative impact on American literature, Ursula K. Le Guin is the 2014 recipient of the Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. She is the Foundation’s twenty-seventh award recipient.
For more than forty years, Le Guin has defied conventions of narrative, language, character, and genre, as well as transcended the boundaries between fantasy and realism, to forge new paths for literary fiction. Among the nation’s most revered writers of science fiction and fantasy, Le Guin’s fully imagined worlds challenge readers to consider profound philosophical and existential questions about gender, race, the environment, and society. Her boldly experimental and critically acclaimed novels, short stories, and children’s books, written in elegant prose, are popular with millions of readers around the world.
“Ursula Le Guin has had an extraordinary impact on several generations of readers and, particularly, writers in the United States and around the world,” said Harold Augenbraum, the Foundation’s Executive Director. “She has shown how great writing will obliterate the antiquated—and never really valid—line between popular and literary art. Her influence will be felt for decades to come.”
Neal Gaiman will present the award on November 19, 2014, at the National Book Awards ceremony.