Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
— Langston Hughes
July 4, 2023, in the US did not begin with a mass shooting. That happened the day before, in the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed. In the videos – and there is almost always video now of mass slaughter – a figure in black blasts away with an AR-15-type gun at no one in particular on a street in southwest Philadelphia.
The dead are always particular, in this case Dajuan Brown, 15; Lashyd Merritt, 20; Dymir Stanton, 29; Joseph Wamah, Jr., 31; Ralph Moralis, 59. Two unidentified children, aged 2 and 13, were seriously wounded. Police say the shooter wore body armour and also carried a 9mm handgun, magazines and a police scanner. A former roommate told reporters that the 40-year-old in custody for the shooting, who lives a few blocks from where the carnage unfolded, was ‘cool’ and ‘creative’; the kind of person who ‘helps out with everybody’, a neighbour said.
For the past decade, July 4 has been the Day of Death by firearm in America. Not that they all aren’t. Since January, there have been more deaths in mass shooting incidents than days, 356 according to the Gun Violence Archive. But July 4 tops all the other days in recent history, probably because something goes awry at a backyard barbecue or street party (as happened this year on July 2 in Baltimore, 2 dead, 28 injured) or family gathering (as happened late on July 4 in Shreveport, Louisiana, 3 dead, 10 wounded); someone was slighted, someone had a beef, someone fired in the air joyfully, someone planned a drive-by.
Last year Robert E. (‘Bobby’) Crimo III climbed on a roof in Highland Park, Illinois, and made the town’s July 4 parade a turkey shoot, killing 7, wounding 50. A police spokesman told the press that Bobby, then 21, ‘had some type of affinity towards the number 4 and 7’. The numbers were tattooed on his cheekbone and painted on the side of his car. A ‘quiet’ boy, according to an acquaintance. When asked the day before, after church services, what he had planned for 7/4, Bobby replied: ‘Not really anything’.
Court proceedings have been extended because it turns out the evidence of his alleged planning is as copious as his prior social media messages are alarming. One, reported in the press, said: ‘I just want to scream, sometimes it feels like I’m living a dream . . . Living the dream, nothing’s real, I just want to scream, fuck this world.’
He titled the post ‘Toy Soldier’. A cry for help? His only friend, a gentle boy it’s said, was already dead. OD’d. Bobby’s father helped him get a gun permit as a teenager, even though a family member had previously called the police claiming the youth had threatened to kill the family. His next court date is September 11.
I am writing on a train heading west from New York City to Buffalo. Independence Day, and the car is crowded with Bangladeshi families. Parents and children and old people speaking the old language. Most are making the full 400-mile trip to Buffalo. The children squirm through the eight hours of the trip but remain relatively quiet for all that. If the pattern I am familiar with from neighbours in Buffalo holds, the parents used to live in New York. The men might have driven taxis, as many did when the migration from Queens started about 10 years ago, or run small stores or managed pizza shops and so on. They moved to Buffalo, where they might still drive taxis but can also have a two-family house, a garden, a life at a fraction of the city’s cost. Some of the adult passengers of similar age may be brothers or sisters just making the move, judging by their bags – numerous and large and sometimes bound in duct tape. Some may have been accountants or college professors back home but were finally convinced to emigrate now that the rest of the family has resettled, and communities have strengthened; as, one by one, Catholic Churches have been deconsecrated and sanctified as mosques, and the cycle of birth and death has turned. The old women in flowing garments appear tense as their sons look after them, as they get situated. Calm now, they stroke the children, who lounge across their laps, dreamy.
We are all travelling on public-ish transportation, Amtrak being dependent on federal and state subsidies and regulations but operating as a for-profit corporation. We are all shades and ages and sexes. Multiple languages hum the length of the train. We are not exactly comfortable, but we accommodate one another as we can. It’s a holiday; we are spending it close, as strangers, eating kosher hotdogs or food from home, saying ‘excuse me’ and ‘please’, as people do who have a feeling for society.
On the strength of new immigrants and refugees, Buffalo’s population grew in the 2020 census – the first uptick it has seen in 70 years. As in a previous Great Migration, the train travellers are rescuing angels for the now-postindustrial North.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! …
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
. . . I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Most of the Bangladeshis have settled on the same side of town as those earlier internal migrants, the East Side, which once, long ago, before white flight, might have also meant the Polish side but which for decades has simply meant the black side. It is to this part of town that last year a 19-year-old white nationalist from rural New York State drove hours to slaughter black people at a supermarket on a Saturday afternoon. Despite memorials, the grief of that May 14 feels remote now, even on the East Side, if you didn’t know the victims, or live in the postal code that the killer chose precisely for its African American density, or depend on its one supermarket. The way sickness felt remote in New York City at the height of Covid until someone you knew died. The way danger almost always does before it catches you.
And so, in another switchback, there is this: a fine and troubling book I carried on the train called The Undertow: Scenes From a Slow Civil War. Its author, Jeff Sharlet, came through Buffalo toward the end of a cross-country trip in 2021 following the ghost of Ashli Babbitt, the 35-year-old blonde Air Force veteran who was shot by an officer while climbing through a broken window inside the Capitol on January 6. We sat on the front porch on a soft, leafy summer night on the East Side, where I would bet almost nobody knows Ashli Babbitt’s name. Jeff is a witness to the country that knows.
Along his trip, he’d talked with white people who venerate Ashli as a martyr; with people who’ve revised her age downward, to where she’s just a girl, maybe only 16, curious – just wanting to see: hey, what’s going on? – innocent; with Christians who see her killing as the start of, or a battle in, a civil war; with preachers who have removed the cross from their churches because suffering Jesus is a sissy; with one who has fashioned an altar out of swords.
Jeff has reported on the Christian right for decades; this was the first time, he said, that he had been afraid. During a church service, the preacher had already denounced him as an enemy of the people. It was something Donald Trump had started calling the media at his rallies in 2016, while reporters were caged and the candidate’s worshipers were encouraged to take ecstatic pleasure in the abuse he heaped upon them. After the service, having been denied an interview with the preacher, Jeff was in the parking lot talking with two women when an usher and a heavily armed guard threatened him and ordered him to leave. ‘I have a notebook and a pencil, and you come with guns?’ he said, telling me the story, breathless, miming the pathetic way he’d held up his weapons.
I don’t doubt Jeff’s fear in the moment, but what rattles one reading his book is the dreadful accumulation. The cascade of his informants’ assertions which, for the reader’s sake, he must briskly, parenthetically refute. The giddy violence celebrated in some of those ‘facts’ (Trump still controls the nuclear codes; Hillary was secretly executed). The claims that storming the Capitol on January 6 was a ‘false flag’, made by people who were storming. The realization that facts, lies, refutations, none of it matters in the realm of myth and dream. The repeated offerings of ‘research’ he might want to follow to know the truth. The white women who’ve tumbled down the QAnon rabbit hole, gnashing and weeping over the fictional hundreds of thousands of children fictionally kidnapped, sexually molested and cannibalized by Democrats. The white men who see abortion as ‘a plot to replace American newborns with adopted foreign ones’. The men who see abortion as a simple problem of combat readiness. When war comes (be it civil or invasion by the Chinese), one told him, ‘you lose so many bodies that you need a level of fresh bodies you never dreamed you’d have to dig into’. The men ‘for whom women are a joke’. The people who fly black flags, punisher skull images, Trump ’24 flags, Confederate flags, black and grey American flags, gun flags.
The witness, Jeff in this case, does not argue with his interlocutors. The witness mainly shows: here is the shape of desire – guns, power, war, a strongman.
It is enough that he knocks on their doors. Sometimes he plays the fool, just an awkward white man (hence relatively safe), going around with a notebook, saying he’s curious too – about a flag, or a tattoo, or the cat who happens to be stepping carefully around a small but formidable portion of a family’s arsenal. ‘They call me a Nazi’, a young woman in Marinette, Wisconsin, complained, because of her shoulder tattoo; idiots can’t even distinguish a swastika from her Iron Cross and German flag. ‘“Honour and Glory for Germany”, she said, her voice a low drone.’
Here may also be the shape of heartbreak. We don’t know too much about the lives behind the symbols and the guns. It’s risky for the witness to hang around. We don’t know why that woman honours and glorifies the Reich, or why another woman laughed at QAnon but her friend became a devotee, or why Ashli Babbitt so #Love(d) Trump (in more than 8,000 tweets) that she laid down her life for him. Why so many speak of enthusiasm for civil war.
Maybe it’s an acquaintance with death. For Ashli, those eight deployments? For others, all the deaths of despair – from overdose, suicide, alcohol abuse – which occurred at higher rates in states and counties that went for Trump in 2016? For rural and middle America, all the battered vets from decades of what for most of the country has been let’s-just-forget-about-it legalized killing? For all of them, Covid? Beyond the conspiratorialist blather about a ‘Plandemic’ and the fury over one’s God-given right not to wear a mask or not to be vaccinated, there is the reality of grief: a million dead was made tolerable even as death from Covid was more than twice as high in pro-Trump states and counties as elsewhere.
Grief might be chorale. From Langston again:
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
But the embodiment of desire bid his people laugh in the face of grief and displace their rage on others. His enemies, now theirs. His hoped-for victories, theirs. His troubles with the law now borne by him alone, for their sake, with a smile and a smirk and a threat. The thing about Trump, people have long said, is he’s a showman, a comedian. ‘That’s a joke’, he’ll say at his rallies, often meaning the opposite, as Jeff describes, capturing the full manic fun among his followers, for whom he has made enjoyment in the suffering of others a carnival.
Langston Hughes was writing in a time of Depression, of European fascism; amidst sentiments of home-grown fascism and the organizing that came from it; amidst movements of socialist and communist internationalism, and the persistence of black people in the struggle for freedom throughout a history of murderous racism, the persistence of homosexuals like him to be ‘in the life’, in whatever way, despite the dangers. He ends his poem, famously, saying that there is no ‘used to be’, no Shangri-la, no greatness to be restored. Ancestry alone – his paternal great-grandmothers enslaved women, his paternal great-grandfathers Kentucky slaveowners – forbade that kind of nostalgia.
But probably every schoolkid in Buffalo back in my time, mid-Sixties, early Seventies, learned the poem, maybe heard it on the Fourth of July, because of its freedom dream: ‘The land that never has been yet—/And yet must be’, through the effort of ordinary people in ordinary and extraordinary times. We happened to learn it in an extraordinary time, an angry time, a dreamy time too.
Read on: JoAnn Wypijewski, ‘Politics of Insecurity’, NLR 103.