For a few years now, many, many black women have recommended the ID (Investigation Discovery) channel to me. I always promised to check it out simply because I trust sistas’ judgements about this kind of thing, but I honestly never got around to it. Quiet as it’s kept, black women talk about the ID channel more than they talk about Scandal; at least to me, they do. What holds constant across these black women’s recommendations is the promise of a representation of bone-chilling criminality and death without the overdetermination of mass media’s (local and national news; shows like CSI, Law and Order; all of the NYPD; etc) equation of violence with blackness. This is not the goal of the channel and race is never admitted or discussed, but it is all right there for the taking. This winter break I started watching ID channel and let me just tell you, I ain’t never seen so many murder-hungry white folk in my life…. outside of history books, that is. Like I said, I trust sistas’ judgements on these kinds of recommendations and they did NOT disappoint. I can’t even watch this channel late at night because Freddie Krueger and Elm Street ain’t got NUTHIN on the kind of nightmares and fears that this channel induces.
I could tell countless stories of the things I have seen on this channel. One story in particular fascinated me: the robbery and brutal murder of an elderly white couple in the state of Washington in the dead of winter a few days before Christmas. (Generally speaking, after these few weeks of watching this channel, I can truly say that if you are in any small town in Utah, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, or Minnesota and you see/hear/feel something kinda strange, RUNNNNN FOR YOUR LIFE!) Two young white men from the town held the elderly couple at gun-point in their car, took $8500 from them, shot them in their backs, and then threw them on the side of the road in a couple of feet of snow. It was 20 years before the killers were caught. One teenager, driving in the car with his mother, saw the elderly couple with the two local men (his friends), knew they had committed the murders as soon as he heard about the incident on the news, and claimed he was so scared that he said nothing about what he saw and knew about that day… for 20 years! The two culprits moved to Alaska a few months after their crime so this man claimed fear for more than 19 years even though he never saw the two men again. The two criminals abandoned the elderly’s couple’s car at the mall where many locals saw them exit the vehicle with guns under their arms. Because the law does not require anyone to conceal their firearms in Washington, no one thought anything of it. Nuthin quite like American shopping malls! And, it gets better. The two murderers had borrowed the guns they used from a friend, so they returned their borrowings to their friend who suspected what they had done. The friend simply had his stepfather get rid of the gun to protect the murderers. Other than a neighbor who saw the two criminals casing the elderly couple’s home, no one in this “warm, small, tight-knit community” (the townspeople’s language, not mine) said a word about what they knew. Twenty years later, the 60-year old children of the elderly couple hired their own private detectives to secure new leads and discoveries in order to re-open this unsolved case. At this point, the criminal pair was hidden deep in the arctic jungles of Alaska so when authorities finally found the pair, one had already died: a diabetic who used heroine profusely even though, apparently, diabetes and heroine do not mix. The other still-living culprit was as cool as a cucumber and even paused to order hisself some chicken wings while being questioned by police. Now, this ain’t such an extreme murder case in the context of the ID channel, but what baffled me the most was the townspeople’s insistence that this town was warm and friendly. Ain’t enough money in the world that could get me to visit that town and if I ever get stuck there, Ima get down on my knees and pray for escape ideas from the kind of North Star-knowledge of a Harriet Tubman!
In a really strange way, I began to see very clearly how the media really does twist people up. Racially subordinated groups often believe the stereotypical images of black/brown-as-innately-violent and hate their own skin. Racially elevated groups believe their kind can do no wrong and risk their daily lives with their inability to see the white dangers right in front of them at the gun-friendly shopping mall. Wow! This is not a surprise, for sure, but ID channel just showcases these issues in amazing ways. Like I said, there is never any such race-dissection in the shows. The commentators seem to believe in these delusions of white-town-innocence too. I most certainly don’t.
So this brings me to the point of this post: THE LIFE OF GEORGE WHITMORE.
The ID channel showed a dramatization of the “Career Girls Murder” today on MLK Day. There was no commentary on race, racism, and criminal justice, but the storm of evidence that the ID channel showed makes you pause and reconsider the sacrifice someone like George Whitmore made, the kind of life that often does not get chronicled when we imagine the “legends” who paved our way. I won’t even go into criminal justice authorities’ penchant for coercing blacks’ confessions alongside their seeming utter inability to “catch” white criminals; that is just too easy and will be self-evident in the upcoming story. Yet and still, the difference in these two cases is astounding, all based on who America chooses to always already see as a suspect.
Here’s the story for those unfamiliar with George Whitmore. On August 28, 1963, on the day and at the time when MLK delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., two wealthy, white women were brutally raped and murdered in their Manhattan apartment on the upper east side. The case became known as the “Career Girls Murder” since the women’s decision to have their own apartment and own jobs without a husband was quite radical at that time. George Whitmore, a poor 19-year old black boy was pinned for the murder. Though he spent that day at his food service job in New Jersey surrounded by other black workers who were all watching MLK deliver his speech at the exact time of the murder, Whitmore was charged. Somehow, in some way, to the detective’s supposed surprise, Whitmore wrote a 61-page confession of a murder he supposedly committed when he was working in a different state. Even when this “alibi” was revealed, the district attorney and detectives maintained Whitmore’s guilt, coercing a woman to pin him for a different assault just for good measure. Whitmore stayed in jail for nine years and seems to have left jail so broken (and addicted to alcohol) that he never fully achieved mental health again.
While Whitmore was in jail, weeks before he would finally be discharged, a CBS television movie was created about him in 1973. Whitmore received a few dimes for his involvement while he was, literally, suffering from medical issues at the state prison’s medical wards. The only thing anyone seemed to remember and take away from the movie is the new actor who emerged on the scene and stole America’s heart as the new movie-detective: Telly Savalas as Detective Theo Kojak. The ID channel, of course, did not highlight these facts about Whitmore’s immoral treatment, nor did the ID channel contextualize the violence of the New York criminal justice system against black bodies: one detective who got Whitmore to confess was awarded; no detective on the case was ever even reprimanded even though they arrested the real killer, Richard Robles, a few months after the murder and concocted other charges against Whitmore. Civil rights activists worked the most on Whitmore’s case, a case that became a key factor in abolishing the death penalty in New York in 1965 and in the 1966 Supreme Court’s decision in Miranda v. Arizona which now so infamously protects criminal suspects under interrogation. The price that Whitmore paid for the Miranda Rights that we take so much for granted today seems all the more horrifying in light of the fact that: 1) no charges were ever brought up against the corrupt white police officers and their criminal lying, practices that were rampant in the NYPD at the time and everywhere else for that matter; 2) no loss of life or property was ever waged against these police officers who maintained a salary and pension, ensuring a kind of cross-generational economic wellness for their families that was categorically denied to Whitmore.
George Whitmore died in 2012 with very few knowing his name. My girlfriends were right about what the ID channel introduces, introductions not made anywhere else in mass media as evidenced by the fact that no media outlet ever announced Whitmore’s death (see T.J. English in NY Times about this). That the media and mass public jumped at the opportunity to sensationalize a fictionalized story about a young black man raping and killing white women is a history all too familiar in the United States. A black man’s innocence and torturous journey to truth after white men’s inhumane attack on him is just not the story of America that we like to tell, though it is a mainstay of our heritage.
On this MLK day, it seems we need to remember not the HEROES and the ways they are enshrined and thereby neutralized by mass media, but the victims who our heroes fought for: the George Whitmores who carried so much on the their backs given what a white supremacist world did to them. Especially when the load was too much for them to carry, that is when/where we need to come in and remember them… and recognize the unbroken connections between their deaths and our lives today.