Perhaps too much value is assigned to memory, not enough to thinking. Remembering is an ethical act, has ethical value in and of itself. Memory is, achingly, the only relation we can have with the dead. So the belief that remembering is an ethical act is deep in our natures as humans, who know we are going to die, and who mourn those who in the normal course of things die before us. Heartlessness and amnesia seem to go together. But history gives contradictory signals about the value of remembering in the much longer span of a collective history. There is simply too much injustice in the world. And too much remembering embitters. To make peace is to forget. To reconcile, it is necessary that memory be faulty and limited.
Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag
9/1 – 9/2/15
My first site in Texas for Passing Grounds was Bastrop, at the home where Ms. Yvette Smith was murdered. I came unannounced, since I had been unable to find any contact information for Ms. Smith’s family, or her boyfriend.
I rolled up the home to find three individuals sitting around a table playing dominoes on the porch, their heads turned as they watched me approach. As luck would have it, one of the seated individuals was Mr. Willie Thomas, boyfriend of Ms. Smith. Mr. Thomas’s home is directly across the street from the Federal Correctional Institution Bastrop, an ominous neighbor, but eerily familiar feelings came up for me, given some of my past work with San Quentin State Prison.
I walked up to Mr. Thomas, and two of his friends, and immediately and humbly announced myself–firstly, to pay my respects for the loss of Mr. Smith, and then to introduce the project. Mr. Thomas graciously agreed to talk and to let me document our conversation and the space.
Mr. Thomas recounted the events of February 16, 2014. He replayed the scenario (which matched up with what you can read here). With deep resignation, he explained that he reviewed the deputy dash cam video in the presence of attorneys, where he observed that 20 minutes of footage had been edited out–the missing 20 minutes were of Mr. Thomas attempting to talk down Bastrop County Deputy Daniel Willis. Mr. Thomas described how Deputy Willis arrived with “adrenaline coming down his face,” got on his knee, raised his rifle with a scope and demanded that the occupants exit the home. The occupants were Yvette Smith, Mr. Thomas’s son and his wife, and their three children…..
…the remaining occupants wereYvette Smith, Mr. Thomas’s son and his wife, and their three children.
It was Yvette who opened the door, with no weapon in hand, and within moments was shot in the leg, towards her pelvic area. Mr. Thomas described how the bullet most likely hit an artery, causing Ms. Smith to die in the long 30 minutes it took the paramedics to arrive. With a tired air of frustration, Mr. Thomas described the insulting performance that the paramedics gave, how “all the tubes that they put in her were clean,” when they were inserted and left there… I took that to mean that there wasn’t the fog of warm breath in the intubation tubes.
Mr. Thomas allowed me inside the home. He kept apologizing for the mess, explaining that ever since Ms. Smith had passed he’d been trying to finish up the renovations that he had started for her, but he explained that in his depression that he could only get so much done in a day. The renovations are necessary so that the house on the one-acre property would be sellable, and he could finally move out.
Mr. Thomas pointed to the wooden floor, explained how her body had to be pushed aside so that the deputies and paramedics could enter the home. Mr. Thomas pointed to the top of the nearby stairwell, said how his 8 year-old grandson watched Ms. Smith open the door, get shot, and fall.
I could only listen, could only say, “I’m sorry.”
I could only turn on my camera.
I visited another small town in East Texas called Hearne–it’s current population is less that 5,000 people. In 2004, Hearne became the subject of a Frontline news documentary called The Plea— featuring the stories of those that got caught up in a racist drug sweep that only revealed how vulnerable the African American community was to a system designed to exploit them, designed to profit from their poverty.
I drove to find Ms. Pearlie Golden’s home, known to her neighbors as Ms. Sully. The home stood on the other side of the railroad tracks, just yards away the blaring train horns that would intermittently call. I knew it was her home because of a small cross with fake flowers. I parked on the side of the small road, the home felt abandoned… then it looked abandoned. A small swarm of wasps were carefully maintaining their nest right above one of the entrances to the home. There were rusted pennies on a dusty plastic table, two adult chairs, and two small cloth chairs for children, their colors faded by the elements…there were rusted pennies in the seats, too. A carport covered her red Buick, the car she was no longer allowed to drive because she failed her DMV exam at the age of 93.
Maybe driving was one of the last things that made her feel alive.
Maybe that’s why she needed to pull out a gun and threaten her nephew, and maybe all he needed to do was just give her back the car keys.
There were keys hanging near her front door.
The red Buick became a spider’s nest, where crevices between the windows and the caverns within the body of the car could protect spiders from the elements.
I’m unsure if anyone would live there again.
My last location was in Houston, where Mr. Jordan Baker was profiled for being Black and wearing a hoodie. He was shot dead after a scuffle with an off-duty cop who was providing security for the strip mall. The security was evidently needed to protect the stores from a spate of break ins. Mr. Baker was on his bike late at night, and was cornered into the alley behind a Little Ceasar’s Pizza restaurant. I recorded during dinnertime, and families came and went, waiting for their Hot-N-Ready pizzas.
While there was no obvious shrine, I wondered if the four Christmas balls squeezed within the chain link fence were for Mr. Baker at some point.
No one saw me, even though I was afraid that one of the handful sirens that I heard in that 20 minute period would be screaming for me.