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James Boyd, Bruce, Pete, and All of Us

By       Message Veena Trehan     Permalink
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Protest of Albuquerque Police Violence
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Recently PBS re-aired the 90th birthday celebration of Pete Seeger, the legendary activist and folk singer who died in January.  At the 2009 concert Bruce Springsteen delivered a beautiful tribute then sang "The Ghost of Tom Joad" with Tom Morello. The 1995 song celebrates the former prisoner turned humanist from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. The ballad, which describes the plight of the destitute in our country and calls on us to care for them, has a haunting contemporary resonance. 

'Man walkin' "long the railroad tracks
Goin' someplace there's no goin' back
Highway patrol choppers comin' up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge "
Families sleepin' in their car in the Southwest
No home, no job, no peace, no rest."
 
The lyrics are reminiscent of James Boyd, a mentally ill homeless man who was killed on March 16. While camping illegally in Albuquerque, he was accosted by the police. Several policemen tried to get him to leave the campsite, resulting in an extended standoff. As seen in a disturbing video taken from a police officer's helmet, he ultimately picked up his possessions and attempted to leave after a police dog attacked him and a flash grenade was thrown in his direction. Police fired six live rounds and beanbags, and ignored the fallen man's cries for help. James Boyd died the next day.
 
Springsteen's ballad of the dispossessed paraphrases the final speech of Joad, the fictional icon for social justice. 
 
"Now Tom said "Mom, wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy
Wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand
Or a decent job or a helpin' hand
Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free
Look in their eyes and you'll see me.'"
 
Many in New Mexico have embraced both the ghost of James Boyd, cut down for lacking a home, and the ghost of Tom Joad, a specter of moral action.
 
The group Anonymous called for occupation of Albuquerque police sites in a video statement describing the murder as done in "cold blood".  "This man, who was schizophrenic, obviously had no intention of hurting these police officers, on the contrary, this man looks as if he is simply attempting to protect himself from visually fierce militarized thugs," said the hacktivist group.
 
A coalition of groups protested over the weekend in an eight-plus hour march. The police shot tear gas canisters at largely peaceful demonstrations. The FBI has opened an investigation into Boyd's killing, and the Justice Department is continuing their probe into a police department that has fired at 37 people since 2010, killing 23.
 
In the tribute, Bruce Springsteen described Pete Seeger a "[reminding] us of our immense failures as well as shining the light towards our better angels around the horizon where the country we imagine and hold dear awaits us."  A "creature of stubborn, defiant and nasty optimism" with "steely toughness" that "won't let him take a step back from whatever he believes in." A man who has the "audacity and courage to sing in the voice of the people".
 
Most of the Democracy Now!'s April 1 show was in the spirit of Seeger, a champion of civil rights, labor rights, and equality. It was devoted to Boyd's killing and its aftermath, as well as the institutionalization and solitary confinement of the mentally ill.
 
"As one psychiatrist pointed out, the biggest mental hospital in the country is the Los Angeles County Jail; the second largest is Rikers Island," said Dr. James Gilligan, a professor at New York University's School of Law during the news show.  Bipolar 25-year-old Jason Echevarria died after ingesting detergent that burned the lining of his throat and tongue even after begging repeatedly for help in his solitary cell. Homeless veteran Jerome Murdough died at Rikers Island from extreme heat in a solitary unit last month.
 
We can see these people as outcasts, confused and marginalized. Alternately, we can choose to value them as fellow brothers and sisters in our American community.
 
Individuals and institutions must champion issues beyond their narrow self interest, embracing the humanism of Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Joad. We must answer the clarion call to build a world of security, justice and freedom for all.

 

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Veena Trehan is a DC-based journalist and activist. She has written for NPR, Reuters, Bloomberg News, and local papers.

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