It is easy to become inured to the steady diet of sensationalist crime stories in the New York news media, but the torture and rape of a Columbia University journalism student over a 19 hour period in April 2007 spoke to me in a way that others didn’t. I felt more connected since she was a Columbia student (I have been employed by the university since 1990) and because the incident took place in her Hamilton Heights apartment, a Harlem neighborhood that is rapidly being gentrified just like the rest of Harlem.
Hamilton Heights begins just 4 blocks from my office in the Manhattanville neighborhood that Columbia will be expanding into over the objections of some community groups. It is clear that the intention of the university and its allies in the real estate industry is to “improve” the neighborhood. Such a desire led to the famous campus rebellion of 1968 when students resisted the war in Vietnam and Columbia’s plans to build a new gymnasium in Morningside Park over the objections of the Black community.
The Columbia student, whose name was not released to the press as is customary in rape cases, was victimized by Robert A. Williams, a homeless man who had followed her into her building. He was found guilty of attempted murder, rape and arson last Tuesday. The arson charge stemmed from a fire he lit beneath the futon he had tied her to and from which she managed to escape.
A June 10th NY Times article recounted her desperate efforts to make some kind of emotional connection with Williams, who had already raped her and made clear his intention to kill her.
When the rapist asked her to turn on her iPod, she said, a Bob Dylan song popped up. She asked if he liked Bob Dylan. “I don’t know who that is,” he responded.
The prosecutor, Ann P. Prunty, asked the woman why she struck up that conversation.
“I wanted to have some kind of human connection so he wouldn’t kill me,” the woman said.
No matter how much Williams was determined to dehumanize his victim by raping and torturing her (he slit her eyelids and sealed her mouth with glue at one point), she kept struggling to break through the enormous abyss that separated them.
After the conversation about Bob Dylan and after Mr. Williams had her make him a microwave meal and some tea, he asked her a series of questions. He picked up a book she had, “A Savage War of Peace,” about the fight for independence in Algeria, and asked her, “Do you like black people from Africa?”
She told him yes.
Later, after looking at her Connecticut driver’s license, he asked her if she was on the run from the law and other questions about her encounters with the police. She said she believed that he wanted to find out if she had anything to lose by going to the police. So she told him, “I can’t go to the cops.”
She said she wanted to let him “infer whatever that meant, that I was somehow in trouble with the law.”
At a lull, she told him: “Well, I guess you know my name. What’s your name?” She said he told her to shut up. The woman told Ms. Prunty that she was “trying to bring some element of humanity into it.”
The state of reporting being what it is at the newspaper of record, I am not surprised that the reporter did not bother to draw out the powerful associations between Horne’s book and the human tragedy taking place in the student’s apartment. Horne’s book is one of the most respected accounts of the war in Algeria, but very much written from the point of view of “what went wrong”, like the rafter of books written by former Bush administration officials attacking his ineptitude. One can only assume that if the occupation of Iraq had met no resistance that not a single one of these books would have been written.
Indeed, Bush once told an interviewer that he was reading Horne’s book himself. One supposes that he was looking for helpful hints to put down the Iraqi resistance. When Horne learned that Bush found his book “most useful,” he told Salon.com that he was “stunned.” Originally a supporter of the war, Horne–like most of sentient humanity–began to retreat from that position. He was especially averse to the use of torture, since one of the lessons of the Algerian war is that it is counter-productive. This, indeed, is the universal criterion adopted by both liberal and conservative critics of the war in Iraq. If it is not working, then there must be a change. Implicitly, if the war were going well–as it had in the invasion of Grenada and Panama in the 1980s–there would be no objection.
I relied heavily on Horne’s book for my review of “Battle in Algiers”. It thoroughly documented the torture meted out to FLN captives in order to wrest information about the underground. In an epoch where torture has become the modus operandi of imperialist powers in their overseas adventures, it should not come as any surprise that psychopaths would mete out the same kind of treatment to their hapless victims. If Mr. Williams had watched the evening news over the past few years, he would have noted Alberto Gonzalez’s strenuous efforts to legitimize water-boarding and all the rest. If the President of the United States can get away with torture, why should a homeless man with a grudge against white America be held to account?
It is also worth noting that Horne’s book focused on the Casbah, the “native quarters” of Algiers that was feared and despised by the French colonists. Harlem, of course, is our Casbah. Like its Algiers counterpart, it is also a place with a certain kind of allure for the outsider. The trailer for the 1938 movie Algiers included the tag line “Come with me to the Casbah”, just as white Manhattanites frequented Harlem jazz clubs in the 20s and 30s. With the arrival of 1960s militancy and the subsequent crime waves driven by drugs and poverty, Harlem became a no man’s land. However, the real estate squeeze has made it attractive once again, both for bargain hunters and for a major university looking to expand.
The intense racial and economic pressures that led to the journalism student’s ordeal have been part of the fabric of New York life for quite a long time. Like many third world cities that mix super-rich and super-poor populations cheek by jowl, there are outbursts of violent crime that shock the news commentators. It is only surprising that there are so few of them given the extreme class differences and the indifference of those at the top.
Finally, I should reveal that I felt a connection with the Columbia student’s ordeal because I went through one myself, and, like her, found a way to connect with the humanity of my victimizers.
In late 1977, just after entering the alcove of my apartment building on West 69th Street between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West around 6pm, I was accosted by two youths–one African-American and the other Latino–who demanded my money. Since there was only about 5 dollars in my wallet, they decided to force me into my apartment where they thought more money or goods could be found.
Although they did not show me a weapon, I acceded to their demands since I didn’t want to risk being stabbed or shot over items that could be easily replaced–as opposed to my life.
Once inside the apartment, they noticed prints of chimpanzees and gorillas on the wall that the Black mugger interpreted as proof of my racism. He threw me down on my bed and the two of them begin to punch me in the face, cursing me out all the while. The prints of course had nothing to do with race. A year or so earlier, when I had been living in Houston, I found myself growing more and more disaffected from the Socialist Workers Party, the sect-cult that I had belonged to for about a decade. When I saw the movie “Morgan”, I felt a powerful identification with the insane eponymous artist who was obsessed with Leon Trotsky and primates. That and nothing else led to my adorning my walls with their pictures (the apes, not Trotsky).
After about five minutes of being beaten, the Black attacker decided that “this motherfucker had to die” and placed a pillow over my head with the clear intention of suffocating me. After a minute or so, I decided to try to make a human connection and pushed the pillow off my face (which led to a new flurry of blows) and plea for my life. I told them:
“Look, you got the wrong guy. I am not a racist. Those pictures are just pictures. I have been fighting racism all my life. I work with the Militant, a socialist newspaper that Malcolm X supported. I just came to New York from Houston, Texas where my party’s headquarters were bombed by the Ku Klux Klan.”
I kept at it while I was being punched. Finally, my words must have made some kind of connection since the Black mugger announced to his accomplice that “he didn’t need a homicide rap”. They then tied me up with my neckties, blindfolded and gagged me. They picked me up like a trussed animal and carried me from room to room until they finally decided on the bathroom where they dumped me in my bathtub. For an agonizing moment or two, I cringed at the idea of a knife being plunged into my chest. When I heard them leave through the front door and walking down the stairs, I knew that I would live. I ended up with a broken nose and a stolen stereo, but that was about it.
A week or two later, I read in the N.Y. Times that a man had been found bound and gagged in an apartment about 3 blocks from my own. He was not so lucky. He died of stab wounds.
As American society and New York City in particular becomes more and more class divided, the underclass will continue to lash out at those who it deems to be responsible. Since the Donald Trumps and Michael Bloombergs of the world are protected by multiple layers of security, they will never become victims like me or the journalism student. Facing an unfolding crisis of monumental dimensions, their answer will be to defend the existing class system since it alone is capable of generating the “trickle down” wealth that is necessary to keep everybody happy. This lie will be challenged more and more by a population that sees its living standards diminished while the fat cats go to the opera and $100 per plate restaurants in their chauffeured limousines.
If a massive revolt of the American people eventually abolishes the privileges that the Trumps and the Bloombergs defend to the hilt, one of the side benefits might be a lowering of the class tensions that victimized me and the journalism student.
When I was involved with Nicaragua in the late 1980s, I was always struck by the account of street life in Managua given by solidarity activists. They said it was possible to walk all around the city late at night without fearing for your life or your property. Once the Sandinistas were overthrown, that came to an end as a desperate and atomized urban underclass resorted once again to mugging and burglary.
Happiness and security are realizable as long as one understands that the main obstacle to achieving them has to be removed, namely the private property system that pits one human being against another in a ruthless struggle for survival. When they describe this as the law of the jungle, they are slandering the animals who live there. Those animals only kill when they are hungry, while the big capitalists kill millions in order to enjoy the kind of privileges that the Kings and Queens of Europe enjoyed until they were toppled from their thrones.