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“Stagger Lee”

Posted by purplemary54 on November 26, 2014

Life has been interfering with blogging lately (nothing new there).  I’m not quitting; I’m just kind of busy right now, so I’ve been posting a little irregularly.

While I’ve been doing other things–cleaning, organizing, etc.–I’ve been listening to a newish podcast called Serial.  It’s a spinoff of sorts from NPR’s This American Life.  (The first episode actually aired on the radio as part of that series.)  The conceit is that they examine a real criminal case in which there may be some doubt.  The first series focuses on the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee, and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed for that crime.  They go back and talk to the people involved, as much as possible, providing recorded interviews and as many of the actual records of the case they can supply.  It’s kind of fascinating.

There’s always a he said/she said quality to criminal investigations (not that the main players are always men and women; I’m just using the phrase as illustration).  Things can get kind of murky sometimes.  Eyewitness testimony, memory, and circumstantial evidence can all be misleading, manipulated, faulty.  The “official” story–the one told by the courts and law enforcement–isn’t always the right story.  As we’ve seen with the Ferguson, MO case, what happened generally depends on your point of view.

There’s an old saying that there’s three sides to any story: yours, theirs, and the truth.  The sad part is, we’ll never really know exactly what happened between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson.  We already have dozens of versions told by everyone involved (with the tragically notable exception of Brown) and many told by people who had no involvement whatsoever.  As the story gets changed and twisted, written and rewritten, we get both closer to and further from why that cop shot that kid.  I know that what happened shouldn’t have happened, that’s about it.  Do I think Wilson is guilty of first degree murder?  No.  But he’s probably guilty of something like negligent or reckless manslaughter.  (That’s just my opinion; obviously, there’s no legal basis for what I just said.)  Was Brown totally innocent?  No.  But he was unarmed, and he was a kid.  And he was black.  This whole mess has brought the institutionalized racism of police departments across the country back into the spotlight, which is ultimately a good thing.  It’s not worth the price of a young man’s life, but at least we’re looking at the problem openly again.

How does “Stagger Lee” fit into all this mess?  Well, this song was based on a real murder case (click the link to read more details), and there’s been more versions of it than I can count.  The song itself has evolved and changed, although the basic facts of the case haven’t changed.  But a song isn’t really an accurate representation of reality.  What  happened between Stagger Lee and Billy isn’t really in doubt, but how it’s presented isn’t really the truth either.  And that’s what’s at the heart of any criminal investigation or trial: What is the truth?  Generally, there are enough facts and pieces of evidence that allow a relatively clear picture of the crime to emerge.  But not always.  And even when the truth is fairly evident, sometimes justice in this country belongs to whoever has the most power and money.  Mostly, we just want answers that make sense.

As a narrative, the song “Stagger Lee” makes sense, so we accept it as something like the truth.  But the few answers we have in Ferguson don’t make sense.  The stories don’t match up–not with each other, and not with the evidence.  That’s what makes it so frustrating.  There’s no closure, no resolution.  The anger that this case has stirred up is mostly justified, but the violence created from that anger has made things worse.  I don’t know what’s going to come of all this, but I do know that directionless anger aimed haphazardly won’t help solve the very real problems the case has illuminated.

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2 Responses to ““Stagger Lee””

  1. Thanks for your thoughts on the Ferguson incident. There’s just no way to be objective about it. It’s so much more than a life lost to a bullet. As you say, a good thing coming from it (and Trayvon Martin) is that people are having to examine their understanding of race relations in this time and place and acknowledge that there’s still a long way to go.

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